Instagram Reel Trends, Cultural Appropriation and the History of US Italian Immigrants

There is a current Instagram Reel trend I’d like to talk about. Its set to a classic Sicilian tarantella, Che La Luna and the creators use a traditional (and stereotypical) Italian hand gesture through the whole reel as they list things that make sense to their situation… “Things that make sense in our large family” or “Things in my public school classroom that just make sense” etc.

The first time I saw one of these reels, it made me go, “hmm.” 

The second time it make me feel uncomfortable.

The more I saw of people doing this hand gesture that my great grandmother did, my aunts, my uncles, my father, even I do…to a traditional Italian song, the more uncomfortable I felt.

Friends, this reel trend is cultural appropriation at its finest. And as a descendant of Italian immigrants, incredibly offensive.

Please stop doing this.

Think about it. Imagine if it was a traditional Chinese song while people made stereotypical asian gestures. What if it was a African-American spiritual song with some kind of stereotypical black gesture?

I got to thinking, “why do the 20,600 people who have made this reel think its ok?” I know their intention is not malicious. The only thing I can come up with is that the marginalization of Italian and Sicilian immigrants in this country is just…not taught. It’s filed right in there with the dirty parts of our history that we don’t like to talk about. They’re doing these trending reels, and thinking they’re ok, because of a lack of education.

The Largest Mass Public Lynching in the United States

In 1890 New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was shot multiple times. In the hospital, before he died, he told the police captain it was “Dagos” — one of the many derogatory terms for Italians at the time. The mayor of New Orleans told police to “scour the whole neighborhood. Arrest every Italian you come across.” They arrested 45 men, of those 19 men were charged with the murder.

In February 1891, nine of those men were tried and found not guilty, however all 9 of them were returned back to prison. The community had been so incited by the mayor of New Orleans, the local newspaper and other area politicians that on March 14th a mob formed outside the prison and broke down the door with a battering ram. The prison warden let out the 19 Italian prisoners and told them to hide. 

8 men hid, 11 were not so lucky.

E. Benjamin Andrews – Andrews, E. Benjamin. History of the United States, volume V. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1912. Public Domain

The mob proceeded to publicly lynch 11 Italian Americans. One was hanged from a lamppost and shot, another hanged from a tree and shot, their bodies left there for hours. The 9 others were clubbed to death or shot. Among the lynch mob, was John M. Parker, later elected as Governor of Louisiana and Walter C. Flower the 44th mayor of New Orleans.

This was one of the largest mass lynchings in US history and people, nationwide, cheered.

On March 16th The New York Times published in an editorial: “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations.”

Even Theodore Roosevelt, before he became president, wrote to his sister Anna on March 21st saying, “Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing, and said so.”

John M. Parker, who had helped organize the lynch mob was quoted in 1911 as saying that Italians were, “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.” He was elected Governor of Louisiana 9 years later.

The lynchings of Italians were not isolated to this New Orleans event. There are accounts of lynchings of Italian Americans in eight other states from 1885 through 1915.

Italian Immigrant Discrimination

The marginalization of Italian Americans and anti-Italian racism continued well into the 20th century. In the late 19th century Italians were leaving their homeland because of political upheaval and the need for labor in America. By 1940 around 1,623,580 Italians had settled in America, most were manual laborers, shop owners and fishermen.

Discrimination was strong against working class Italian Americans, especially because they were happy and willing to do “negro work”. Ethnic stereotypes of Italians being dirty, criminals, and low class were pervasive and extended into newspapers and media of the time. Sicilians were considered the worst of the worst Italians on the basis of their darker skin and because they came from such poverty.

A political cartoon commenting on Italian immigrants in the United States, 1911. Original caption: A Wop. The illustration shows a caricature of a recent Italian immigrant shining shoes for a well-dressed customer. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Italians, Enemy Aliens During WWII

Much has been brought to light about the abhorrent treatment of Japanese Americans post the attack on Pearl Harbor. We’ve seen pictures of the internment camps. We know FDR issued Proclamation 2525 on December 7, 1941, declaring all citizens of Japan ages 14 and older to be enemy aliens.

What we don’t hear about is Proclamations 2527, made the very next day declaring, “all natives, citizens, denizens or subjects of Italy being of the age of fourteen years and upwards who shall be within the United States or within any territories in any way subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and not actually naturalized…are termed alien enemies…”

By early 1942 Proclamation 2537 required enemy aliens (around 600,000 Italian Americans) to register with the Department of Justice and carry their enemy alien paperwork with them at all times. Curfews were instated for Italian American communities. Many were not allowed to travel over 5 miles from their homes. Boats of Italian fishermen were confiscated. Over 418 Italians were rounded up and kept in internment camps. Countless more were arrested and searched. Even Joe DiMaggio’s mother was taken into custody and his father was not allowed to fish, his boat seized. (Let us not forget that Joe DiMaggio enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in February of 1943.)

The FBI initiated searches and seizures of Italian Americans (with no warrant necessary). Anyone with frequent travels to and from Italy were deemed suspicious. Those merely speaking Italian became a person of interest. Even naturalized Italian American citizens were people of interest.

My Italian Immigrant Heritage

Much of this history I already knew. Some, like Proclamation 2537 is new to me. So, I called my Grandmother, whose parents were first generation Italian Americans. She was only about 6 years old when the tragedy at Pearl Harbor happened, but she remembers it well.

I told her about the registrations via Proclamation 2537 that were required. I asked if she remembered if her grandparents had to register. She didn’t, but she did remember how much her mom loved FDR and her dad hated him and how they’d have heated discussions about it. She also remembers when the war ended, how everyone in their Italian neighborhood ran into the streets cheering and banging on pots and pans.

Both my great grandfather and great grandmother spoke fluent Italian. My great grandmother passed when I was in my 20s and I never once heard her speak Italian, save for a random curse word here and there. I asked my grandmother about this. She told me her parents would speak Italian to their parents because it was their native language. My great grandfather would always tell my grandmother and her brother, “We are Americans, we speak English.” She still regrets not learning the language.

We talked about what it was like for them as Italian immigrant families, how hard it was to be accepted by Americans and the assortment of names they were called especially as Sicilians. She told me how people used to call them Wops, Guineas or Dagos. “People just had their minds made up about us, no one wanted Italians, especially Sicilians.” I asked if she was ever called those names in school and she said no, most of her classmates were Italian, they kept to Italian neighborhoods because it was safer.

We talked about how strong our family is. How brave it was to leave everything they knew and come here, knowing they would not be accepted and that the road would be hard. We talked about how her father died when she was only 10 and how her mother raised her and her brother alone, earning income from the building they owned and lived in. My great grandmother had the support of her sisters, part of what made her a successful single mother in the mid 1940s. 

The United States has very dark roads in their history. If we don’t educate ourselves on our history — even the dark parts — we have the possibility of walking them a second time. Understanding my family and their history helps me better understand myself. My heart breaks that parts of our culture and our language were left behind in an effort to assimilate and belong, in an effort to be safe. I am painfully aware that the color of our skin, afforded us the ability to assimilate easier. These things break my heart.

I know these people, now 21,000 in the time it took me to write this, using this Sicilian song, and making these Italian hand motions in their reels are not being malicious. They probably don’t even know. They’re just doing a thing. But I wonder if they knew the history, would they have more respect for the culture and its people?

2 thoughts on “Instagram Reel Trends, Cultural Appropriation and the History of US Italian Immigrants

  1. Emily says:

    I knew none of this stuff and I soon as I saw them thought ‘this ain’t right’
    I found this looking for why no one seemed to be calling it out. The history is really interesting and thank you for sharing, but I don’t think bad thing need to happen to a culture for mimicking it to be wrong. It’s just wrong.

    • admin says:

      Hi Emily! Agreed, a imitating a culture is just not ok. Thank you for your feedback. I felt the need to address it and did so on an instagram reel as well as here (please feel free to share). I’ve gotten a lot of thank yous from other people who said it made them feel uncomfortable too, but they weren’t sure how to address it. I also got hurtful comments too.

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