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This article originally appeared in RaceWire, a news service of the Applied Research Center, publishers of ColorLines magazine.

Shark Tale, the new animated feature film, opened in theaters October 1. The film has the breathtaking imagery and witty script we've come to expect from movies for kids. The film features terrifying villains, comic action, catchy music, and two likeable protagonists voiced by movie stars Jack Black and Will Smith.

But some people think Shark Tale is racist.

The National Coalition Against Racial, Religious and Ethnic Stereotyping (CARRES) was founded in January 2004 and made Shark Tale its first target for reform. But this group is not spearheaded by the NAACP or the National Council of La Raza. This group was started by Italians.

That's right. CARRES was initiated by organizations such as the Columbus Citizens Foundation, The National Italian American Foundation and the Order Sons of Italy in America. These and other Italian American groups are upset about the film's cast of vicious shark mafia with Italian names and accents, and their use of phrases like "fuhgettaboutit" and "capeesh." Shark Tale taps into a cultural assumption that all Italians are connected to the mob. It's a stereotype as old as Hollywood and as current as the Sopranos.

According to the CARRES press release, they asked the film's production company, Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks SKG, "to change the gangsters' last names in Shark Tale to ones that do not call to mind a specific ethnic group and to remove all script elements that identify them as Italian." The group began an email pressure campaign and even lobbied to have the MPAA change the film's rating from PG to PG-13 or R. The group also targeted Spielberg with letters and public pleas.

This isn't the first time Italian American organizations have decried stereotypes in movies and television. An Italic Institute of America study of the nearly 1100 Hollywood films from 1928 to 2000 documents that 73% portrayed them as "criminals or buffoons." Existing Italian American organizations have spoken out against these negative images over the years, but the formation of CARRES is something new.

The movie's target audience is what particularly angers its opponents. "It is the first children's mafia movie," said Dona De Sanctis, a CARRES spokesperson and the Deputy Executive Director of the Order Sons of Italy, the largest and longest-running Italian American organizations in the U.S. "They are passing this stereotyping on to the next generation."

The group also decries Shark Tale's negative images of Black characters. "[We believe] the character played by Will Smith is offensive to African Americans," said De Sanctis. "Oscar," the lazy, shifty-but-adorable, gambling, jive-talking hustler voiced by Smith, is the main character of the film.

As a son of Italian American and Black American parents I wondered whether CARRES represented a new anti-racist consciousness in the Italian community? Or are Italian American organizations just irked by being stuck with the mafia label? Are Italian American organizations just against stereotypes, or are they against racism at all levels of society?

Italian American history may help answer those questions. Italian immigrants to this country suffered a long history of discrimination, exclusion and violence. There is also a long history of Italian Americans committed to interracial unity and inclusiveness. But most of the Italian American community left their darker immigrant brethren behind when they gained political clout, economic success and acceptance in white society.

The term "wop," a once common ethnic slur against Italians, was originally an acronym for the phrase "without papers," referring to Italians' supposed immigration status. Many Italians arriving in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (when the largest numbers of Italian immigrants came to the U.S.) were not even considered white, but were labeled "dark" or "dark/white." Condemned as "papists," Italians - and Irish too - were considered loyal to a foreign power in Rome.

Italian immigrants were susceptible to the same violence, discrimination, exploitation and scapegoating that other immigrants faced. In the Jim Crow South, there were many cases of Italians lynched by mobs or the Klan, including the infamous 1891 lynching of 11 Italians by a mob in a New Orleans jail.

The recent collection of essays Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America, edited by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, reveals much of this forgotten history of the Italian immigrant experience in the U.S. The essays reveal that in general Italians gained white identity and the accompanying privileges only by assimilating certain white cultural and political beliefs.

Italian Americans, like all other white ethnic groups in the U.S., were encouraged to accept in whole cloth the idea that they were part of a "white" race different and superior to other races. Never mind that Italians in Italy felt no more akin to Russians and English than to Syrians and Ethiopians. The logic of racism in the U.S. creates a hierarchy with whites at the top. Buying into the myth of racial superiority was in part responsible for lifting Italian Americans up from the tenements and sweatshops of the immigrant experience.

At this point, Italian ethnic enclaves, ghettos to which Italians were once relegated, became brutally protected turfs where non-Italians were unwelcome. Italian thugs at times greeted newer immigrants with fists, just as a previous generation of nativists greeted their parents and grandparents. Italian Americans became as racist as the rest of white America.

But CARRES was not established to right the historic wrong of racism in the Italian American community, rather to end the ongoing stereotyping of Italians in American popular culture. Herein lies the problem. While the stereotype of the Italian mobster certainly is prevalent, it is hardly the cutting edge of racism. Some stereotypes have higher consequences than others.

During World War II, 600,000 Italian Americans were put on travel restriction and thousands of fishermen had their boats confiscated out of the belief they were loyal to Mussolini. But today, Italians are not stopped by the police because of their skin color or prevented from flying because of their last names. Racial profiling is however the ongoing reality for people of color today.

The failure to address racism also breeds a lack of trust. Perhaps this is why the NAACP, National Council of La Raza and the Anti-Defamation League all declined the invitation to join CARRES, though the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab American Institute did join.

I do hope that the major Italian American organizations will move from opposing stereotypes to standing up against racism. A handful of Italian Americans marched with Blacks in Harlem against Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Italian and Black sharecroppers in Louisiana united against the common enemies: plantation owners and lynch law. U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio (1935-1950) of East Harlem defended the rights not only of Italian Americans but of Blacks and Puerto Ricans as well. Italian American writer and hip hop enthusiast Joe Sciorra and others joined with Rev. Al Sharpton to condemn the racist Bensonhurst killing. There is a rich tradition to draw from.

Shark Tale inspired the founding of CARRES, but it doesn't have to stop there. According to De Sanctis, the coalition is committed to continuing long after Shark Tale is forgotten. She promises that CARRES represents not just a coalition of Italian American groups but a new unity against discrimination and stereotyping "not just in the movies, and not just against Italian Americans." We can only hope so.

Libero Della Piana is the Editor of RaceWire. His writes frequently on issues of race and social change.



October 14 2004
Issue 109

is published every Thursday.

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