“Do you know where Africa begins?”
“At the suburbs of Rome.”
This was a common exchange when I lived in Tuscany and Venice, between 1988 and 1992. “Southern Italy equals Africa” was a slur disguised as concern, dispensed as a supposed curative against any naïve ideas I may have had about travelling in that direction. The northern Italian racist issuing such advice-invective would always be kind and hospitable in manner. A few months ago, on a return trip, I found myself in a conversation with a man who, after giving me one of the best tours of the Venetian civic buildings that are usually off limits (his strategy: just walk in), told me, apropos of nothing, “Blacks and whites should not have children with each other. Mixing the blood of people from widely dispersed parts of the globe is good, and strengthens the bloodlines—so long as it happens amongst whites. But offspring of whites and blacks is a kind of pollution.”
In the summer of 1990, I worked as an apprentice gondolier in Venice, and I am still in touch with many of my Venetian friends. Immersed in the drama of Italy’s World Cup squad, which is, for the first time, multiracial, I asked a former co-worker about the team. He said, “What I can tell you about race relations is that I think that most people here are not racist.” He went on to say that Italians wanted immigrants “to pay their taxes, have a job—in the end, they have to be legal.” Yet the barriers to legality are nearly insurmountable. Because of a law enacted in 1992, Italian citizenship is withheld from anyone born in Italy without an Italian citizen parent. Only after turning eighteen can people born in Italy to non-Italian parents apply for citizenship.
A young black man is now at the center of Italian life: Mario Balotelli, the national team’s star striker, who played defensively in Tuesday’s disastrous loss to Uruguay before being yellow-carded and taken off. Balotelli was born in Palermo in 1990, to Ghanaian parents, and was he fostered and then adopted by an Italian couple from Concesio, near Brescia, in the far north, when he was three years old. (His biological parents remained in Italy for many years; they are estranged from their son.) When he was eighteen, Balotelli told the Gazetto dello Sport, “My father is Franco, my mother is Silvia … but, for Italy, the country in which I was born and live, it’s not like that. I call myself Balotelli, like my parents. But on my identity card this is not my last name.” That cards listed “Barwuah,” the name of Balotelli’s birth family. Only after he turned eighteen was it officially changed to “Balotelli.” When he became a citizen, he wore a T-shirt that said, in English, “NOT ONLY AM I PERFECT I’M ITALIAN TOO!”
Cécile Kyenge became Italy’s first black Cabinet Secretary in February, 2013, when she was made Minister for Integration in a short-lived coalition government. She declared her intention to overturn the country’s blood-based citizenship law. Balotelli called her appointment “another great step forward for an Italian society that is more civil, responsible, and understanding of the need for better, definitive integration.” Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League politician and the deputy Speaker of the Senate, said, meanwhile, that Kyenge reminded him of an “orangutan.”
At the time when Kyenge took office, the Italian Football Federation identified fifty incidents of racist abuse at matches during the previous six years. Of those fifty, forty-eight were related to racist chanting (two involved banners). Less sanitized figures, from Italy’s Observatory on Racism and Anti-Racism in Football, which take into account the frequent incidents of white Italians brandishing and throwing bananas at black athletes, estimate two hundred and eighty-two incidents since 2007 and six hundred and sixty incidents since 2000.
Balotelli’s views on the topic are unambiguous: “Racism is unacceptable to me, I cannot bear it.” And: “If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to prison because I will kill him.” In 2009, bananas were thrown at him in a bar in Rome. “It was lucky that the police arrived quickly,” he said. “I swear, I would have beaten them. I would have really destroyed them. I hope it never happens again.” That is largely defiant talk; he has faced abuse repeatedly—as an eighteen-year-old playing for Inter Milan, in 2009, even while training for the World Cup last month, in Florence. Virtually all black players in Italy have faced similar issues. The AC Milan defender Kevin Constant, who is Guinean, walked out of a friendly last summer after racist chants from Sassuolo fans, and both Constant and Nigel de Jong, who is Dutch-Surinamese, were subjected to abuse, including banana-throwing last month, only two weeks after the Brazilian Dani Alves, in an act of small rebellion, peeled and ate a banana that was thrown onto the field as he was taking a corner kick for Barcelona. (This happened in Spain and caused a furor throughout Europe). Andrea Pirlo, the star midfielder on the Italian national team, summed up the situation, saying, “We need Mario Balotelli. I’m not sure he really appreciates it yet, but he’s a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of the racist you find in Italian grounds.”
Silvio Berlusconi’s brother Paolo, the vice-president of AC Milan, Balotelli’s club-soccer team since 2013, recently referred to the striker as “our little family nigger.”
The first black player on a major European national team (at the over-twenty-one level) was Senegalese: Raoul Diagne, who played for France in 1931 (and whose father, Blaise, was the first black African in the French government). It wasn’t until 1960 that another colonial power, the Netherlands, fielded Humphrey Mijnals, who was born in Paramaribo, Suriname. Then came the Germans, who integrated their national team when Erwin Kostedde, the son of an African-American G.I. and a German mother, took the field, for what was then West Germany, in 1974. In 1978, Vivian Anderson, who was born in Nottingham, to West Indian parents, became the first nonwhite player to represent England. Donato Gama da Silva was born in Brazil, naturalized as Spanish in 1990, and played for Spain in 1994. Nearly all of the major Western European countries now have multiethnic national teams, in part as a legacy of colonialism, but mainly owing to demographic shifts in these countries. And all of the players mentioned here faced significant prejudice in places where, thanks in part to their efforts, such reactions have become unusual. But Italy is the exception: seven years after Gama da Silva, Fabio Liverani, born in Rome to an Italian father and a Somali mother, was called up to the Italian national team for a friendly against South Africa, in 2001.
“It will be a special game for me, because South Africa has had to battle so much against racism,” Liverani said at the time. “I’ve battled against those same prejudices. When people whistle at me for the color of my skin, it gives me an extra charge.” He played much of his club soccer for Palermo.
I first heard the remark about Africa starting just south of Rome when I was standing in the visitors’ section of the Luigi Ferraris stadium, in Genoa. Ferraris was a liberal Italian senator, later the Minister of Justice, who insisted, in the late eighteen-hundreds, that Rome, rather than Torino, be the capital of newly unified Italy. I was there to support Florence against Genoa in the only first-division soccer match I ever attended in Italy.
Once I’d been told where Africa began, the game began. Smoke bombs were hurled. Profanity was everywhere. It seemed that the country’s invisible-to-tourists menace was here. Everybody but our small group of Florence fans leaped up and down in concert, threatening to collapse the stadium, shouting that whoever wasn’t jumping was Florentine. All the players on the field were white; one section still shouted, “You are the terroni of the north!” Terroni, which means “dirt people,” is an insult commonly directed at the southerners.
That match took place in the fall of 1989. In the years since, Italy has changed enormously. The net-migration rate to the country has increased dramatically, from one in a thousand citizens to 4.29 in a thousand citizens. This is no longer a peninsula where race is invisible.
Of all the gondoliers whom I knew in Italy, I’ve remained closest with Gino Macropodio, who is now eighty-four and retired, and who offered me his boat when he “put down the oar.” On the topic of Balotelli, he told me, “There is a precedent for Italian integration. The Venetian Republic was the only free country in Europe. Where all the races could mix. There were lots of black gondoliers. You can see one in a painting by Carpaccio from the fourteen-hundreds.”
“Weren’t black gondoliers slaves?”
“They were servants in private homes—given pay by their employers. I was one myself when I was younger. They were not slaves. Just look at how they are dressed.”
I searched for the Carpaccio painting, and it’s true—the black gondolier in the foreground is elegantly dressed, as are the white gondoliers. Slavery existed in Italy—Gino couldn’t sanitize that—but it was not the rule. There were free blacks in Venice. A document from 1510 describes a free Afro-Venetian, Zuan Sarrasin, as the gustaldo (prior) of a Grand Canal ferry: the captain of his team.
Above: Mario Balotelli and Martin Caceres, of Uruguay, during a World Cup match in Natal, Brazil; Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Photograph by Ricardo Mazalan/AP.
[#image: /photos/59095114ebe912338a3726ac]See more of The New Yorker’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup.
The events of the last few weeks have proved, beyond doubt, that Italy has a serious problem with racism. Bananas have been thrown at Cécile Kyenge, Italy's first black government minister. A (female) councillor for the Northern League has said she should be raped. A Northern League senator has likened her to an orangutan. Last week the AC Milan footballer, Kevin Constant, walked off the pitch after a barrage of abuse, just as Kevin-Prince Boateng did earlier this year.
The Northern League is, admittedly, a minority party, usually gaining only between five and 10% of the national vote. And other political parties have expressed solidarity with Kyenge. But anyone who has listened to Italian political debate, or worse, stood in an Italian football stadium, knows that Italy simply isn't a tolerant place. This is a country where a recent prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, thought it hilarious to joke that Obama had a decent suntan. The racism isn't restricted to right or left, old or young, rural or urban: it is noticeable everywhere.
The reasons are pretty obvious. As Italians will constantly tell you, theirs is an incredibly provincial country. Campanilismo – the attachment to one's local belltower – is one of the reasons the place is so charming: people often stay put, they're rooted rather than rootless. All over the country, even in a tiny village, you'll see caput mundi graffitied on walls, suggesting that this sleepy place is considered the capital of the world. The downside is that outsiders are treated as aliens, if not enemies.
Through the centuries Italy has been, not a colonial power, but a colony, a plaything of the superpowers. So with the exception of small parts of Somalia, no other country speaks Italian. Unlike France, Britain, Portugal or Spain, there's no large diaspora of Italian speakers who can immediately integrate into the "mother country", knowing already its literature and history. So the peninsula remains insular, an astonishingly monocultural, monoconfessional place.
There are other reasons for the racism: the legacy of fascism and the continuing adulation of Benito Mussolini; the tangible insecurity, even sense of inferiority, of many Italians; widespread economic misery for at least the last decade; and a political class that is absurdly ignorant. But perhaps the most interesting explanation for racism comes from an Italian mate of mine who's an armchair anthropologist. He maintains that in a country that is famously lawless, in which rules are often wilfully ignored, everyone is oddly very conformist in other ways: all wearing the same fashionable colour, or eating the same food at the same festivals. Italy simply isn't a country of eccentricity, or a place where difference or diversity are accepted, let alone cherished. I once tried to experiment by putting an unorthodox topping on my pizza and was harangued by irate mates as if I'd committed a terrible crime.
The conundrum of Italian racism is that Italy, ever a country of contradictions, is also a place of remarkable generosity and hospitality. I know it's easy for a white Englishman to say that, but centuries of visitors have noted Italians' esterofilia, their love of all things foreign. The dignity and intelligence of Kyenge in the face of recent attacks may yet remind Italians that they have a reputation for loving, rather than fearing, those from afar.
Tobias Jones's Italian novel, Death of a Showgirl, has just been published by Faber