With President Bush on the way out in the US, there’s one other head of government that is hell-bent on remaining a national embarrassment for the country it represents. Earlier this week Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi jokingly referred to US President-elect Obama as “bello, giovane e abbronzato” – good-looking, young and suntanned.
The earth will have registered a minor tremble as millions of eyebrows were raised simultaneously when the news was relayed around the world. In spite of overwhelming criticism coming from all parties, Mr Berlusconi has insisted they were all imbeciles who didn’t understand a joke when they heard one. All of them. Imbeciles.
This reminds me of a joke I heard once. A man driving on the motorway hears a news report warning of a dangerous driver speeding down the wrong carriageway in the opposite direction of traffic. Upon hearing the news, the man comments: “One? There are hundreds of them!”.
Since the incident, Berlusconi and Obama have had a telephone conversation during which the Italian PM’s comments were not mentioned, something Berlusconi will proudly use as an argument to demonstrate that Obama didn’t see anything wrong with his joke, rather than to hint to the American man’s better ability to conduct himself in a diplomatic context.
But Berlusconi’s personal incapacity to understand when he’s said something stupid is beyond the point of this post. Because I do believe that he did not intend to be offensive. We all know he classified his commentary as “pleasantries” (“carinerie”). The problem is that he represents a country that is decades behind the United States in terms of issues involving ethnicity or diversity, simply because it’s all just a very recent development in Italian society. Some Italians reckon they have a multicultural society because from time to time their border patrol units miss one or two immigrant-loaded boats during their shooting practice along the coast.
The truth is that his words exemplify the underlying racism that sweeps through mainstream Italian society. If we dig down to what his words meant, we could paraphrase him as saying: I am accepting you in spite of your being black. In his mind he was being nice showing himself as a worldly tolerant man.
When I heard his comments I flinched but not as much as I did when I saw images of a demonstration of support staged in Rome by people who were supposedly apologising to the American president-elect. With a look of horror I browsed through a photo gallery on Italian news site Repubblica.it showing people holding “Sorry, Mr. Obama” signs who had their faces covered in black ink or mud to courageously declare – we are like you.
Dirty? – you might ask. We are looking here at a clear clash of cultures, a virtual impossibility to communicate or understand each other. The Italians wanted to show their support and obviously felt that they could do so by clumsily colouring their faces in black (something that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of the blackface style of theatrical makeup in the 19th and early 20th century). They thought that by doing this they were siding with Barack Obama.
This is a type of gesture that historically has seen the stronger party abandoning their privileged position to join the weak in order to help them make up in numbers what they lack in status, all in the name of fairness. However, an outsider might argue that some guy with his face covered in what looks like manure has no real claim to feel he has a higher status when set against the new American President. And he wouldn’t normally but there is something that marks Mr Obama as weaker in this twisted logic. You’ve guessed it: he’s black.
It’s a sad fact, and one that will not ring new to someone who has experienced or researched racism. Some would criticise my reading of what happened saying that I’m twisting facts to pervert what was a heart-felt demonstration of support. But I’m not saying it wasn’t. My point is simply that racism is so underlyingly ingrained in Italian society, like many others, that even gestures that are meant to be good will come out wrong because they’ll have been ground through this thick cultural bias that is not easy to get rid of.
I suppose you could say this is my own apology to Mr Obama for the words of my country’s Prime Minister.