Italians fight back against outdated labels

3 Mins read

Italian communities have criticised a move by some British school districts in England and Wales to differentiate between Italian, Italian Sicilian and Italian Neapolitan students.

This year, the pupils and families filling the applications had to check an unexpected ethnic-related box, which, they say, was like going back in time.

“We have been united since the year 1861,” protested diplomats at the Italian Embassy, using tact and a dose of sarcasm to complain to the Foreign Office.

The first reports of the move came from parents, who were shocked by the data required – this tripartite division of ethnicity and language was portrayed as a kind of Italian variant.

This story bounced quickly to Italian media and newspapers and, to the astonishment of many, was proven to be true.

official meeting, queen, italian ambassador

Italian ambassador Pasquale Terraciano meets Queen Elizabeth II [Gisella Peana]

“These local initiatives were probably motivated by the intention of identifying non-existent special language needs” and eventually providing some kind of “support”, Ambassador Pasquale Terraciano told the Italian news agencies.

“Good intentions don’t always lead us to the right path” the ambassador said, especially when they become “unintentionally discriminatory, as well as offensive to southerners”.

However, while an actual questionnaire does exist, but it concerns a distinction that is formally not of ethnical nature, but of a linguistic one.

There seems to be no intent to discriminate between Italian, Sicilian and Neapolitan on the basis of their origins.

UK schools were simply asking the parents of Italian pupils to indicate which language areas they feel the prospective students belong to or which Italian dialect they are better acquainted with.

This situation bred various debates and critiques among the Italian community and many people wondered: “Why did they highlight a linguistic difference between Italians and not, for example, among Spanish or Belgians; countries where different languages are spoken almost the population, such as Castilian and Catalan or French and Dutch?”

As a result the embassy decided to send an official note to the Foreign Office which demands “the immediate removal” of this undue pseudo-ethnic characterisation, which has nothing to do with the importance of genuine regional or Italian dialects connotations.

The note finishes with a reminder that Italy has been unified since March 17, 1861.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The UK government collects language information as part of the school census to ensure children whose first language is not English still have the best possible education in Britain”.

“We have not been aware of a historic administrative error in the language codes in use since 2006,” the spokesman stated.

This comes as the UK is currently dealing the prospect of Brexit, the divorce from the European Union, in a climate in which issues like the flow of migrants or the possible closure of the UK borders have led to divisiveness and animosity both in society and politics.

In a climate that locally reflects the serious “lack of knowledge of the Italian reality”, it also brings to light the widespread ignorance concerning other countries in general, Terraciano observed.

He suggested this reflected “a late nineteenth-century view of our immigration” and maybe even of Italy altogether.

Many people wondered whether this story will have a real impact on the life of Italians in the UK, or if everything was simply exaggerated by the media.

A PhD professor from the London School of Economics, who asked to remain anonymous, said that these two things are not mutually exclusive.

“Yes, the media jumped on this story, like it would be expected in a climate of post-Brexit friction, refugee crises and generalised racism also fuelled by the upcoming US elections.

“The fact that the media amplified the story doesn’t mean that the students involved – and to a degree all the youngsters from the regions that were singled out – didn’t suffer an emotional or practical damage from the ordeal.”

While this error has had no material impact on the education received by Italian pupils in the UK, the government is aware of having committed a diplomatic mistake that should never have happened and they said they deeply regret any offence was caused.

The Department of Education has corrected the codes and so now all Italian speakers will be classified under one unit in Great Britain.




Feature image by Katie Harbath via Flickr CC

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