Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On Racism, For Want Of A Better Word

I have mentioned before that I am something of a stranger in a strange land here, but I will recap slightly for those of you who are not Italian and do not fully understand how the country is set up here.

I am from Rome, but I am currently living in a small city near Venice. The difference between “North” and “South” (or rather, “North” and “Everyone else”) is palpable, not only because of the fact that the North is much better off economically and there are many people of the idea that they should be two separate countries. The fact of the matter is, Italy was divided into many different “countries” up until 150 years ago, when it was finally united. That is why the difference between regions is incredibly pronounced, from the accent to even very strong local dialects (many of which are literally incomprehensible to anyone not from that region) to the food to the mannerisms and culture. Travelling around Italy can in some ways be like travelling to different countries, and thus some within Italy racism definitely exists, particularly in the North. I say racism for want of a better word, because what is it really? We are all of the same “race”, so the animosity is not based on physical characteristics like skin colour. It’s not nationalism, because we are all the same nationality. Regionalism? For now we’ll call it racism, because it falls under the exact same umbrella. The fact of the matter is, in the North the feeling of resentment towards these lazy Southerners coming to steal our jobs is a common one to encounter. Not everyone of course, but I have come to realise and accept that many need not be so explicit in their racist sentiment, and it has started to weigh on me in a way I did not expect.

An example, if you please.

The other day I went for a pre-dinner drink with a couple of friends and others that work in the same building that I do. At this point I felt quite comfortable with this group, I felt I knew them well enough so I was not the silent observer in the corner, I was actively participating in the conversation. We were talking about food, I got my regular beating for not liking coffee (sacrilege, I know), and then I began pointing out the sacrilege of breaking your spaghetti before you cook it. “You can’t break your spaghetti!” I said laughingly, justifying my position by saying that, since I am from the South, spaghetti is kind of my turf. The fact is that regionally speaking, the Northerners have much more of a food culture in polenta and rice, while the South it’s pasta every day. I said that if I was making a mistake in my polenta-cooking I would trust their advice as I know they are bigger experts in that field than I am, but leave the spaghetti to me! We were laughing, we were joking around, and then one of the girls that is a regular spaghetti-breaker was perhaps getting a little embarrassed and fired back “Well, we have 80% of GDP so we can do whatever the fuck we want with our spaghetti!” Everyone laughed, one (who incidentally is the one I know best and thought was a closer friend) even said “Ha! What a great comeback! Nice one!” I, for the first time in quite a while, was speechless.

Just to give an example of what that joke is saying. Lets say that we are a group of Italians and one Indian guy, who upon finding out that we cook our basmati rice in a sea of boiling water before draining it laughingly expresses his distress and tries to explain how to cook it properly, because after all it is part of his food culture and he was raised on it. I then turn around and say “Yea, well, the day you can stop calling your country a third world country maybe I’ll listen to you about how to cook my basmati!” And everyone around the table laughs. Imagine a Southern, African American woman trying to explain the same thing about collard greens to a table of white Americans, and one of them saying “Yea, well, since we don’t have more white guys in jail than in college we can do what the fuck we want with our collard greens!” And everyone around the table laughs. Don’t know about you, but I didn’t find it very fucking funny at all.

It’s the sensation that this divide is always bubbling under the surface with them. As soon as you think you’re in, you’ve been accepted, and you open up and talk normally like you would to anyone else you consider a friend, this can crop up and shut you down. It’s like they’re thinking “We are different, and we always will be. We accept your presence and tolerate your company because you’re funny and cool and we like you, but don’t forget your place”. This girl is not a right-winger and does not truly believe all that crap about splitting the country in two, but she still hold the trump card of superiority tucked handily up her sleeve. She had nowhere to turn, no “I studied as a chef therefore….” or any sort of personal accomplishment to back up her argument, so out came the “I popped out of a vagina in the right place at the right time, so I looked around and said yup, this makes me superior to you” argument. Jokingly, but the fact that she even went there, and worse that not a single person even laughingly said “come on now! Low blow!” disappointed me immensely. No matter what I say or do or how well I might formulate any kind of argument, they can pull that out at any time and shut me down, end of conversation. Worse, this racism is so the norm that if I had protested this gross lack of argument I would have had thirteen people jump down my throat for being a touchy party-pooper.

And there is always one, at every party.

Yesterday I was at a friend’s birthday party, and one girl that now lives in Milan started talking about how there was a possibility for her to work in Rome, but she was utterly disgusted by the idea of having to move south of the river Po (not for nothing there’s a Northern saying dal Po in giù l’Italia non c’è più [from the Po down, Italy is no more]). She went on and on about how pathetic Rome is compared to Milan. She clearly had no idea that’s where I’m from, and at least this time the people around the table had the decency to look embarrassed. One even tried to interrupt her to inform her of my origins, but I stopped her. “Let her speak”, I said. I would much rather know what people really think that to have them walk on eggshells around me.

It has been a lesson learned. This is not to say that racism does not exist where I’m from, although it is usually more directed towards actual foreigners rather than people from other regions (they even have a half-slur for us, terrone, although as far as I know we don’t have one for them). However, down South you can tell if you’re not trusted by the locals. They can be polite but will always be superficial, they will treat you differently. However once you’re in, you’re in. Here I genuinely thought that we were talking normally and they were treating me like one of the gang, so when these jokes or insults or slurs come out it is unexpected, shocking and far more disappointing.

It is this racism that makes me feel like I will never find a true friend up here, because they have constructed a bridge that, when I think I have fully crossed it, someone at the end kicks me back over to my side. However, I refuse to let the fear of that bridge prevent me from trying. I know better than to assume that everyone here feels this way, so I will continue to open up and treat them all the way I would treat anyone else, even if it does leave me vulnerable to many more disappointments along the way.

To the ones that have shown their true colours, oh well. I’ll still be polite, but I wont be looking for a deep friendship, sharing my dark secrets with you or inviting you to my wedding. It’s been nice knowing you, but I do not accept your false sense of superiority, and most importantly, I refuse to respond to your “witty” racist remarks with equally clever racist comebacks on my end. I will not, ever, play that game.

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