How Italian Americans can and should be considered people of color

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Wendy’s has a commercial where a group of stereotypical Italian Americans crowd around an idealized white person and act crudely and threateningly towards him. They eat like slobs, eating spaghetti and meatballs, acting suspiciously of him, and generally make buffoons of themselves. They wear gold chains, have a darker complexion than the white man, and have very ethnic features such as black hair and big noses. Most obviously, the premise is that they are all mobsters and that the white man is there to defeat their evil. At the end of the commercial, two very non-Italian looking federal agents are shown.

This commercial was about a parmesan Caesar salad, by the way. The commercial took Italian food, culturally appropriated it, weaponized it, and attacked Italian Americans with it. The media is not covering this outrageous commercial. In fact, there is a civil rights group on Facebook that gets attacked, both by Italians and non-Italians, in very hateful language, just for pointing these kinds of issues out to the general public. Facebook, quick to ban right-wing haters, seems to be fine with the Italophobia.

This is typical. I have written about this kind of Italophobia before, but I might not have named it. In fact, no one names it. The media recognizes many hateful – and very real – phobias, such as Islamophobia and homophobia, but Italophobia is not named. The City University of New York (CUNY) discriminated against Italian Americans so badly and for so long that it was ordered to enact affirmative action policies for Italian Americans in the 1970s. It demurred on its responsibilities, so it was brought to court in the 1990s and lost. Still, CUNY does not keep up the statistics required in order to ensure the proper representation of Italian American academics at all of its constituent institutions. I have been rejected out of hand for adjunct jobs that I am qualified for, with no explanation at all. However, without statistics, it is very hard to make any kind of complaint.

Why are Italian Americans so disadvantaged? I have mentioned the Census and its categories before. However, Census-derived norms – as I call them – do affect laws and social perceptions. Non-Hispanic whitesin the Census form the only group not protected by equal employment opportunity reporting requirements. The irony is that everyone is protected under federal and most state laws from ethnic discrimination (the technical terms are ancestry and national origin), but non-Hispanic whites are not separated into ethnic groups in official status nor are non-Hispanic white ethnicities entitled to statistics kept on them (except at CUNY due to its court-recognized history of discrimination).

As a result, Italian Americans cannot prove claims of discrimination. I recently received some Open Public Records Act-requested documents from the Division on Civil Rights in New Jersey. The Division did everything it could to help me, but their record-keeping requirements, mandated by the state, are minimal. They only could give me complaints filed on ancestry and national origin by Italian Americans with Italian surnames, because the specific ethnicity in a case is not listed in the database. Thus, any claims by Italian Americans with anglicized or married surnames would present as not related to discrimination against Italian Americans. For a state like New Jersey with such a strong commitment to anti-discrimination that all confidentiality in settlements in cases related to discrimination is now illegal, it is amazing that the DCR’s database is so primitive.

Then again, there is little commitment to Italian American civil rights. Because of Census-derived norms, most non-Italians consider us white, despite the Wendy’s commercial proving that plenty of powerful people know the difference. As a result, Anglo-American elites, who define standards for whiteness (let’s be honest about it) feel no guilt or remorse about their ancestors’ (or their own) actions against Italian Americans. The New York Times refuses to apologize to the Italian American community for an official editorial that its Board published in 1891, justifying the largest single lynching in US history, which happened to be against Italian Americans.

Yet in the federal government passing a law making lynching a hate crime, no one mentioned the 1891 mass lynching of Italian Americans. This was the catalyst for the Columbus Day movement, by the way. The New York Times is no fan of Columbus, whose actions were over 500 years ago but will not apologize for much more recent actions in 1891. Far-leftist ideology claims that immigrants from Italy do not deserve the same level of respect as immigrants from other regions. It is usually couched in complex terms, but often boils down both to the immigration being in the so-called distant past or outright racism.

Italian Americans fall prey to the false binary of people of color versus white people. Italian Americans are falsely racialized as whiteand then treated as they are white. Technically, no one is white, since race is made up and arbitrary. What we mean in colloquial American English “white” is Anglonormative. Anglonormativity is something I mention a lot but few other commentators, even Italian and Latino ones, do. This concept is that all of our racial and ethnic categories, as well as many other cultural norms, are defined by an Anglo-Saxon, usually Protestant, worldview. 

For example, a person of coloris common parlance (as it does not have a legal definition except perhaps in public universities) as someone who is either black, from the eastern half of Asia, the Pacific Islands, or from a Spanish-language background. Middle Eastern people are often thrown in as people of color, but are distinctly considered non-Hispanic white legally. In fact, giving advantages to Middle Eastern people but not Italian American people, as the American Political Science Association to which I belong does, is almost certainly in violation of federal and state laws.

We racialize language and also far-away places, even going to the point where Indian Americans and Chinese Americans are viewed as more similar to each other than they are to Anglo-Americans, when that is culturally speaking just racism. A white Latino is considered a person of color, not because of any color but because of the Census. The Middle Eastern category being considered a person of color is largely based on religion not on color.

Why use the term person of color has if it as anything to do with color? The term is pretty ambiguous, and anyone who knows me knows that ambiguity in language bugs me, particularly since I have Nonverbal Learning Disorder. The offensive term coloredseem to have been the direct precursor to the preferred term person of color. I find that a little disturbing. Calling someone coloredwas a polite way in the South and elsewhere in the 1950s to set someone up for discrimination. Now, we are supposed to blindly accept a person of coloras the preferred term. However, basic linguistics shows us that the –ed ending in English is adjectival, in other words it turns a noun into an adjective. So, it is equivalent to –ish in England or –ian in Canadian. These endings all mean “of” in this context and can replaced by an “of” to create an exact linguistic equivalent by taking away the ending and turning the word back into a noun.

 So Canadian becomes of Canada and English becomes of England. Colored becomes of color. So the hateful phrase a colored person becomes the preferred phrase a person of color. Even the term itself is based in traditional Anglonormative white racism against African-Americans. Now, this does not necessarily mean that we should just get rid of the term. However, many far-left people who are always telling me to be cognizant of everything should be cognizant that the term they prefer is semantically the same as a very racist phrase. 

The phrase becomes ambiguous when it is used outside of its original context, to denote and some would say denigrate dark-skinned people, both African-Americans and Afro-Latinos. Segregation was not targeted against East Asian Americans in the same way, though they were mistreated cruelly in other ways by Anglonormative white culture through Chinese exclusion laws and Japanese-American internment camps. Person of color, which was meant to replace colored, was first used by the Black Panther Party and other radical back nationalist groups to refer to African Americans and other people of African descent, such as Afro-Latinos.

The expansion of the term is largely to build a political coalition, much as the term white was used by Anglo-Americans to incorporate first Irish-Americans and the fully non-Anglo groups like Italians, Poles, and Portuguese into a majority. However, expanding a term that disproportionately benefits one member of a coalition to a broad coalition has bene done before by whitepeople, and it seems like a bad idea to do it again. The term is used inconsistently and ambiguously. Sometimes it means non-white, sometimes it means everything but non-Hispanic white, sometimes it means everything except non-Hispanic people but including the Muslim part of the Middle East, while at other times it means black people, African-Americans, or black and brown people (another term I find divisive).

Much of this argues against the use of the term, however that is actually not my point. On the spectrum between complete linguistic subjectivism (words have no meaning) and total linguistic objectivism (everything precisely only means one thing), I, like most people, am stuck in the middle. The term, person of coloris used too arbitrarily and too casually for me, but the term itself is simply not mine to naysay. I do not have the right to say “that term should go away”. It is not because I am white, which is an identity I reject, but because everyone has to have some latitude, legally and morally, to define themselves. 

Where does that leave us? If we are going to use people of color, we should have some kind of boundaries on its definition. We probably should not enshrine it into law, which I think would create the kind of legal binary that I worry about. However, we should accept that the term originally had to do with color but really does not do so anymore. More importantly, the boundaries should not be so – pardon the pun – black and white. The person of color/white person binary is just that: a binary. In the intellectual left, we do not like binaries, such as gender or sexual orientation, so why should we accept an identity binary based largely on the debunked concept of race?

While a linguistic stickler like myself may object, I think that there is an objectively fair way to define person of color’s outer boundaries. The idea was suggested to me by a brilliant student of mine. The Wendy’s commercial was clearly aware of the difference between Italian Americans and other white people. And remember that whiteness does not really exist but has been defined form an Anglo-Saxon, often Protestant, perspective. Thus, we could define person of color, which has little to do with color anymore, as someone with a culture or cultural identity that is distinct enough from the norm to provoke systemic and systematic discrimination.

We could keep that ambiguous or we could only talk about cultures in the sense of national origin and ancestry, and keep religion out of it. While religious cultures do get discriminated against, even accounting for national origin/ancestry bias, I think that is different from this kind of cultural bias. Irish people in America do not get systemically and systematically discriminated against, save religion, and thus they would count as Anglo-American (the term we should replace white with), as would German-Americans (except the Amish) would have largely acquiesced to Anglonormative whiteness.

However, Italian Americans have our own culture, which we fight for night and day in the shadows to retain and promote. We are systematically and systemically discriminated against, with Wendy’s and the Facebook attacks being ample examples. Italian Americans are people of color. We deserve to be socially considered as people of color, we deserve to be legally given affirmative action, and definitely deserve to have these stereotypes be taken more seriously. Anything less and the term, person of color, simply serves to divide people into a binary that reinforces Anglo-white hegemony in America.

 

Dr. Christopher Binetti is a Political Science and history adjunct professor at Middlesex County College. He is available at cbinetti@teprmail.umd.edu. He welcomes the opportunity to continue the conversation in a constructive manner.