'Orangutan' slur highlights open racism in Italian politics

Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge
Image caption Cecile Kyenge says she has accepted Roberto Calderoli's apology

When Cecile Kyenge agreed to become a minister in Italy's latest government she was well aware that she would have to break new and difficult ground.

Not only was she taking on the controversial immigration brief, she was also about to become Italy's first black minister.

But perhaps even Ms Kyenge has been surprised by the ferocity of the backlash.

She has been repeatedly subjected to racist slurs of the crudest kind.

The latest came over the weekend from a vice-president of Italy's Senate, Roberto Calderoli, a prominent member of the anti-immigration Northern League party.

Addressing its supporters he said; "I love animals… but when I see pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of - even if I'm not saying she is one - the features of an orangutan."

Image caption Roberto Calderoli said Ms Kyenge was attracting illegal immigrants to Italy

He went on to say that Ms Kyenge was attracting illegal immigrants to Italy, and that she should be a minister in her "own country".

This is fairly typical of the kind of abuse that has been directed at the minister by Northern League activists.

One accused her of wanting to impose "tribal traditions" on Italy.

And another actually went so far as to call for Ms Kyenge to be raped so that she would understand what someone who might be raped by an immigrant might go through.

Ms Kyenge, the one prominent black figure in parliament, seems to have become the focus of a very large amount of the openly racist sentiment in the Italian political arena.

So far she has coped with considerable dignity.

Amid the furore over his "orangutan" remark, Mr Calderoli was forced to apologise.

Social change

Ms Kyenge accepted this but said that if Mr Calderoli could not translate his views into proper political discourse he should perhaps step aside as the Senate's vice-president.

In the background to all this lies some quite profound social change.

Italy is now having to absorb larger numbers of immigrants.

Back in 2000 there were only about one million of them here. Today there are about five million - about 8% of the population.

And right now, with so many Italian families of all backgrounds finding it difficult to cope economically, perhaps tensions are inevitable.

Image caption Silvio Berlusconi famously described US President Barack Obama as "tanned"

As Ms Kyenge herself put it: "Some people are struggling to accept that the country has changed."

Professor James Walston of the American University in Rome, who analyses Italian attitudes towards race, wrote recently in his blog: "To these people a woman like Cecile Kyenge would be acceptable if she was a docile house servant on the lines of the 30s Hollywood stereotype.

"The fact that she is a successful eye surgeon and now a self-assured cabinet minister is threatening for them."

The Northern League has set itself against what it calls an "uncontrollable influx of immigrants".

This is an important part of its electoral platform.

And a long-time observer of the party, Professor Roberto Biorcio, of Milan's Bicocca University, sees Mr Calderoli's remarks as part of a calculated effort to focus more on this emotive area.

"I'm under the impression that Calderoli and certain sectors of the league want to draw attention back to the issue of immigration," he said.

"As usual, they do it in the most provocative manner - but it has helped them in the past."

Away from the party political fray, casual racism surfaces in many areas of Italian life.

Among the gaffes of Silvio Berlusconi during his time as prime minister was a reference to US President Barack Obama as being "sun tanned".

He dismissed anyone who did not think that this was funny as a "humourless imbecile".

'Racist mentality'

And racism has repeatedly manifested itself in Italian football.

Earlier this year the whole of the AC Milan team walked off the pitch in support of one of their black colleagues who was being subjected to abusive chanting from the stands.

But far from the headlines, in the course of everyday life, immigrants talk of being surrounded by racism.

"You hear comments on the bus, in the markets, in schools," said Pape Diaw, a leader of the Senegalese community in Florence.

"To think that the Italian people are racist is wrong. But there is... a type of racist mentality. "

He said that politicians were reluctant to tackle the issue, and that with tensions building there was a risk of a social explosion.

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