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Italy

Italy grapples with racial slurs against minister

Since becoming Italy's Minister of Integration, Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge has suffered racist and sexist abuse. In a country where heavy immigration is relatively new, her appointment has stirred a heated debate.

Ialian Integration Minister Cecile Kashetu Kyenge speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Club in Rome, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Kyenge on Wednesday acknowledged racist episodes in Italy but declined to brand the country as a whole racist. She has so far tempered her reaction to racist attacks, saying it's for Italians to respond, not her. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
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Cecile Kashetu Kyenge

Since Dr. Cecile Kyenge, who was raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, became Italy's first black cabinet minister this April, she has endured racist and sexist slurs such as "Congolese monkey," or "member of a bonga bonga government." Both comments came from members of the country's anti-immigration Lega Nord (Northern League) party.

The latest slur came over the weekend, (13.07.13), when Italy's Corriere Della Sera newspaper reported that Senator Roberto Calderoli, deputy head of the Northern League in the Italian Senate, had addressed a rally in Treviglio in the Northern League's heartland, saying that the minister would be "better off working as a minister in her own country." He went on, the newspaper reports, to compare Kyenge's features to that of an orangutan,  "I love animals - bears and wolves, as is known, but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan, even if I'm not saying she is one."

Asked to explain his comments by the Italian news agency, ANSA, Calderoli claims that this was an "unfortunate joke" that he had made at the rally, and nothing more. But the center-left Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, expressed solidarity with Kyenge, and said this kind of behavior was unacceptable.

'Say stop'

Kyenge herself commented that all politicians should "reflect on their use of communication," but was not calling for Calderoli to resign. She added though that words "carry weight" and that all ministers should be aware that they are "speaking on behalf of citizens and representing Italy."

Italy's Integration minister Cecile Kyenge (C) stands in front of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano (L) during the swearing in ceremony in Rome of the new government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta (R) on April 28, 2013. Italy's new coalition government was sworn in on Sunday, bringing fresh hope to a country mired in recession after two months of bitter post-election deadlock watched closely by European partners. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Kyenge was sworn in at the end of April

Pushed a little further, Corriere reports that she said that there comes a point when you have "to say stop", and that when a minister makes a remark like this, its weight is "doubled, tripled even, and ends up being reported in the foreign press and giving Italy a bad name."

In June, a posting on the Facebook page of the Lega Nord's town councillor Dolores Valandro went even further, asking, "why doesn't someone rape Kyenge so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?" Valandro posted the comment to imply that immigrants were responsible for most violent assaults on women in Italy.

The remark triggered immediate and widespread condemnation, even from Lega Nord members, who called for Valandro's resignation.

Kyenge, who has lived in Italy since 1983 where she also trained as an ophthalmologist, insists she is not afraid.

"The insults and threats against me are because I'm in a visible position now," Kyenege said in June. "But they're really threats against anyone who resists racism, who resists violence."

Back in June, Kyenge said the first thing she wanted to do was change the law to allow children born in Italy of legal immigrants to obtain citizenship more easily. It is policies like that, in part, that have enraged Italians, turning them against immigration.

A game changer?

For years, similar racist and sexist comments have been quietly tolerated outside of politics, especially in soccer stadiums. There, stars like Mario Balotelli, who is a striker with Italian club AC Milan and a national team player, have had to put up with racist chants, which many Italians accept as "part of the game."

AC Milan's Boateng and Balotelli look on as referee Rocchi suspends the match due to racist chants during their Italian Serie A soccer match against AS Roma in Milan
AC Milan's Kevin-Prince Boateng (L) and Mario Balotelli look on as referee Gianluca Rocchi suspends the match due to racist chants during their Italian Serie A soccer match against AS Roma at the San Siro stadium in Milan May 12, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo (ITALY - Tags: SPORT SOCCER TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

National squad regular Balotelli (right) is fed up with racist abuse

Two months ago, Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch if he is racially abused again. In other instances, whole teams as well as individual players have indeed done just that.

But having a high government official who is not only of African descent but whose task as integration minister is to help advocate for often marginallized immigrants could be the real game changer.

While other European countries have been grappling with integration issues for decades, the arrival of immigrants in Italy is fairly new. Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy's population in 1990; now they make up 7.5 percent.

But when asked if she considers Italy a racist country, Kyenge is careful in her response.

"That's a tough question. I've always said, though, that Italy isn't a racist country. It's a country that needs to get to know more about migration and the value of diversity and maybe what's missing most here is a culture of immigration. Only after the country has processed these things can we say whether it's racist or not," she said at the news conference.

A view of a meal being served to would -be immigrants coming from Rosarno, in southern Italy's Calabria region, in the CARA (reception center for asylum seekers) in Bari (in southern Italy's Puglia region) after they abandoned their make-shift accomodations set up in former industrial sites in Rosarno, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010. U.N. human rights officials said Tuesday that they were deeply worried about Italy's deep-rooted racism against migrants following clashes in a southern town between African farmworkers, residents and police. Hundreds of Africans fled the farm town of Rosarno in the underdeveloped southern region of Calabria in trains, cars and caravans of buses arranged by authorities after two days of violence last week that erupted when two migrants were shot with a pellet gun in an attack they blamed on racism. (AP Photo/Donato Fasano)

Immigrants are not always welcome in Italy

Signs of hope

And things are changing in Italy. "The positive aspect of this extremely unpleasant language means that others who are offended as much as she is, say so and support her," James Walston, a political commentator and expert on Italian society from the American University in Rome told DW.

"When a member of the Northern League says that Kyenge should be raped, it's not just good, nice liberals who were shocked, but also her party's leaders who have to say this is unacceptable and expel [that member] from the party," he added.

Walston says the growing profile of immigrants here is forcing Italy to grapple with its long tolerated, casual racism. He points to the fact that there are three other members of parliament now born outside Italy. And that the recently elected mayor of the northern city of Vicenza, a Northern League hotbed, is an immigrant, who replaced an openly racist predecessor.

Last month, when an African refugee suffering from a psychotic episode killed several Italians with an axe in Milan, the Northern League moved into the neighborhood to recruit members. But they were chased away by residents irate that they would use the tragedy to encourage hate against immigrants.

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