Oakland and San Francisco, CA.
I’ve been messy with this blog. I stopped for a while due to assignments and travels. And now that I come back, I disregard previous drafts and write a piece in English about a local Italian issue. You’ll discover through the lines how this is not just local or Italian.
Reading the usual news about some unfinished infrastructure in Italy was not yielding new material for my brain until I noticed a quote. Let’s give a little background to this.
Giarre is the Italian capital for incomplete public structures. Stadiums, pools, theaters… you name it. There’s a “polo” field where citizens go running and kids play soccer with the few sports teams that are still alive in the area. The whole structure was built with the money that the national budget allocated for the World Cup in 1990. Now nothing could technically occur within its premises, except from emergency gatherings and helicopter landings. Few people in Giarre, a little town of 27,000 inhabitants, have seen an helicopter land in their town. Only a handful has ever heard of “polo” as a sport (not a shirt, not a popular candy).
The “polo” field, where kids dream of turf.
The structure was not completed because the allocated money passed through the drain of political corruption, undoubtedly overseen by the mafia’s blinking eye.
I often visit the structure when I’m in my hometown and I noticed that the kids playing for the team founded by my father play soccer in worse conditions than I did 10 years ago. Now the rooms that host the offices of the team (unofficial, unregistered, and uninsured) are constantly subject to vandalism. Behind the immense and empty bleachers, lay dozens of recycling “bells” – containers as tall as 6″ and as wide as 4″ that used to be around the city, when the administration pretended to be recycling the citizen’s waste, instead dumping it all in the same garbage truck – next to them, drug dealers waste their afternoons too close to the young 6-14 year old soccer pupils.
Another important piece of background information is the fall of ash from the nearby Etna volcano. Since 2002, these phenomena have multiplied and keep disturbing the quiet life of the town.
The municipal administration has been conquered for two consecutive terms by conservative forces that keep “favors” as the first priority and have severely worsened the balance in the budget. So now they don’t have money left even for “ordinary” cleaning, which is a minimum requirement for local administrations. Among ordinary tasks, there is that of cleaning up the coat of volcanic ash that often covers streets and other public spaces. The soccer team and the citizens who like to have a clean track to run on have decided to do it themselves and brought sweeps and brooms from home to restore the cracked red track. Valuable effort that has not been even noticed or acknowledged by the administration, which has been ducking in order to avoid any public record of their misdeeds.
The straw that broke my camel back was not the fact that a few creative Milanese guys (that I shall call “human zoologists”
ethnographers* in my own derogatory concept of the word) have brought the issue to light in the mass media, highlighting the incapability of Sicily in finishing what it starts; nor was the fact that British ethnographers human zoologists (again) from the BBC have issued a documentary on us, the Sicilians of the laziest kind. No, what pissed me off (pardon the expression) was an innocent quote reported in a local newspaper.
A member of the administration was naïve enough to utter:
“there are a few political refugees from Burkina Faso. They are hosted by a local church and often ask for integration activities. We should devise a system that allows them to volunteer as street cleaners, with assignments to the polo field as well, provided that we ensure that they’re covered by health insurance during their working hours.“
I had to read the quote two, five, ten times. Coming from one of the responsibles for the financial breakdown of the town, this statement is absolutely inappropriate because it should be in the administration responsibility to provide the “ordinary” cleaning service of public spaces. By employing people, paying them a wage and contributing to their pension fund, not by begging for volunteers.
Most importantly, however, this statement inexcusably shows the European racist mindset that has been so hard to identify for me, a boy born and raised in catholic/conservative Sicily. They’re Africans, therefore they are supposed to do cheap/slave labor. That’s what they’re used to. Clean up, hurry, tidy up the mess caused by nature… and now that you’re there, clean up the white man’s mess too. Political refugees? Whatever, at least they’re not clandestine, so we can exploit their work without breaking the law.
Blonde people are a rarity in Sicily, as tanned southerners are unusual in the northern provinces. Europe is not used to mixtures. Now that more and more folks with diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds are free to travel Europe, the Slavic fear has joined France’s uneasy relationship with Maghrebis, Italy’s problem with Roma and Albanians, and Germany’s struggle for understanding its Turkish Gastarbeiter population.
In Europe we usually have to watch an American movie to say the word “racism”. We don’t understand its causes and its manifestations. This makes us racist even when we think we’re not. I am ashamed by the offensive and racist declaration of a member of the town administration and I regret the fact that those who call themselves the descendents of a democratic culture do not acknowledge that they’re also the heirs of a racist culture that has caused the worst inequalities and violences in human history.
The political refugees from Burkina Faso hosted in Giarre are not there by choice. They don’t enjoy the benefits of living in Europe, they are not blessed by the opportunities given by the Schengen treaty. No, if they want to find their place in society, they have to beg. They have to direct their prayers to pretentious douchebags that have nothing better to say than: “let’s have them do some slave labor!”. So there’s two sides to this story: 1) the declaration shows the wrongdoing and the disregard for administrative practices by the City Government; 2) the solution proposed is outrageously racist in that it suggests the use of African refugees for a task they are logically suitable for.
*I forgot to define better my derogatory concept for “human zoologists”
ethnographers. They’re not just armchair-anthropologists, they’re condescending figures that are appointed by a State in order to show the superiority of the invading culture with respect to the exotic practices of the colonized population. Russians with Caucasians, Brits with Indians and Sub-Saharian Africans, Italians with North and East Africans, French with Maghrebis, Spanish with Central and South Americans, yes, Europe has led this pretentious race as well.
UPDATE: Thanks to a couple of friends, I had to amend this post. It was suggested to me to be more explicit in the condemnation of the racist statement by the politician, which I tried to do in the red section. Also, I received a detailed explanation about my wrong use of the word etnographer. My derogatory conception of the word comes from the colonial times, when ethnography and anthropology were just starting to be inserted in a more ample academic debate. Cultural relativism has since brought a much deeper understanding of the “other”. However, racism and supremacism are not relative concepts. That is why, although switching to human zoologist and apologizing to the many valid ethnographers out there, I still hold the belief that it is very hard for westerners to try and understand “other” kinds of societies without adding even a hint of our racist and supremacist self. I hope a larger debate ensues.