By virtue of living in this great melting-pot country, that will never completely melt into a pot of homogeneity, we have the opportunity to learn about cultures and lifestyles that differ from our own. I see that as an exciting strength. But it also seems true that no matter what social, ethnic, religious, racial, or gender identity we belong to, we probably at one time or another have been the target of either an overt stereotype, a blatant slur, or a subtler microaggression, that might come in the form of a joke, or commentary on social media platforms.
The power of words is undeniable. Cicero knew that and went into great detail in writing De Oratore (56BC), describing the ideal orator as an eloquent moral guide of the state.
Words have the power to heal as in prayer, to bolster one’s confidence with words of encouragement—and even change one’s life for the better, as when a teacher tells a student they have a bright future ahead.
On the other hand, words also have the power to start wars. Cicero believed words were more powerful than weapons. Incendiary language can humiliate, denigrate, and even lead to violence. Such was the case in New Orleans in 1891 when 11 Italian Americans were lynched—to the cries of a large mob yelling “Get the dagoes”, despite the court declaring them not guilty for the murder of police Chief David Hennessy.
Ethnic slurs are linguistic expressions that are used to disparage or dehumanize people belonging to a certain ethnic group. They elicit character and trait stereotypes, that are not based on statistical data, but which foster both a prejudicial attitude and a tendency towards bias in how the targeted group is treated. Slurs are dangerous, hateful forms of speech that can even result in physical harm.
Such was the case with my paternal grandfather, Giuseppe D’Agostino, who came to America at the age of 30 with his young wife, the mother of his children with the intention of working hard to support his family and give them a life of the opportunities he never had. He found a job as a laborer at a local railroad. He worked day and night while his wife, Angelina tended to the house and children, while also running a little grocery store on the first floor. They were simple people whose life was work and family. There were no extras. My grandmother never owned a gown, never went to a dance, and Giuseppe was happy just to come home to a steaming bowl of pasta and a glass of homemade wine. They were happy to live that way; exhausted by day’s end. There was no drama, they wanted no trouble. But then came the slur; something Italian Americans just could not shake, no matter how honest and decent their character. A resentful co-worker on the railroad, who was part of the societal “in-group” of Irish Americans at that time hurled the word “Dago” at Giuseppe. A patient man who minded his own business, my grandfather had had enough. Then came the brawl, and half of his ear was bitten off. That word “Dago” could have been any one of the dozen or more slurs commonly used to insult Italian Americans (wop, greaser, Guido, guinea, and goombah, are some others). What now is considered hate speech—and for good reason—had on that day brought a kind, honest man, who only wanted to do his work and go home to his family—to his breaking point. That is how powerful words can be.
I would like to say that the stereotyping of Italian Americans is now a thing of the past, but in my observation, while probably not as overt as it was in my grandfather’s time or in times before him, it is still present, albeit perhaps taking on subtler, more insidious forms called microaggressions. I think it continues for a few reasons. First, there seems to be no strong public outrage when Italian Americans are derided, whereas with other groups this is not tolerated, and outcries of swift legal consequences abound. Second, Many Italian Americans themselves get a chuckle from seeing stereotypical caricatures portrayed of their group using as dummied down English and exaggerated hand gestures. Or they feel a vicarious sense of being cool, or commanding respect when perceived as being “connected”. Some even spread jokes that degrade their own heritage. About a decade ago CEO of Fiat-Chrysler Sergio Marchionne, referring to the new Alpha Romeo told a room full of journalists: “I won’t put an American engine into that car. With all due respect to my American friends, it needs to be a wop engine.”
But is it okay to appropriate stereotypes just because you identify with the group being derided? After all, researchers claim that in-group members of the ostracized group use such slurs amongst themselves to “debarb” the painful slur by defusing it with humor, or to promote a sense of solidarity between group members which makes them stronger against slurs from the outsiders. Yet, I still cringe every time I hear a joke ridiculing Italians, followed by: “I can say it because I’m Italian”. Well, my response is—that is precisely why you should NOT say it! And here is why.
When an Italian American makes fun or derides their fellow Italian Americans by giving themselves an insiders’ permission—they are defusing the emotional impact of negative stereotyping, implicitly allowing others to feel more at ease to use it too. Second, they create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you define yourself by the stereotype you begin to behave and even think within the confines delineated by that stereotype. This further reinforces the biases of others towards Italian Americans. Third, children’s self-concepts are formed by the information they get about themselves from the world around them. That includes TV and film portrayals, as well as what other adults and children tell them is true about what it means to be Italian American. You can only imagine how horrified I was the day I took my grandchildren to see Shark Tales and discovered that the cartoon was about mobster sharks with Italian last names.
If words can be weapons, they can also be powerful tools for change. Seneca, in his Letters from a Stoic, wrote: “Words need to be sown like seeds. No matter how tiny a seed may be, when in lands in the right sort of ground it unfolds its strength and from being minute expands and grows to a massive size.” Let’s let our words be the seeds that grow into a massive new image for all to see, of what it really means to be bright, successful, accomplished Italian Americans.
Croom, A.M. (2015) Slurs and stereotypes for Italian Americans: A context-sensitive account of derogation and appropriation. Journal of Pragmatics, 81, 36-51.
Fiat-Chrysler CEO says Alfa Romeo needs a “wop engine” Reuters, January 14, 2013.
Jussim, L, & Fleming, C. (1996). Self-fulfilling prophecies and the maintenance of social stereotypes. In Stereotypes and Stereotyping. New York: Guilford Press
Latrofa, M., Vaes, J., Pastore, M., & Cadinu M. (2009). United we stand, divided we fall! The protective function of self-stereotyping for stigmatized members psychological well-being. Applied Psychology: An International Review. 58(1), 84-104.
Seneca (2016) Letters from A Stoic. Translated by Richard Mott Gummere, Vigeo Press.