Someone coined the phrase “white privilege” to explain how Euro-Caucasians have an edge in life. As the theory goes, we win because we help each other get great jobs, cheap loans, go to the best colleges, rise to the top, and so on. There are even on-line tests you can take to determine if you enjoy white privilege.
It’s been a long time coming but Italian Americans have finally joined the exclusive White Privilege Club – retroactively. To listen to some groups, the slings and arrows of hatred flew over our heads. Whatever success we have had, they say, was ultimately linked to White Privilege.
Did our immigrant grandparents really make it on their own? Those of you who had forebears who started businesses or had skills should wonder if banks gave them loans and customers hired them only because they were White. Was it actually necessary for them to pinch pennies to save for a home or to get married before they had kids? Are these family stories just a cover for Italian freeloading?
Was the 1891 mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans just the mob mistaking sun-tanned Sicilians for illegal Mexicans? Perhaps the wholesale eviction of 10,000 Italians from the Pacific coast in 1942 was just a drill.
The concept of White privilege applying to Italian Americans begs a few questions. When exactly were we enrolled – certainly not before the Second World War? While I would not deny the advantages of being White I would suggest that having an Italian surname, even today, has some effect on hiring and advancement, just as being Black, or short, or bald, or old, or not dressing or speaking well would handicap one’s chances. Everyone is judged in myriad ways, it’s only human.
If I were to seek a job at Black Entertainment Television (BET) would I be wasting my time? By the same token, do you think that Italian privilege can work magic for us at Bank of America, Tropicana, Planters Peanuts, Progresso Foods, Del Monte, since these corporations were founded by Italian Americans? Actually, Italians are scarce in those executive suites.
Many industries serve as an old boy network for ethnic groups. It’s good to be Jewish in entertainment, for example. And, I recall an Irish American friend who easily landed a job at Mutual of America, an insurance company. He told me that it was a sure bet because it’s run by Irish Americans.
But I’ll tell you where Italian looks can get you in the door: Hollywood.
Warner Brothers Pictures has announced a movie version of The Sopranos, a prequel set in 1967 Newark, NJ, during the Black race riots. It will be about Black vs. Italian, a topic of dubious merit. I suppose there will be a replay of the 2000 HBO casting call for The Sopranos – the one that advertised for “Italian-looking” extras to play low-lives and criminals – 14,000 people showed up, including the NY Times reporter who hoped for a part. I suppose you can call this Italian Privilege.
Or perhaps you would like to catch this year’s revival of MTV’s Jersey Shore. This reunion of guidos and guidettes will be in Miami, now that co-star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino copped a plea for tax evasion. Look for more Italian American privilege as the gang shows America how to act Italian.
The good news is that intermarriage is reshaping our “whiteness” and self-image. Some of our grandchildren may carry our surnames but they can proudly call themselves mutts, distinct from the made-men of The Sopranos or the clowns of Jersey Shore.
And, here’s an interesting statistic I found the other day: 24% of Black men now marry outside their race, and 12% of Black women. Since the average Black already has 17%- 24% White DNA, it won’t be long until even African Americans attain White Privilege.
Will that even things out? Don’t count on it. –JLM