From Sacco and Vanzetti to Internment Camps: Behind Anti-Italian Racism

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the attitudes of The Hysteria Collective as a whole.

Content Warning: Xenophobia, Racism


Sound familiar? 

Most people have either said this, or heard someone say something along these lines. It’s a classic imitation of a generalised Italian accent and its mannerisms. It’s mostly seen as harmless fun, in fact so many television shows have perpetuated it that it’s almost seen as accurate. 

Whenever I bring up the in fact it is racist, I’m usually seen as being completely wrong, or am gaslighted into thinking that I’m just making a big deal out of nothing. These “imitations”, in fact, are actually vastly inaccurate and stem from deeply-rooted anti-Italian propaganda from way before WW2. 

Just because we’re white, doesn’t mean we don’t endure rampant xenophobia. We are, in fact, another culture and in the eyes of many, another race. 

Let me dive into this. 

I recently did a DNA test kit, alongside my dad and my grandpa, who comes from the legendary island of Sicily. Unsurprisingly, the results basically spanned the whole of Northern Africa, the Middle East and Greece. Sicily was the crossroads between so many modern and ancient civilisations: from the Phoenecians residing in modern-day Lebanon, all the way to Carthage in modern day Tunisia.

 It was ruled by more civilisations and languages than you could imagine. In the 10th century we were even invaded by the muslim “Moorish” Kingdom, leaving a large mark on the features and skin-tones found in the south. I, for example, inherited quite dark skin and hair (trust me that dark italian hair grows EVERYWHERE). As a result of this melting pot, the identity of Italians in Europe was somewhat confusing. How do you place or judge a country where no one speaks the same language, looks the same, or eats the same food? What binds us as a people, other than living on the same peninsula? 

This national insecurity and disjointedness was prevalent way before the unification of Italy lead by Giuseppe Garibaldi (starting in my hometown no less!). Hunger and poverty eventually lead to mass exodus out of Italy in the 19th Century to countries such as the United States, the UK and Argentina, but they were not met with the same enthusiasm that they had extended to all those invading forces over the years. In fact, they were truly treated like non-humans. 

The slums of New York and New Jersey were filled to the brim with a variety of dialects and noises that no one could interpret. Different skin tones and origins passed through Staten Island all under the same passport. 

Of course, they were used as scapegoats for everything. 

The famous case of Sacco and Vanzetti comes to mind to best illustrate the deep and rampant prejudice towards Italian immigrants in the US. Sacco and Vanzetti were two immigrants in the 1920s, who were accused of murdering a guard and paymaster in Braintree, Massachusetts. There was practically no proof. They eventually were met with the electric chair. 

They were immigrants, they were Italians and, notably, they were anarchists. 

Immediately after their “trial”, Congress passed the legislation (“Emergency Quota Act” of 1921 and Immigration act of 1924) to restrict immigration from Italy, but not from Northern European countries. 

Italians were consistently met with bias, violence and intolerance for their Catholic religion, skin colour, language and socialist tendencies, which interestingly is still prevalent in the country today. The willingness of the immigrant population to band together and form trade unions, petition for better working and living conditions and their unwillingness to convert to the more popular Protestantism, lead to unease within the US Government. 

Unsurprisingly, this vilification of the Italian population lead to crime syndicates known internationally (I see you Al Capone). 

Don’t think that the UK is not to blame too, kids. There’s a vast history of hate and fear against italian immigrants that the education system chooses to conveniently hide from the majority. Leading to the Second World War, Italians of course were picked on and blamed for the fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s horrific actions. In the famous comic “Beano”, Italians were starting to be portrayed as stupid buffoons, especially with the cartoon “Musso the WOP”. 

For those who don’t know, Wop is a racial slur directed to Italians that means “Without Papers”, a.k.a illegal. I myself have been called it several times especially at football matches. How endearing. 

When the war officially broke out, Italians that had been living in the UK for years were branded “aliens” and shipped to internment camps on the Isle of Man. Men of all ages were arrested and sent away following a Churchill speech encouraging the police to “Collar the lot!”. They were crammed, sometimes several to a bed, forced to work nearby fields and coexist with the understandably confused citizens of the island. They were not harmed or tortured (that we know of), but there was of course a sense of injustice circulating, as after all most were normal people just trying to make a living. Eventually they were let go as they were not deemed a threat anymore, but the whole endeavour was squashed and minimised to the British public. Even now, many refuse the blatant racism against Italians during this period. 

The common use of “EH, OH, MAMMA MIA”, is just an extension of Italians not being taken seriously, or seen as equals. The Dolmio adverts perpetuate this idea that we are just happy-go-lucky idiots with no education or value other than our food. 

The Italian experience worldwide is seen with ridicule or speculation. There is no willingness to understand that we are not just the country that provided the world with pizza and pasta (you’re welcome), but one that hosted a range of different cultures and religions with open arms (mostly). 

Please, think again when you take the piss. 

If you’d like to know more, please check out these references to follow this brief history of Anti-Italian racism, as I really have only scratched the surface. Even I am just finding some things out. 

 The Sacco-Vanzetti Trial (1994 ed.). New York: HarperTrophy.

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