At times it is hard for some to imagine that we still live in a world of many firsts. Not even a decade ago, the first non-white president of the United States was elected. Many states in the country are seeing their first glimpses of marriage equality. Around the world, it appears that marginalized groups have finally been allotted opportunities to succeed on a grand scale. This past April, Italy saw its first black government minister elected to office. Cecile Kyenge was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and appointed as Minister of Integration by Prime Minister Enrico Letta. In the 1980s, when she was only 18, she relocated to Italy on a student visa in order to study medicine in Rome.
Afterwards, she obtained a job practicing as an ophthalmologist in a hospital in Modena. She is a predecessor of the massive wave of immigrants that has recently inundated Italy. Over the past 15 years, immigrants have grown in numbers to make up 8 percent of Italy’s population. However, Italy has some of the most restrictive citizenship laws in the Western world; they are based on descent rather than place of birth. Consequently, there are more than half a million children born on Italian soil – but to non-Italian parents – that are not guaranteed health coverage. Dr. Kyenge aims to change this. She proposed a bill that would grant automatic citizenship to all children born on Italian soil to immigrant parents. However, Dr. Kyenge’s strides have been overshadowed by the blatant racism she has faced at the hands of her countrymen. She has been subjected to numerous racist threats and insults.
She has been called “Congolese monkey,” “Zulu” and “the black anti-Italian.”One of her own colleagues, Dolores Valandro, posted a picture of Dr. Kyenge on Facebook, calling for her to be raped “so that she could understand what victims feel.” Valandro later resigned, after major backlash. In mid-July, Senator Roberto Calderoli, stated at a political rally Dr. Kyenge looked like an orangutan: “I love animals – bears, and wolves, as everyone knows – but when I see the pictures of Kyenge, I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan.
“Calderoli only apologized – in an apology that truly was not an apology at all – after his comments were widely criticized. Both Valandro and Calderoli are members of the far-right, anti-immigration Northern League party. In one spectacular display of intolerance, an unidentified man threw bananas at her during one of her speeches. Through everything, Dr. Kyenge has kept about an air of stoic strength and diplomacy, remarking that, “It will be up to the public institutions to respond to these aggressions.”Although the incidents were condemned by the Italian public, they still indicate the air of casual racism that unfortunately has been ingrained into Italian society. Dr. Kyenge is neither the first nor the only target. The country has seen a steady increase in the number of racist and discriminatory remarks. Perhaps racial tensions have been aggravated by the atmosphere of Italy’s current economic crisis; however, racial threats and epithets along with rally cries of “Immigration kills” and “There is no such thing as a black Italian” are not the proper way to express societal discontent. Italy, with its rapidly aging population and low birthrate, certainly needs more immigrants.