A Message for my Beloved Italian-American Community on How to Think About Our Role in the Movement for Racial Justice:
This moment in American history is about the Black community. It is about understanding that this country was built on systems designed to oppress Black Americans through any means necessary. It is about recognizing the ways that these oppressive systems are hurting the Black community to this day, and deciding that we will no longer stand to live in a country where the very freedom upon which we claim to be founded is selective.
I have no intention of making this moment about anything else or shifting the focus away from Black voices and stories. But I do think one of the most important things we can do in this movement for Black freedom is have hard conversations in which we meet different communities where they are at. We can remind those who choose to opt out of participating or who see it as “not their fight” that this movement impacts all of us. It’s a movement to change the trajectory of the future of the United States. It's about systemic racism, not personal prejudice. Neutrality means that you are fine with the status quo. You are fine continuing to support a country in which freedom, justice, and life are not afforded to the very people who built the country itself.
So, to my beautiful Italian-American community: I would love for us to use this time to examine the role of our community in the long and difficult path toward an anti-racist American society and why this movement relates directly to our own history in this country.
I know that American racism can be a complicated topic for Italian-Americans. Those of us who know anything about our history know we’ve always sort of blurred the line between white and non-white. We came to this country from Europe, yet we were seen as too “mixed” and “uncivilized” to be deemed white by the Anglo-white powers that were. (The very arrival of our community in the U.S. exposed the subjectiveness of whiteness, which is proof that it is a construct made to justify oppression, but I digress…) Because some of the benefits of white privilege were not always afforded to us, many of us (obviously not all) use our history with race as a way to disassociate from collective white guilt and to opt out of recognizing and confronting the violent history of white oppression in this country. We need to stop doing this.
Our grandparents sacrificed everything to come to this country. They left their families and their homes and everything they knew in hopes of building a more privileged life for us here in the “land of the free.” It is true that when Southern Italians immigrated here in the early-/mid-1900s, they were largely considered non-white. But they quickly learned the danger of proximity to Blackness in this country. When the largest waves of Southern Italians were arriving in the US, Black Americans were being lynched, killed by police, confined to ghettos, and robbed of most of their human and constitutional rights. So, out of survival instinct, our grandparents sacrificed again. Over a generation or two, they let go of aspects of their culture such as language, religious practices, traditions, and names in order to assimilate and increase their proximity to whiteness.
This effort to increase proximity to whiteness was sometimes conscious and sometimes not. But the very fact that our grandparents were able to do this in the first place was a privilege in and of itself — our skin was light enough (for most of us) that as long as we spoke and acted a certain way and didn’t marry anyone darker, we could convince white America to include us in their exclusive group. And as a result, we could be saved from the obvious danger that proximity to Blackness seemed to imply. Moving as close to whiteness and as far away from Blackness as they could was a survival tactic.
The very idea that our grandparents felt compelled to assimilate to whiteness exemplifies exactly what’s wrong on a deep, systemic level with this country. It was not enough for our grandparents to just move to America. Simply being “American” was not enough to afford them the “better life” they came here in search of. They had to give up so much of our language and our culture to ensure we were “white Americans”. That was the only way.
What does that tell us about the accessibility of the “American dream”? What does that tell us about who is free to live in safety and prosperity here in the United States? The less “white” you are, the less access you have to everything for which America claims to stand.
So knowing this, what do we, the Italian-American communities, do from here? In most situations, now in 2020, we walk through life as white. This may be thanks to the effort and sacrifice of our grandparents, but regardless, it’s true. And whether we are willing to face it or not, it has made our lives 50 thousand times easier.
But is that truly a victory? Are we okay with being proud of a country where proximity to whiteness defines one’s ability to survive and thrive? Do we want other immigrant groups like many of our Latin-American brothers and sisters to go through the same process of sacrificing their language and culture in order to assimilate to whiteness? And what about those who can’t? What about our fellow Americans who happen to be Black? Who, no matter how “proper” their English may be, no matter how educated they are, no matter how much money they make, they will never be afforded the safety and opportunity given to those in the white privilege club. The existence of the white privilege club depends on the oppression of Black Americans. That’s why we live within systems meant to otherize, criminalize, and disenfranchise Black Americans by any means necessary. That’s not a country of which I’m proud. That’s not a game I’m willing to play, even if I have a chance to position myself on the “winning” team.
So. Here’s my ask. Read, watch, and listen. Let’s educate ourselves on these systems of oppression I keep talking about. Then act. Donate, protest, VOTE (especially locally) to dismantle these systems.
I know that talking about race in an honest way is hard. In my experience, our community shies away from the feelings of guilt and frustration it triggers by mentioning things like, “we weren’t even here 200 years ago when slavery was happening” or, “we weren’t considered white at first either”. Or we confuse the idea of systemic racism with personal prejudice. Just because you personally don’t have an issue with Black Americans doesn’t mean it’s okay to live complicit in a system that’s criminalizing them and killing them. These excuses are dangerous and privileged. They prevent us from moving forward as a country because we can’t rebuild our foundation unless all Americans understand and admit that it is currently broken.
We Italian-Americans benefit from so much white privilege now. That’s a fact. We all have our own struggles in life, of course, but the color of our skin has not been the cause of them. The color of our skin has not brought harm upon us or been the only thing standing between us and the things we want out of life. That is privilege. Our grandparents sacrificed so much to give us that privilege, and we have to own it and use it for good. If we are going to use it to our benefit, we have to own it when it’s hard to do so, too.
So please read, watch, and listen. Start educating yourself in earnest about the structural and systemic racism upon which this country is founded. You might not know the whole story because they don’t teach it to us in school. On purpose. Educate yourself. And then take action. Once you allow yourself to see the depth and impact of systemic racism, you’ll know what side to be on because you know right from wrong.
I’ve attached some lists of helpful, informative resources to start learning, and my inbox is open to anyone who wants to take the conversation further. Remember, it is a privilege to educate yourself about racism rather than experience it every day for your whole life. It’s the least we can do. We cannot keep running from our original sin as a nation and hope it will go away. We need to face it and fix it.
In addition to the resources below, a few organizations that are making a real impact on racial justice are the Equal Justice Initiative or Campaign Zero. And perhaps most importantly, vote. Do not let one more violent, authoritarian, selfish, racist politician win a position of power in this country, at any level. I’m happy to talk further about any of this, too.
(I did not create the resource lists, but I have read/watched/listened to many of the items listed and can vouch for their usefulness in helping me learn so much of our country’s history that is not taught in schools. My top recommendations to start with are 13th on Netflix and 1619, a podcast available on all platforms.)