No Butter on Our Bread:
Anti-Intellectual Stereotyping of Italian Americans
The title of this article arises from my experience as the director of grants and fellowships in my department, an Italian American university professor finding myself confronting the confusion and ambivalence of students attempting to apply for Italian American scholarships. I want to address the problem of rediscovering ethnicity after generations of assimilationism, and to suggest new ways of developing intellectual initiatives for Italian American students. Although I shall direct attention to how some Italian Americans abet the anti-intellectual stereotyping fostered by others, this paper predominantly is designed not to present scholarship on particular Italian Americans in the public eye, but as a position paper and call to action on the representation and recovery of Italian American culture.
Models for Activism: Students and Scholarships
I began to think about this issue when graduate students told me of their difficulty answering questions on applications for Italian American scholarships. To ask, “How do you define yourself as an Italian American?” is reasonable and thought-provoking, and allows for generational awakening. But to ask, “How does your family maintain Italian language and culture?” is to exclude many potential applicants who are awakening from generations of assimilation. As one student wryly put it, “What am I going to say—that in our home we don’t use butter on our bread?” It is a significant testimony of our historical moment, that only after she went to study in Italy for a semester abroad program and returned with various customs did her family practice them. Another student spoke of parents conspicuously disavowing garlic—a culinary association earlier generations spurned as epitomizing foreignness.
Paradoxically, food is one of the cultural connections favorably identified by students, yet even the simple culinary customs we are currently reviving branded our parents’ generations as outsiders. In fact, many Italian Americans are only just rediscovering a culture, language, and customs lost during the forced assimilationism of their parents—an assimilation essential to professional success throughout most of this century. People with Italian surnames had to shed their cultural uniqueness—including very often, their names—yet with that rigid assimilation came the loss of cultural pride. We need to devise new models of activism that confront the unwelcome reality that students have internalized stereotypes; that by and large they do not want to be identified as Italian American; that many women are relieved to shed their names in marriage; that Italian Americans do not come from a homogenous family background; and that Italian Americans who secure professional footholds often do not want to be reminded of affiliations they believe they have transcended.
Indeed, for many Italian Americans, the shared Italian American experience is not one of customs, idioms, music, even the common ground of food—it is the sudden shock of recognition, often in college, that although we may feel the same as everyone else, we are not being regarded as part of the normative culture. As children we thought ourselves accepted: instead, we discover ourselves exceptions, outsiders neither sharing minority activism, nor benefiting from white hegemony.
The battle against ethnic stereotyping is not to be won easily. However, scholarships and grants can be one of the best incentives for transmitting culture and heritage, as long as they do not reinforce a cultural essentialism that relegates people with Italian surnames to particular fields. They should encourage students to do outstanding work in any field, not just Italian studies, but at the same time they can provide the motivation for students to retrieve a culture we cannot expect students to have imbibed automatically at home. Grants and scholarships can provide the opportunity to diversify by providing funding to explore Italian American history, to learn the Italian language, to visit Italy, to take courses in Italian art, music, or science. The current emphasis of Italian American scholarship applications, however, is to reward students for having families who maintain Italian customs, rather than rewarding the diligence of students. Applicants should of course demonstrate a pride in their heritage, but they should not be punished or disadvantaged because language and cultural customs were not maintained. No one expects people named Smith to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day; expecting Italian American students to know customs from families who arrived a century ago—or conceivably as long as three centuries ago as glass blowers in Jamestown, silk workers in Georgia, or dissident Protestants on Long Island—is to reinforce the notion that having a non-Anglo name is a sign of a raw immigrant experience, to imply there is a qualitative difference between stepping off the boat onto Ellis Island and stepping off the boat onto Plymouth Rock.
North and South
Indeed, one of the most troubling of social phenomena is the way Italian immigrants and their offspring have been denied their claim to the artistic and intellectual heritage of Italy. In contrast, Irish Americans (who outnumber the population of Ireland) have been careful to establish bonds with their European literary, historical, and musical heritage. But Italian Americans have in many ways been shunned by Italian Europeans, rather than embraced as an intellectual diaspora.
Too often, Italian Americans are dismissed as the children of “uneducated” immigrants, unentitled to the high tradition of the arts dating back to the culture ancient Rome and the Renaissance entailed upon the world. Italian culture is not something that stopped in the sixteenth century, a global possession that the children of southern Europe cannot be trusted to steward properly—a condescension that, for example, leaves nineteenth-century British expatriates more in possession of their Tuscan villas and Italian culture than the Italian Americans who emigrated here at the same time.
Italy as a nation has largely ignored Italian Americans except as a consumer market for Italian products—largely indifferent to discrimination against Italian Americans, unaware of their demographic prominence, and unquestioningly accepting the spurious vision of America as fundamentally Anglocentric.
In America we are regarded as neither authentically Italian, nor authentically American. Our strange-sounding names brand us as incomplete or unauthentic Americans. At the same time, northern Italian businessmen and academics in America often voice disdain for southern Italians, in veiled hope of being accepted by Americans as “northern Europeans”; but whatever the status they enjoy as globetrotters, they soon discover once they settle in this country as permanent residents that any children they may have are quickly relegated to the status of second-generation southern European immigrants, shouldering the scorn their parents perpetuated. We need to develop Italian awareness of, and sensitivity to, Italian American issues as well as enhancing the European understanding of the Italian diaspora. This means halting the invidious distinction of northern and southern Italian, and instead emulating the power-consolidating strategies of African Americans and more recently Asian Americans, who have wisely enlisted a pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism to rally diverse groups into collective action.
Cultural Nomenclature and the Politics of Language:
Ancestry, Ethnicity, Hyphenation
African American pride and self awareness have provided an extremely effective model for other cultural groups and may well prove a model Italian Americans can adopt to recover their past and chart a future. African Americans have made it a priority to map their cultural history, and to insist others incorporate it; moreover, they have taken control of the vocabulary used to describe it, a task that has included a periodic self-redefinition (in the past half-century, from negro to Afro-American to black to African American) to disrupt the complacent stereotyping by the media and its onlookers.
Similarly, Italian Americans must realize that part of our problem is a cultural nomenclature, the language of “ethnicity.” Let us begin by habituating ourselves to using the phrase “of Italian ancestry” or “of Italian heritage” in place of the phrase “of Italian descent.” As the field of gender studies has made clear, points of language may be small, but they are incremental; we may well ask ourselves, how many times do we hear someone identified using the expression, “of British descent”?
Indeed, we need to address in a larger sense the concept of “ethnicity” in American culture and the denotation of minority cultures in America: both how the politics of hyphenation defines American “ethnicity” as a departure from Anglo norm; and how the concept of “ethnicity” is selectively invoked in America as a social construct, labeling some groups perpetual immigrants no matter how many generations in this country, inseparable from an exotic or folkloric past that adorns and imprisons them.
Just as urban diminutives such as “Little Italy” and “Chinatown” in the nineteenth century (like “Little India” and “Koreatown” in the twentieth) affirmed a specious concept of the homogenous community while actually helping to restrict cultural outsiders to their “own” neighborhoods, the cultural label of “ethnic” is selectively applied to European ancestry groups (and African and Asian ancestry groups) as a marginalizing construct. Although various cultural hyphenations or portmanteaus have been developed, they have been applied only to groups designated as non-normative and subordinate. They contain a kind of implicit xenophobia like the concept of “ethnic” food, a perpetually probationary status in American culture. The Asian American population was the first to question the subordination implicit in the actual hyphenation, and other national ancestry groups have followed suit. I agree, and I do not believe in hyphenating Italian American, Asian American, and such terms. But in truth, only when the term British American becomes an equally commonplace qualifier, will ethnic hyphenations and portmanteaus cease to imply secondary status.
In addressing the rediscovery of cultural complexities, we need to acknowledge that the problem is not simply the way we are depicted by others. Prominent Italian American figures who have associated themselves with Italian American culture have in part reinforced stereotypes.
In a recent article, “Where Are the Italian-American Novelists,” Gay Talese boldly reveals the discriminatory experiences of having an Italian name, of being regarded as “a fractional American” (23), of being rejected by prestigious universities, who earmark and disdain Italian surnames as a first-generation-college white underclass.
But at the same time, highly problematic are his assertions about Italian Americans lacking “zeal in educating themselves,” being “nonreaders” who “grew up most often in homes without books, or with very few books,” who regard “education and book reading as a threat,” as “exposing young family members to alienating ideas” (25). Culminating the anecdotes, director Martin Scorsese allegedly “shocked his parents one day by walking into their home carrying a book,” leading to Talese’s assertion that Italians shun reading and writing in favor of movie watching and movie making because the “writer’s life is a solitary one, and I believe solitude is a most unnatural condition for the village-dwelling people that the Italians essentially are” (29). Keeping to one side those pre-cinematic villagers Petrarch, Tasso, and Dante, this strain of quaint essentialist provinciality not only implies that somehow literary cultures of English, German, or French life were fundamentally different, it is also a rampantly anti-intellectual and counter-productive model to perpetuate so heedlessly.
It is true that the publishing industry is hostile to Italian American bylines: because Italian surnames are not considered normative American culture, it is assumed that their writings will not be typical or representative of American life. Talese tells the story of having an editor assign him the penname “Hyman Goldberg” claiming Talese’s own name was “too attention-getting” and “inappropriate” (25). Despite the turn of the century goal of assimilation—ethnic invisibility—people of Italian ancestry are still fighting the battle to be regarded as typical Americans.
Moreover, the discipline of American studies has inherited traditions of New England Anglo-elitism that emphasize the primacy of British cultural history, and foster the bias that the fundamental identity of the United States is not merely Anglophonic, but British. The shorthand critical codeword Anglo-American in literary circles—instead of more correctly, British and American literatures—is a popular modern hyphenation that reinforces a cultural vision of the United States and the Anglophonic world as still a predominantly British ethnicity. Italian Americans are part of a culturally diverse Anglophonic national tradition. Anglophonic is not synonymous with Anglocentric, as national awakenings in places such as India, Australia, and South Africa have asseverated.
From careless media caricatures, many Americans have actually come to believe that Italian ancestry (despite being the fifth largest category in the 1990 census, after German, Irish, English, and African ancestry) is not a representative American experience, and that life with an Italian surname is radically different from being named Smith. And in one important respect it is different: a resume with the name of Smith is not laden with cultural stereotypes. For Italian Americans, discriminatory ethnic stereotyping precedes us through the door on our resumes.
Talese should be applauded for bringing such Italian American issues to the foreground and breaking the barrier of the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Yet I find it troubling that part of his message brands Italian Americans as anti-intellectual, and, moreover, that he mentions only one woman, Camille Paglia, and she for labeling film—rather than books—“as a truer, more traditional outlet” for Italian Americans (29). Paglia, probably the most commonly named Italian American woman in the arts, for all her vocal allusions to being Italian American, is always speaking through the eye of caricature. She says, “sensuality and decadence” appeal to the “Neapolitan side of my heritage,” “no Italian believes in turning the other cheek,” “we have an instinct for sex and violence,” “as an Italian, I believe in 10 eyes for an eye and 10 teeth for a tooth” (Vamps and Tramps 61, 245, 272, 488); “as an Italian, I have little problem reconciling violence with culture”; “a savage vehemence of speech is common among southern peoples, due to the nearness of agriculture and the survival of pagan intensity,” “torture and homicide are immediately accessible to the Mediterranean imagination” (Sexual Personae 217). Despite Paglia’s flamboyant self-identification as Italian American, she obsequiously complies with the most reductive of ethnicizing stereotypes; indeed, she contrasts her authenticity to that of the writer Sandra Mortola Gilbert, whom Paglia dismisses as “only half-Italian and to have had few formative Italian-American experiences” (Bevilacqua 87–97). What qualifies as the authentic Italian American experience here—indeed, the need to authenticate it at all—is as misguided as claiming the authentic American experience is Anglocentric.
In contrast, African Americans never publicly disparage their intellectual ancestry, and instead engage in a collective restoration of their history and traditions and a forward-looking identity; when recounting the history of being denied access to education and the institutions of publication, they champion an oral and sermonic tradition; they refuse the self-caricature of conforming to stereotypes.
I do not need to rehearse here the popular stereotyping of Italian Americans, beyond urging collective activism to direct the mass media into fairer representations. Media images influence not just the perception of cultural minority groups, but hiring practices, educational opportunities, governmental representation, and public policy decisions. But we also need to look at our own self-image, to recognize and combat stereotypes and to promote positive images for Italian Americans, rather than raise yet another generation of students ashamed of their polysyllabic names because their ancestry is publicly disparaged.
Developing Initiatives for Italian American Students
At present there are very few incentives and many deterrents for young Italian Americans to declare their ancestry. Within the academy, we need to develop initiatives for Italian American students, to correct media enhanced stereotypes, and to repair the self-esteem of chronically disparaged cultural groups by contributing to the rewriting of the history of identity politics in the United States.
No butter on our bread is a banner of some of the challenges we face in looking to reassert Italian American issues and culture: the assimilationist strategy of prior generations, while moderately effective in the short term, led to the suppression of language and customs; as a result students often do not know anything about their cultural heritage; and, unlike other racial or cultural groups, there are no support structures, rewards, or incentives for Italian American students, so they are often reluctant to identify their ancestry.
I want to suggest four directives for promoting the recovery of our heritage to counteract the stereotypes that have burdened Italian Americans.
1) Since we cannot expect Italian American students to have knowledge of their cultural background, after emerging from generations of assimilation, we need to provide highly desireable incentives to study Italian and Italian American culture: financial awards for any kind of academic excellence, with the prize being the opportunity to learn Italian, visit Italy, or study Italian American culture outside their professional specializations.
2) Italian names must be made to be seen as normative in every walk of life. It took decades to establish African American studies and the field of women’s studies is still struggling for acceptance; it is unreasonable to expect at this point in history hearty enrollments and dissertations in Italian American studies. We need to begin by acclimating students, of all ancestries, to hearing Italian names—which they are accustomed to hearing only as part of stereotypes—worked into every curriculum, whether it be Virgil, Galileo, Bernini, Leopardi, Verdi, Garibaldi, Fermi, or La Guardia.
3) We need to borrow strategies and alliances from other powerful self-awareness groups such as African Americans and Asian Americans: in addition to organizing support systems, scholarships, grants, curricular reform, boycotts, lobbying, and media coverage (including analogues to the “African American Achievers” moments on television, and “Black History Month” in bookstores) to halt stereotyping and insulting jests whenever they arise, we also must demand that role models and outspoken defenders of our interests are prominently placed as executives in business, as faculty in universities, and as representatives in government to speak out on our behalf against prejudice and job discrimination.
4) Finally, we need to write our own ongoing history—not allowing others to stifle it or usurp it. The public dimension of Italian American studies must bring about the understanding of America’s Italian ancestry and presence to an Italian American public and to the general public. And until we accomplish that, let us keep in mind the call to action: let there be no butter on our bread.
Bevilacqua, Christina. “Interviews: Camille Paglia and Sandra Gilbert.” Italian Americana 16 (Fall/Winter 1992): 69–97.
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae. New York: Vintage, 1990.
___. Vamps and Tramps. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Talese, Gay. “Where Are the Italian-American Novelists.” New York Times 14 Mar. 1993: 1, 23, 25, 29.