Banana Republic

The Shameful Ordeal of Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s First Black Minister

Italy’s first black minister suffers insults and hurled bananas. Barbie Latza Nadeau asks, is Italy racist?

Massimiliano Schiazza/EPA, via Landov

Italy is apparently not quite ready for a mixed-race society. At least that would appear to be the case after a horrifying display of blatant racism last weekend in the central Italian city of Cervia. Italy’s first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, was addressing a crowd of supporters to lay out details of her new integration program, which includes wider rights for immigrants and giving birthright status to babies born on Italian soil. Kyenge, who immigrated to Italy from the Democratic Republic of Congo to study medicine when she was 18 years old, just finished her speech to raucous applause when someone launched several bananas at her from the crowd. Kyenge stoically pretended not to notice the flying fruit, which fell just short of the stage, but the obvious shock of everyone else on stage was apparent. She later tweeted: “With so many people dying of hunger, wasting food like this is so sad.”

The banana assault is just the latest attack against Kyenge, who was appointed as minister of integration under Italy’s new center-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta in April. Since her appointment, she has been the victim of a horrendous and highly embarrassing hate campaign that has included cyberbullying and verbal harassment—often launched by Italy’s extreme-right politicians who have called her “Zulu” and “Congolese monkey.” Doctored photos of her head superimposed on the bodies of bare-breasted indigenous African women have become commonplace on the Internet, as are frequent references to Letta’s government as a “bongo-bongo” government thanks to her inclusion, playing on Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga” sex scandals.

Just two weeks ago, Roberto Calderoli of Italy’s xenophobic Northern League likened Kyenge to a jungle animal. “I love animals—bears and wolves, as everyone knows—but when I see the pictures of Kyenge, I cannot but think of, even if I'm not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan,” Calderoli was quoted as saying. He later apologized, but refused to resign his post despite calls from Italy’s mainstream politicians.

Prior to that, one of Calderoli’s colleagues, Delores “Dolly” Valandro, posted a Facebook entry suggesting Kyenge would feel more empathy toward an Italian victim of rape by African men if she was raped herself, implying a correlation between Kyenge’s proposed immigration policies and assaults against women. “Why does no one rape her, so she can understand what the victims of atrocious crime feel?” she asked. Valandro did resign her position.

While the threats and actions against Kyenge are indisputably atrocious, the underlying racist sentiment is one that many feel is ingrained in Italian society. And Kyenge’s critics extend beyond just the Northern League. Prior to her address in Cervia, members of the radical right-wing Forza Nuova party, which wants to halt all immigration into Italy through the use of force, smeared white mannequins with blood and affixed signs with anti-immigration slogans like “Immigration kills.” They also handed out racially suggestive flyers touting the advantages of “protecting the Italian state.”

Kyenge, who has refrained from directly responding or commenting on the attacks, says she hopes that public outcry speaks for itself against those who want to see Italy as a homogonous society. “In the end it will be up to the public institutions to respond to these aggressions,” Kyenge told The Daily Beast, underscoring the fact that she is also the first-ever minister of integration. “The fact that there is a Ministry of Integration at all means there is impetus for change.”

But still, change won’t come easy. “This is not my problem or a problem about me specifically,” she told reporters outside the rally where the bananas were thrown. “This is about people who manifest their discomfort with diversity in unhealthy ways. It is my job to listen to them.”

There is a common saying in Italy that, when it comes to racism, Italians are like “Eskimos who say they don’t mind the heat because they’ve never had to deal with it.” Kyenge hopes that her presence in the government will at least be a constant reminder that diversity is not a threat.