Over the past several months, I’ve noticed a significant amount of anti-Italian humor on Twitter. Perhaps it’s the algorithms, and I’m seeing more of it because I’ve posted a bit more lately about being an Italian-American, or maybe there is a surge for some reason I’ve yet to discover. Whatever the reason, the reality remains: there shouldn’t be anti-Italian humor anywhere.
My grandfather was born to Italian immigrant parents in 1929; my father was born in 1956 to his Italian father and German-American mother. When I came along in 1995, although I didn’t ever get to know my paternal grandfather due to a family feud, I spent the first twelve years of my life immersed in Italian culture. I learned Italian words along with English words in my toddler years. I learned how to cook far more Italian recipes than those of any other cuisine. I attended Catholic school and had discussions with my father and aunts—or zìas—about the differences between Catholic school in the 2000s versus the one they’d attended in the 1960s. I had an heirloom Italian gold crucifix and multiple patron saint medals for various causes. The formal parlor of my father’s home had an antique portrait of Saint Mary by an Italian artist. And I heard stories about the hate my elder relatives had endured during the First and Second World Wars, both in Italy and in America, though I wouldn’t come to understand that until adulthood.
On my twelfth birthday, my father walked away from me—a choice that lasted the remainder of my childhood. I’ve had a lot of time to ponder why it happened, and for now, until I’m given another reason why, I’ve concluded its partially because for months prior to my birthday, I’d stopped blindly conceding to his authority as the patriarchal leader; when he suggested something I didn’t want to do, I said “no” and stuck to it, no matter how angry he got (for example, one day he wanted to go hiking, but I didn’t feel well and wanted to read—he spent the entire day in a rage). As a result, starting on my twelfth birthday, my Italian roots were concealed and hidden, and minus my maiden name’s proper pronunciation, I allowed myself to forget the culture in which I’d begun my life.
When I started my own household in my early twenties, however, my husband and I started noticing several patterns. Anytime I was stressed, I found solace in the kitchen, either perfecting a new pasta recipe or trying to create a new sauce. And anytime we were tasked with hosting anyone at all, I made a lasange with sauce from scratch, multiple cheeses from a food import store in Louisville, and herbs grown and pasta made in Italy. But the habits didn’t stop in the kitchen.
Anytime I was angry, if I started ranting (not yelling, but processing aloud), the slightest hint of an Italian accent would come out. And the safer and more comfortable I felt as I established my own home, the more pronounced the accent became…until I was switching between Italian and English mid-sentence.
“No doubt about it,” my husband said one day with admiration. “You aren’t just ‘of Italian descent,’ babe—you’re Italian.”
Encouraged, I started to research my family tree and my roots across the Atlantic. And I learned some harrowing things.
Like the fact that most of my female relatives in the mid-1800s through 1920s were trafficked to America, and that I had numerous relatives who wound up in internment camps during World War II.
In the United States, in 1942, internment camps were established on American soil for immigrants and families of immigrants who were seen as “enemies of the state.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were rounded up. And in the frenzy of racism and generalized persecution for anyone who had a heritage tied to the Axis Powers during World War II, Italians were swept up, too.
Prejudice against Italians in America didn’t begin with World War II, though. In the late nineteenth century, when many Italians began emigrating to the United States, their culture looked different from that of Americans—and some perceived it as a threat.
The United States began as a colony, established for the sake of religious freedom—meaning those who lived here would have the liberty to practice their faith how they wished and that they had to right to practice no religious tradition at all. As the colony grew and through the American Revolution (1775-1783), Protestantism remained the primary faith of those on American soil. As the nineteenth century began, however, the world turned to America and viewed it as a land which promised a fresh start. After all, in less than two centuries, the land had grown from a wilderness harboring dangers unknown which promised refuge to a small group of religious separatists into a nation that had won their independence from the most powerful empire in the world. By the mid-1800s, immigrants from all over Europe, including Italy, began crossing the Atlantic in search of a new life for themselves and their families.
Because America began as a religious refuge, settled primarily by Protestants, the Catholic faith of the majority of the Italian immigrants was unfamiliar. Additionally, many Italians were farmers and poorly educated; they also spoke little English. These Italian immigrants were of a culture Americans didn’t recognize, and rather than embracing these newcomers they ostracized them.
As the twentieth century began, prejudice against Italians had established strong roots in American soil. My great-grandfather arrived shortly before World War I, and while he ultimately fought in the American military, I grew up hearing stories about how my grandfather and father alike had seen signs on beaches and at businesses in the midcentury banning Italians alongside Blacks and Jews.
Like Blacks and Jews, Italians were seen as good enough to die for this country, but we weren’t good enough to be accepted in this country.
In order to perpetuate Italians as “lesser,” caricatures were made of us. Fun was poked at the way we talked and mispronounced certain English words. We were mocked for our hand gestures, as though Italians are the only humans to ever be animated when speaking.
And this discrimination persists today, which is why I’m saying “we” and “us.”
I understand where it came from. I understand that it’s easier for some to embrace ignorance and ostracize those whom they do not understand. I understand that some people choose fear over faith. And I understand that all of these things can—and often do—culminate in discrimination.
What I don’t understand, though, is why anti-Italian humor is seen as so acceptable, such an inherent part of our culture today. On Twitter, I’ve seen some of my most ardently anti-racist, pro-immigration social media friends retweeting memes that mock Italians, most commonly the way we talk. What I don’t understand about that is I’ve seen these same people get up in arms about Mexican-Americans being mocked for not speaking English very well, so why are they making fun of accented Italian-Americans?
Do they realize that, if we were friends in real life and not just online, they’d know I sometimes sound like the memes they find so amusing? And if they knew it, would they even care, or would I become fodder for a new meme?
There’s a lot to be angry about in our society today—discrimination is rampant. I wonder how much better our world could be if, instead of being angry, we sought to educate ourselves. What if instead of being angry that there’s so much hatred, we started trying to understand where the hatred originates? Started trying to understand why we have these battles to fight? How much more successful might we be—how much more progressive—if we started asking questions about the things we don’t understand?
We can’t go back and rewrite history, yet we can learn from it. And if looking at the evolution of immigrants in America can teach us anything, it’s that we must start embracing that which we do not understand, at least enough to see an individual’s humanity in addition to their diversity.
We might be different, yes, yet we’re definitely people.