Conversations through email and blogs have reminded me several times by now that discrimination against Italian Americans is an issue. I think there are many more people out there who feel the same way but have been reluctant to bring this up, much the way they felt about the injustice that Italian Americans faced during World War II. Many felt that it was best not to discuss this episode. I think Italian Americans need to join the national dialog on race, which has been long overdue. This disparate group of Americans is probably one of the most important bridge cultures that we have in the United States. They are in a position to play a unique role in discussing racial harmony in the American melting pot. This has made me think that putting together a conference on the effects of stereotyping and discrimination of Italian Americans would be beneficial and could lead to some great dialogue and ways of thinking that have not been all that apparent.
Most people who know Italian Americans know that they are fine people. Discrimination against Italian Americans is based almost always on perceptions that have accumulated over many decades and which have been disseminated through mass media, which has contributed to a subtle form of mass hysteria. Discrimination against Italian Americans is more art than science since most people really aren’t sure why they may be tempted to discriminate or even know when they are discriminating. At this point in history, it just seems like it’s time for a review, to see where we’ve been and where we’re going as a community and as a nation. As a freedom-loving nation, how can we be free from discrimination if we do not have this discussion? Do we want to be free from discrimination? Do we have an Oedipus complex with discrimination, where we subvert freedom in favor of discrimination? How can we ever be a truly free people if we don’t fight discrimination in all its forms?
It’s unfortunate that Italian Americans live under a shadow of misperceptions that act like a tape worm in the American national psyche. It’s hard to remove this bugger without it breaking off and growing back. It feeds on fear and misinformation but most of all it gets its nourishment from feeding on silence. Speaking up is the best way to starve this worm to death. As Mr. Patrick Henry once said, “Give me Liberty or give me Death.” Free us from the tape worm of discrimination or death of our humanity will be our permanent reality.
I really do believe that stereotyping and discrimination against Italian Americans is a problem and that it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I think we are going to see spasms of discrimination as the Obama campaign moves through to the general election. This might be a good time to start facing down some of these issues. You can see a press release that the Commission for Social Justice of the Sons of Italy put out on the disparaging remarks made by NBC sportscaster about Rocco Mediate by going to my blog: http://cronacaman.wordpress.com/2008/06/19/italian-american-anti-defamation-group-demands-suspension-of-nbc-sportscaster-johnny-miller/
If you want to see what some people call humor or comedy, take a look at this video on YouTube called “Family Guy Speaks Italian”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JhuOicPFZY. One of the comments posted in response to a protest of this video at this link is “BOOOOO. IT’S JUST COMEDY, YOU MORON.” I disagree. It seems harmless but it’s nothing less than racism masquerading as a cartoon, the most insidious form of racism and discrimination there is. It reminds me of the Camel Joe cigarette ads. They’re meant to seduce young people into thinking that cigarettes are cool and grown-up. But we know that cigarettes are addictive and deadly.
If you would like to see my review of a video of a conference on discrimination against Italian Americans held at Seton Hall University in New Jersey in December 2004 called “Anti-Italianism: Discrimination and Defamation in the History of Italian Americans”, visit this link at Amazon.com:
My proposal for such a conference would be based on something similar to what Lawrence DiStasi and the American Italian Historical Association, Western Chapter recently did with its conference on Central Valley agriculture. This conference might strike a theme like: Is everything right with Italian Americans in the American landscape? or How far have we come since nonni arrived in America? This would give people a chance to speak out and express in what ways they face discrimination or have noticed discrimination. Italian Americans also discriminate themselves and a conference of this nature might just as much be a mirror for Italian Americans to look at themselves and seek some behavior modifications. I don’t think that Italian Americans have come to terms with their true standing in American society. It’s a community that continues to struggle against barriers of acceptance in America.
Some of the “elephant in the room” topics that might be discussed at such a conference could include:
-A segment on the portrayal of Italians in the movies, in print, in law enforcement.
-How is the younger generation dealing with the fallout from the Sopranos? What is their experience in a post-Sopranos world? How many see “The Sopranos” as an identity for Italian American heritage and culture?
-What forms of discrimination take place, for example, in the job search process and what obstacles exist in the workplace, such as promotions? What about political campaigns? Why does the bias persist?
-What other forms of discrimination do men and women of Italian heritage experience? Do Italian American women discriminate against Italian American men in the workplace and vice versa?
-Discuss the image of Italian names from the point of view of market research, such as word association surveys.
-What can people do to minimize being victims of stereotyping and prejudice?
-How much has changed since our grandparents immigrated to America?
-Are Italian Americans too tolerant of ethnic slurs and discrimination against Italian Americans?
-How significant of a role do North-South origins play in bias between Italian Americans?
-Do Italian Americans need a “Garibaldi” figure to free them from “Village Idiot” syndrome?
-What progress have Italian Americans made as a group?
-Is it possible to settle on a single unified Italian American identity?
-What effects do “discrimination through the act of being ignored” have on Italian American self-esteem?
-Is there a glass-ceiling for Italian Americans?
I’m sure there are many other topics that could be discussed. Questions such as How are Italian Americans perceived? Why are they perceived the way they are? What’s the image of Italian Americans in America? How can this be overcome?
We could probably show the Heather Hartley documentary called “Linciati”, which is about the lynching of Italians in New Orleans in 1893, or the latest documentary by Peter Miller on Sacco and Vanzetti. We could have a discussion on Italian American literature, like “Christ in Concrete”, that describes one face of discrimination faced by Italian Americans. This would be an exploration on the roots of discrimination against Italian Americans. This would be a good chance for people to talk about this taboo subject without feeling like they are alone.
I’m sure there are many people who are feeling conflicted over this issue. Bias against Italian Americans is like a stench that hangs in the air. You think you can smell something but you’re not sure if that’s what it is. Or do we think we are we just imagining this?
I think we need to get people together and compare notes once and for all and calibrate just where Italian Americans really stand in America. How much progress have we really made since nonno and nonna left the Old Country? One of the important things about a conference on discrimination is that people should recognize when they see and hear comments that are discriminatory. It’s not okay to accept it. It’s vulgar and demeaning and it takes many forms. My idea for such a conference is to educate and raise awareness of the forms that discrimination takes. It’s also meant to strike down any myths that may actually be out there. And I think an academic forum is the only way to give credibility to the discussion of such a sensitive topic. It needs to be done in a tasteful way without looking like someone has an ax to grind. This is a dialog that America, not just Italian America, needs to have in order for it to continue to grow and to be all that it can be as a nation that has been blessed with the type of Constitution that we have. Destroy the tape worm before it destroys us, the United States of America, which was built on the backs of people from all over the world, especially Italian Americans.
Until we face this issue head on, I think the “Invisible Hand of Adam Smith” will hold Italian Americans back from achieving their true potential. As Lawrence DiStasi taught us with his superb book “Una Storia Segreta”, the best lesson ever: Keep No Secrets.
Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: | American Italian Historical Association, Barack Obama, discrimination, family guy, Heather Hartley, Italian American, Peter Miller, Pietro DiDonato, Sacco and Vanzetti, sons of italy, The Sopranos