Italy Roundtable: The Dark Side of Community

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It is my goal to help you plan your perfect Italy trip with the articles I write for Italy Explained. However, this month’s Italy Roundtable topic COMMUNITY has me reflecting back on a Milan experience that I had many years ago.

This is something I have never written about because it was a difficult cross cultural moment and I still don’t know how to get my head around it all these years later.

I’m sorry for this little introspection. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what you might do in my place.

Jeff Kubina, creative commons photo

The Italian woman across from me said, “Non mi piacciono…i musulmani.” I was frozen.

Muslims are not my favorite.

My language skills at the time were not sufficient to make small talk over dinner. I could only handle topics that involved travel, food, or my profession. After we finished sipping our barbajada, my hostess had moved us into the realms of religion and politics. I found it difficult to make a contribution. Particularly because I arrived in her loft apartment just hours earlier as a stranger.

I read about the Home Food organization months prior to my trip to Italy. I knew immediately that I wanted a dinner with them. My ex-girlfriend and I had already planned a trip for Milan. We checked the Home Food Dinners list as soon as we booked our apartment and flights. We reserved two places because there was only one available on the calendar.

Although the listing stated that the couple could only host six diners, this was November in Milan. We were therefore surprised to discover that we were the only ones there that evening.

We found that we had lots to talk about with our hosts, a well-travelled couple who speak excellent English. Their living room featured bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Several rows contained travel guides from all over the globe. They shared their recent trip to Hawaii and we talked about our travels.

They found out that we spoke Italian and decided to practice it. This didn’t cause much trouble for the majority of the evening, except for my growing translation headache. My ex and hostess had a conversation about cars somewhere between the osso Buco and the panettone. The hostess and me rolled our eyes and talked about other topics.

I don’t recall what prompted the conversation to shift from mundane topics like food and travel to more serious subjects such as politics and religion. Nearly eight years later, the only part of the evening that I can still recall is the moment when my hostess looked directly into my eyes and said, “Non piacciono…i musulmani” as if she were just – but firmly – telling you she doesn’t like brussel sprouts.

The concept of “community,” is something I often think about. At different times in my life I have worked in community management both online and offline. All of us want to find our tribe, those with whom we feel comfortable, and who we can trust. Different reasons may lead us to gravitate towards different groups, but as long there is one thing that unites us, it can create a strong sense of community. This can allow individuals to be free to say and think things that they don’t normally feel comfortable with. A community’s strength is its numbers.

Italy is a country where community is more visible than in the United States. There are neighbors who sit on the front steps and have long conversations, and shopkeepers who get to know their customers. After a long stay in Milan, I received a “il solito?” and a nod from the man at the corner coffee shop where I had my morning coffee. It was the act of putting words into community, him remembering my order each day and asking me if I would like “the usual.” This is what made me feel so proud of my loyalty to that bar (never mind that the proprietor doesn’t know who I am).

However, the power of community can also have a dark side. A group is bound by one thing that all members agree on. This means that any member who disagrees with the group will be excluded and even ridiculed. It is possible for “us” to exist without a “them”; just watch travelers debate “window seat” or “aisle chair” and you will see what I mean. However, it can also be dangerous.

Even before the night in Milan, I knew that Italians are patriotic. Not necessarily about Italy but about the region or town where they were born. It’s still sweet and sometimes silly to me. My town’s recipe is better than the one from three miles away. It was that loyalty to one’s community, one’s home, can lead to xenophobia.

Our hosts spoke most of the evening. I was doing a lot more nodding as the night progressed and my translation headache kicked into high gear. “Non piacciono, i musulmani” was what I thought it meant. I didn’t nod. I stared at her. It wasn’t an error. She went on about why she didn’t like Muslims without blinking an eye. My brain was reeling. We finished our meal and thanked our hosts.

I was unable to speak the language to answer my hostess’s questions that night at dinner. But, I wonder if I would have been brave enough to challenge her views in her country, her home. Although I wish I could say that I would have the courage, I don’t really know.

Over the years, I’ve read many stories about minorities being beat in Italian cities, black soccer players getting beaten, and an not insignificant political party in Italy which basically has mistrust for all non-Italians (some might even call it outright racism). There is an entire Wikipedia article on “racism” in Italy. It would be foolish for me to attack Italy on this topic when, for example, black people are being murdered by police in my country with alarming regularity. It is not the only country with problems related to racism or religious intolerance.

I will accept that there is no utopia, and that no one is perfect. I will argue that “community” is not by definition a positive thing. See the Ku Klux Klan for evidence. After that night in Milan I will admit that these two aspects of Italian community – the blinders-on belief that a neighboring village might have a good recipe for one of your favorite dishes and the Italian Senate declaring it’s not racist comparing black people to – may be two sides to the same coin.

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8 Responses to “Italy Roundtable – The Dark Side of Community”

  • georgette

    Wow! What an interesting post! It’s not surprising that I’ve heard such things in Italy, Texas and other parts of the United States. There is a culture that fears what we see on the news every day. But what amazes me most is how open she is about it to someone completely stranger. You could have been Muslim, and it seemed so harsh to make such a broad statement when there are many exceptions. Because I was in her home and she is a stranger, it’s possible to see how the evening could have turned out if you were to challenge her opinions right away, especially with a language barrier. This topic was great and I wish I could have been there. It’s very smart of you to point out that “community” is not always a positive word.

    • Jess has the following:

      Georgette, thanks for your input. It was a memorable evening that I have thought about many times. I knew I wanted to speak but didn’t know what or how to do it. You can always join in the discussion if an Italy Roundtable topic interests you. We are glad to share interesting topics with you!

  • Unfortunately, this type of racism has been a constant in my six years of being here. It still affects me six years later, even though I have the vocabulary to combat it. It was hard to challenge her too strongly, considering that you were at her house and had eaten her food. But, then again, perhaps she wasn’t being polite because she was being so offensive in a societal way. However, it’s difficult to know how to handle any situation without being there. Hopefully, she has since had someone more polite and constrained by etiquette tell her what to do. Speriamo …

    • Jess has the following:

      Part of the reason I was surprised was because I expected that kind of comment more from older generations than I did from younger. (And I don’t mean her age. She was definitely my age. They were also extremely well-travelled, which was not the same as some Italians who prefer to stay at home. It seemed like it came out of nowhere.

  • Will Douglas:

    Since I was eight years old, I have lived in the South (Salento, Puglia) and seen many examples of what one young intellectual calls “particularism”. It might work better in Italian but it does convey the idea of xenophobia, racism (Italian isn’t a ‘race), in-group orientation or any other concept. However, this doesn’t apply to national borders and instead applies to one’s hometown, region, peninsula or mountain range, or commune. Smart Italians will often acknowledge the limitations of campanilismo – loyalty to one’s home village and the area’served” by the belltower at the local church.

    It’s hard to imagine how you could have behaved differently than you did at the dinner. Even though you were fluent and had no wine, I can’t help but admire your behavior. Diplomacy 101 is the name of it. It’s simple, you said, you had just met them and they were your hosts. You might have been able to confront the idea that repels you if you had continued to meet, hosted them, and built rapport. It’s only after some time that you can confront their ideas. Because, hopefully, with the rapport would have come some trust and some faith that you can weather any disagreement. This kind of conversation rarely works out at the first meeting.

    It is quite possible that these people will prove to you that they are good people and have other qualities that you can bond with. Or else, you might have found that their attitudes match other pernicious ideas, which would mean that you wouldn’t have continued to get to know them. Sometimes, a meeting doesn’t lead to a relationship. Nature is unpredictable.

    Let’s not forget the positives. That you think about it, that your questions are still being asked years later, and that you are willing to share your thoughts with others.

    Another thing (sorry, for the length)

    It is possible for highly educated, well traveled, and even extremely sensitive minds to still hold firmly, maligning ideas that seem unthinkable or repugnant.

    • Jess has the following:

      Thank you for your insightful comment. I laughed out loud as I read it. It’s not something I would bring up to fellow Americans when first meeting them. And if there are more of these meetings, then it may make them less likely to do so in the future. This is a great point. We appreciate your time!

  • Lara Dunston says:

    Jessica, I found your blog through Kate’s. I love the monthly thing you do. It’s amazing to find a few wonderful blogs instead of just one. Beautiful story. Since 1998, I have lived in other countries and found racism everywhere, including the UK, Thailand, Turkey, and the US. Your host will not be as open about his or her views as you. Some will be more subtle. But, I have also met some of humanity’s most open-minded, tolerant, and welcoming people while on my travels.

    • Jess has the following:

      Lara, thank you so much for your kind words! Yes, I agree that for every person who makes me feel sad, there are many others who bring me hope for the near future.

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