What you need to know:
When she was appointed cabinet minister in Italy, there was a general happiness world over at the strides the country had made. But that joy was short-lived when Cecile Kyenge started receiving racist comments.
As she took her oath of office as cabinet minister, someone wanted her raped. “Why does no one rape her?” the post on Facebook stated. Before she warmed her seat, another branded her a jungle animal. “I love animals – bears and wolves – but when I see her pictures, I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan.” Orangutan is an animal similar to chimps, monkeys and the like.
Cecile Kyenge, the woman appointed Italian minister for Integration, has since her appointment in April, been attacked with racist and rather offensive comments. Kyenge is Italy’s first black minister. Her appointment was hailed as a giant step forward for racial integration in Italy but the move has instead exposed the country’s ugly race problem that has now reared its head at the centre of political life.
In appointing Kyenge, more so as Minister for Integration, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta probably sought to find the right solution to the country’s racial problem.
He described her appointment as a “new concept, a bridge between diverse communities.” However, a section of Italian society, especially the intolerant Northern League party, seems not ready to embrace this “bridge”.
It was the vice president of Italian Senate and a member of the League, Roberto Calderoli, who likened Kyenge to a jungle animal and his League colleague, Delores Valandro who called for her to be raped. Valandro accused Kyenge of wanting to promote a law that would protect immigrants who they accuse of “perpetuating crime” so Valandro wanted Kyenge raped “so she can understand what the victims of atrocious crime feel.”
Kyenge is an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was born in Kambove, Haut-Katanga District on August 28, 1964. She migrated to Italy in 1983. The then 18-year old Kyenge enrolled and got a degree in medicine and surgery from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Rome. She has since lived in Italy. The three decades in Italy, it seems have not changed the minds of people like Calderoli about Kyenge, not even her being married since 1994, to an Italian white man.
After practicing medicine more than a decade, Kyenge, in 2004, decided to join politics. She was elected in the district of her town of Modena. In 2009, she was elected provincial councillor in the same town and she served as the provincial head of the Forum of International Cooperation and Immigration and member of the Welfare and Social Policies Committee.
The committee was responsible for developing immigration policies in Emilia-Romagna. This was in line with what she had done before. In 2002, she founded the Association for Intercultural DAWA with the aim of promoting mutual understanding of Italian and African cultures. “Dawa” is Kiswahili for medicine. Did Kyenge see the Italian racial problem needing medicine? Maybe yes, maybe not. What was clear though, at least by this time, was that her political star was to shine brighter. On February 25, 2013, Kyenge was elected member of the Chamber of Deputies for in Emilia-Romagna. It was here that she caught the eye of Premier Letta who appointed her minister for Integration, making history as Italy’s first black minister.
Kyenge pursued a political career with her ‘Dawa’ in mind. Immediately after her election to the Italian Parliament, she, literally pulled closer the files that contained what she believed should be top on the agenda – immigration. She mobilised support in the House and pulled influential signatories to her side.
Her plan for a law granting citizenship to children of immigrants born on Italian soil (the Ius soli law) was underway. The law if passed, would change Italy’s citizenship law to allow children born in Italy of legal immigrants to obtain citizenship more easily. Currently, such children can only apply once they turn 18, but even then it’s not guaranteed. “Changing the (immigration) law is a key part of changing Italians’ very concept of citizenship, to take into account the country’s changing demographics,” she said.
Little did she know what stood ahead of her. First, she was accused of trying to “impose tribal traditions” from her native Congo on Italy. Then the attack became more embarrassing. While addressing a crowd of supporters to lay out details of her new integration programme, in the central Italian city of Cervia, someone launched several bananas at her from the crowd, a racist act. Perhaps speaking of a character that Kyenge is – calm, she felt pity for whoever did it.
“With so many people dying of hunger, wasting food like this is so sad,” she tweeted. She would continue with her work. “It will be up to the public institutions to respond to these aggressions,” she remarked.
Kyenge, clearly knows how to lay her messages. She knows that not every Italian supports the racist attacks on her. “Racist episodes exist, but you can’t say that a country is racist because there are certain episodes in a territory,” she said directly referring to the northern region of Veneto, the political home base of the League. Asked why she decided to give an opening address to a multicultural festival in the region, knowing how much attack she had received there, Kyenge simply said; “It is my job to listen to them.”
A calm approach to things
Kyenge seems ready to carry on her job amidst a clearly hostile environment. She seems unmoved, choosing not to lose her head but keep her calm and carefully select words to use while commenting on the outbursts. “This is not my problem or a problem about me specifically. This is about people who manifest their discomfort with diversity in unhealthy ways,” she said. Her determination to succeed perhaps will be galvanised by the support she has received from sections of society. One of those in her defense is Laura Boldrini, the president of Italy’s parliament’s lower chamber.
“It is indecent that in a civil society there can be a series of insults that are being hurled against the neo-minister Cecile Kyenge,” Boldrini said. “Like many people, watching her take her oath of office, I felt that Italy was taking an important step forward, and not just for `new Italians.’”
Also defending Kyenge is fellow cabinet minister, German-born Italian, Josefa. In her role as Equal Opportunities minister, Idem authorised an investigation by Italy’s national anti-discrimination office into the racist attacks on Kyenge. Will the investigations save Kyenge’s face from racist attacks? The world awaits.
What is clear though is that Kyenge seems bent on dealing with the problem in the most civil way, something that must be applauded.
Racism in Italian football
Some of the most blatant manifestations of racism have occurred in the realm of Italy’s favourite sport – football.
Players have been subject of racist taunts on and off the field. Mario Balotelli, the AC Milan striker is perhaps Italy’s best player today but that has not saved him from racist attacks.
Born in Palermo to Ghanaian immigrants and raised by an Italian adoptive family, Balotelli has mockingly been called a “little black boy” and rival fans once hung a banner during a match saying “Black Italians don’t exist”.
In the same week Kyenge was made a government minister and Balotelli was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, AC Milan’s rival Juventus football club was fined €30,000 for fans’ racist taunts.
They are not the only celebrities facing prejudice. French-born Guinean player, Kevin Constant fired a ball into the stands and walked off the pitch after racist chanting. AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who hails from Ghana, led his team off the pitch during a friendly match for the same reasons.