One of the highlights of my summer in Rome has been the thrilling run of the Italian team in European Championships, culminating in tonight's final against Spain. The Azzurri have been a joy to watch, playing positive, attacking football, and the spectacle has been made all the more enjoyable by the passion that has consumed my neighborhood.
While several Italian players have been standouts - Pirlo, Buffon and De Rossi to name a few - the emblematic figure of this team is Mario Balotelli, the young Manchester City forward who scored both goals in the semi-final win over Germany. He is a media phenomenon for many reasons: his goalscoring prowess, eccentric hairstyles, and unpredictable behavior (fighting with teammates on the field, setting his home ablaze with fireworks, car accidents etc.). However, to many Italians the attribute that makes Balotelli stand out is the color of his skin. Born of Ghanaian immigrants and adopted by an Italian Jewish family, he is the country's highest-profile black footballer.
Balotelli's Euro heroics have been celebrated by his countrymen, but they have also prompted some awkward conversations about race and nationality in contemporary Italy. In recent weeks, two Italian sports newspapers have published "tributes" to the player that at best are ignorant and at worst deeply offensive. The first, from La Gazzetta dello Sport, portrayed Balotelli as King Kong, scaling Big Ben and swatting away soccer balls (this was after the victory over England - and never mind that he was largely ineffectual in that game); the second, from Tuttosport, shows a shirtless Balotelli with the headline "We made them black!" - i.e. "We beat them black and blue!"
The minor scandal that erupted from these images has now been well-covered, though notably more by Anglophone publications than by the Italian media - see recent articles by the Guardian and the Independent. The response from the guilty parties has been predictable, in that they argue that any offense caused is in the eye of the beholder. La Gazzetta claims that "to think that some sick mind might have wanted to insinuate, on our pages, the link with King Kong...more than offensive it is frankly twisted and absurd"; Tuttosport says "no one in Italy will have seen this as racist."
And therein lies the problem. In this instance, the issue is less with the small but vocal constituency of neo-fascists and white supremacists (though these groups are extremely troubling and quite prominent in Italian footballing culture). Rather, it is with a profound cultural problem that pervades all segments of Italian society. While Italians are not necessarily virulent racists, they have proved stubbornly unwilling to engage in a mature, thoughtful conversation about race. Stereotypes abound in the media, in political life and in casual conversation. Newspapers regularly lead with stories like "Romanian kills woman" and "Gypsies rape girl". One of the most popular series of commercials airing at the moment features the adventures of Marco Polo, now aided by an Italian mobile phone network. His "Chinese" sidekick provides comic relief with pidgin Italian, the old "L"/"R" routine and some martial arts. In the first, the Chinaman has confused spices and gunpowder; in the second, the Italian woman complains that Chinese money stinks like onions; and in the third, we see the miracle of racial transformation behind the scenes.
There are many, many things wrong with these images, but as a North American what strikes me above all is the complete absence of a sense of political correctness. It has been a long time since this term was used positively. Too often, "political correctness" is used as a whipping-post for the resentments of white, conservative, male middle America, its excesses highlighted to comic effect. As a result, it is easy to overlook the lasting positive effects of sensitivity to, and respect for, difference. The commercials above would never be aired on American television; and when offensive stereotypes do enter on the public stage - whether Obama caricatures or geisha halloween costumes - they at least promote debate and discussion, and sometimes de-legitimize their proponents. We have a long, long way to go, but at least blackface (or yellowface) is widely deemed an outrage.
But this kind of sensitivity has yet to arrive in Italy, and indeed (as seen above), politically correct criticisms are denounced as offensive. Much praise should go to the few voices that are campaigning for a more thoughtful engagement with difference - see for example Occhi ai Media, an organization that monitors and trains the media on issues of racial diversity. At present, however, such groups have yet to gain a firm foothold in the public consciousness.
The usual justification made for Italian racial insensitivity is that this is a small, homogenous country without a long history of immigration, imperialism and multiculturalism. For me, this rationale suggests considerable amnesia. For millennia, Italy has been a crossroads of cultures, languages and peoples, extending into the heart of the Mediterranean and linking Europe and Africa. Its food, dialects and architecture show the influence of northern Europe, the Balkans, the Maghreb and the Middle East. It has been at the center of two massive global networks, the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, and in the modern era has its own history of imperialism. And for centuries, it has been criss-crossed by invaders, pilgrims and tourists from every continent.
Mario Balotelli has a lot of pressure on his shoulders as he prepares to lead the line against Spain this evening. I don't want to add more, but I hope that his success might lead to a more thoughtful and deliberate discussion about race in the Bel Paese.