When Will We Stand Up and Defend Our Heritage!

By Dr. Emanuele Alfano, President IAOVC

Will we ever have enough Italian Americans that will stand up and defend our heritage and culture from continued negative portrayals?

Will we ever have enough Italian Americans that can make a difference in putting an end to the endless degradation, ridicule and defamation perpetuated by the media, the entertainment and advertising industries and those Italian Americans that profit from the unbalanced negative stereotypical images? Why are there so many Italian Americans that make light of these negative portrayals and dismiss them as ‘only entertainment’? …and defend their opinion by suggesting that we “lighten up.”

Those who shrug it off say we should learn to laugh at ourselves. I believe Italian Americans have a great sense of humor and we do laugh at ourselves, but how many times can we laugh at ourselves – once, twice, a hundred times? But, when it’s thousands of times, then we’re being laughed at and ridiculed.

We have Italian Americans that believe that all ethnic groups are stereotyped – and that’s just a way of life. My question to them is this, to what degree are those groups stereotyped and are those images balanced with positive roles? I challenge them to research and compare the number of negative films, TV sitcoms, and reality shows that are defaming Italian American on a daily basis compared to any other group being negatively portrayed.

To those Italian Americans that feel we can counter the negative by promoting the positive and by doing good deeds, just think about the fact that for more than one hundred years Italian American organizations and individuals have been doing just that. My question is, has it changed the perception of Italian Americans today by one bit?

We have the Italian Americans that feel because they “made it” and thus point out that stereotyping hasn’t stopped them from climbing the ladder of success. Not so fast, my friends. How many of you have heard that the way you “made it” was because you are “connected?” By the way, I suggest you don’t wear a silk suit, a pinkie ring or gold chain. And you can forget about driving a Cadillac if you ever want to be seen in a positive light.

We have the Italian Americans that feel we should not complain, or in other words, don’t make wave, don’t write letters or send e-mails of protest, and never protest by picketing. It seems they want to be loved, to show the world we’re good people. But, by doing any of this, have things changed? Did it stop the defamation? Are we being portrayed in a better light? Most importantly, are we no longer the butt of negative, stereotypical jokes? Are we no long depicted as buffoons, bums and bimbos? Are Italian Americans respected?

I strongly believe that respect is given to those that are not only loved, but because they demand respect. Fear sometime plays an important part in receiving that respect. That’s fear as in being called out on negative, stereotypical portrayals. Organizations such as the ADL, NAACP, La Raza, etc., demand respect, and they get it, because those who would cast aspersions know that they will be called out on their defamation.

I have always felt that education was key! Knowing one’s history can only add to one’s pride and knowledge. But many of our people want to sugar coat our Italian and Italian American history and eliminate any of the negative history that Italians and Italian Americans have been subjected to, such as decimation of southern Italians, lynchings, World War II internment, discrimination, defamation and the negative stereotyping by the media, etc. just to name a few. Our history must be a complete unabridged history.

Now, when it comes to Italian American actors, there are those who say we should not blame or hold them accountable. Some constantly take negative roles that demean Italian Americans. These same people defend them stating “after all that’s their job and they have to make a living.” As well they state, “They have to take these roles early in their careers and when they ‘make it’ they’ll get the better positive roles.” My question to those actors is – after you “make it” will you take some of the millions of dollars you made depicting us as the lowest of the low and produce films and programs depicting us in a positive light? Or, will we get the same old bull that positive scripts about Italian Americans don’t sell? I say produce them anyway and take it as a tax loss.

And to those that defend these programs as well-done, classic works of art, let me remind you of well-done films in America such as “Birth of a Nation,” “Amos and Andy,” “Little Black Sambo,” and Shylock in the “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Ivanhoe” to name a few that are demeaning and some no longer with us.

We must be ever mindful that the repetitious nature of a stereotype infects the minds of viewers! Perception is reality!

I also want to know if there are any Italian Americans that refused to take roles that demean and stereotype their people and heritage. Other groups have stood up for their heritage by refusing to play demeaning stereotypical roles. Harry Belafonte expressed resentment at stereotypical roles in 1950s movies, and thus abandoned films. Refusing to play into “black woman” stereotypes are people like Lena Horne who bucked the system and stayed true to her culture and roots. Angela Bassett turned down a lead role in the movie “Monster’s Ball” because she believed the character was demeaning and stereotypical. These are just a few that have refused to sell out.

When are Italian American actors and actresses going to quit selling themselves out and stop taking roles that demean and demoralize our heritage and culture?

And now the media moguls have replaced fictitious characters with real low life’s, buffoons, cafoni, and bimbos in the proliferation of Reality Shows – “Jersey Shore,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” “Jerseylicious” “My Big Friggin Wedding,” “I Married a Mobster,” “Mob Wives,” and “Carfellows.” Will it ever end?

After decades of negativism of Italian Americans these images are etched in the minds of millions.

Those that choose to remain silent serve to condone and are part of the problem that will shackle our children and grandchildren with these negative images affecting their lives and livelihood.

It is my firm belief that we must speak out against these images with one strong united voice if we are ever to succeed. We must support the films, books, actors, and writers that portray Italian Americans in a positive light.

As more Italian Americans stand up and defend their heritage, more will get behind us. But it has to start with us. We must continue to speak out against negative portrayals and also support those who portray Italian Americans in positive ways.