ROME » When Cicile Kyenge accepted the post of minister of integration in Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s center-left government, she knew that as Italy’s first black national official she would be breaking new ground. What she may not have expected was the stream of racial slurs that have accompanied her first eight weeks in office.
Death threats have been posted on Facebook, and in one case this month, a City Council member in Padua called for Kyenge to be raped so that she could "understand" what victims felt. The councilor, Dolores Valandro, who made the comment in a discussion about a woman said to have been raped by an African man, was subsequently expelled from her party, the anti-immigrant Northern League.
The verbal attacks have been worrying enough that Kyenge, 48, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Italy at 19, now travels with heightened security. She has so far chosen not to respond directly to her detractors but instead has praised the many who have spoken out in her support to underscore the need for Italians to strive for civility.
"It’s up to the institutions, to the population, to give a response to these attacks," Kyenge said in a recent interview in her stately office in central Rome. "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."
If discussion alone were the goal, then Kyenge’s appointment would have already succeeded. It has opened a national debate on the tension between the increasingly multicultural nature of Italian society and the undercurrent of racism that is increasingly difficult for Italians to ignore.
For the most part, the hate speech directed at Kyenge has been limited to xenophobic political movements, like the far-right Forza Nuova and the Northern League. But experts who track immigration issues say that more subtle and insidious forms of racism are pervasive in Italy as it struggles to come to terms with its rapidly changing demographics. In 2011, immigrants made up 7.5 percent of Italy’s population, more than double the percentage of just a decade before.
That influx has combined with Italy’s long economic crisis in ways that have frequently confused or obfuscated the causes of the malaise, with immigrants serving as easy scapegoats for the high unemployment numbers.
"Kyenge – the first black person, the first immigrant – became minister in a very difficult, tense moment," said Ferruccio Pastore, director of the International and European Forum for Migration Research in Turin. "It will be a test of the maturity of the political system, of the civil maturity of Italians. It’s an important test."
Kyenge was born in Katanga, a southern province of Congo, one of 38 brothers and sisters born of "numerous mothers," she said. Her father is a chief, whom she has described as a sort of mayor of his village.
She moved to Italy alone to study medicine, paying her way through medical school by working as a home caregiver, like many of the foreign women who come to Italy to work. She now practices ophthalmology in Modena, a city in the northern Emilia-Romagna region, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.
For nearly a decade, she toiled in local center-left politics and developed a reputation as an outspoken advocate of immigrant rights. This year, she won a seat in the lower house, becoming only the seventh legislator of non-European heritage. In April, she was appointed to head the Integration Ministry, which oversees immigration issues.
"The fact that there is a new Ministry for Integration," she told reporters in Rome on Wednesday, is a sign that this government means to "take a different approach" to immigration, "one of reception and openness."
She has deftly used her post to expand awareness and conversation on the subject.
"No one should be ashamed of who they are," she said in an interview on the television network La7. "I have never been ashamed of my economic situation or my position, my skin color or my curly hair," she said. "I am Italian, and I am Congolese."
When asked in an interview whether she thought Italians were racist, Kyenge related a personal experience.
"One day I visited a 6-year-old who had drawn a picture of a doctor, a tall white male, while she was waiting to see me," she recalled. "When we met, her only observation was that she was sorry she had drawn a man. She didn’t say a thing about color."
"Kids don’t have ideas about race," she continued. "It means that from the classroom you have to pass the culture that diversity is a resource and there’s no need to fear someone different."
Until Kyenge’s appointment, the most notorious occurrences of racism had played out on Italian soccer fields, where xenophobic chants and insults are still common. In May, a match in the top league was briefly suspended for the first time because of racist chants directed at Mario Balotelli, the AC Milan forward born in Italy to Ghanaian parents and then adopted by an Italian family.
There may no more revealing mirror of the demographic transformation of the past two decades than the national soccer team, which includes Balotelli; his Milan teammate Stephan El Shaarawy, who was born near Genoa to an Italian mother and an Egyptian father; and the defender Angelo Ogbonna, whose parents are Nigerian.
It is also a revealing paradox. Like anyone born in Italy of foreign parents, Balotelli could not obtain Italian citizenship until he became 18. Even then, the process is far from automatic; critics say it is easier for the grandchildren of Italians who may have never set foot in Italy to gain citizenship than it is for someone born here to foreign parents and raised here.
Kyenge has vocally championed granting citizenship to those born in Italy, which quickly became a hot-button issue for populist lawmakers eager to exploit immigration as a contributing factor in an economic crisis that shows no signs of abating.
"There’s been an attempt to manipulate the issue, raising the specter of hordes of mothers from the Third World coming to give birth here – as if citizenship automatically gives access to a radiant future," said Fabio Marcelli, a legal expert for the National Research Council who compiled a recent book on citizenship rights. Noting Italy’s staggering youth unemployment rate – 40 percent of Italians under 25 are now jobless – he added, "I think young Italians can show how ridiculous an idea this is."
There are nearly 30 different bills on citizenship pending in Parliament, including a petition backed by 220,000 signatures that calls for citizenship to be conferred on anyone born in Italy. An interparliamentary commission has been set up to analyze the proposals and to try to negotiate a draft that will receive broad support when it comes to a vote.
Last weekend, the government passed a measure to simplify the citizenship procedures for people born in Italy to foreign parents when they become of legal age. There is still a long way to go, Kyenge says.
Italy, she said, is already a multicultural society, "a mix of many cultures and people from many different countries," she said. "It’s time to reflect on citizenship, to bring forward the discussion because the country has changed, and my role is to speak about that."