This I Believe

Lawrence - Mililani, Hawaii
Entered on February 2, 2007


America, the land of the free, has changed. Overwhelmed by political correctness, it has now become the land of the socially apprehensive. We are afraid to say or do anything that could possibly be construed as demeaning or offensive to any religion, culture, or ethnic group. And as a result of this pervasive quest for enlightened inoffensiveness, we have lost our cultural sense of humor. The question is: What can we do about it?

We should learn a lesson from the Italian-American community. Why? Because I respectfully submit that Italian-Americans have maintained a cultural sense of humor despite the fact that they are members of the most demeaned and defamed ethnic group in this country.

Don’t believe me? Well, let me ask you this: When was the last time you saw a movie or TV show that featured Italians where they (a) weren’t Mafia goons, (b) were not loud, low class, and prone to emotional outbursts, (c) didn’t, in at least one scene, eat pasta and drink wine, or (d) didn’t talk with heavy Italian or North Jersey accents?

The entertainment industry has been stereotyping Italians for years. Chico Marx (of the Marx Brothers), for example, wore an Italian peasant’s floppy hat and spoke with an exaggerated Italian accent over 70 years ago. The Cosa Nostra has always been a big draw. Movies and television shows, such as Goodfellas, The Sopranos, and the venerable Godfather series, merely foster the stereotype of the Mafia family. And finally, television never had a problem spoofing us. Do you remember the commercial, “Mama mia, atsa soma spicy meata balla?” And we can’t forget Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido Scarducci, whose accent, I must admit, “wasa onea da besta?”

So, what’s my point? Surprisingly enough, most of the Italians I know could care less about Hollywood’s denigrations, preferring to simply ignore or at least overlook them. And am I personally concerned about any real or perceived stereotyping? Not at all—I maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing. I blithely watch the Mafia shows, laugh when a situation comedy lampoons Italian eccentricities, and get on with my life.

But my real point is this: If the largest, most denigrated minority in America can “shrug off” such pervasive defamation, why then do many of the other ethnic groups that make up our great country have huge problems when a perceived, “slightly off-center” comment is made?

I believe it’s because they have lost their ethnic sense of humor. Any culture that allows itself to feel denigrated, defamed, or disenfranchised, forfeits all possibilities for enjoying its unique situation in American society. To state the obvious, no culture is perfect. Nevertheless, it’s our ability to accept who we are, both personally and culturally, that enables us to enjoy life without the hindrances of being offended or feeling fear or anger. Italian-Americans have somehow learned this.

Now, before you jump all over me, I do not condone ethnic slurs and racial or religious denigration. I absolutely abhor anything said or done in hatred or with malice or evil intent! But, we as Americans have somehow lost our ability to separate hatred induced deeds and invective from misstatement, misinterpretation, or unfortunate cultural misunderstanding. And the best way I know to correct this would be to recover our cultural sense of humor.

In closing, I have no magical resolution to the problem. There are thin-skinned individuals and oversensitive groups whose hypersensitivity most likely stems from the inherent values and volitions—the basic foundation—of their ethnic makeup. How do you alter this? Most likely you can’t, and probably shouldn’t. And even if you tried, it would be no easy task.

But, I have hope. Perhaps the great American melting-pot will eventually do just that—melt the fears and apprehensions of various individuals and groups into one harmoniously compatible culture. It has happened before; and at the risk of appearing naïve, I am optimistic that it will happen again.

And finally, if you still don’t believe that Italian-Americans are the largest denigrated minority, then let me ask just one more question. What’s the thinnest book in the world?