Italian Americans get sick and tired of being asked about the mafia

What is one question you hate to be asked? Explain.

I was thinking about ways to answer the question above. Rather than talk about myself, I have decided to approach this prompt from a different angle.

Each ethnic group attracts its particular stereotypes. Being of Egyptian Armenian background – Armenians born and raised in Egypt, I get asked all kinds of irritating questions, based on the obnoxious and laughably ignorant stereotypes about people from Egypt.

In similar vein, Italian Americans have expressed their despair and irritation at being asked about one subject in particular – the mafia. My precise answer to the prompt above is please stop employing crude mafia stereotypes when interacting with Italian Americans – or Australians of Italian descent, for that matter.

John Cottone is a psychologist, the clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Renaissance school of medicine at Stony Brook University. He is also an Italian American, and wrote about the subject of Hollywood promoting harmful cultural stereotypes regarding Italians.

The movies which we have all seen and loved, The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Casino, and more recently the new special House of Gucci, all in their own way deploy the stereotypes of Italian American men as ravenously libidinous, cunning and barely literate mafiosi, and Italian American women as volatile, temperamental ‘ball-busting bitches’ with garish jewellery who can cook up a mean pasta fazool.

These kinds of stereotypes seep their way into the public consciousness, and leave the non-Italian communities with a deeply flawed picture of Italians in the diaspora. Michael Parenti, Italian American socialist academic and author of numerous books on political science, writes of his experiences in dealing with the question of the mafia stereotype as an Italian interacting with the wider Anglo majority society.

To be certain, the 1951 Kefauver committee exposed the inner workings and structure of Italian organised crime. Parenti writes that while Al Scarface Capone and Lucky Luciano were already figures of infamy, the Kefauver commission uncovered, among other things, the multitudinous variety of personalities that made up the mafiosi:

…Lucky Luciano, Scarface Al Capone, Sammy the Bull Gravano, Joey Bananas Bonanno, Crazy Joey Gallo, Jimmy the Weasel Fratiano, Sonny Red Indelicato, and Sonny Black Napolitano.

One could go on with Joey Kneecap Santorielli, Johnny Bingo Bosco, Itchy Fingers Zambino, Big Paulie Castellano,and Lupo the Wolf Saietta. Also Johnny Blind Man Biaggio, Vinny Gorgeous Basciano, and Fredo the Plumber Giardino.

Finally, none of us will ever forget AnthonyChicken F**ker Bastoni (don’t ask).

Parenti relates that in one job interview for a teaching position at a university, he was asked about the mafia – the interviewers referenced the Godfather movie as their source regarding close-knit relationships among immigrant communities. He tried unsuccessfully to steer the discussion towards the rich variety of Italian authors, scientists and sociologists, but somehow the mafia was the subject which captivated the interview board.

We all know that the mafia come from Italy. That much is unmistakable. However, what is less well known is how such an organisation started. In the Mezzogiorno – Southern Italy – the majority of land was owned by absentee landlords. The latter protected their latifundia from peasant uprisings and foreign invasions by hiring middlemen guardians.

These organised gangs, serving their absentee landlord bosses, formed the first instances of a parasitic organisation based on hostility to the peasantry. It is worthwhile to note that until today, the mafia is hostile to peasants, and is an enemy of the working class. Yes, there are ordinary working class people who, motivated by opportunistic reasons, join the mafia. In fact, in the Hollywood depictions, mafiosi are often portrayed as enterprising, self-motivated people, but in an antihero kind of way.

As the capitalist system became the dominant mode of production in a unified Italy, the mafia adapted their ways, parasitising the newly rising labouring class. Capitalist economic relations opened up a transoceanic migratory network for capital export.

The other distinguishing feature of the mafiosi is its parochial racism. It is no exaggeration to state that the mafia are a kind of Sicilian Klan. Like the Klan, the mafiosi claim to respect ancient codes of honour and respect. Strongly patriarchal, the mafiosi claim hostility to the powers that be, but are not averse to cooperating with those authorities as footsoldiers deployed against trade unions, labour and peasant organisations.

Instead of asking about the mafia, how about we ask Italian Americans about Enrico Fermi, the Italian born American scientist who worked on the Manhattan project? Instead of referencing Scarface Capone, or Joey Bananas, or Frankie the pastry chef Cacciatore, how about we ask about Petrarch, Vivaldi, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Giordano Bruno.

As for myself, please don’t ask me about the pyramids, or Tutankhamen, or the curse of the Mummy, or Moses and the Hebrew captives in the fictional Exodus. Let’s also stop recycling regressive stereotypes about Italian Americans – there’s more to Italy than marital problems, cooking pasta, temperamental volatility and organised crime.