As Italy’s first black minister, I suffered vile racist abuse. But this poison damages us all
Racial discrimination is now “commonplace” across 12 European countries, and one in three people of African descent has experienced harassment in the past five years, a report this week found. This doesn’t surprise me. Since my election to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 2013, I have constantly faced racist abuse. When I became Italy’s minister for integration, as the country’s first black minister, it got worse. A fellow Italian MEP, Mario Borghezio, called my appointment “a shitty choice” by a “bongo-bongo” government, adding that I had “the face of a housewife”
A former vice-president of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli, said in a public meeting: “When I see pictures of Kyenge I can’t help but think of the features of an orangutan.” Other extreme-right politicians have called me “Zulu” and “Congolese monkey”. I have faced death threats and now live under police protection. This year, during and after Italy’s general election we saw hate speech lead to horrific crimes, including the targeted shooting of migrants and violent attacks on anti-fascist demonstrators including my European parliament colleague Eleonora Forenza.
A court in Piacenza allowed an anti-immigration party, the League, to open a case of defamation against me because I called the party racist. I was referring to a picture posted on social media by Fabio Rainieri, who at the time was a regional party secretary, depicting me as an ape. I then decided to renounce my parliamentary immunity and take a stand against racism. But while challenging the League is a start, it is not enough on its own.
The increase in hate speech we are witnessing across Europe threatens our shared democratic values by dehumanising minorities. And the growing support for far-right parties shows that hate speech has been normalised in several EU states. It is now acceptable for openly racist parties to enter parliaments as a political force; some have formed ruling coalitions in national and regional governments. This gives them a platform that encourages a political discourse full of hate, and drives legislation that goes against vulnerable communities.
Though those who spread hate justify their actions under the guise of free speech, this right is not absolute, according to international treaties. Illegal hate speech is defined in EU law as the “public incitement to violence or hatred directed to groups or individuals on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, colour, religion, descent and national or ethnic origin”. I am only concerned about hate speech that is already illegal.
Politicians, public figures and opinion leaders must stand firm. This can be achieved by supporting EU legislation and policies on combating racism and xenophobia. And we should also look at how to build more inclusive societies through amplifying voices of tolerance and respect. An important element of this is by using respectful language when referring to minorities, and to respect and uphold the dignity and rights of all individuals.
It is more important than ever for us to come together against all forms of discrimination. We cannot afford to work alone, or only on one ground of discrimination at a time: we must fight for all of our rights.
I have been working hard in the European parliament and throughout my career to ensure the equal dignity of every individual. That means fighting against Afrophobia, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, xenophobia, anti-migrant hatred, homophobia and gender discrimination. If we work like this, one day all of Europe’s diversity will be represented.
I cannot stand back and allow Europe to appear impenetrable or alien to minorities. The EU was founded on the shared values of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Common to all open and democratic societies is a fundamental recognition that every individual is of equal worth and should have fair access to life’s opportunities.
On Friday I will be addressing a conference in the House of Commons held in honour of my fight against racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance in Italy and in the wider European Union. While I welcome the support I have received from fellow black politicians and community leaders, including MPs Diane Abbott MP and Clive Lewis, and Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote, I worry about the times that we are living in. We need to work harder to build societies where we can all live in equality, regardless of our race, ethnicity, religion or belief, gender, sexual orientation or disability.