The most Italian of all Italian-Americans isn’t Al Pacino or Frank Sinatra. It’s not Tony Soprano or Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. It’s not even Madonna or Lady Gaga. It’s comedian Jaboukie Young-White.
A correspondent on The Daily Show, Jaboukie was born to Jamaican immigrants and raised in the Chicago suburbs. Online, though, he’s “giabuchi” — a proud Italian-American from New Jersey whose friends let him say racist shit.
Jaboukie is one of the most prominent Italian shitposters — memers, comics and online satirists making light of what it means to be a stereotypical Italian-American.
After decades of Martin Scorsese mob movies, Jersey Shore guidos and clips of Giada De Laurentiis over-enunciating parmigiano, Italian-American culture is ingrained into our everyday experiences. Bombastic, overly tan caricatures like Goodfellas, The Real Housewives of New Jersey and, more recently, The Circle’s Joey Sasso illuminated the almost comical pride that generations of Italians have for their ancestral country.
Italians are the American success story and a cultural punching bag, too. “It’s almost like how anyone in America can make fun of someone from New Jersey,” Matt Schimkowitz, senior editor at Know Your Meme, tells MEL. “Italian-American culture is ingrained into American culture in such a way that it’s open for anyone to joke about.” They’re an easy target because, after all, Italians are “white people, so they’re in power.”
A century and a half ago, it was a different story for Italian-Americans: They weren’t in power or even considered white. In the late 1800s, Italian immigrants came as refugees, some with darker complexions and most with less status or money than Englanders or Scandinavians. Italians were considered “in-between people,” too poor to be white yet non-homogenous with blacks.
Over the 20th century, Italians worked their way into wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods, marriages, schools and communities. As Brando Simeo Starkey writes for the Undefeated, “[By], most importantly, committing racism against black folk, through successive generations they became white.”
The belief that Italians are nonwhite Americans hasn’t fully aged out. As schools, states and corporations drop Columbus Day and call it Indigenous Peoples Day, Italian-American groups have balked at this perceived discrimination.
For extremely online people of color like Jaboukie, however, this is pure comedic fodder. “If Italians want to claim they’re not white, then maybe Jaboukie is in the same position to claim that he’s Italian,” Joshua Ditinsky tells MEL. He’s a Young-White historian who runs a Twitter account archiving Jaboukie’s deleted tweets, @jaboukiedeleted.
According to Ditinsky, Jaboukie’s first Italian reference came in response to a Twitter user asking why Jaboukie “code-switched” in an interview.
“Bro are you Asian? What code swicth are you referring To becuase your not one of us,” @MeechTf replied.
Jaboukie responded, “haha actually both my parents are Italian <3 i grew up in new jersey and all my friends let me say it.”
Still, Italian shitposting existed well before Jaboukie. One Italian-American who can’t help but become a meme: Ms. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, known to non-Italians and gay men as Lady Gaga. The Italian-American girl from New York has a habit of reminding us that she’s, well, an Italian-American girl from New York.
She’s even gotten in on the joke herself, satirizing her Italian catchphrases on Twitter.
The Italian jokes increased again in October through after a photo circulated of U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mid-speech at a congressional hearing for Facebook. In the photo, AOC is squinting and raising her pinched fingers: a distinctly Italian gesture. AOC had big Godfather energy.
It was the perfect storm of viral content: praising AOC, bashing Zuckerberg and tweeting Italian jokes. “Italian memes are just kind of easy. Anyone can do them,” Schimkowitz says. “Those kinds of memes tend to do well in short spurts.”
The Italian hand gesture memes spread again in January when the latest set of iOS emojis rolled out. While officially designated as “pinched fingers,” the emoji is undeniably the Italian hand gesture. “It absolutely means ‘capeesh’” — for capisce, meaning, “Do you understand?” — “and anyone who says otherwise is erasing Italians,” says Samantha Ruddy, digital producer at Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.
The key to Italian shitposting is an ability to be in on the joke and, like Lady Gaga, admit when the stereotype is true. Rae Paoletta, a content strategist, remembers one Thanksgiving when her Italian family got into a heated debate about whether fresh mozzarella should be stored in the fridge or at room temperature — that is, if you’ve somehow managed to not eat it all in one sitting. Paoletta’s family, which hails from Sicily and Naples, debated the cheese question with (what else?) pinched fingers. For the Paolettas, the gesture is less capeesh and more what the fuck are you talking about, she says.
Which is fitting. After all, the original Italian shitposting — and, take it from the Longos, the most universal Italian experience — is shit-talking your relatives around a kitchen table while eating pasta with your mouth open.