ROME (AP) — Italy’s first black Cabinet minister, targeted by racist slurs following her appointment last week, said Friday that Italians aren’t racist but that some are merely ignorant of other cultures and the “richness” that immigration can bring.
Congolese-born surgeon Cecile Kyenge held a news conference to introduce herself to Italians so they could get to know her.
“I am not ‘colored.’ I am black. It’s important to say that. I emphasize it proudly,” she said.
Kyenge’s appointment as integration minister had been hailed as a big step for Italy, which has only recently had to cope with waves of immigration and the resulting problems of integration into a largely homogeneous society.
But the move prompted racist taunts from xenophobic politicians and members of neo-fascist Internet groups — a reaction so vile the government authorized its anti-discrimination office to investigate. (One European parliamentarian from the anti-immigrant Northern League party called her a member of a “bongo bongo government.”)
One of her chief defenders, lower house speaker Laura Boldrini, told La Repubblica in an interview posted on its website Friday that she herself has been the target of death threats, which began after she stated publicly that Italy’s laws about inciting racial hatred on the Internet should be tightened.
Boldrini showed the newspaper hundreds of printed pages containing the threats that she said showed “‘sexist aggression” against her personally, and women in public office in general, ranging from the innocuous to the violent.
“I am not afraid to open a battle front, if necessary,” Boldrini was quoted as saying. “Will we give visibility to a group of fanatics? Yes, it’s true. But they are not a few, there are thousands and thousands. They are growing every day and they constitute a part of the country that we cannot ignore.”
Kyenge, in her comments, thanked her defenders, but refrained from lashing out at her detractors. She stressed that Italy has a long tradition of welcoming foreigners and that that tradition must be appreciated anew and applied in daily life.
“In reality, Italy isn’t a racist country,” she told reporters. The problem, she said, is ignorance of the “other.”