The Italian shop assistant accused by Oprah Winfrey of showing racial prejudice towards her in a shop in Zurich has hotly denied the charge, but with a curious twist. ‘I am Italian,’ she said in an interview with a Swiss magazine. ‘Why should I discriminate against anybody because of their origin?’ She seemed to be suggesting that no Italian could ever possibly harbour any racial prejudice against anyone. It is a claim that seems especially implausible at the moment when Italy’s first-ever black cabinet minister, the Congolese-born doctor Cecile Kyenge, has been reeling from a number of crude racist attacks.
Kyenge, Italy’s recently appointed Integration Minister, has been pelted with bananas and subjected to death threats. She has also been described by a right-wing senator, Roberto Calderoli, as looking like an orangutan; while another member of Calderoli’s party, the anti-immigration Northern League, has been expelled from it for saying that Kyenge ought to be raped so that she might ‘understand what it felt like to be the victim of such an atrocious crime’ (a crime, it is implied, that is a speciality of Africans).
If nothing else, the coarseness of these comments shows how aloof Italy is from the consensus in most developed countries, even among racist groups, about the need for restraint and good manners in discussing race. (Silvio Berlusconi earlier set the tone by congratulating Barack Obama on his ‘tan’.) But it also suggests a nation fresh to the experience of racial antagonism, which is the case with Italy. Immigration to Italy didn’t take off until the end of the 1970s. Until then Italy had been best known as a source of migrants to other countries, it being estimated that some 24 million Italians emigrated abroad between 1876 and 1976. But in 2011 there were more than 4.5 million foreign nationals registered as resident in Italy — mainly Asians, Africans and east Europeans — as against 1.5 million only eight years earlier.
When I was a correspondent in Rome in the early 1970s, you hardly ever saw a black or Asian person on the street (except for Japanese tourists queuing outside Gucci), which explains why you also saw no signs of racial prejudice. The main antagonisms Italians showed were towards each other. Being fiercely provincial and proud of their own regions, they tended to look down on other Italians, especially those to the south of them, Thus, the Milanese called the Florentines ‘Africans’, as did the Florentines the Romans, the Romans the Neapolitans, and the Neapolitans the Sicilians (after whom the people to the south actually were Africans).
By contrast, Italians tended to look up to foreigners from northern Europe, whom they regarded in certain respects as more advanced than themselves. It has only been the recent flood of unassimilated immigrants from the south and the east, coming at a time of growing economic hardship and fierce competition for jobs, that has caused an upsurge of racial prejudice for the first time since the later years of Mussolini’s dictatorship. Black footballers have also been subject to crowd abuse at soccer matches.
So the Italian shop assistant’s belief in unfailing Italian benevolence towards other races seems to belong to another era. But was she herself being racist towards Oprah Winfrey? Winfrey, in Zurich to attend Tina Turner’s wedding last month, dropped into the smart Trois Pommes boutique to look at handbags and asked to see one high up on a shelf behind glass. According to her, the assistant said, ‘No, it’s too expensive. No, no, no...that one will cost too much. You won’t be able to afford that one.’ This, said Oprah, a billionairess who can afford anything, was racist.
The assistant, sheltering behind a pseudonym and refusing to be photographed, fearful of reprisals for her alleged condescension towards the celebrated television host, told a different story. ‘I was showing her these Jennifer Aniston bags,’ she said, ‘and I was explaining to her that they came in various sizes and materials. She looked at a shelf behind me. Very high up there was a handbag in crocodile skin costing 28,400 euros. I told her that it was exactly the same model as the one I was holding, only much more expensive. And I said I was very happy to show her other kinds of bag.’
The shop and the Swiss Tourist Board have apologised to Oprah Winfrey, whose version of what happened has been almost universally accepted in the media. But the shop assistant’s story has to me the ring of truth, while Oprah’s sounds as if it’s from someone whose real grievance is not about racial discrimination but about not being recognised for her fame and wealth. I’m glad to say that the assistant, after three years’ successfully selling overpriced handbags to the international jet set, has been confirmed in her job. But she is wounded. ‘She is so powerful; I am only a shop girl,’ she said. ‘I don’t understand why she made such a thing of it on television.’ Who, one wonders, is the victim here?