07/21/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2013

Navigating Italian Shame

I wake up to an email from Gabriele, a dear friend of mine, he writes from Rome. Without beating around the bush he asks me: if in the United States a senator had defined a black minister an orangutan, how many milliseconds would have taken for him to have been kicked out of the political universe?

What he is referring to is Italy's latest disgrace: Italian Senator Calderoli, nonchalantly remarks that the first Italian black minister, Cécile Kyenge, looks like an orangutan. I should add that Senator Calderoli is also the vice president of the Italian Senate. Yes he is.

One of the most dangerous comments we had to bear reading after Calderoli's abhorrent remark was that Italy is not a racist country, but just "tolerant of racism." As if there were to be a difference. It is time to courageously say it, without shortcuts: Italy is a largely racist country, a parasitical type of racism that pervades many aspects of the Italian society. In Italy concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism are largely ignored along with Italy's own colonial past. Knowledge making in Italy is almost exclusively driven by Eurocentric views. The link between personal and cultural identity in post-colonial countries is never made, let alone questions of double identity or western perceptions of excluding opposites. The "other" stays other, his/her rich complexity is literally not seen and constantly devalued. So the question is simple: how can we start a conversation when there is no cultural awareness at all to cling to? How to engage the complex problem of racism on the basis of this unsettling cultural void? A large part of Italians systematically accept homophobia, racism, and womanizing behavior as part of a national weakness, an embedded flaw, a disease one cannot get rid of. And so it is that the country is swept away by the acceptance of the unacceptable, frozen into a "globalization of indifference" as Pope Francis underlined during his recent visit to the island of Lampedusa -- Italian ground zero for migrants and asylum seekers. Italy lost its compass, adrift in the darkest of nights puts its hands ahead to see if there is something to cling to. And there isn't.

An entire country is immobilized by cultural voids and stagnates in its low knowledge seeking desire. Can contemporary Italy understand the following reflection by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Half a Yellow Sun? "I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came." Or as Warscapes magazine founder Bhakti Shringarpure put it "As for why we are at this place where we need to understand "other" people and cultures, a simple history of colonialism would suffice. Why am I here writing to you in fluent English but cannot hold a simple conversation in Marathi with my aging grandmother? What's the politics of this? Why do I belong here as much as "there" in the aftermath of English colonialism?"

Italy is becoming a country numbed by a passive state of mind; a monolithic approach to issues of race that prevents any possibility for cross-cultural growth. From the city of council of Lucca, Tuscany that banned ethnic food "with a view to safeguarding culinary traditions and the authenticity of structure, architecture, culture and history," to the 2010 clashes between African immigrants and locals in Rosarno, Calabria; these are clear signs of a rooted racial malaise. Who knows where Minister Kyenge originally comes from? Who knows about the horrendous colonial past of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Italy sinks into ignorance and in the process the ruling class does not realize the extent to which the damage is almost irreparable; it is the very soul of the country that is compromised. There are no bridges to the outside, the system is cannibalizing its best human resources; the bar is always lowered and rarely raised. Any discourse on diversity is so weak that it is painful to witness. Diversity, at best, is always elsewhere, far away, an abstract concept; it is never within oneself. This is a crucial difference and it is simply not part of the conversation. If diversity were to be found within oneself, a domino effect would come about: love, care, and respect would be at the center of any form of understanding. We can only hope that Italians will start to make their own Frantz Fanon's scream in Black Skin, White Masks "Oh my body, make of me always a man who questions."

So dearest Gabriele, to answer your question: yes you are absolutely right, this has to be the moment of the utmost uncompromising indignation.