Since becoming Italy's Minister of Integration, Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge has suffered racist and sexist abuse. In a country where heavy immigration is relatively new, her appointment has stirred a heated debate.
Since Dr. Cecile Kyenge, who was raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, became Italy's first black cabinet minister this April, she has endured racist and sexist slurs such as "Congolese monkey," or "member of a bonga bonga government." Both comments came from members of the country's anti-immigration Lega Nord (Northern League) party.
The latest slur came over the weekend, (13.07.13), when Italy's Corriere Della Sera newspaper reported that Senator Roberto Calderoli, deputy head of the Northern League in the Italian Senate, had addressed a rally in Treviglio in the Northern League's heartland, saying that the minister would be "better off working as a minister in her own country." He went on, the newspaper reports, to compare Kyenge's features to that of an orangutan, "I love animals - bears and wolves, as is known, but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan, even if I'm not saying she is one."
Asked to explain his comments by the Italian news agency, ANSA, Calderoli claims that this was an "unfortunate joke" that he had made at the rally, and nothing more. But the center-left Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, expressed solidarity with Kyenge, and said this kind of behavior was unacceptable.
Kyenge herself commented that all politicians should "reflect on their use of communication," but was not calling for Calderoli to resign. She added though that words "carry weight" and that all ministers should be aware that they are "speaking on behalf of citizens and representing Italy."
Pushed a little further, Corriere reports that she said that there comes a point when you have "to say stop", and that when a minister makes a remark like this, its weight is "doubled, tripled even, and ends up being reported in the foreign press and giving Italy a bad name."
In June, a posting on the Facebook page of the Lega Nord's town councillor Dolores Valandro went even further, asking, "why doesn't someone rape Kyenge so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?" Valandro posted the comment to imply that immigrants were responsible for most violent assaults on women in Italy.
The remark triggered immediate and widespread condemnation, even from Lega Nord members, who called for Valandro's resignation.
Kyenge, who has lived in Italy since 1983 where she also trained as an ophthalmologist, insists she is not afraid.
"The insults and threats against me are because I'm in a visible position now," Kyenege said in June. "But they're really threats against anyone who resists racism, who resists violence."
Back in June, Kyenge said the first thing she wanted to do was change the law to allow children born in Italy of legal immigrants to obtain citizenship more easily. It is policies like that, in part, that have enraged Italians, turning them against immigration.
A game changer?
For years, similar racist and sexist comments have been quietly tolerated outside of politics, especially in soccer stadiums. There, stars like Mario Balotelli, who is a striker with Italian club AC Milan and a national team player, have had to put up with racist chants, which many Italians accept as "part of the game."
Two months ago, Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch if he is racially abused again. In other instances, whole teams as well as individual players have indeed done just that.
But having a high government official who is not only of African descent but whose task as integration minister is to help advocate for often marginallized immigrants could be the real game changer.
While other European countries have been grappling with integration issues for decades, the arrival of immigrants in Italy is fairly new. Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy's population in 1990; now they make up 7.5 percent.
But when asked if she considers Italy a racist country, Kyenge is careful in her response.
"That's a tough question. I've always said, though, that Italy isn't a racist country. It's a country that needs to get to know more about migration and the value of diversity and maybe what's missing most here is a culture of immigration. Only after the country has processed these things can we say whether it's racist or not," she said at the news conference.
Signs of hope
And things are changing in Italy. "The positive aspect of this extremely unpleasant language means that others who are offended as much as she is, say so and support her," James Walston, a political commentator and expert on Italian society from the American University in Rome told DW.
"When a member of the Northern League says that Kyenge should be raped, it's not just good, nice liberals who were shocked, but also her party's leaders who have to say this is unacceptable and expel [that member] from the party," he added.
Walston says the growing profile of immigrants here is forcing Italy to grapple with its long tolerated, casual racism. He points to the fact that there are three other members of parliament now born outside Italy. And that the recently elected mayor of the northern city of Vicenza, a Northern League hotbed, is an immigrant, who replaced an openly racist predecessor.
Last month, when an African refugee suffering from a psychotic episode killed several Italians with an axe in Milan, the Northern League moved into the neighborhood to recruit members. But they were chased away by residents irate that they would use the tragedy to encourage hate against immigrants.