The Columbus Day Thing

Remember when Kay lambasts Michael about “this Sicilian thing?”

My Southern Italian roots are Campanian, but you get the point.

I hate the nickname of the Washington, DC football team.  I think it’s a slur and shouldn’t be used.

I hate the Columbian Exchange.  I hate how Columbus himself thought of and treated indigenous people.  I hate how many of the actual founders of this country felt about the indigenous people of this continent and the indigenous people of Africa.

I want a progressive, literary Italian-American to tell me how to feel about October as Italian Heritage Month.

But I also want progressive WASPS, Italian-Americans, and everyone else to be honest about the degree to which Anti-Italian and Anti-Italian-American tropes are widespread and acceptable in everything from journalism to children’s television.

I get it.  We’re white. But we’re not named Smith or Jones or Rogers or some other thing from the Shire.  We are without a doubt privileged because of our whiteness, even if our whiteness has only been wholly accepted in the third or fourth generation. We’re not hated the way other non-WASP people are, but we’re still gangsters and clowns and cartoon plumbers.  As originally olive-skinned, non-Anglo whites, we benefit from the disassociation of “American” from white.  Columbus Day was meant to cast us in proud contrast to other whites, Anglo whites, the same ones casting us as idiots, wop-shaming us as a matter of practice and policy.  Columbus Day is full of these kinds of ethnically, racially charged ironies.  As human beings, Italian-Americans ought to despise the evils inherent to the Colombian Exchange. I’m sure most of us do.  We struggled as Other for over a century, a situation mitigated and frustrated by our fringe position within canonical whiteness. Here we share much with Irish-Americans, even if they had an easier time WASP-passing sooner because of language and hue.

How should we celebrate our historical struggle without becoming the locus of marginalizing power ourselves?  Should we get a pass on Columbus, or should we lead the charge in finding an alternative icon for ourselves, for the spirit that brought our ancestors here, and our shared belief in what American can be regardless of what it sometimes is?

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2 Comments

  1. Could you give some examples of anti-Italian-American tropes that and acceptable in journalism, children’s programming, etc.? (In the present day, not the late 19th century.) I guess I am just Pollyannaish and/or oblivious, but I don’t think any serious person believes all or even most Italian-Americans are gangsters, though many are fascinated by the lives of the few actual Italian-American gangsters and the films that present fictionalized accounts of them, in the same way that people are fascinated by most people who have rather extraordinary lives. I’m not familiar with any trope equating Italian-Americans with clowns, nor do I know whether you mean actual circus performers or just buffoonish people. And while Nintendo chose Italian-American as the nationality of their plumber video game characters, I haven’t gotten the impression that they did so because of an existing stereotype of Italian-Americans as plumbers, but that they just picked a nationality out of a hat the same way that you might for a literary character you were creating. (I could be wrong about this.) I’ve never heard nor seen the word “wop” outside of you talking about “wop-shaming”.

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