Welcome to the Jungle: Cécile Kyenge and the language of Italian racism

“...when I see pictures of [Cécile] Kyenge, I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan,” the Senator stated.

The person in question, Italy’s first black cabinet member, he proffered, would be better off “in her own country,” meaning her birthplace, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Though typical to his party – the populist Northern League, for whom such xenophobic outbursts are common – Roberto Calderoli’s language was still shocking.

When would Italians learn tolerance, particularly when eight per cent of the country’s population are migrants? The demographics alone ought to be enough of an admonition.

Anxious about being perceived as provincial southern Europeans, for many Italians, this was nonetheless a humiliating episode. Bordered by an increasingly diverse France and keenly aware of the multicultural character of American society, (and its mixed-race President), few could dismiss Calderoli’s racism.

Nevertheless, two weeks later bananas were thrown at Kyenge while she was giving a speech at a political rally.

As easy as it would be to blame the insult on a good meme gone viral, the orangutan bit clearly has legs.

Monkeys and bananas

Though many pundits have referred to Italy’s lack of experience with diversity, frequently citing its recent transition from being a country of mass emigration to mass immigration as though the cause, there’s still something missing from the explanation.

Take, for example, the idea of comparing black people to animals. Monkey and bananas are obvious, if unimaginative choices. Yet, they’re effective at conveying reactionary ideas, because there is precedent for them in popular culture.

We may not be able to place, exactly, where we heard these things, but the associations remain, and are thus understood.

It’s the suggestion that by being comparable to orangutans, they are inherently less civilized. They eat unrefined foods, for example, which fall from trees, like bananas, rather than possess the sophistication to cook, or prepare foods, in a cultured way. Though the focus is on colour, the actual concern is with culture – or a perceived lack thereof.

Such discourses in Europe are also troubling because of their parallels with Nazi xenophobia.

Writing at the height of the Holocaust, in their seminal work Dialectic of Enlightenment, philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argue that one of the primary facets of Fascist anti-Semitism was the idea that Jews appear as nature to the Nazis’ civilization.

Therefore the ‘wildness’ of Europe’s Jewry warranted German ‘domestication’.

A sign of things to come?

The same sort of thinking undergirds racist, populist comparisons of Africans to primates today.

Its commonality, specific to right-wing Italian thinking, is of course no accident, considering the country’s recent colonial history on the continent, having occupied Libya, in north Africa, as well as Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia (dubbed Africa Italiana Orientale in 1936 by Mussolini, as a unified occupied state) in the east.

Though preceded by the racist stereotypes of Africans and Arabs of the slave trade, as many scholars and journalists have noted in recent years, Italy was never forced to undergo a process of de-Nazification following the Second World War.

Considering the persistence of right-wing extremism, and the way in which much of Mussolini’s former governing apparatus remained in place after the war, it should be of little surprise that the sorts of prejudices typical of the Fascist era would be voiced this way.

They might not be explicitly anti-democratic, nevertheless, such analogies indulge the same basic discriminatory impulses. This is typical of authoritarian societies, such as that which preceded the establishment of democratic rule under the First Republic in 1948.

At its best, such speech is a warning of what’s to come – and perhaps a reminder of what has been.

One of the myths fostered by the success of minorities in the United States is that diversity will ensure its own social order.

How else might we account for the ascension of Barack Obama to the Presidency in 2008, or Henry Kissinger to Secretary of State as far back as 1973?

Yet, the US remains bedeviled by racism, with many African-Americans speaking of a ‘New Jim Crow’ taking hold, and Islamophobia a purported policy element in racially-profiling South Asian and Arab-Americans as would-be-terrorists.


Hence, the significance of the racism Cécile Kyenge is being subject to. Of course, she should persevere in her position as Minister of Integration.

Without a doubt, Kyenge should ensure the adoption of laws which would guarantee citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy.

This will be an enormous achievement that will set extremely positive precedents for millions of Italians of non-European background, now and into the future. Her success matters.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember what Calderoli calling Kyenge an “orangutan” really means. Yes, it is an explicitly racist analogy that is meant to reduce her humanity but it is equally about the identity of the accuser, and of all those Italians who would insist on casting similarly racist aspersions upon her.

One of the reasons Calderoli’s xenophobia resonates the way it does is because it helps affirm the ethnic identity of his supporters.

They can rest assured that being Italian means being white and European. Anything that falls outside of that could only come from the jungle, so to speak.

One which bears far more resemblance, to Italy, than they would ever care to admit. If only it did not require racist projections, like those employed by Roberto Calderoli, for Italians to begin discussing that.