Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How to Become White (in About 200 years or less)

I am a 36 year old disabled woman who has been variously labeled "fat", "crazy", and "a hippie weirdo." I now try to embrace labels that others use in an attempt to "shame" me into being someone more "acceptable". I am passionate about issues of race/racism, criminal (in)justice, fat acceptance, and mental health advocacy. I blog at My Name Is JuJuBe and I am on the team at The Intersection of Madness and Reality
I recently started walking to the local library every day. While perusing the stacks of books, I decided to check out a few books that caught my interest, but which I would not actually spend my money to purchase. The first book I picked up was called "WOP: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination" by Salvatore J. LaGumina. Basically, I wanted to find out how Italians went from being "undesirables" to becoming fully assimilated into "white America".

I am only halfway through the book right now, but it has really piqued my interest. See, all of the rhetoric that is used against immigrants today, particularly those from Mexico and Latin America was once used against Italians, particularly those from Southern Italy.

The book is basically a compilation of media articles from throughout the history of the Italian presence in the United States. And, I cannot help but notice the similarities between arguments used against Italians in the late 1800s to the early 1900s and those presently used to devalue Latin American immigrants today.

Article after article in this book mentioned how Southern Italian immigrants were not the same "quality" immigrants as those who had previously entered the country. Members of the “Italian race”, it was said, could NEVER become Americans. There were unintelligent. They were criminals. They had high rates of children born out of wedlock. They were leeches on the welfare system. They sent money back to their families in Italy instead of using it to enhance the economy of the United States. They refused to learn the language. Does this sound familiar? 
Now, the funniest thing to me is the fact that when I hear people of Italian descent speak out against immigration, I am always very careful to point out that they come from people who were once new immigrants. And, in almost every instance, they go on to enumerate the ways in which THEIR ancestors were of higher "quality" than Latin American immigrants. They tell me that THEIR ancestors learned English immediately. That THEIR ancestors were not dependent on welfare. That THEIR ancestors had more solid family structures, and did not reproduce indiscriminately.

Ironic, isn't it??

All of the biases that Italian immigrants faced when they first began to arrive in this country is droves has simply been forgotten by their progeny. All of the arguments used against OUR VERY OWN Italian  ancestors are being recycled and used against immigrants today. Yet, Italian Americans that I have come across are sometimes among the most vociferous opponents of immigration. My fellow grandchildren of Italian immigrants have completely forgotten that our grand parents or great grandparents WERE the "poor quality" immigrants of past generations. Really convenient.

Similarly, Italian Americans are often among the most racist people I have come across. Somehow, Italians have this tendency to believe that THEY got where they are through hard work, and those who are victimized by racism somehow deserve the oppression heaped upon them.

I guess that is the price of assimilating into the white collective. Come into this country as a despised group, face slander about your morals and intelligence for a few years, then learn to join in against other races of people, particularly Black people, and you too can become a "white American" with all of the privileges associated with that status. Oh, and of course, you have to completely ignore the fact that the "white" race that you so desperately cling to your membership in HATED YOU TOO at one time.

Yes, my fellow Italians. You were not always "white" people. You were part of the "undesirable" Italian race. You only became white by selling your soul to the devil.