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Italian American Heritage Month
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Let’s explore Italian American Heritage Month
When we advocated for the abolition of Columbus Day in our city, we met with vehement resistance from human-trafficking deniers. They used a well-worn map of excuses, usually within the same incoherent breath. They claimed Columbus never kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, or murdered anybody, that the evidence of his acts (including his own journal) were falsified. Or that if he did, it was excusable, because the Taíno people he killed were collateral damage creating a pleasant life [for white people] today.
Columbus Day was adopted as a federal US holiday US in 1968 as a half-assed apology about all the violence and discrimination against Italian Americans. This was a mile marker in welcoming Italian Americans into whiteness, to assure the population that Italian Americans shouldn’t be viewed as the other, but as a foundation of the American colonization experiment.
Back then, most Italian Americans had no idea what a shitty person he was, and the leaders of the movement were cool with fascism and Indigenous genocide. Built into the symbolism of inviting Italian Americans into whiteness, our government used the ultimate negative stereotype of a bloodthirsty, monstrous, and greedy invader who fed babies to dogs. Italian Americans who are less keen on authoritarian murder hobbies are horrified to be associated with the Columbus (who wouldn’t have called himself ‘Italian,’ in 1492, he would have identified as Genoese, and he wasn’t too popular even in his home nation). Most and understand Columbus a rogue asshole not representing any ethnicity or group identity, except for the club of ‘Genocidal Pieces of Shit.”
Even those who couldn’t deny the atrocities of Columbus and his men suggested that we have to keep the name and day, because was no longer tied to the man, but to modern Italian American identity. To abolish Columbus day is to abolish a federal holiday honoring Italian Americans. Even though very few people even know Columbus is claimed by some Italians. Keep in mind that no other ethnic group observes a bank holiday in their honor.
Most of this resistance comes from sunk costs – organizations such as the Knights of Columbus who rallied for Columbus Day now have to deny, dismiss, or excuse the actions or Columbus. Or (MY HEAVENS! ) have to do the courageous work of disavowing genocide, fascism, and murder. Or acknowledging they made a mistake glorifying a shit bag, or ::gasp:: do some paperwork to change their name.
Those who resist abolishing Columbus Day do so mainly out of fear.
For people who grew up with ‘Columbus’ as synonymous of Italian identity, how does this force us to examine our own roles in Indigenous genocide as colonists and settlers? What does it mean in terms of erasing the US history of anti-Italian xenophobia, redlining, and changing views on group identity? Especially if this change was thrust upon Italian Americans by non-Italians?
This is hard, and painful work, particularly for older generations who faced open anti-Italian discrimination first hand. We can’t just dismiss that.
That’s why so many Italian Americans resist the loss of Columbus Day. The US government basically said ‘We’ll stop hurting you because you’re like this one guy we know. You’re part of the in-group now.’ Now that they no longer have that one hookup – there’s a fear of losing the protection and privilege of whiteness. Many Italian Americans have an idea of what it’s like to be non-white in this country. It must feel like watching someone get eaten in a pit of lions – after climbing to a precarious ledge of safety – and someone is threatening to shove you back in.
Luckily, almost no one else in this country even knew about the link between Columbus and Italian Americans. So no worries, Columbus fans! You will still get all the privileges of whiteness that you’ve enjoyed for the past couple generations, even without a federal holiday.
But without Columbus and that particular flavor of adventure, capitalism, and colonization (still popular in our super hero action movies!), we really don’t celebrate or acknowledge Italian American culture beyond mobster stereotypes and pizza. So we need to fix that.
What does it mean to help our kids take pride in their Italian American heritage and culture, when we take away all the reductionist stereotypes and pizza jokes?
- All The Way To America (ages 5-8)
- In English, Of Course (ages 4+)
- Swimmy (ages 3+)
- Orani, My Father’s Village (ages 4-8 rare book)
- What stereotypes do we still find in popular media – including children’s books and movies? How do these comedic tropes create a sense of Italian Americans in proximity to whiteness, but still as the other, not the default human?
(ex: Jersey Shore-esque organized crime family in Zootopia and all the handlebar mustached chef/plumber characters.)
- What contributions have Italian Americans made to American culture?
- Who are a few Italian Americans we admire? What do we admire about them?*
- What cultural traditions and heroes did we love as kids, but have turned out to be kind of shitty?
- If we’ve enjoyed traditions with harmful origins, how can we acknowledge that and move forward?
- Has a hero you admire ever done something you disagree with? How did it feel?
- Why are we afraid to admit when people we like or admire do bad things?
- How do we find heroes and practices that better reflect our deeper values?
Additional resources to dig deeper into this topic:
*To mark Disability History Month & Italian American Heritage Month, with a side of healthy masculinity and radical kindness – I formally propose we observe DANNY DEVITO DAY.
Which I just googled, and apparently it’s already a thing. It’s November 17th. While there are no children’s books to read for the occasion, there are a surprising number of Danny Devito Coloring Books – all of which I assume must be inappropriate for younger kids.