Watching Italian striker Mario Balotelli pose in black defiant majesty in yesterday's victory over Germany in the European Championship brought back some memories ...
When I first lived in Italy for a year in 1978 I was asked by my Italian friends, "why is there so much racism in America?" And I replied, after looking around and seeing nothing but what appeared to me to be all white Italians, "Because we HAVE races in America and you don't."
Ten years later I was in Florence, Italy, reading in the day's newspaper (La Repubblica) about a young Sicilian stripped naked at the city's Parco delle Cascine, "crucified" against a tree with syringes piercing his hands, holding him until the police arrived and took him to the hospital.
As usual when it comes to issues of race anywhere, things are never as simple as "Because we HAVE races and you don't."
Continue below for my ramblings and memories . . .
In 1978 I was staying with my step-father and mother in Naples, Italy. I spent a year learning what I thought was "Italian" on the Neapolitan streets. I thought "see you later" was pronounced "Ce verimm' aròppo" and when I asked where we were going to go next I'd say "aròiammo 'mo." I thought I was speaking Italian and to this day, after "proper" Italian language classes, I'm told I still have a southern accent.
Everybody in Naples looked white to me, and sounded the same to me. I saw no races and racism in Italy. When asked to discuss America (a favorite topic of their curiousity) I had difficulty explaining what it was like growing up in the Yakima Valley where bigotry towards Mexicans and Indians was a way of life (and I was usually on the dishing out end of the bigotry). I was raised that way.
It was hard to explain to "mi amici nappuletann'" and express any sense about the nuances of gang fights in the parks of Santa Fe Springs, California between "Las Canta Ranas" (The Singing Frogs) and "Peaceful Valley" (PV) who were the main Chicano gangs going at it there in the 1970's.
It was difficult to describe my feelings and what it was like seeing blood spattered in the bathrooms at Dominguez High in Compton where we were there for a cross country meet - we only allowed everyone who could run faster than 11 minutes run the race in order to keep together for safety as the course ran for a mile off campus.
It was confusing when I tried to tell them about my girlfriend's Chinese parents, and why they hated me because I was white (but not as much as her previous Japanese boyfriend).
Race and racism in America - it's in our blood, part of the American DNA. We deal with it as best we can; learn some, fail some. And deal with it.
I find it interesting that when someone says (usually after criticizing the President), "But it's not about race!" This implies the sub-text, "Well, other things are about race, just not THIS."
So, Florence, Italy. That's where I learned that race doesn't have to be about color. That's where I learned that to many Northern Italians a Sicilian isn't a real Italian. They're just "Meridionali" or "terroni." And if one looks at your sister wrong? Well, you can't have one of THEM sullying your family reputation. Take him to the Parco delle Cascine, work him over a bit, and leave him stuck to a tree, syringes through his hands, as a warning to all those other "mulignan'" down south.
A Friend of mine grew up in Florence. He looks like a Florentine. He has a Florentine accent. He's lived there his whole life. But since his parents were Sicilian, he wasn't considered a "real" Florentine.
Yeah, I found this all pretty weird. I was used to good old American brown, black, and skin colored racism. In Italy, despite my first experiences, I found that racism can have an element related to geographical latitude?
I considered this a little more personal education (not necessarily enlightenment) on the problematic issue of "race."
Are Italians (and Florentines here) as a group prone to being racists? No more than you or I. The Florentine community was as aghast and appalled at the "crucifixion" as I was. Earlier in the week, several Florentines and I spontaneously stood in front of a group of illegal African vendors on the Ponte Vecchio in order to shield them from the view of passing Carabinieri who were looking for illegal immigrants.
So where do I finish? It's never finished. You deal with it. You think. You listen. You talk. Maybe you change.
Or you just admire the audacity of a black Italian to stand on the international stage, and pose in defiance and majesty, saying: I exist. Deal with it.
11:05 AM PT: FYI, Mario Balotelli was adopted by his Sicilian mother at the age of three.