A famous (or infamous) Italian politician whose name I’m not allowed to mention as we’re a week from the elections, has made the news for “friendly” referring to a newly bought Italian black player as their “negretto.” The international press in up in arms: how can Italian society still use such insulting terms to refer to a person from a different ethnic background?
Sanremo, festival, the biggest media circus on Italian tv. For the first time in 40 years the show didn’t offer an older male presenter in a suit next to a supermodel whose only role was to be complimented on. Instead they had a very “informal” presenter, Fabio Fazio, and a female comedian, Luciana Littizzetto. So far so good. Pity Luciana, in order to win over the audiences, has built herself this image of naughty not very pretty little kid. Funny, clever, but focused on the fact she’s a bit “sfigata” and little.
Fabio calls her LucianINA, tut tut, she’s such a naughty kid, please audience don’t pay her attention, how embarrassing, blush blush.
What do these two episodes have in common?
They show unfortunately how still deeply racist and maschilist Italian society is.
Language is a strong indicator of cultural attitudes.
In Italian adjectives and nouns ending in ETTO and INO are “diminutivi” and/or vezzeggiativi”, “vezzeggiare” meaning giving compliments and cuddles to a child – a verb the Victorians would have highly disapproved of which explains its absence in the English dictionary.
Any word ending in with – ETTO or – INO contains a cutsie, little connotation. It’s a word pronounce by an adult when speaking TO or ABOUT a CHILD.
Casetta is a nice little house. Tesorino means sweet little treasure. Angioletto a cute little angel. Bambolina a tiny cute doll. LucianINA, little sweet Luciana.
A cute little black man.
The patronising attitude coming with such suffixes, especially when referred to grown up adults, is quite obvious but most Italians don’t think about it. Its part of the common language.
When all of a sudden the press asked them to consider the racism in negretto, or giapponesina, they think you’re an idiot. Come on! It’s a sign of affection!
Why should an adult refer to another adult who isnt their kid nor their lover in the affectionate terms reserved tp kids and pets, nobody says.
Personally, as an Italian woman under 5’2″, I don’t find it so difficult to get it. People, even strangers, have always felt entitled to call me LarETTA, for no given reason.
I hate it. Because it immediately changes the balance in the relationship, stressing how I’m smaller and possibly childlike that the person talking to me. I don’t mind my aunty using it, but not a random sound engineer I met at work.
In fact I dumped a boyfriend ages ago as he kept infantilising me with etta and ina names.
The moment we infantilise somebody we make them implicitly inferior. Because as adults, we can be amused by kids and pets, we can love them and cuddle them but under no circumstance we consider them intellectually equal to us.
Calling Balotelli negretto is deeply offensive because not only it refers to somebody who should be only characterised by his ability as a sportsman by the colour of his skin. It’s belittling him by implying he’s not as the same “adult” level as us. It’s as rude as saying “he’s black but he’s a very nice person”. The suffix divides the subject from the object by establishing a hierarchy. Exactly like calling a woman biondina, bambolina, Lucianina or Laretta immediately defines this person as somebody with phisical traits that make her unthreatening both physically and intellectually.
As a country, Italy still can’t resist defining women and immigrants by their appearance.
The language has stopped being rude or vulgar (with exceptions of course) and has turned into cute and pattonising.
This is even more dangerous because whilst everyone would agree in condemning open violence or rudeness, most people would react to comments like mine by calling me bigot, old fashioned feminist, and somebody with no sense of humour.
I’m sorry but humour is such when it works both way. A joke that immediately cast one person as superior to another, isn’t a joke, is a subtle threat.
So let’s keep the cute little name for our children and pets. And let’s define people as human being. Words DO matter.