Is Italy Ready for an African-born Government Minister?

A large part of the challenge for Italians to get used to a black Cabinet Minister is the role Italian media plays. They're particularly bad when it comes to race.

Cecile Kyenge. Image by the EU, via Flickr CC.

Two months after the recent elections, Italy has a new government. And Cécile Kyenge, 48 years old, an eye surgeon, born in what is know the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Italian citizen, is the new Minister for Integration in the cabinet of Prime Minister Enrico Letta. As spokesperson of the network “Primo marzo,” an advocacy movement for immigrants rights, Ms. Kyenge has led campaigns against racism and discrimination, and is an expert on immigration policies. As the new minister appointed to facilitate the integration of second and third generations immigrants, the main focus of her work will be the approval of a citizenship bill to allow children born in Italy, regardless the nationality of their parents, to become Italian according to the principle of the Ius soli. (Lus soli basically means you are Italian if you are born there.)

The Washington Post referred to her appointment as “a giant step forward for racial integration in a country that has long been ill at ease with its growing immigrant classes”.

But in the last week there have been several clues that Italy may not be ready for an African-born minister.

The first clue appeared last Sunday, during the official oath ceremony, when the general secretary to the presidency of the Italian Republic hesitated before calling the name of the new minister of integration: “what is the right pronunciation of Kyenge?”, he whispered to his assistant during the ceremony:

The second clue emerged the day after Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced the composition of his cabinet: how should journalists define the nationality of Kyenge? Is she Italian? Or Congolese? Is she African? Is it politically correct to call her “black” or would “colored” be more appropriate? Most of the headlines on national newspapers’ front pages referred to Kyenge as “the first Italian coloured minister“, rejecting the word “black” as not politically correct. But the minister herself intervened in a press conference saying she’s “Italian-Congolese” and “proud to be black”, asking the press not to employ the term “coloured”.

The third clue comes from less unexpected sources: the appointment of Kyenge as a minister didn’t quite get the approval of the extreme right movements.

ABC news writes that “Cécile Kyenge’s appointment as Italy’s first black Cabinet minister has instead exposed the nation’s ugly race problem, a blight that flares regularly on the soccer pitch with racist taunts and in the diatribes of xenophobic politicians — but has now raised its head at the center of political life”.

Public insults came from Mario Borghezio, a deputy of the European Parliament and member of the Lega Nord party, a movement claiming the supremacy of people born in Italy. Borghezio is well known for his shameless attitude of insulting foreigners with his words and his actions. Kyenge has been described by Borghezio as a potential danger because of her intentions to “impose tribal traditions” from her native Congo on Italy.” He also said this was a “bonga bonga government” while some far-right websites have referred to her with names such as “Congolese monkey” and other epithets. The insults were followed by a petition to dismiss Borghezio from the EU parliament which has reached over 70,000 signatures so far and, also reported by the Guardian, equal opportunities minister Josefa Idem has ordered an investigation by the National Anti-Discrimination Office.

I have asked Jean Claude Mbédé, a journalist living in Italy, exiled from Cameroon five years ago, and founder and editor of the website, some questions about the expectations second generation Italian immigrants have about the job of the new minister.

Mr Mbédé, you met the minister in person when she was spokesperson of the network Primo Marzo. Do you think she could work on integration and the citizen law in this government, which is still linked to Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, with his “dauphin” Mr. Angelino Alfano as Interior Minister?

Jean Claude Mbédé: As a political refugee, I have been fascinated by Kyenge’s sense of the “common interest” and by her sensitivity, which I believe is due to her job as a doctor. Whenever I hear her speak, I do not feel a partisan position. For the new Minister for Integration, the “mixité” isn’t a vain word, neither a mistake of history against Italy. She never talks about “integration” as a matter concerning just immigrants, because to have a peaceful society we must build a society of mutual understanding, between Italians and foreigners. These convictions brought Kyenge to accept the assignment of the ministry as a pioneer in the Italian government.

About the presence of representatives of the Right party positions in the government, I don’t believe that issues related to citizenship would be fundamental for the maintenance of this government. If the government will fail it won’t be because of the citizenship bill. It seems to me that the members of Berlusconi’s party know the significance of this issue in the programmatic policy line of the (left-leaning) Democratic Party.

Concerning the insults Ms. Kyenge has received from both politicians and racist websites, do you think the institution she represents could weaken racist behaviour in Italy?

Mbédé:  Cécile arrived in Italy in 1983, before Mario Balotelli began to be insulted near Bergamo. So, long before that — when being “Black” was almost weird. She studied and despite everything she graduated, got married, and she is Italian. According to me, she is perfectly aware of the reality. She wasn’t forced to join politics, she has her own vision, her ideas and, importantly, she knows how to fight a battle — that is the reason why she’s admired by Italians and foreigners. Her nomination is stronger and more symbolic than the insults. Those who insult have already lost. What happened today, we could expect it, but it allows Italy to “take the temperature of its own being”. In this nomination I see many good things. The first lesson is that there’s a better Italy who welcomed her very positively, especially President Napolitano. This nomination allowed Italy to enter the short list of “great nations”. There are so many advantages that will cloud those insults, which I believe are isolated.

If the government fails, the nomination of Cécile Kyenge as minister of integration will remain the most important historical fact. The prime minister Enrico Letta has entered into history. Future generations will recognize it.

Many Italian newspapers used titles as “the first coloured minister” when Ms. Kyenge was appointed as a minister of Letta’s cabinet. What do you believe the Italian press does wrong in relating to topics such as integration, immigration, etc?

Mbédé: The problem of Italy is the press — and I say this as a journalist. In Italy I’m usually invited as a guest on television programs just to tell my story as a poor immigrant escaped from my country. I’m a journalist and I would love to give my opinion on politics, football … but to deliver the news, media use an inappropriate vocabulary. Imagine if newspapers had just written “Here is the new Minister for Integration, Ms. Cécile Kyenge” as we did on, without any other adjectives. Children don’t see the differences between black and white. Those who refuse the metissage live in the past. But we are in 2013.

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