January 27, 2010
My name is not Guido
Recently there has been a lot of debate about the legitimacy of the term “Guido” and the lifestyle it is supposed to represent, much of it stemming from the MTV show "Jersey Shore." Some have claimed that the term is either inoffensive, or the reaction to it is overblown. It doesn’t surprise me that many of those defending the term are somehow connected to the media, since it is the media’s use of the term that has caused so much noise lately. It is difficult to argue that something is not offensive, because as long as enough people find it so, it becomes so. In the case of a term like “Guido,” we have precedents.
Guido is an Italian name, like Mario or Carlo. When you use a single name to label an entire ethnic group, it becomes derogatory; for example, when Irish workers are called “Paddy,” or when Hispanic men are addressed as “Pedro” when it is clearly not their name. Those claiming to be “Guidos” are not the only ones addressed that way, the term has been used to describe working-class Italians, and sometimes Italians in general.
As I have said many times before, many other ethnic groups do not normally tolerate things like this and I respect them for it. People who say that we can't compare ourselves to other groups have no right to dictate to us. No one has a monopoly on suffering, it isn't a contest and should have no bearing on whether or not something is offensive. Also, those who complain about censorship can be very selective about their targets; I do not see why Italians can be offended when other groups cannot. When different standards are used for different people then any claim of fairness or equality has no substance.
The defamation of Italians, especially Southerners, is so consistent that it cannot be ignored. The defense that "Italians are OK with it" isn’t accurate because many of us are not, and it doesn’t make it any less derogatory because some of us accept the abuse.
Ethnic or racial slurs are sometimes used by their target communities among themselves, particularly in music or comedy. I don’t happen to agree with the practice but I have noticed that if outsiders use the same terms they are usually held accountable for it, and they’ll be lucky if an apology is enough to settle the insult.
Any Italians who identify with being “Guidos” should take a lesson from this. Using the term with each other is one thing, even if it is in poor taste, but there is no good excuse for allowing other groups to disparage them with it.
In Brooklyn we used to use the terms “Cugine” or “Goomba” to describe the fellows who dressed a certain way and listened to disco music, but both terms have other, older meanings. If my memory serves me correctly, some of these guys weren’t even Italian. I understand that a form of this sub-culture survives today with modern club music, but claiming that it represents Italian culture is like saying that punk rockers represent English culture.
The "Cugines" that I remember were mostly good people, but the "Guido" stereotype that I'm seeing in the media today mocks them. It is regrettable that some of them are willing to adopt an ethnic slur as a label. What they wear and what music they listen to is none of my business, but neither is it my cultural heritage.