Italy’s black MEP victim of repeated racist jibes fears ‘institutional’ racism

Kyenge, an Italian national born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, became Italy's first black minister in 2013. [EPA/GIUSEPPE LAMI]

Politics consistently keeps overlooking racial issues and this may lead to ‘institutional’ racism, a former Italian minister and current socialist MEP, who has been the victim of racial abuse, told in an interview.

Cécile Kyenge, an Italian national born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke to this website in Strasbourg after a senator from Italy’s ruling right-wing Lega party who compared her to an orangutan was sentenced for racial slurs.

On Monday (13 January), an Italian court gave an 18-month prison sentence to Roberto Calderoli, at that time deputy president of the Upper House, found guilty of defamation aggravated by racial hatred for his insults to Kyenge.

Kyenge became Italy’s first-ever black minister in 2013. The same year, Calderoli told a party rally that “he cannot but think of an orangutan” whenever he saw pictures of Kyenge.

Calderoli, who is known in Italy for his position against Muslims and black people, later apologised for the comment, which he described as “a friendly joke”.

Commenting on the court ruling, Kyenge said it was not only a personal achievement but a victory for Italy as a whole and for those who believe in an inclusive and plural society that rejects racism, in compliance with Italy’s constitution.

“Without such an inclusive approach Italy risks leaving the door open to ‘institutional’ racism,” she told EURACTIV on the sidelines of a European Parliament plenary.

After her appointment as minister, Kyenge became Lega’s favourite target of racial abuse and she was also insulted by MEP Mario Borghezio, who was ordered in 2017 to pay her  €50,000 in compensation for racial slurs.

In September, Kyenge herself was sued for defamation by Lega leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini after she called Lega racist.

“Whoever runs Italy must be a person with an open and anti-racist approach, capable of making laws that must be inclusive,” she said to EURACTIV.

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Black politicians and community leaders from across Europe have backed Italian MEP Cécile Kyenge, who faces a controversial defamation trial brought by Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader of the League party, for calling his party racist.

“Not a racist country”

According to Kyenge, the controversy lasted so long also because politics didn’t recognise the importance of the case. “This is a message to Italian politics that, distracted by other things, it has overlooked and keeps overlooking racism,” she said.

However, it is unlikely that Calderoli could be jailed, as prison terms of under two years are normally suspended in Italy. He has also the opportunity to appeal the ruling, while Kyenge will get no compensation in any case as she did not stand as a civil plaintiff.

The complaint against Calderoli was filed by a court in Bergamo. For the sake of ‘institutional correctness’, she decided not to sue Calderoli, who was deputy president of Italian Senate at the time.

“I would write it a thousand times: Italy’s not a racist country,” she said, shaking strongly her head, adding that, however, racism is a fact and it exists in Italy, even when people don’t call it by its name.

She noticed also that there is a growing trend of people proudly calling themselves racist on social media.

Football match suspension

The issue of racism came up again in Italy’s public debate after monkey chants were directed at Napoli’s Senegalese football star Kalidou Koulibaly by Inter Milan supporters during a Serie A match on 26 December.

Napoli’s management asked three times for the match to be suspended because of the racist chants but referee Paolo Mazzoleni let the match play on.

Salvini, who is also interior minister, said the referee “had done well not to suspend Inter-Napoli” and minimised the issue by saying that racist chants at the stadium should be condemned but that “teasing, in the limits of good taste is part of the sport.”

“It’s really worrying and almost scary that the interior minister said things must go on as if certain attacks were a normal thing,” Kyenge said.

She added that she agrees with calls to suspend football matches and impose sanctions in such cases as no one should dare to offend another person because of their skin.

“It’s a matter of dignity of the person,” she concluded.

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