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Even Italians have a color code among eachother!

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Old 24th August 2003, 15:46
Loom Loom is offline
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Andrea Dottolo: Situating Whiteness in Italian Identity

As an Italian-American from upstate New York, coming from an extended Italian community, I have always and only understood my ethnicity in those terms. My identity was and is largely based on this cultural heritage, and, for the most part, I was easily recognized as a member of this community as a result of the large Italian contingency surrounding me. After relocating to the Midwest, my (now ambiguous) race has become more present and relevant in my everyday interactions in ways that it did not while, for example, growing up in a predominately Italian-American community. This is not to say, however, that ideas about race were absent in my upbringing, or that messages about race were not clearly communicated in my culture (which is something that I will turn to later).

My olive skin and dark features often seem to designate me as “Other” in a sea of blond, blue-eyed Midwesterners. Here in Michigan, my appearance is not read as Italian, but as various other ethnic or racial categories (most commonly Latina, or, annoyingly, “Hispanic”[1]). For example, at a recent doctor’s appointment on campus, a white nurse practitioner marveled at my “great Hispanic musculature,” and connected this to my potential to carry children with ease (which will, of course, inevitably occur). A fellow graduate student fumbled when I clarified that my last name is Italian because there had evidently been “talk” that I was Latina. The treatment that I received in these brief moments of “raced” experiences has both infuriated me and helped me to recognize the privilege that often surrounds me. This has served to fuel my antiracist politics. These kinds of responses to my physical “Italianness” are apparently not unique. Susan Raffo writes,

I am sometimes assumed to be Italian by others that I meet. Or I am assumed to be something different, something other. I have been asked if I were Jewish, Native, Latina. At other times, I am just assumed to be white. It depends on who is talking to me. My face stays the same. It’s their perceptions that change. (201)



Raffo’s reflections echo my own experiences and emphasize the social construction of race. Every so often in New York I was mistaken for Puerto Rican, Cuban, Greek, or Arab. In San Diego, where I lived for four years before moving to Michigan, I was almost always seen as Mexican.

It seems understandable to me that others might perceive me as a member of any of the aforementioned racial/ethnic groups, as I often am “darker” than many “authentic” members of them. Or perhaps it seems reasonable because the greatest tensions surrounding issues of race in the Italian community are usually not concerning these (stereotypically lighter-skinned) groups, but are with our similarities, real or perceived, to African-Americans. Angela Maria Guidice remembers how other white children responded to her skin color:

I tan very darkly, and when I would come back from Florida […] I got called ‘******’ a lot during those springs and summers. It made me just hate whatever was making that happen. I knew the problem was them—the other white kids—and not me, although no one ever explained that to me. (Bulkin 215)



In this statement, Guidice’s statement of the culpability of “the other white kids,” also implicitly includes her in that group even while she chastises them. Many “dark” Italians, including myself, understand her recollection as a result of personal experience. Both my father and I were teased as children, also in response to our dark tans in the summer, called mulignan—Italian slang for melanzana (meaning eggplant). This term is generally used as a racial slur against African-Americans—commenting on the darkness of skin. It has been further Americanized into moolie, a more popular racial insult.

One reason for this common experience that my father and I share is our similar coloring, hair texture, and certain distinct facial features. Now for the dirty little secret: My father’s family is from Sicily, the bottom of the Italian cultural and racial hierarchy. I was only half-jokingly told as a child to never admit that I was Sicilian. But often, my phenotype could not hide me (these statements came from my mother’s side of the family, of course, who were from the Naples area. This is especially paradoxical because Naples is not exactly northern Italy). Northern Italians are known to be merchants, upper class, cultured, and unmistakably light-skinned. Southerners were historically agricultural and manual laborers, the working poor, notably darker-skinned, and therefore discriminated against within Italian culture. Raffo explains cultural notions about Sicilians:

Italians in the U.S. are the southerners, the dark ones, the ignorant peasants who carry statues of the Virgin Mary through their neighborhoods and faint with religious passion. They are not the Venetians or Florentines, the ancestors of the deMedicis, the Michaelangelos and daVincis. No, those are Europeans. Historical moments eventually led to the creation of democracy. Italians, well, they are something different. They come in large and dirty numbers to Ellis Island. Too many of them really. Not all the way white. Certainly not white enough, rich enough, or intellectual enough to understand Faulkner. This is not about race. This is about class. About culture and history. And then it is about race. (201)



Raffo articulates this intra-national division, and also my own confusion about how to locate these personal and institutional issues. In examining my own whiteness, this mixture of memories and messages are difficult to place. Is this about race? Class? Culture? History? Ethnicity? Where can I make distinctions in this process?

Due to these differences in race, class, culture, and history, my parents’ marriage was close to an interracial one, and this prejudice was even more pronounced generations earlier. In Were You Always an Italian? Maria Laurino locates herself as an Italian woman, and describes the history of Italian racism against people of African descent, exemplified in the murders of several Black men in Bensonhurst, New York. She writes,

I felt the danger of being a modern participant in the complex historical relationship between the southern Italian, whose land borders Africa and was dominated for centuries by dark-skinned Moors, and the black man. At the beginning of the century, olive-skinned southern Italians brought an ambiguous racial identity to their new land, causing a U.S. Senate to label them “nonwhite”; and ethnic historians have noted that because Italian-American agricultural workers in the post-Reconstruction South resembled their black coworkers, they were similarly subjected to the restrictions of Jim Crow legislation. Over a hundred years later, the intertwining of olive and chocolate, still threatened the sense of Italian-American wholeness; the Bensonhurst neighborhood fought to maintain its slight tilt toward the whiteness on the melatonin scale. (125)



In attempts to taunt me as a child, my full lips and curly hair acted as evidence for my tormentors that Sicily is the closest land to Africa. The rest of this logic was never outwardly stated, but this meant to them that I, too, was Black, and, by extension, somehow less. Perhaps it is precisely because of these “slight” distinctions in color that Italians are so preoccupied with maintaining these differences, invested in their whiteness, and therefore their privilege. Guidice accuses her fellow Italians of racist practices:

How could those people even begin to think that these folks from Algeria or Morocco or Eritrea are less than them based on skin color? Half the time, they’re the same color. The cultures are so inter-dependant and connected. It’s an absurdity that I don’t get—and that I do get, too. (Bulkin 228)



She “gets it” because of the ways she has been affected by racism, as both perpetrator and victim both inside and outside Italian-American culture.

Laurino recollects her white classmates speaking of “those smelly Italians” and her experiences and fears about this designation being used against her. She remembers being conscious of trying not to smell like garlic or any other “Italian” scents. Characterizing groups as smelling foul is not unique to Italians, but is part of many prejudicial ideologies of “the lower class.” A sink or stench is usually associated with being unclean, and therefore, poor. This is especially applicable to dark-skinned groups, where the “logical” equation is dark equals dirty equals smelly. As result of the social hierarchy in Italy, Sicilians were considered especially putrid. Laurino spoke with a young Italian woman in Bensonhurt who said, “Some people told me I’m black because I’m part from Sicily […] my uncle […] teases me and says, ‘Sicily is not a part of Italy. That’s the crap the boot’s about to step on’” (147).

Partially due to clearly hateful messages about darkness, which are related to race and class both within and outside of Italian communities, and combined with the ambiguous phenotype of many Italians, many families did their best to cling to, claim, and legitimate their whiteness. This was easier for northern and/or light-skinned Italians, but those whose appearance questioned the neatly defined racial categories in the United States often went to great lengths to “assimilate” into American whiteness. In a poem called “Blending In,” Mary Russo Demetrick presents her attraction to the culture of Italianness, while meanwhile recognizing their need to conceal their collective identity:

Wild-eyed Italians

wild-haired Italians

loud speaking

loud laughing

women and men

fascinate me



I find them hiding

behind Anglo names

like Kennedy, Litz

and Scott

wanting to be discovered

dreading the exposure (193)



I grew up with many Italian-Americans who had intentionally changed their last names. Again, this is not unique to Italians, and many ethnic immigrant groups have historically done the same. In the television show The Sopranos, the main character, Tony, reveals his understanding of the attempt by other Italians to whitewash themselves when he calls them “wonder bread WOPS.” I remember being struck by the term, and although previously unfamiliar with it, I knew immediately what it meant. This example intrigues me for many reasons. First, The Sopranos is another of a myriad of media representations of Italians as uneducated mobsters. Secondly, “WOP” is a slur historically used against Italians, thought to date from the inscription for “without papers” stamped by Ellis Island officials on to immigration documents. “WOP” acts as a class indicator in this way, a representation of the masses of poor, undocumented Italians seeking refuge in America. Tony Soprano’s use of the phrase “Wonder bread,” is also significant, stemming from the idea that “real” Italians would always only eat Italian bread, and never processed American “white” bread. In this way, white bread equals white bred. Ruth Frankenberg makes a related argument about the use of commodities as a metaphor for race. From a series of interviews, she notes that

[w]hiteness is often signified in these narratives by commodities and brands: Wonder bread, Kleenex, Heinz 57. In this identification, witnesses came to be seen as spoiled by capitalism, and as being linked to capitalism in a way that other cultures supposedly are not. (White Women 199)



I recognize that my own use of the term “white” shifts throughout this discussion, applied to both Italians and non-Italians. Perhaps a better signifier would not be “white” because of the tenuous relationship that Italians have with that category, but WASP, meaning “white Anglo-Saxon protestant.” Italian-Americans do not usually use this term, but a related one—medigan—which is derived from an Italian-inflected pronunciation of “American.” It is used most often as a noun, to technically (and disdainfully) describe anyone who is not Italian, but when I think critically about its use, the most usual application is to the “WASP” described above. It is almost never used to describe a person of color, but almost always a white (bred) person. This composes a complicated message about race, class, history, ethnicity, and culture, as it is used to distinguish ourselves from whites as “Other” (inferring some sort of cultural superiority), while still never admitting that we are not white.

Raffo, in description of how white (WASP) students responded to her while in college, recognizes this awkward racial space. She writes,

How can I sit here and tell you that when that kid in college told me I was not ‘all the way white,” his word had meaning for me? That I understood what he meant? That I knew he didn’t think I was ‘coloured’ but that he told me my white was different than his? Not as pure? What still fascinates me and I have yet to place it the way my whiteness, as configured by my uncle and by the kids at school and in college, was not-all-the-way white, it was white with a problem, white with a hidden secret, a hidden darkness. My whiteness was a white they used their racism to define. (201)



Raffo immediately identifies this statement as being difficult to place, although she knows that it is about her dark skin, her southern Italian heritage, her class, culture, and style of expression, all in relation to a larger, systematic racism. Similarly, Guidice remembers, “I got the message over and over again from my peer group that I was too intense, that I really needed to cool it out. Fit in. I was too much. I didn’t conform to Anglo cultural standards” (Bulkin 216). Again, I know this from my own experiences of being criticized for talking and laughing too loud, being too expressive, too emotional, doing too much with my hands—in general, just being too much. These differences have led many Italians to consciously embrace Anglicized names and cultural practices in order to be more upwardly mobile. Color lines within Italian communities are internalized and expanded to race relations in the U.S. as a whole. Laurino begins her text with a quotation from Italo Calvino in order to introduce her work on Italian-American experience, and for the purposes of this paper, I, too, find it particularly fitting.








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Old 24th August 2003, 22:12
Eddier1 Eddier1 is offline
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If Andrea ever gets to read this, which I doubt, I would like to tell her thanks for sharing that with us, even though she got a "thing" negative about being compared to us Hispanics. From quite a number of Italian-Americans I have conversed with, many have said that Puertorriquenos in particular are very similar to Sicilians. Hmmm, except I often reminded them that we are not Mafia orientated at all. But value our actual families, and not a substitute one like Sicilans do in becoming Mafiosos. That is why we may be individually very volitile against effronts from anyone, but never participate in organized crime like the Italians do. As for Loom, the Black American, I ask what is your point in posting this kilometric post about Italians?
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Old 25th August 2003, 13:07
Loom Loom is offline
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Eddier:

I was trying to show you how the LIGHTEST IS BEST syndrome has infected and damaged the minds of people all through-out the latin world.

I was also trying to draw a little attention from Stanley because we had talked earlier about whether southern Europeans were actually considered white or not.

Most southern Europeans have black and arab ancestry.
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Old 25th August 2004, 09:00
shark087 shark087 is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Eddier1
If Andrea ever gets to read this, which I doubt, I would like to tell her thanks for sharing that with us, even though she got a "thing" negative about being compared to us Hispanics. From quite a number of Italian-Americans I have conversed with, many have said that Puertorriquenos in particular are very similar to Sicilians. Hmmm, except I often reminded them that we are not Mafia orientated at all. But value our actual families, and not a substitute one like Sicilans do in becoming Mafiosos. That is why we may be individually very volitile against effronts from anyone, but never participate in organized crime like the Italians do. As for Loom, the Black American, I ask what is your point in posting this kilometric post about Italians?
Im sorry to be the one to disillusion you but the protrayal of all italians or sicilians as mafiosi really disgusts me and offends me. How many real italians have you met? Or have you only met Tony Soprano, Don Corleone and the Good Fellas....Hollywood is constantly making all italians look like stupid guidos and goombahs with mob affiliation. This could not be more wrong in fact 40% of the NYPD is italian(Anti-Defamation League). Also, the largest New York crime families have only 100-500 memebers but wait...there are 20 million italians geee i guess that means only 0.0008% of us are wiseguys (confirmed mob members) OK now that uve been educated i would like to end by making you think...how would you like it if every puerto rican was portrayed as a latino gangbanger who sells crack and beats up his girlfriend. These stereotypes are bad for italians as they are latin americans so thats why it saddens me to here a latin perpetuating this stereotype since i would only defend latins.
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Old 25th August 2004, 09:31
ElMastero ElMastero is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Loom
Eddier:

I was trying to show you how the LIGHTEST IS BEST syndrome has infected and damaged the minds of people all through-out the latin world.

I was also trying to draw a little attention from Stanley because we had talked earlier about whether southern Europeans were actually considered white or not.

Most southern Europeans have black and arab ancestry.
True, very true. The same applies to spaniards, who were also conquered by the moors. Thanks for posting that. It's interesting because my wife is sometimes mistaken for italian. She doesn't have blond hair or blue eyes, so I assume they mistaken her for sicilian.

Quote:
Originally posted by shark087
These stereotypes are bad for italians as they are latin americans so thats why it saddens me to here a latin perpetuating this stereotype since i would only defend latins. [/b]
True, stereotypes perpetuate ignorance and ignorance is far from bliss. I know quite a few italians, none are in the mob and they are pretty decent people. But with all communities there are some bad eggs. Thankfully, I do not know nor do I associate myself with any of them.
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Old 25th August 2004, 10:42
halle halle is offline
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Eddier1: All Sicilian are not of the Mafia

Eddier1 you wrote:

"From quite a number of Italian-Americans I have conversed with, many have said that Puertorriquenos in particular are very similar to Sicilians. Hmmm, except I often reminded them that we are not Mafia orientated at all. But value our actual families, and not a substitute one like Sicilians do in becoming Mafioso’s. That is why we may be individually very volatile against affronts from anyone, but never participate in organized crime like the Italians do"

Sicilian I've met were very family valued



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Old 25th August 2004, 11:07
Rivera33 Rivera33 is offline
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Mama Mia!

Loom, in the USA brunettes don't get as many votes as blondes. Bottle blonds get a few extra votes. As a Puerto Rican when I go to an Italian setting, I get treated as a local. Having a lot of hair gets you a lot of votes. Some ask me where did I buy my tupee! Listen, Loom, your a nice Italian girl don't worry. Have fun with the ignarant people you meet tell them you are Polish and are dark because you're from Southern Poland. Remember, people throughout Puerto Rico and the USA spend bilions of dollars each year to get a nice tan like we get for free beginning on the first day of spring. My son has a beautiful tan, the only thing white is under his watch band and his "culo"! Remember, Italian is not a race but an ethnic group! God Bless All!
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