Mea Culpa to My Italian Friends

So…I did something bad.

But for something to be sinful we need to have full knowledge that it was sinful and while I had some partial knowledge, I didn’t have full knowledge until this afternoon.

In a recent column, about the Papal Conclave, I used a term for Italians which can be considered an epithet. I repeat it here for clarity and not to disrespect. The term is “guinea”.

Some personal background and then some historical background:

I grew up in an Italian parish. That word was thrown around casually in the neighborhood by Italians and non Italians alike. One of my best friends from high school referred to herself as a “skinny guinea.” So I’ve mostly associated it as a term of endearment and not a slur. It should be noted that my lovely wife is Italian and I’ve teased her with the term as the Irish guy in the family.

But in thinking about how I grew up, as an Irish kid in an Italian parish, I know I was often treated unfairly. People would call me “Irish” or “Mick” or even “Paddy”, but I never was really bothered by it. I was more upset at being treated as second best because I wasn’t “one of them”. I’m wondering if I was ever encouraged to use the term as a “comeback” to my Italian friends who I may have resented? In fairness, this was the exception and not the rule, my pastor was a wonderful man who treated me like a son. The Deacons in my parish were amazing men who gave all of us lots of opportunities and took us on all kinds of trips and ethnicity was never an issue. Many older Italian women would pinch my cheeks and treat me as one of their own when they’d see me serving mass or helping out in the parish. In the present day, my wife’s family is amazing and have welcomed me into a family that I love.

So that’s a bit of background. Now for the zinger.

After I posted the column two people who I really respect as colleagues wrote me a note about the use of the term and found it quite offensive. Now, because they know me, they cut me some slack and said they were sure that I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but that I really, really shouldn’t use that term for a person of Italian heritage.

I was somewhat stunned when I looked up the origin of the term in of course everyone’s best source, The Urban Dictionary:

guinea:
The most vile racial slur that can be used against an Italian-American. Refers to the Guinea Coast of Africa; using this slur is a very offensive way of implying that Italian-Americans are non-whites (something we tend to get very defensive about!!).

Unlike the “N-word”, which African-Americans sometimes use to address each other, no Italian-American would ever address another Italian-American using this word. Nor would they use the word “wop” (also offensive, but not in a racial way).

(Wop, by the way, refers to “without papers” which means an Italian who attempts to get into the country illegally. Marion’s grandmother used that term often and it always made me cringe.)

So, it turns out that it’s the Italian equivalent of the n-word. Oops. Thanks to my colleagues for pointing this out. And please accept my apologies as I never used that term this way in the past. I have changed the column to purge it from the column as I have from my vocabulary.

Now here’s a few honest questions that I have about this term. But first, a story:

My neighborhood was a very mixed neighborhood and crime was prevalent and often people of different ethnicities would be blamed unjustly for the rise in crime. Someone once said something horrendous about Puerto Ricans in my neighborhood and I challenged them.

“You shouldn’t say that! You know, you are no better than they are.”

Their response was an off the charts irrational reaction:

“DON’T YOU TELL ME I’M NO BETTER THAN A PUERTO RICAN!”

Me: “Well, sorry, but you’re not!”

I thought the person was going to swing at me next but instead she (yes, it was a white woman) just yelled the same line all the louder, nearly crying. It was as if I called her something horrible.

So my question, is more to the point of the reason for the offense associated with the term. I know what the answer is for my two colleagues, but I’m not certain that others years ago would concur.

If the origin of the term is “guinea negro” and referred to people from the Guinea coast of Africa, were people originally upset because we were associating them with black people?

I suspect now that it’s just an unkind term for anyone Italian, but I wonder about the original offense, and if it was not like the reaction in my story above.

Regardless, it’s just wrong.

And I’m sorry.

And I won’t use it again.

Maybe I’m just a dumb Mick.

Racism and ethic slurs still run deep even today, don’t they? We have a black man in the white house and I can’t tell you how many racial slurs I’ve heard used against him since he took office.

It’s always about fear. Fear of someone who is different from us, or who treats us bad because of who we are and then we take revenge looking at their differences and treating them as “less than.”

Who do we treat as “less than” today? Criminals, homosexuals, the unborn, the mentally ill?

It’s got to stop. So my Easter resolution is to be very aware of racism and ethnic slurs that I hear and perhaps those I have used myself, even if I’ve been unaware of them as slurs. But also to be aware of treating others as “less than”, even unintentionally and to rise above our hateful past and move into a place where we can all live in peace.

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