Racism is a Boomerang….
The more than fifty-year-old Italian ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana) is launching a new campaign against racism and homophobia in Italy. Their poster appears below:
The Rome-based ARCI was founded in Florence in 1957 with the purpose of encouraging the diffusion of democratic values and fighting “nazifascismo,” which is a single concept in country that was governed by both Nazis and Fascists during WWII.
The caption on the poster reads:
“You call us dirty nigger and stinking lesbian, but you’re offended if someone says Italian are gangsters. Racism is a boomerang. Sooner or later it’ll come back to hit you.”
The semiotic approach of the campaign is pretty intriguing. What’s useful to know by way of background is that “razzismo” is used in Italy to mean “discrimination” or “bigotry” of all kinds and not just race-based prejudice. Thus someone who degrades or disparages women or gay people (or Sicilians, for that matter) can be considered “racist.”
There’s both a certain efficiency and an immense danger of oversimplification in smooshing issues together in that way, and I have to admit I still wince when I hear an Italian use “racist” when a good old “homophobe” or “sexist” would do nicely (and both words exist in Italian).
The other thing the campaign takes for granted, which a non-Italian might or might not immediately grasp, is the degree to which Italians are offended by the assumption that Italian culture (as the popular saying would have it) can be summed up as “pizza, mandolins, and the mafia.”
The Italic Studies Institute of American (“Guardian of the Italian Heritage”), for example, issued a study in 2002 in which they analyzed 1,233 American films made since 1928 and concluded that 69% “portrayed Italians in a negative light.” Of the films analyzed, 40% depicted Italians as “mob characters,” with the remaining 60% of the negative portrayals divided among “boors, buffoons, bigots or bimbos.”
When The Sopranos arrived in Italy in 2001 (with record TV audience shares—about 10 million viewers—for the series’ premiere), Italians seemed to take it a bit less seriously than did Italo-Americans, but I suspect that’s largely because the series dealt with Americans first and foremost. Italians are well aware that Italian-Americans have almost nothing to do with Italians, and they’re not entirely unwilling to believe that America is a four-million-square-mile-wide crime zone (so much so, in fact, that the media are likely to refer to any incident involving a troubled neighborhood or a violent protest in Italy as the “Far West,” “the Bronx,” or “Fort Apache”).
In any case, there’s no question that the association rankles, and ARCI’s obvious attempt is to suggest that negative stereotyping comes from a similar place, regardless of the target.
Frankly, I’m enthusiastic about the attempt to educate the public that racial/ethnic prejudice and homophobia are related in their consequences (if not necessarily in their source). For decades, the LGBTQ movement in the U.S. (even back when it was just “the gay movement”) has tried hard to associate itself with the traditional civil-rights movement, and it has always been a hard sell.
Similarly, attempts to equate homophobia with racism have met with mixed success in the states, not least because of a few insulting, ham-handed attempts to draw parallels between Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King or to compare queer protesters under arrest with Rosa Parks. We’re seeing some of the results of that failure in the current same-sex marriage debate.
Meanwhile, the history of dealing with cultural prejudice and the “-isms” is so different in Italy (which has never had what one might reasonably call a “civil rights movement”), that I wonder if ARCI might not just be on to something.
I’m a little less convinced by ARCI’s claim that the new posters will “appear all over Italy,” since I’ve heard that song before (see my piece on the Tuscan Region’s “Sexual Orientation is Not A Choice” campaign back in 2007—those posters were also supposed to go up “all over Tuscany,” but I never saw a single one in a public place.)
ARCI’s own distribution efforts aside, it’s hard to know how much attention the campaign is going to get in Italian schools or the media. Not much, would be my prediction, but I’d be happy to be wrong. On the other hand, over the last year the Italian government has whipped up so much racism (in the Italian sense of the word) that a national response by a respected organization would be more than welcome.
Personally, I can’t wait to see what Mara Carfagna, the ex-cover girl turned Minister for Equal Opportunity, will make of ARCI’s campaign. If she’s smart, she’ll ignore it, but the Italian right-wing is feeling more than usually testy lately, and she’s just likely, as Italians put it, to miss a perfect opportunity to keep her mouth shut.
Posted on 24 June 2009, in Berlusconistan, Queer ... Plus All Those Acronyms, You Can Always Count on a Little Homophobia and tagged Homophobia, Mara Carfagna, Racism. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.