I Am Italian and I Am Unsurprised by How Politics Are Unravelling in Italy
Right-wing Views Have Always Existed Among Italians
When I told my traditional Italian mother that I no longer identified with my culture, she immediately began to cry.
Growing up as a third-generation Italian, I was deeply immersed in the culture’s beliefs and practices. I grew up in the East End of Montreal, an area composed of mainly Italians. I went to school with Italians, I did activities with Italians and I only became friends with Italians. Stuck in an echo chamber, I was comfortable and saw none of the problems that existed in the community—or maybe I just chose to ignore them.
It wasn’t until I started studying at Concordia that I had a culture shock and was immersed in a variety of different beliefs. Suddenly, I detached myself from my friends, I forced myself to abandon my strong accent and opened my eyes to the different cultures around me.
This story isn’t one of abandoning culture and finding fulfillment elsewhere. It’s far from it, actually. While a part of me felt embarrassed by Italian culture, another part felt mad at myself for turning my back on the community that raised me.
I spent years trying to understand why I felt so detached. And suddenly, with the election of far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Italy, it all made sense. While Italy can be praised for its delicious food and architecture, its political climate is one that has not aged well and has generations of Italians stuck in a deep-rooted far-right mindset.
Media outlets mischaracterize Meloni’s party as the “first far-right-led government since the end of the Second World War.” In reality, far-right ideologies have been ingrained within Italian political thought for decades. From Mussolini to Berlusconi to now the rise of the Brothers of Italy under Meloni, the lean towards the right is only growing.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, in coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, work side-by-side, each using their independent platforms to push far-right views. Their parties succeeded in the 2022 snap elections with a total vote of 44 per cent of the public’s support. In Meloni’s campaign, she advocated preserving traditional family values and proposed several anti-immigrant, anti-women and anti-LGBTQIA+ policies.
Unfortunately, Meloni’s beliefs echo the views of Italians I’ve come across over the years. It is not uncommon to be told the importance of the role of being a housewife or rather hear a case supporting the far right. “Olivia, you need to find yourself a man who will provide for you as you stay home and cook and clean for the kids,” I was told time and time again by people who barely know me.
And yet, this kind of thinking is not limited to the older generations. Most of my high school classmates thought this way too. I was told by multiple Italian boys I went to school with that I had no right to be in school, or even pursue higher education, as I was only good for bearing children.
Thinking back to my years in high school, I’m ashamed of how normalized these conservative beliefs were to those around me. I walked through the hallways of a predominantly Italian school and heard sexist, racist and homophobic slurs on the daily. No one ever spoke out against it because no one ever saw anything wrong with it.
I was numb to these comments. I knew they were wrong, but I too had fallen into groupthink. I gave up on speaking out against it because every time I did, I was shut down, ignored or laughed at—as if it was so foolish to think that all human beings deserve equal rights.
Recently, I thought back to my former classmates. Not all of them were raging bigots; most of them probably weren’t. So why then, did we all sit idly?
My conversation with my mother, a few months ago, offered temporary clarity to this question for me. “I hate being Italian and I am embarrassed by my people,” I said. My mother disappointedly leaned their head down as I muttered those words. It was the first time I had ever made such a bold claim against my community and I felt like I was reproached with shame.
Italians are not supposed to question those older than us. It’s considered a sign of disrespect. Therefore when a right-leaning Italian made a sexist claim, I just kept quiet, as responding would be met with strong opposition.
More importantly, this part of the community is not open to criticism. The community has a number of strong Italian nationalists, whose voices and opinions echo above the majority that don’t think this way. “Italians are amazing. Italy is the best. Our culture is perfect,” I hear repeatedly. Questioning our beliefs would appear as nonsense.
I think this is a large part of why Italy’s government is reflective of right-leaning views. Strong Italian nationalism and the practice of not questioning tradition allow such views to be passed down through generations with little criticism.
My classmates, as well as myself, accepted these beliefs because we’d heard them from figureheads in our community, whom we were taught or felt unable to question. Some people, unfortunately, are so indoctrinated that they don’t see anything wrong with it, and perhaps some may even agree with the bigoted remarks that fill the community.
But that doesn’t make it right. Nor does that make it an accurate representation of all Italians.
I thought back to the conversation with my mother, from a few months prior. Initially, I thought she felt shameful about what I had said. I have come to realize that wasn’t the case. For my parents, embracing traditional practices is distinct from accepting outdated ideas, just because that is what is being echoed in the community. My mother wasn’t ashamed of me, but rather saddened that I limited my entire community to the growing demographic of the far-right.
Strong nationalism and conservative ideologies make it easy to lose track of the true essence of Italian culture. Appreciating tradition is not synonymous with embracing conservative ideologies. I can still appreciate parts of my culture without being submissive to outdated views which were problematic then and are problematic now.
My own grandparents, who grew up in Italy, are able to recognize the flaws of their country. My great-grandmother, now in her late 90s, reminds me time and again of the importance of pursuing higher education and being independent. My 80-year-old grandfather engages in conversations with me about Meloni’s rise to power. And while he was initially shocked to learn about the fascist beliefs brewing in Italy, he is saddened by the turn Italian politics is taking.
Meloni’s platform is harmful and will bring Italy steps back from the progress the world has made. But I will not let such views consume Italian culture because far-right extremists scream louder than others.
While my fellow Italians continue to endorse a party that advocates against the rights of minorities, I will not stand by and defend them anymore. It’s time to swallow that strong pride and acknowledge the problems of far-right views.
This article has been modified from the original version published in print on Oct. 25. Edits were made to better reflect the author's point of view and avoid any mischaracterizations of their family and generalizations about the Italian community.
This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 5, published October 25, 2022.