Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s quip about Barack Obama’s permanent “suntan” almost certainly wasn’t intended to offend. But now he’s battling accusations of racism.
Clearly, race is a delicate issue. And for those who have covered Berlusconi over the years, it’s easy to understand how such a gaffe prone leader would stumble — spectacularly — on such a sensitive subject.
The remarks came at a press conference on Thursday in Moscow, where Berlusconi was trying to demonstrate his self-described role as a bridge-builder between Russia and the United States, both strong allies of Italy.
“I will try to help relations between Russia and the United States where a new generation has come to power, and don’t see problems for (Russian President Dmitry) Medvedev to establish good relations with Obama who is handsome, young and also suntanned,” he said.
I’ve seen Berlusconi get criticised for gaffes over the years — he once joked about flirting with Finland’s woman president to broker a political deal — but never has the public outcry been as fast and furious as with his comments about Obama.
Berlusconi, who appears to have a blind spot to sensitive issues like sex and race, couldn’t understand why people were so upset. An image-conscious businessman who had plastic surgery and a hair-transplant, Berlusconi says he struggles to look as good as Obama. By tanning.
“How can one say that from my mouth the adjective ‘tanned’ can be considered offensive when I, every day, do everything I can — and I mean everything — to appear tanned in public,” he was quoted saying in Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.
Many Italians shrugged off the latest Berlusconi slip. But others were outraged and talked openly of racism. Reuters Television interviewed people around Rome this morning and got comments like this one from Franco Lupi: “This isn’t a joke, this is almost rascism. ‘Tanned’? What is that supposed to mean? (Obama) is a black man. If I said things like that people would call me racist.”
The gaffe gave ammunition to Italy’s opposition centre-left led by Walter Veltroni, who lost to Berlusconi in April elections and whose 2008 campaign motto “Si Puo Fare” was an almost literal translation of Obama’s “Yes, we can”.
“It seriously damages the image and dignity of our country on the international stage,” Veltroni said, demanding Berlusconi deliver an official apology to Obama.
An overwhelmingly white, Catholic nation, Italy doesn’t show much sensitivity when it comes to talking about race. Insensitive newspaper headlines and political cartoons, particularly related to Obama’s election, have been frequent. One cartoon printed in Panorama magazine showed a darkened photo of the White House. The caption read: The Black House. Obama’s head was attached to an eagle hovering above.
Another political cartoon published on Nov. 4 on the front page page of Italy’s main newspaper Corriere della Sera showed Berlusconi trying to imitate Obama by putting on black face paint. “I’m your Obama”, the caption read.
Race is becoming an increasingly important subject, however, thanks to concerns over illegal and legal immigration. Berlusconi’s government includes a famously anti-immigrant political party, the Northern League, that has control of the interior ministry and has pushed through new laws that European politicians have alleged are racist.
Party leader Umberto Bossi has in the past referred to immigrants as “bingo bongos”. That makes Berlusconi’s suntan comment look rather tame in comparison.
Berlusconi is now reportedly seeking a phone call with Obama. Who thinks the colour of Obama’s skin colour will come up in conversation?