The Truth About Negative Self-Stereotyping

Ugo Fantozzi, fictional character created by Paolo Villaggio
Ugo Fantozzi, fictional character created by Paolo Villaggio

It is everywhere you look, and even when you are NOT looking it is happening. I am referring to the public insulting of my Italian heritage. The TV shows that portray us as mobsters, or loudmouth numbskulls, the commercials that show us as over-emotional nut cases, the films that show cartoon characters with surnames ending in vowels as underwater Mafiosi, —it has no end.

Media is the most influential teacher, and when people spend a lot of time getting their sense of the world through TV, radio, newspapers and magazines—you can be sure that what they are learning about Italian Americans has nothing to do with the positive contributions they have made to this country in almost every field.  When Media relentlessly portrays negative stereotypes of Italian Americans, two things happen:

·         First, Italian Americans (from young to old) begin to believe and identify with the image portrayed.

·         Second, other people begin to think they know who we are, and act accordingly when we are up for promotion, apply for a job, request a loan, want our children to play with kids of other ethnic backgrounds, or even when we get evaluated by our teachers and professors. You see negative stereotyping creates prejudice and bias.  Here are only a few examples:

1.       “Melinda” got fired from an international company when she told her boss she was offended when he called his Italian colleagues “dagos”.

2.       “Jonathan” felt belittled when he mentioned to a professor that he was on his way to the Italian Club meeting and the professor began to laugh and remarked “What do they do there, flip pizzas?”

3.       Gianluca, an Italian immigrant film maker gets ridiculed when he objects to his co-workers mimicking his accent and adding exaggerated hand gestures.

4.       The father of a seven – year- old boy is beside himself upon his son getting told he could not sleep over his friend’s house, because his friend’s parents said “those people are Sicilian”.

All true, stories, and I could go on. But why do I mention them? Because much of the tolerance for media put-downs that turn into everyday consequences for I-A’s, comes from a portion of the Italian American community itself. No other ethnic or racial group seems to show this degree of disunity and self-abasement. Why  so many Italian Americans think it is cool to be associated with criminality, loud mouthed communication, wild gesticulation, and other undesirable traits was beyond me—until recently when I ran across an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Researchers Latrofa, Pastore, and Cadinu from the Universita’ di Padova examined the tendency of Southern Italians to accept both the positive and negative stereotypes of themselves, that are so prevalent throughout Italy. Certainly there have been several times when in Italy I too, heard Southern Italians (where my family resides by the way) being openly stigmatized by those in the north. This is nothing new. There has been a long time historical social stigma with respect to Southern Italians and many Southerners choose to accept these stereotypes—good OR bad. This is referred to as self-stereotyping.

It comes as no surprise that perceiving prejudice from the “in-group” is negatively correlated to a person’s psychological well-being.  In other words the more you feel you are the target of prejudice, the lower your quality of life  What is surprising, however,  is that self-stereotyping, or increased identification with both the positive AND/OR negative traits assigned to the  ostracized or “out group”, was found to have a positive correlation to well-being.  In other words people embraced even negative stereotypes about themselves because self-stereotyping gives them a stronger sense of belonging to their group.

Italian Americans who love to joke about being “connected” or sub-intelligent, or loud-mouthed, are strongly defensive about their right to hang on to those stereotypes.  When I even innocuously point out the vast achievements that Italians have made in this country I get verbally slammed quite quickly. This usually happens because when the laughter clears after the joke, there might be some vulnerability in the truth that remains.

The tripartite truth is this:

First, many Italian Americans know very little factual information about their heritage. Again, they know what they have been taught by the media, and the media has NOT been our friend. The only way to change public opinion about who we are is to educate others with facts. Education opens minds, but in order to be the teacher, you have to learn and study yourself.

Second, they are afraid to go against the tide and stand up for what they know to be true. What is true is that their ancestors  (at the turn of the century) risked life and limb to come to this country so that they could escape poverty and build lives for their families that were free of starvation, both here and back in their motherland. They don’t deserve to be portrayed as clowns or half-brains.  In fact they were some of the smartest, most hard-working people I have ever known. The way to change public opinion about who we are is to write letters, make phone calls, and educate others with facts when you hear them spewing inaccuracies or defaming who Italian Americans are.

Third, when the laughter clears, you will also figure out, that ascribing to the media negative stereotypes will have a real world negative impact on you and your loved ones. And it will come in the form of the boss that fires you, the job promotion you don’t get, the loan you get turned down for, or the family who doesn’t want your kid to their home for a sleep over because you are of  Sicilian extraction.

Ever the optimist, I still strongly believe each one of us can do our part to restore a more positive and truthful image of our Italian heritage. I want my children and yours to take meaningful pride in who they are, and I want all Italian Americans to feel good about inheriting a legacy of creativity, productivity, the ability to work hard, enjoy life, and be of service to others. That is what my heritage is all about. And yours, too.


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