I have to begin by stating that my ancestry is half-Italian. In today’s world, it seems that without such a qualifier, one cannot speak about matters involving a societal sub-group, unless one’s membership in said group is established. I don’t even necessarily agree with this current trend, but that’s my disclaimer, supposedly permitting me to speak on this matter. Let me make another disclaimer: I dislike CNN, and I have no affinity for our Governor, either.
Before Chris Cuomo’s outburst, I didn’t even know who he was. A relative of the Governor? News to me. Seriously. TV and me are not the closest of friends. Either way, I cannot defend Chris Cuomo’s crass and vulgar response.
However, I do agree that it isn’t right to call Mr. Cuomo “Fredo.” Neither was Cuomo’s histrionic outburst, but that’s for his therapist to deal with, not me; there’s a plush couch in a cozy Manhattan office for that. In this opinion piece, I’m dealing strictly with the “ethnic slur.” The reporter’s response is well beyond territory I wish to approach.
Now, is “Fredo” even an ethnic slur, as Cuomo claims? What about if someone had called him a “Don?,” as some laudatory sidelong praise of how he “takes over” interviews? (As I’ve never seen him interacting with ANYone, save the man calling him Fredo, I have no idea if this could ever even be true!) Or, told him he commands others like “The Godfather?” Is it strictly because the character Fredo in the Godfather movie is a weakling, a dimwitted Judas?
Really, Italian-Americans, of any political persuasion, should not have to be compared to fictional mob characters from a worn-out movie meme. Am I alone in my thinking? Actually, no. Most Italian-Americans I’ve spoken with this week feel the same way. Not a single real-life person I know wishes to be compared in such ways. Strangely, those interviewed by major periodicals seem to differ in their views. Perhaps, this is because they are talking with people outside their culture?
There’s more to our Italian-American culture than mob-movie memes. True, Chris Cuomo lived up to the stereotype, embarrassing us Italian-Americans in the process with his angry, violence-soaked response, but still, no one I spoke with relishes being referenced in this manner. Now, of course, the dude was trolled. Big time. But he did have a point. Maybe the point would have been better taken without the expletives and threats of throwing anyone down the stairs? Cuomo was only inches from growling that he’ll have the guy wearing concrete shoes! But, I digress….
I think of my Jewish family members, and know they wouldn’t want to be called “Bloomberg” because of their personal success and business acumen, or even “Barbra Streisand” because they sing like a diva. (Einstein is OK. But we don’t think of Einstein as a Jew first, but rather as the example of genius. And, no one cares about being referred to as a genius.) But, there’s something just…wrong…in referring to someone using an ethnic name, either a fictional character or a real-life, celebrated person.
What about calling an African-American runner a “regular Jesse Owens” because he runs fast? I mean, comparing a person to a four-time Olympic Gold Medalist, probably the most noted track and field competitor in history, may seem OK, but it reeks of bias. There’s some implicit stereotyping involved. But what about referring to a fast white guy as Jesse Owens? Is that OK? This all raises lots of questions.
And, is it alright for a Black person to use this name reference for another African-American who runs like lightning? The way our culture is, and possibly all cultures are, and always have been, someone of the same group instantly gets a pass in doing so. It’s a way of owning one’s heritage, of linking the achievements of an individual to a legendary person from our shared cultural vault of ideas.
And, saying that Chris Cuomo once called himself Fredo is only a half-truth. Curtis Sliwa, founder the Guardian Angels, and more lately an AM radio talk show host on WABC in NYC, was joking with Cuomo about his political family, likening them all to characters from Mario Puzo’s story. Cuomo played along. But that’s different. Why? It was done in jest, just as Mel Brooks’ character Rabbi Tuckman in his critically-acclaimed comedy “Robin Hood: Men In Tights” plays with memes and stereotypical images. It’s just not the same.
In conclusion, I guess it’s really how someone says something. If you’re joking, it’s OK to joke about your own ethnic group. If you’re joking or not, it’s never OK to make any references, as an outsider. That is, unless you’re paying a compliment…and not an underhanded one, at that. I do suspect that if Cuomo was, instead, called the “Don of all Dons when it came to interviews,” he would have instead been shaking the man’s hand and laughing, instead of launching into a questionable tirade, in front of his kid, no less.
Let this teach us all something: No one wants to be called names – unless it’s done in the service of jest. Or compliment.
Author: Joey Caputo