Race and Historical Amnesia in 'Green Book'

After the controversial film Green Book clinched the Oscar for Best Picture, leading critics have called it “the worst best picture winner since Crash.” While the film has drawn intense condemnation for its gross misrepresentation of pianist extraordinaire Dr. Don Shirley, little has been said about the assumption of whiteness with respect to the film’s Italian actors and creators. Co-star Viggo Mortensen was criticized for his use of the n-word in his remarks about racial progress during a pre-screening of the film, and much was made of the racial makeup of the same pre-screening panel.

Collapsing the racial identities of Mortensen and director Peter Farrelly as simply white obscures the specifics of American racial formation, because Italians were not always white. For example, the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited US citizenship to immigrants who were free white persons of good character, meaning those from the British Isles and northwestern Europe. Yet between 1890 and 1920, an influx of southern and eastern Europeans arrived at Ellis Island to the chagrin of a country cloaked in white nationalism. To stem the tide of immigration, the 1924 Immigration Act marginalized Italians and other groups by allowing for only a 2 percent increase in ethnic group entry based on census data from 1890. By the 1960s, the period when Green Book is set, Italians had only been considered white for less than a generation. "Italians are n— with short memories,” Chuck Nice, a Black comedian and DJ on WAXQ-FM, quipped in 2002. The statement created a firestorm of controversy among Italian Americans. Leaders of The Order Sons of Italy in America, the preeminent organization for Italians in the US., lamented the double standard of a Black person using the epithet about whites and the radio station’s refusal to broadcast an on-air apology.

Some Italians defended Nice, concurring that most Italian Americans suffered from historical amnesia; in fact, this was not the first time the epithet had been used in reference to Italians. Anglo Saxons often used the n-word when referring to Italians and southern and eastern Europeans, according to the book Are Italians White? “The boss used to call us n—” and, “told us we weren't white men,” a Sicilian American who worked Louisiana's sugarcane fields in the late nineteenth century stated.

From the late 1890s, Italians were also referred to by the word guinea – a word which had been previously used to describe African slaves, James Barrett and David Roediger note in "How White People Became White." Prior to WWII, Italians occupied a liminal space in America’s racial hierarchy, with a long history of comparison to Black people. In 1891, 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans, where their “less-than-white racial status mattered.” During the 1898 debate of the Louisiana State Constitutional Convention, legislators agreed that Italians, “are as Black as the blackest negro in existence.” In 1911, Louisiana Governor John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob two decades before, believed Italians “are a little worse than Negroes...being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless, treacherous.” In 1937, Italians and other new immigrants were labeled “temporary negroes.”

Such uses of racial and ethnic slurs affirm Nice’s comment. It is also a reminder that the pan-ethnic category “white,” which now classifies all people of European descent as a homogeneous group, obscures the complexity of racial formation in the United States. But the process of historical amnesia was all too simple. Writer Ralph Ellison stated that European immigrants “could look at the social position of Blacks” and determine that skin color was the defining factor regarding who was and who was not American. “Perhaps that is why one look of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term ‘n—,’ it made them feel instantly American.”

Italian immigrants demonstrated pride in their country of origin by carving out sections of urban centers which they identified as “Little Italy.” Simultaneously, the process of political and social acculturation demanded that Italians position themselves in proximity to whiteness to gain full access to the American body politic – a process James Baldwin dubbed “the price of the ticket.” Consequently, Italians defined themselves not only by who they were but also by who they were not: Black. Malcolm X called Italian attempts to deny their Blackness laughable in a 1964 speech. He noted that the African Hannibal of Carthage, along with 90,000 African soldiers, had conquered Italy and intermarried and cohabitated with Italians over two decades. “No Italian will ever jump up in my face and start putting bad mouth on me, because I know his history,” Malcolm said. “I tell him when you talk about me, you’re talking about your pappy. . . He knows his history, he knows how he got that color.”

For Italians, this process of becoming white included aligning themselves with the history of settler colonialism in the Americas by lobbying the Roosevelt administration to recognize the contributions of their Italian forbear Christopher Columbus. As a result, President Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12, Columbus Day, a federal holiday in 1937.

In a recent article for The North Star on the naming of Ida B. Wells Drive in Chicago, Michelle Duster demonstrates Italian Americans’ continuing allegiance to white nationalism. Balbo Street, named for Italian aviator Italo Balbo, was initially set to be renamed for Wells-Barnett (Balbo played a role in the ethnic cleansing campaigns of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime). The Chicago Italian community fiercely challenged the effort, so that “the controversy began to overshadow the goal of honoring Ida B. Wells.”

The incident was a reminder of the long history of racial tensions between Blacks and Italians in Chicago and urban communities across the nation. Italians were undoubtedly subject to anti-immigrant discrimination, but their ability to overcome this obstacle was due to a social and political alignment with whiteness that solidified their Americanness. As scholar David Roediger’s afterword to Are Italians White? stated, “The question is not only are Italians white, but when did they become white and at what cost?”

About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.