* The sign has now been taken down and Pacilli has apologised to the Chinese community about any offence he might have caused. Which solves precisely nothing.
Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Fear and loathing in Empoli
This sign, which forbids entry to all Chinese who don't speak Italian, can be found* in the window of a clothes shop in Empoli, near Florence. In an Italy that seems to have woken up and found itself racist and can't quite work out why, this looks like just one small tile in an increasingly large and ugly mosaic, if that isn't too colourful a term for the phenomenon. But there's an interesting and, to my mind at least, partly mitigating, story behind the sign. The owner of the shop, Gino Pacilli, says that he's sick and tired of Chinese customers coming into the shop, examining the way the clothes are made, trying them on, refusing to speak Italian when he asks them if he can help, leaving without buying or saying Grazie. He claims that they're simply checking out the competition and looking for items they can profitably make copies of, undercutting the legit producers from whom he buys his stock (almost certainly made in China). It's certainly true that there's a massive presence of Chinese sweatshops, invariably both illegal and exploitative, producing clothes in the Florence area, and that the Chinese community is the least interested of all ethnic communities in integration, to the point of concealing its birth and death rates from the local authorities so that documents can be recycled (Chinese immigrants to Italy rarely die, in official terms at least). So, while there's no doubt that the sign is ostensibly racist, there's also a sort of exasperation and anxiety behind it that shades the issue grey, just as the Rosarno riots two weeks ago were shaded grey by the social context in which they took place, the presence of organised crime, the absence of the state, and so on - a presence and absence from which both local people and immigrants suffered on a daily basis, and in which they were all, without exception, complicit. In this type of situation, blanket accusations of racism may be as compromised, and ineffective, as the racism they're attacking. In the meantime, Pacilli says that no more Chinese customers have entered his shop - a sure sign that they do in fact read Italian. If that were the case, of course, they could enter with impunity. But whoever said fear and its consequences were logical?