Columbus Day and the Whiteness of Italian-Americans

It’s Columbus Day, which has many people wondering why the United States has a national holiday for someone who initiated a half millennia of ethnic cleansing, a passive kind of genocide. What’s interesting is how Columbus day is about recognizing Italian-Americans as ‘white’, but simultaneously reinforces dominant racial categories that devalue non-white ethnicities of indigenous culture. Italian-Americans are recognized as ‘civilized’ alongside Anglo-Saxons, yet this narrative simultaneously represents ethnicities of color as the ‘uncivilized’ recipients of Eurocentric culture, provided by those same Italian-Americans.

Columbus Day celebrations began in New York City around 1792 and were very popular with immigrant Italian-Americans, millions of whom arrived between 1890 and 1920. The symbolism of Columbus for this group is what matters here: Columbus helped define the Italian diaspora’s identity by confirming their connection to their homeland and also their identity as Americans. In this way, the Columbus narrative discursively assmiliates Italian-Americans as an equal part into ‘white’ American society, initially established by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who otherwise looked down on the ‘ethnics’ of Italy and Ireland. The integration of previously ‘non-white’ Italians becomes complete with their successful promotion of Columbus Day as a national holiday, which is recognized by Roosevelt in 1937.

The problem with Columbus Day is that many people recognize him as an aggressor, one who begins a new historical era defined by the subjugation of entire swaths of non-European populations from around the world. Columbus is associated with the near genocide and domination of indigenous peoples, who are alternatively displaced and cleansed from their existing territory in North America or pressed into indentured servitude in Latin America. Among peoples of African descent, Columbus opens the ‘New World’ to slavery as an institution of labor exploitation. Both these groups are represented throughout the history of the Americas as being ‘non-white’ and ‘uncivilized’ as compared to the ‘white’ and ‘civilized’ European settlers who govern colonial societies.

Colombus is the historical actor who lays the foundation for these racial categories and institutions that we generally understand as white supremacy. His great ‘discovery’ is also a claim toward expropriation and the denial of indigenous claims toward not just land but status as members of a common humanity who must also be treated as equal persons.

And so today, when Colombus is celebrated with a national holiday that implies the assimilation of Italian-Americans as Americans, his image serves to remind non-white groups of their continued exclusion and subjugation, especially among Native Americans who have been confined to reservations. This is the paradox of Italian-American whiteness – we become American while reminding others that they are not. Becoming part of civilized society requires reproducing categories of racial dominance by displacing them onto indigenous and African peoples. Terms like ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ may have gone out of style, Italian-Americans should remember that they too once lived under such conditions and relationships relative to dominant whites.

The question for Italian-Americans then becomes: how can we celebrate our heritage without reproducing white supremacy? Ditching Columbus as the symbolic figure of Italian-Americans would be a big start, and certainly there are more impressive figures than he. Why not Fiorello LaGuardia, the Italian-American mayor of New York who led the city through World War II and is known as one of the most important city mayors in US history?

Even better – Italians-Americans should recall when they too were defined as ‘ethnics’ and stand in solidarity with peoples who continue to be subject to racial domination. Recognizing holidays like Indigenous Peoples Day alongside Italian-American celebrations would demonstrate mutual respect of each group’s history in the United States and promote equality instead of perpetuating white supremacy. More simply, we should stop just trying to be white.

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