BtBA Day 4

Queensday was Day 4 for #BtBA; meeting Jeff Rosenstock from Queens College, being inspired by the Louis Armstrong House/Museum and considering community outreach at Queens Museum of Art. The day was rounded off by a Directors Tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

In this post I want to focus on me as a person of Italian origin. If I needed a tag line for this it would be from ethnic to mainstream.

51 years in Australia and I am still often asked where I am from.

I want to reflect on and try to provide some insights on how my Italianness plays out in New York.

The #BtBA group was consistently introduced or referred to as the Australians. Those who heard this have universally accepted this without the follow up question, “but where are you actually from?”

Over the days I have realised that unlike Australia where I have been given my place in a minority community, here I have to come to terms with being part of the mainstream. In New York there is indeed an expanded mainstream in which the WASP population has been joined by Irish Catholics, Jews and Italians.

I have been trying to understand myself in this context.

While having a drink and something to eat in East Village is fun, I felt most connected to the Hispanic population of Queens or the African American population of Harlem. My comfort is in walking through Queens and hearing the almost universal Spanish language, seeing multilingual signage and trying to communicate with people with heavily accented English. I have absolutely no sense that I may not belong to this. This is part of my life stepping out in Cabramatta, Auburn or Campsie in Sydney.

Yet for those who continue to experience the vulnerability of their minority, I feel I am seen as the other, the privileged ones, the white mainstream.

What I learn and what certainly upsets and worries me is that this view ofwhere I belong is rationalised by both the perception and experience of the Italian American population being at best, less than tolerant and at worst, racist. In these chance encounters I do not have the luxury of time to show who I am or what I believe in so I am reduced to a stereotype as a first response. And I have to learn to accept that this stereotype is not necessarily positive.

As a migrant child to Australia and understanding migration history, the phenomena of migration waves delivering a layered immigrant community is not new, but I always felt removed from the strictures of this.

A Latino background community development worker I met responded to my questions about inter-ethnic tensions and discrimination, and in particular why she had positioned Italians as the discriminators rather than the discriminated.

Her answer carried the clarity of a deeply lived and felt marginality when she said, “in this place there is a cultural incentive to become white”.

White, privilege, access, wealth, arts, donors, private, over there, up there, down there, to the blanketed area of central Manhattan. The words now start to swoon and mingle and I can only start to scratch at trying to understand this most complex of places.

But is the ‘Italian as mainstream white’ phenomena really any different in Australia. Maybe not but perhaps it is at a critical point of change and for me a change that is unwelcome. In Australia many of the post war migrants and their communities are manifesting less that sympathetic attitudes to new and emerging communities and refugees/asylum seekers in particular. They have been comfortable in absorbing and reflecting the demonising rhetoric of successive Federal governments.

I am not suggesting that Italian Australians should be denied social mobility or to take a rightful place as part of the mainstream but I am suggesting that they should not rationalise away their responsibility to new and emerging groups and especially Muslim Australians with their own three word slogan, NOT LIKE US.

Perhaps there is a significant difference between the USA and Australia. The predominant narrative here is ethno centrist until the point of cross over into the mainstream. There is no multicultural narrative. The word is not used. There are also few if any visible pan ethnic structures such as our FECCA and ECCs to advocate for multiculturalism.

My feeling here is that there is an either/or paradigm whereas in Australia we are most concerned with the in between.

I will step out tomorrow and try to enjoy my invisibility.


The Queens Picture:

  • 70% overseas born
  • 30% not proficient in English
  • 25% undocumented (so interesting that in Australia we use the word ‘illegal’)
  • 21% below the poverty line
  • While the largest population is ‘Hispanic’ the actual waves in chronology have been Italian, African Americans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Peruvians and Columbians

Pino Migliorino