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Obama’s “Suntan”

November 7, 2008

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.

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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?

Comments

What can I say? I am Italian and I feel ashamed having a PM like Berlusconi. He doesn’t care about what other people says about him, his money power is such that he can say everything he wants and not being touched by anybody. Here in Italy he is used to says the most incredible things and then the day after pretending he never said such things (despite being on records) or that he has been misinterpreted. It’s embarrassing to live in this country with a Prime Minister like this. Forgive us, we are not all the same.
PS: I am very happy Mr Obama won the US election.
Roberto

Posted by Roberto | Report as abusive
 

Berlusconi has to be removed !!!

Posted by World Citizen | Report as abusive
 

Berlusconi has to be removed !!

Posted by World Citizen | Report as abusive
 

If you stop and think for a second it ,didnt Joe Biden say something,not so redeeming about Barack Obama?Joe Biden made a comment but i dont recall what it was,
The Point is the vice president made a not so cool remark so why jump all over and criticize a foreign head of state,yeah it wasnt the best choice of words but still it should not be a big deal.

Posted by Ricky Davis | Report as abusive
 

Nothing Mr. Berlusconi says or does can surprise me anymore. What does surprises me, is that he was re-elected to his current position.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive
 

Thank you for your courageous honesty Roberto. People like you will make the difference in Italy. Grazie!

Posted by World Citizen | Report as abusive
 

Hi, I’m italian and yes, I do support Silvio Berlusconi.I suppose you’d like to ask me why. I think he’s the best politician Italy has got right now. Why do we keep on voting him? well… If the other candidate for prime minister is Walter Veltroni the answer is quite obvious. Mr Veltroni tries to imitate (in a very embarassing way) your president elected Barack Obama, is the leader of a very weak political party, cannot even define his own programme without copying Obama’s…Berlusconi instead is a very clever businessman, who knows how the world goes, he’s practical, prefers action instead of pointless ideals and yes, he sometimes makes mistakes. Calling Obama “suntanned” is obviously a mistake, but it doesn’t mean he’s racist.All the italians who left comments like “he’s not my president” “I’m sorry” “I didn’t vote for him”, well you americans should place very little credit on their words. They belong to the same lef parties that not so long ago where anti-american, despided your culture, your politics, your way of living, burned your flag… they’re only frustrated ’cause Silvio is sitting on that chair, making Italian history, and they are near the computers, the only power a keyboard. (communists for example are even out of our parliament, they haven’t had enough votes!)

Posted by Sara F | Report as abusive
 

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