Italian Americans & "Whiteness"

immigrants

Journalist to construction boss, 1890s:"Is an Italian a white man?" Construction boss:"No sir, an Italian is a Dago."

(taken from Louise DeSalvo's, "Color: White/Complexion: Dark")

In 2002, NYC DJ Chuck Nice, who is African American, said: "Italians are niggaz with short memories" (Guglielmo & Salerno 1). The Italian American claim of "whiteness" has been a contentious issue in the United States, going far back before DJ Nice's comment. It began back in Europe with sayings like, "Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa."

Southern Italians have consistently been discriminated against in the US and in their native country. In Guglielmo & Salerno's book, Are Italians White?, they explain this phenomenon:

To justify such beliefs, they relied on the 'evidence' provided by Italy's leading positivist anthropologists, who argued that the darker "Mediterranean' southerners were racially distinct from the lighter 'Aryan' northerners because they possessed 'inferior African blood' and demonstrated 'a moral and social structure reminiscent of primitive and even quasibarbarian times, a civilization quite inferior.

The above passage explains how African Americans are seen as the "quintessential racial 'other.'"

As southern Italians immigrated to the US in the 1900s, the categorization of them as "non-white" was explored further. Historian Matthew Jacobson said, "'It was not just that Italians did not look white to certain social arbiters, but they did not act white'" (Guglielmo & Salerno, 11). This was because many Italians who first moved to the US took on similar work that African Americans did, and also transgressed color lines, which upset white supremacists. Other ways in which Italian Americans learned they were "inferior" included: lynchings, native-born Americans protesting against riding in streetcars with them, the exclusivity children experienced with regard to schools and social groups, segregated seating in some churches, and negative images of Italians in US newspapers.

It's an interesting dichotomy, because on the one hand, Italian Americans were denied some rights and privileges, however, they were considered "white" by the state for the most part--they could own land, vote, marry whoever, and gain citizenship.

My ancestors came from Calabria, the southern most part of Italy, before Sicily. I've consistently tried to speak with my grandfather about his culture, and he consistently brushes me off, saying, "That's the old country." As a child, I didn't understand this, but as I grew older I realized more and more why it was difficult for my grandfather to welcome his Calabrese identity. When he was in elementary school here in the States, he was forced to speak English and only English. Culture and bi-lingualism was frowned upon. My grandfather assimilated to American life, much like all other immigrants during the time period. This depresses me, as my grandfather, who is now 91, is no longer fluent in his native tongue.

On the issue of race, my grandfather, though I love him dearly, is abhorrently racist towards African Americans, and I suspect some of this racism stems from what I wrote about above--Southern Italians having been compared to African Americans back in the day, and how that was seen to be negative. Because Italian Americans tried desperately to fit in when they arrived in the US, and they wanted the same privileges as "pure" white Americans, they wanted to squash any comparisons made between themselves and African Americans. Their racist attitudes were fueled by their need for approval and privilege. Caroline Waldron Merithew posits that becoming "American" and becoming "white" were closely linked.

In Kym Ragusa's piece, "Sangu du Sangu Meu: Growing up Black and Italian in a Time of White Flight", she echoes the above sentiment; naming and discussing "white flight":

For my family, as for many Italian Americans, white flight was the culmination of an escape from the desperate poverty of southern Italy. It was the last leg in a series of migrations--from Italy to America, from immigrant slum to ethnic neighborhood--and these migrations themselves were inextricably linked to provisional class ascension and the ascension of whiteness.The move from the ethnic neighborhood to the outlying suburbs was the completion of these migrations. It held the promise of assimilation into the dominant white culture, in exchange for a final displacement of the "Old Country" as both home and ideal. The suburbs became a place of forgetting, of leaving history behind.

This cycle of displacement/replacement occurred with my Grandfather. The family migrated from Calabria to New York, and from New York to Racine, Wisconsin. Always running--always searching--leaving the "old country" far behind; running away from any insinuation of being non-white.

Whiteness is not always obvious. Is it in the eye of the beholder? My father and I have more than once been asked: "What are you?" In graduate school, my father's peers thought he was the foreign-exchange student because of his dark complexion. They called him a "Spic" (which, at the time, was a slur towards Italians as well as Latinos). I've also come into contact with people's inevitable discomfort in not being able to identify my race and ethnicity immediately, as I've written about before here. The experience is always mesmerizing to me--I feel like, "is this really happening?"

Whiteness seems to be something people are constantly looking for--either to establish calm or chaos for themselves. When "white" or "non-white" isn't identified immediately, questions abound. Is this fair? Of course not, but does it happen? Most definitely.

Italian Americans and their relation to whiteness has been contentious at best. Now in the year 2011, Italian Americans are no longer faced with the same racial and ethnic discrimination as they were when they first arrived to the U.S. Their race is not usually contested (or discussed for that matter),  and the general public has seemingly forgotten the question of whiteness it posed to Italian Americans over 100 years ago.

Now on to other such causes, like getting MTV's, "Jersey Shore" off the air...