When Cecile Kyenge walked into her press conference in Rome today, I was surprised at how petite and unassuming she appeared. I had been chasing an interview with Italy’s first black Minister all week and in my mind she had become larger than life. Who was this small, unassuming woman with dark skin, short hair and big brown eyes? As soon as she began to speak, I realized why I might have imagined her as physically larger. Her words are POWERFUL.
“I am not a colored person, “she began, “I’m black, and it is important to say that and I am proud of it.” She went on to say she considers herself a Congolese-Italian.
On Sunday Kyenge was sworn in as Minister of Integration in the coalition government led by new Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta. Shortly after Letta chose her, the racist attacks began.
A member of the European Parliament from Italy’s xenophobic Northern League called the new government the “bonga bonga government” and suggested that she would “impose tribal traditions” on Italy, and a neo-fascist website called Kyenge a “Congolese monkey.”
Kyenge responded with what seems to be her usual aplomb, she tweeted ” I believe even criticism can inform if it’s done with respect.”
Today, again, she addressed the question of racism in Italy; there was no anger, no hostility, just a simple determination to bring change, “In reality, Italy isn’t a racist country,” the problem she said was “ignorance” adding, “We need to break down these walls… until you don’t know the other, skepticism increases, discrimination increases. At the moment, what is identified as racism is based on the non-knowledge of other cultures. ….immigration is a richness. Differences are a resource.”
One of Kyenge’s top priorities as Minister of Integration will be changing Italy’s law on children of immigrants. As the law stands now, a child of immigrants born in Italy cannot apply for citizenship until he or she becomes 18.
Kyenge is not the first high-profile individual to face racism in Italy. Mario Balotelli, probably Italy’s best soccer player, who plays for AC Milan, has been a frequent victim of harsh racial attacks with people throwing bananas on the field when he was playing and fans of opposing teams holding up signs saying “Black Italians Don’t Exist”, even recently the Vice-President of AC Milan, former Prime Minister Silvio Belrusconi’s brother, referred to Balotelli as “our family’s little negro” (See my blog posts “Balotelli’s Mamma” and “Mario Balotelli Forever.” )
Earlier this week I spoke to Professor James Walston at the American University in Rome about racism in Italy. He told me, “There was no racism forty years ago because there were not any non-white Italians, you need the other in order to hate the other, or at least the idea of the other. And this has happened very strongly in the last decade or so and Italians are coming to terms with that. It will take a long time, and probably there will never be a completely racism free society. It will take a long time for Italy to reach a sort of acceptance, a multicultural acceptance that most of the rest of Europe has and North America has. But Italy is now changing, Italy is a multicultural society with 7.5 percent of its population immigrant and it is much more similar to France, U.S., and Canada”.
Following her press conference I had a chance to briefly interview the 48-year-old Kyenge on my own and ask her some more personal questions. Here is what she had to say. First she explained to me how she ended up in Italy:
“I came here to study, I did not have political ambitions, I came because I wanted to become a doctor, because I couldn’t find a faculty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I was ready to go to any country even if it was Japan, I was willing to go any place that would give me the possibility to become a doctor. I didn’t speak Italian, I didn’t know many things, the important thing was to reach my goal and to become a doctor.”
Kyenge came to Italy, studied to reached her goal, becoming an eye doctor and ended up marrying an Italian and having two children. She had no idea that she would end up in politics and no clue that she would make history by being the first black minister in an Italian government. As she put it:
“This was not part of my plans, but I am very happy. It is huge responsibility, and it is an honor, that sometimes even scares me a bit, but I believe that it is a step that will give satisfaction to many people. Being a doctor also means being a missionary it means being at the service of everyone, and this is also my position, I hold the same concept, to be at the service of all.”
Kyenge told me that she is a bit intimidated at times about her new role, not just as Minister but as role model for so many immigrants. It certainly has given satisfaction to many immigrants in Italy to finally see one of their own in politics, a field dominated in Italy by old white men.
Michiesa Cervantes, a teenager of Filipino origin was walking with two friends in Rome’s Piazza Vittorio today, a neighborhood filled with immigrants from all over the world, she declared, “I think it’s a positive thing for us foreigners because now we have someone representing us in politics”. In the nearby market, Nigerian immigrant Kaius Ikejezie, was picking out some vegetables at a market stall. When he heard Kyenge’s name he grinned and said, “We hope she will start a new era for Italy, let’s hope!”
But one of my favorite comments today came from Kyenge’s sister Dora, who was at the press conference. She gave me a tidbit of insight into Cecile Kyenge’s determination, “she’s always been a fighter. I’m sure she will be successful because she has always fought, since when she was born. Yes, when she was a little baby just a few months old, they thought she was dead, but she fought, she always has. So I have no doubt that she will be successful.”
Neither do I.