Columbus Day is a symptom of anti-Italian bias, not the cause

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When was the last time you ate Italian food? Or the last time you visited places with strong Italian heritage e.g. New York, New Jersey, San Francisco, or Boston? Have you ever been to Italy? Watched a mob movie?

When was the last time you talked about Italian Americans in a serious way as a distinct group of people? When was the last time you learned about the struggles of Italians, in their home country and after immigrating to America? When was the last time you heard of someone learning Italian or you tried learning Italian yourself?

Lastly, when was the last time you saw an Italian American-centered show or movie that wasn’t about the mob or clowns at the Jersey Shore?

The disparity between your likely answers is exactly what I’m talking about. Italian American contributions are often taken for granted, while Italian-American foibles – like the mob – are played into well-known stereotypes. Italian-American actors have a hard time getting work in Hollywood unless they play into those well-known stereotypes, and the general public does not outcry against them as they do against other ethnic stereotypes.

In essence, no one talks about Italian American issues or Italian Americans in a positive way except one day a year: Columbus Day. Italian Americans labor under the double handicap of being a distinct ethnic minority and not being recognized as such. The official U.S. Census does not list Italian American as an ethnicity or ancestry, and the American Community Survey (ACS) is not official nor well-known enough to convince others of our true numbers. Italian Americans cannot even prove our numbers to other groups.

More importantly, although we are protected from discrimination under state and federal laws, it is hard to enforce these laws without statistics. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does not keep information on “non-Hispanic white” ethnicities such as Italian Americans. As a result, colleges and other places of work do not have forms that count us. As a result of not being counted, we often do not count.

Italian-American politicians are unsure of the true numbers of our ethnic group, while being quite sure of the numbers of other minorities. If politicians like one thing, it is certainty. In political science, my primary field of academic study and profession, politicians are said to be rational when they take reasonable steps to achieve their goals. If politicians wish to stay in power, they need the support of both voters and donors.

As a result, Italian-American politicians know not of who will support them from their own but know that they can get greater support from other communities. They tend to cater more to other communities, both from the dominant white and traditional minority communities. Sometimes, an Italian-American politician will disparage their heritage in order to please these other voters and, especially, donors.

Italian-American issues are not usually covered in the papers and blogs of the media elites. Just as our stories are ignored in fiction unless we are portrayed as buffoons or mobsters, our non-fiction stories are usually ignored unless we are portrayed as the villains. Frankly, we are mostly just ignored.

There are many normative biases in traditional American culture and politics that our modern political culture has or is exposing. We are aware of Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, racism, sexism, and Islamophobia.

However, we do not talk about some important normative biases in American culture and politics.

Firstly, Italian Americans – or Italians as we sometimes call ourselves – are either Catholic or come from a Catholic background. Any fair-minded view of American history must conclude that Protestant-centrism is part of this country’s political-cultural “DNA.” The Pilgrims are still celebrated at Thanksgiving, largely because they represent the beginning of Protestant predominance in America. We do not celebrate the Spanish Catholic settlers in America from before 1620 and Plymouth Rock the way we do these English Protestant settlers.

Italians are disadvantaged for not being Protestant, and it has been far worse than it is now historically. It is hard to become President when you are Catholic, we have only had one Irish Catholic president and he was killed. When Janet Napolitano became the first Italian American Secretary of Homeland Security, I was not entirely surprised that she was from the small minority of Italians who are Protestant. Italians have a built-in disadvantage for being Catholic, especially if they are practicing.

Italians also have the disadvantage of not being Northern European. Northern European culture is so ingrained in our country that we do not often distinguish between Northern and Southern European cultures and peoples, which are often distinct. We talk of Eurocentrism but not Northern Eurocentrism. For example, Santa Claus is portrayed as a Northern European person when Saint Nicholas, beloved in Italy, was actually Greek. There are many other examples of viewing whiteness as Northern Europe-ness but not recognizing Southern Europeans as a distinct group.

Lastly, we come to the most important cognitive and cultural bias that harms the Italian American community: Anglocentrism. 

Anglocentrism is the tendency to view the English language, England (or Britain in general), and English-speaking peoples as “the true America.” Even in our increasingly diverse society and politics, Anglocentrism is still pretty strong.

Back to the U.S. Census, let us look at the racial/ethnic categories used. The “black” category is based upon our understanding of African-American people but also includes, by default, all non-Hispanic black folks. The assumption in the Census is that the Spanish language fundamentally separates people within the already arbitrary concept of race. For example, black Hispanics/Latinos are viewed as more similar to white Latinos/Hispanics and indigenous Latinos/Hispanics than to English-speaking African Americans. We racialize language in America.

The U.S. Census still works on the default mentality that English culture and language are the most American and everything else is “a special case,” so Hispanic/Latino identity – largely influenced by census-derived norms – is actually related to Anglocentrism. Also, African Americans are also defined as black Anglophones. Non-Hispanic white is essentially a euphemism for Anglophone whites.

However, Italian Americans are very different from white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who have always been and still are more powerful than us. We cannot even count our numbers properly due to Anglocentrism and the other biases. As a result, Italian American politicians, like Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone felt empowered to hurt the Italian American community by unilaterally changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.

I support Indigenous People’s Day, which is August 9. I have no problem having new paid holidays, and I believe in honoring Native Americans’ contributions and to recognize their collective suffering. However, Mayor Curtatone’s move to replace Columbus Day with a second Indigenous People’s Day in October was not a fair move. Native Americans have a recognize month, November, but Italian Americans do not have our month, October, officially recognized by the federal government. Also, we share half of October with Hispanic Heritage Month anyway.

As I wrote above, no one talks about Italian American issues or Italian Americans in a positive way except one day a year- Columbus Day. It is the only official, federally-recognized acknowledgment of our existence. Yet, Italian-American politicians harm their community by going with more powerful donors from the traditional Anglophone communities over their privileged Italian peers. 

The movement against Columbus is not based in facts. It is based in political and social privilege, that of the traditional Anglophone and largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruling class over Italian Americans. This is not, as is often portrayed in the media, about Native Americans versus Italian Americans. Native Americans deserve their federally-recognized paid holiday. It is just a matter of that holiday being on August 9, as is internationally recognized, and not on Columbus Day.

In sum, Columbus Day is the only time Italian Americans get to play identity politics, but every other day, Columbus Day is being attacked by a coalition of people. In some places, it is mostly progressives, who view holidays as a zero-sum game. Sandusky, Ohio replaced Columbus Day as a paid holiday with Election Day. We do not need to think in a zero-sum manner but in a sum-positive, truly liberal manner. In other places, the coalition is more diverse. That said, many Latinos support keeping Columbus Day.

Americans work too hard. We could use more paid holidays. We do not need to pick between Election Day, Indigenous People’s Day, or Columbus Day. We should have all three. Columbus gets a bad rap and deserves a full defense. However, it is more important to explain to you why Columbus Day is so important to Italian Americans, as well as the disadvantages that we encounter.

There is no good reason to replace Columbus Day. I do support Indigenous People’s Day as a federal and state holiday, but on August 9, not in October. Italian American Heritage Month also needs to be recognized by Congress in October, just as Native Americans rightly have all of November to call their own. Italian Americans need to assert ourselves more, but I worry that many of my paesans will view this cultural struggle as zero-sum, which as a true liberal, I recognize as untrue.

I’d love to continue this conversation. Please email me at cbinetti@terpmail.umd.edu.