My first tiny inkling of discrimination came when a friend’s dad said to me, “You know, your dad is the only Italian I ever liked.” I was a teenager and it left me confused. On one hand I was proud that he liked my dad, on the other, I felt bad that he felt that way. That was the first time I wondered, Was it bad to be Italian?
I’m thinking about it because I just watched a special on PBS called The Italian Americans. I was amazed at how much discrimination my parents generation faced. The injustice was heartbreaking, yet it left me so proud to be an Italian-American.
What struck me is how little my parents said about being discriminated against. I never even realized, until I was older, that Italians experienced discrimination. When I asked my dad about it, he told me a few stories. In one, his father was working on a railroad job where he and his co-workers were treated very poorly and underpaid. Because his dad spoke the best English, they voted he should speak up for a raise. They fired him as soon as he asked for it.
When I was in college, a friend made a joke sign that was stuck to the door of the dorm room me and my Italian roommate shared. We thought it was funny because neither of us felt we’d experienced real discrimination. We’d heard the words Dago and WOP, but only used jokingly.
And my mother talked about her wedding day, when their car was pulled over. They were cited for disturbing the peace because they were honking their horn. They made my newlywed parents get out of the car in the pouring rain and go into the station. My mom thought it was hilarious, and laughed about it 50 years later in a video I produced for their 50th Anniversary.
I never asked my dad what he thought. But, in hindsight, did that stop smack of discrimination? Did my friends jokes?That’s the thing — once you start looking for discrimination — you start seeing it. Is that good or bad?
My parents dealt with discrimination the old-fashioned way; they worked hard, lifted themselves up and made sure their children got the best education they could afford so they could do even better.
My mother’s parents also worked hard and changed their last name, dropping the vowel at the end. But, if you look Italian and you speak Italian, or with an accent, will a vowel change make a difference?
My father’s fifth grade teacher changed his name from Ubaldo to Robert. She said it was too hard to pronounce. Really? Three syllables? My dad said she was nice and worked with him after school, teaching him English, so she was clearly trying to help him. But once again, when you start looking for discrimination, you even start to question the helpful people.
Today, every job application asks whether you’re any of the following minorities: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, and Hispanic. But who decided who made the list? What about all the Italians who were discriminated against — and the Irish, the Jews, the Polish, the Germans and every other group that’s come along? Equal opportunity in the USA seems to dictate that every immigrant group gets its turn at being the punching bag.
Obviously, in the case of blacks, the situation was so much worse. If you can’t register to vote, get a job, ride the bus like everyone else, stay at a hotel, eat at a lunch counter, and fear for your life on a daily basis, how do you lift your family out of poverty? Laws, clearly, had to change, and thank God they did. And the way our country treated Native Americans was shameful.
So, is it a waiting game? Does checking that box on your job application make a difference? Once your group has been here long enough, will another group come and get all the discriminatory attention? Will they update the list or should they get rid of it?
Or do you focus less on discrimination and more on working hard, not making an issue of it to your kids? Because if you do, will they start seeing it, even where it isn’t?
EmilyAnn FrancesApril 28, 2015 at 12:52 am
I’m just learning in depth about the discrimination Italian immigrants faced in the early 20th century. I’m about to document it in a series of postings about my Great Grandfather at my blog http://www.throughthebyzantinegate.wordpress.com Like you I was shocked at the degree to which the discrimination reached. My Grandparents never complained. My parents raised me to assimilate. All ethnic markers like gold jewelry and even speaking a few Italian phrases were disapproved of. The attitude in the early 20th century seems to have been that immigrants were unfit for American society until all traces of their ancestral heritage and country were removed. It’s almost as if our ancestors had to go through a sorority or fraternity hazing process before they were considered fit to enter the mainstream. It’s difficult coming to terms with this later in life after growing up and thinking everything was not that bad for our ancestors. If anything I balance that out with continued research which is proving that while America gave my Italian ancestors the opportunities to succeed the raw material and potential was already there. The family back in our hometown might not have been wealthy but they taught their children values, morals and gave them the support network to achieve what they did after they came here. We should remember these things and honor their memory as they provide good examples of perseverance, patience and persistence for future generations. This was an excellent post.
Fran TunnoApril 30, 2015 at 6:22 pm
Thank you for the kind words regarding my post. I know what you mean. I couldn’t be more proud of the honesty and integrity and work ethic my parents instilled in me and my siblings. They are values I treasure and work to instill in my kids as well. I look foreward to reading and sharing your blog. Good luck to you!
nycstylecannoliFebruary 28, 2015 at 1:48 pm
You would hope in the year 2015 we would not have to talk about this. But I guess it is still out there and I think if parents discriminate, their children will too. I was just watching the Italian Americans on PBS and was shocked to see how they were treated when they first came to the USA. I feel now most people love Italians, for our great food for one, who doesn’t like Italian food? I hope we have less of this in the future and I think hard work pays off in the long run.
Fran TunnoFebruary 28, 2015 at 7:45 pm
I was shocked too and I agree Rosemary, let’s hope with each passing year it becomes less and less.
Matilda NovakFebruary 19, 2015 at 7:50 pm
Oh Fran, i’m so with you on the Work Hard and don’t make an issue of it!
My Eastern European folks were discriminated against as well, but they just worked harder and kept looking to God. It seems to me that we are becoming more and more a nation of “victims”…..More and more, those in power seem bent on dividing us, setting one group against another. i Hate it.
i think our forebears would be appalled.
Fran TunnoFebruary 19, 2015 at 9:59 pm
Thanks Matilda for always reading and for your thoughts. I think it’s tough to not become bitter and I truly understand when people do because the world can be a very ugly place, but I’m so grateful to my folks for working hard to rise above it and showing me how it’s done.
Fran TunnoFebruary 19, 2015 at 5:09 pm
Wow George, it’s amazing isn’t it? The more I hear, the more I appreciate the strength of our ancestors to not grow bitter. Thank you so much for reading and responding.
George A MauinFebruary 19, 2015 at 2:49 pm
My male-parent was born in the Philippines, where my grandpa Maupin had been serving in the Army with then-Capt. John J-P (later “Black Jack” Pershing). Grandpa married a Filipino girl & later moved to the USA circa the time Pershing was ordered to return here. In reading Pershing’s biography, i was shocked to notice something, reading that account of Army life in the Islands. (Recall that Pershing & Grandpa served there in what was later called the “Spanish-American” War). Here is the shocker: any Army male that married a “local” (thus not a part of the Army-colony there at that time) was called a “squaw-man.” The bridegroom was ostracized by his fellow troops from social activity, based on his choice of mate. My male-parent never revealed this side of his childhood. As a matter of fact, he spoke so little of his childhood in the Islands, it began to make me curious; thus i read “Black Jacks'” bio with a very intense interest. My male-parent’s features favored his mother’s: darker skin, slightly slanted forehead, et al. Let me summarize by saying, “Yes”, if one looks for discrimination where it once existed, one will definitely find it. Enough said. Your point is valid, based on my own experience (or lack thereof). George M.