When Prime Minister Enrico Letta offered to make Congo-born medical doctor Cécile Kyenge the country’s first black national official ever by appointing her to be minister of integration, it should have signaled a new era of political diversity in Italy. After all, the country’s immigrant population is growing, doubling in a decade to a high of 7.5 percent in 2011. It makes sense that Italy’s shifting demographics should be reflected in the country’s political leadership, but Kyenge’s first eight weeks of work have been marked by wildly xenophobic tantrums from Italy’s far-right, anti-immigration groups.
The New York Times chronicled the awful reactions that have marred Kyenge’s milestone appointment, including a particularly hackle-raising Facebook post earlier this month in which a City Council member in Padua — not some totally random Facebook troglodyte — called for Kyenge to be raped so that she could “understand” what victims felt (the offending councilmember, Dolores Valandro, made the comment in a discussion about an African woman reported to have been raped by a man, and was subsequently kicked the fuck out of her party, the anti-immigrant Northern League). Subsequent verbal barbs have compelled Kyenge to travel with heightened security, but she has so far refused to give any credence to the racist, xenophobic comments from the right, insisting that the onus for responding to attacks against her falls squarely on the shoulders of more moderate Italians.
She explained in a recent interview:
It’s up to the institutions, to the population, to give a response to these attacks. I don’t respond because the stimulus for discussion emerges from that. You see the best of Italy when there is a response in the public domain.
Kyenge’s assessment of the current political climate echoes the words of Ferruccio Pastore, director of the International and European Forum for Migration Research in Turin, who described Kyenge’s appointment as “a test of the maturity of the political system, of the civil maturity of Italians.”
For Kyenge to respond directly to outrageous attacks from Italians who feel as if their national identity and debt-crippled economy are being eroded by an influx of immigrants, she would be, in a way, shrinking the current problem, turning it from a national issue to a personal issue, which it isn’t (though that’s sort of hard to accept when complete strangers are threatening her on the Internet). Her appointment becomes far more meaningful if it becomes a rallying point for Italians who want to shout down the bigots and prove that the sort of xenophobic rhetoric that has followed Kyenge’s appointment is not representative of Italy’s future as an increasingly multicultural country.
Image via Getty, Giorgio Cosulich