Racism, seeped in a form of nationalism many citizens find easy to get swept up into, in Italy and other European countries is nothing new. We’ve seen it on display, from rising anti-immigrant sentiments to football fans shouting racial slurs at persons of color playing on various teams.
But, the racism being hurled at Congolese-born Cécile Kyenge, the country’s first black minister, is something I’m even taken aback by. Mind you, growing up in the good ol’ U.S. of A., I’ve grown accustomed and expectant of both blatant and covert forms of racism. However, reading about some of the attacks upon Kyenge and her humanity stirs nothing short of bile in my stomach.
Some of these attacks include:
- Kyenge has had bananas thrown at her during public rallies.
- An Italian senator referred to Kyenge as an orangutan.
- Doctored photos have been published of Kyenge’s head placed upon indigenous African women’s bare-breasted bodies.
- One Italian politician — a woman, nonetheless — called for Kyenge to be raped (this woman later resigned).
- An anti-immigrant newspaper has been criticized for publishing Kyenge’s daily schedule, perhaps an invitation for those who are so inclined to take time out of their day and launch their sexualized racist attacks.
- Another politician has likened Kyenge to a prostitute.
Reading this short list plants nothing short of contempt — and a bit of sadness — in my heart and soul for the people who would have the audacity to brazenly package their fears and insecurities into racial insults and to send said insults flying into the path of Kyenge.
What also confounds me about the public assault Kyenge has had to maneuver is the seemingly lassiez-faire attitude fellow politicians and news organizations have about the systemic denial of Kyenge’s dignity and womanhood. These racialized sexist, misogynistic terroristic threats are another indication that the fight of black women against misrecognition in public spaces continues to be an uphill battle whiteness is hellbent on winning.
The printing of Kyenge’s daily schedule is an indictment upon the white supremacist belief that the minister’s blackness somehow marks her safety and security as null and void. Calling for Kyenge to be sexually assaulted reminds the public that black women are in fact not women worthy of protection from male sexual violence, would feel no physical, emotional or mental distress from rape and the political use of rape should be used to keep them in their place. Referring to Kyenge as a prostitute, an orangutan and doctoring photos of Kyenge to place her head upon the bodies of African women suggest a public denial — snatching away, if you will — of her womanhood. In essence, these people, acting as agents of whiteness, are systematically denying Kyenge’s right to self-determination.
The popular belief that only the United States is home to this form of overt racism has been all but discounted in recent years with the rise of 21st century nationalism and racism in Europe (quick recent examples here, here, here, here and here). People have longed touted this romantic notion that Europe and Europeans have no problem with race, could not comprehend racism and the logic behind it (how convenient for that logic to come about when the idea of binary forms of racial classification stems from European exploration and colonialism).
Incidents like the racist, sexist assaults on Kyenge in Italy and in other countries prove that point. Whiteness, whether American-bred or Euro-centered, has an essential goal, which is to ensure its superiority and universality in society. It’s to ensure that its ideology will be portrayed as the default; the starting point used to measure The Other. Any person or ideology deviating from or is in opposition to whiteness is fair game to be viewed as suspect.
The racialized sexist, misogynistic attacks upon Kyenge seek to do just that by perpetuating the myth that Kyenge — blackness, in particular — is not entitled to humanity. These terroristic attacks upon Kyenge and the blatant denigration of blackness serve to remind Kyenge that despite her rise in Italian politics, whiteness will always be the one arena of society she will never be able to conquer.