Call Me Black!

Cecile Kyenge, Italy's new Minister of Integration surrounded by photographers as she enters press conference in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by Gianfranco Stara. May 3, 2013

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.”

Cecile Kyenge's Twitter Page

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”.

Cecile Kyenge, speaking to me during an interview today with AP Television. Freeze frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara. May 3, 2013

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.

27 thoughts on “Call Me Black!”

  1. Interesting post, but I was distracted; all I could think was, wow, I went to AUR about 15 or so years ago and I had Professor Walston for class! I should email you to get his email (or to ask you to give him mine)! Wow! So cool to hear that he’s still in Rome and still talking politics. I loved his class, Italian Political Thought.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Hi Carina — Professor James Walston is definitely still at the American University of Rome and has become very popular among us television journalists for his comments on the Italian political situation. Many of us read his blog to help understand all the chaos of the Italian political system. Here is the link:

      1. Thank you SO MUCH for that link! Seeing his name was such a blast from the past and brought back many wonderful memories and reminders of building my foundation in understanding Italian politics — I was in his class during the remarkable elections of 1996. Such an exciting time! Again, thank you.

        1. Trisha Thomas

          Your welcome. I imagine Professor James Walston must be good– we certainly think he is a good political analyst for TV.

  2. Oh it is so heartening to see the appointment of this woman. I am horrified however, by the remarks of that politician and that website. Bigotry exists all over the world, and even though we’ve had more years of equal rights here in the U.S., the subtext is still there. It’s just more out in the open in Italy since a large population black people in Italy is relatively new. Many of the prejudices comes from the influx of “extracomunitari” as the Italians call them, who have entered the country, and are all looking for work, at the same time Italians find it difficult to find work themselves. I hear so many Italians blame all the crime problems on the extracomunitari and in some cases, they’re right, which further fans the flames. But there are so many decent, hard-working immigrants who arrive and do the jobs that Italians don’t want (witness the story this week of a lack of pizza makers in Italy) and so many, like this woman, who have persevered and achieved high professional achievements.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Hi Linda — I couldn’t agree with you more. When I first came to Italy I was shocked hearing so many Italians speaking badly about the “extracomunitari”– while I, an American, was always treated with maximum respect. I would often remind people that I too, am an “extracomunitari”, from outside the European Union. I have a close friend who is a Filippina-American married to an Italian and often she was treated badly with people asking her “Where is your Signora?” as though she were a domestic servant, and cutting in front of her in lines saying things like “The Filippina can wait, I have to go to work.” It was horrible and she dealt with it so gracefully– I probably would have slugged someone. I have also been disgusted by the behavior of the soccer fans and have argued with both my husband and my colleagues about what punishment should be given for racist behavior in the stadiums. I also think the Italian Member of the European Parliament who said racist things about Kyenge should resign. Racism should not be tolerated. (Clearly Kyenge is more patient than I am)

  3. Wow, what a post! The language of the opposition gives me shivers, such a barrage of openly racist talk. Then I recall that right-wing talk radio has said similar things about Obama. And just yesterday a Republican state senator from NH accused Obama of master-minding the Boston bombings. But she has been called on to step down and the state GOP has denounced her. That will be the important thing in Italy, who will speak up to say No to these attacks.
    We know from our childhood studies, that the world has had continual huge population moves since human beings first migrated from Africa to Europe millennia ago. And this continues, always. It is the story of the world, moving on, to a new promised land, a new Canaan, a new hope. God’s hand is in this. And I like her words, Differences are a resource. You are proof of that, Trisha. Keep on telling us these stories . . .

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you for your comment Nancy and thank you for reminding me that racism continues to raise its ugly head in the United States. Sometimes I forget that, thinking that in the US we have moved past the stage that Italy is in. Some Italians are saying NO to these racist attacks, but not everyone. Interestingly, just yesterday the new Prime Minister had to remove some responsibilities from a new female under-secretary because she made some blatantly homophobic statements. The new Prime Minister I believe moved quickly on that because of public outrage. That is a good sign.

  4. I have to second Linda’s comments. When I first began hearing about the Northern League a few years ago I was quite shocked. Sadly now I know what to expect from them. My, but they never disappoint now do they? The hate, fear and ignorance seem only to grow. Unfortunately so does their reach and influence.

    Certainly here in the U.S. there were complaints lodged against every immigrant group as they arrived. First it was the Irish, and then the Italians. The complaints ranged from “dirty” to “ignorant ” to “job-stealing” and more. I am sorry to hear it is that way in Italy now, but it makes sense given that the current volume of immigrants, most especially from Africa, represents a sea change for the Italian people. Quite simply, they are afraid. It is no different that how many Americans feel about our country”s own inexorable march to becoming a non-white majority country.

    The real difficulty comes in when the immigrant population grows in hard economic times. High unemployment fuels the fear and hatred. It is a simple equation, one with a tragic solution, as history has shown us. The Northern League, should they gain enough influence, would be more than happy to repeat the history of Europe’s recent past. I hope the Italian people can resist, and give these new members of their society the compassion, help and respect that all human beings deserve.

    Thank you for the profile of this really wonderful woman. She is so composed and well spoken. I have absolutely no grasp whatsoever of what it is to face the kind of prejudice and hate she has known. None whatsoever. I hope she can give hope and a fair shake to others.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Adri — what you have written is so thoughtful and true that I am not going to respond with my own comments because I don’t want to take away from yours. I will leave it to say that I totally agree with you and I appreciate you offering the perspective from the United States where over the decades we became experts on racism and hopefully will become experts on fully eradicating it from our society. Italy has a long way to go, but the arrival of Kyenge on the political scene is the first step.

  5. . . a gentle but persistent wind of change it seems – power to her elbow and relegation to the Northern League!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      I agree, the Northern League’s xenophobic behavior has been tolerated way too long. Kyenge’s arrival on the political scene is such good news for Italy.

  6. Gwen Thomas

    What an impressive woman. Please do posts on her work in the future. It would be interesting to follow her career.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Very impressive. I will do posts on her in the future. It will be very interesting to see if she can get through legislation to allow children of immigrants get Italian citizenship before they are 18.

  7. It sounds as if Dr Kyenge may be the Jackie Robinson of Italian politics. Quite a change from the prior minister of integration. Have you seen the list of new cabinet members in Kenya. Big improvement over the last cabinet. A woman of Somali descent is the new Foreign Minister.

    Interesting post. I really like your supplementary interviews.


    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thanks Dad. Yes, she may be the Jackie Robinson of Italian politics, but she revealed to me that her hero is another American, Martin Luther King Jr.. I’ve been told that at the bottom of all her emails is a small quotation, “I have a dream”

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thanks Lisa, she is an incredible woman. After listening to her speak my AP wire colleague told me, “they should make her Prime Minister.”

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Michelle. Cecile Kyenge is truly remarkable, she has this calm, unflappable air about her and she emanates this quiet conviction– I am so sure that she will succeed in whatever she sets out to do.

  8. Hey just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you for telling me. Let me see if I can have my brilliant web-designer friend figure it out because I am hopeless with the computer technical issues.

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