You Can Go Ethnic Again, Family Therapist Believes

Times Staff Writer

When Joseph Giordano talks about the importance of being ethnic, and staying ethnic, he isn't just putting forth fuzzy theories. Giordano, a third-generation Italian-American married to an Irish-American, is a Roman Catholic on the payroll of the American Jewish Committee.

Giordano, 49, a family therapist in New York City and former assistant commissioner of that city's Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services, is director of the American Jewish Committee's Center on Ethnicity, Behavior and Communications. And, as an ethnic, he's here to say: "Thomas Wolfe was not correct. You must to home again, to kind of put your house in order."

In other words, Giordano said, being ethnic is good for your mental health--as long as you can recognize, and discard, values and traditions that don't work and cling to those that "still make sense to you."

The problem, he noted, is that the larger society's attitudes toward ethnic and racial minorities create in them an "ambivalence" that is neither healthy nor constructive and too frequently leads to denial, cover-up and a frustrating pursuit of every societal whim.

And, to a large degree, Giordano blames the media, especially television with its flick-on access and its force as a 30-hour-a-week diversion for children, for contributing to ethnics' bad feelings about themselves: "The media do send back messages."

Giordano, who serves as co-chair of the Italian American Institute on the Media, has analyzed films such as "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" and concluded that one message is that Italian-American men deal with the world in a primitive way, expressing their frustrations through aggressive physical and sexual behavior. (Italian-American women, he noted, most often are filmed "in the kitchen, very heavy, and serving food.")

In an effort to make those messages more positive, the American Jewish Committee has been spearheading formation of a coalition of 20 ethnic organizations calling for creation of an office within the Federal Communications Commission to monitor and act on complaints about how the media portray, and give representation to, ethnic, racial and religious minorities.

Next Tuesday Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) will reintroduce in the Congress a bill similar to the Ethnic Affairs Broadcasting Clearinghouse Act that died in committee in 1983. Citing an increasing number of public complaints, the bill's backers want a separate federal office to deal only with complaints of this nature.

"In no way are we saying there should be censorship," Giordano said. "What we're asking is, for every two lousy programs, give us one good one" that presents "more authentic views of ethnic life in American society."

His own checklist of "good" television includes "Hill Street Blues," singled out for its Capt. Furillo character--"He's good looking and he's in charge of the precinct."

But, if he might say so, Giordano said, even Furillo could stand some improvement. he asked, "What Italian man would go a whole year without calling his mother once?"

At a luncheon at American Jewish Committee offices here to discuss formation of the media-monitoring coalition, Giordano reminded minority participants that they were part of a much bigger whole--those 100 million people in the United States who identify with an ethnic background.

Most of those people, he noted, carry some "cultural baggage" through life, "some elements of hurt," some fear that "because (discrimination) is out there in the larger community, it's going to happen to me."

Then, looking at the faces--black faces, Asian faces, Polish faces--around the table, he said, "I'm amazed at how many people in the name of fighting bigotry...will turn around and say something about some other group."

From time to time, he added, ethnics have been guilty of ethnic distortion. During the presidential campaign, when Jesse Jackson irked Jews with his overtures to Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization--overtures referred to by New York Mayor Edward Koch as "embracing the murderer"--Giordano said black and Jewish media "distorted the news in favor of a perception that would be favorable to their own groups."

(Giordano said in an interview that Koch "says some outrageous things" and has "almost exacerbated" the black-Jewish conflict.)

Perhaps, someone suggested, minority groups had never worked together on media issues because those of color were fighting the battle of affirmative action while others were concerned primarily with their image.

"We don't know what the other group's fights are," Giordano said. He pointed out that, when "Scarface" was being filmed in Miami, with Cubans as the heavies instead of Italians in this updated version, an Italian leader, asked how he felt about the film, said: "What do I care? It's not my business."

Giordano added, "Next time it will be."

Norma King, representing the NAACP, said: "We know what is offensive to our ethnic groups, but there are smaller groups that do not speak up and speak out and we sit back and laugh" with others without understanding that what amuses some hurts others.

There have been several events in Giordano's life that have caused him to re-embrace his family's traditional values. He had drifted away from Catholicism, but when his first wife died five years ago after 20 years of marriage, he said, "I found a great deal of comfort in answers I found in my religion."

(He remarried and became stepfather to seven children, bringing the his-and-hers total to nine, five of whom are now in college. His wife, Mary Ann Carini, is a psychotherapist in private practice.)

He recalls, too, his aged father's last illness, when Giordano, youngest of four children and the only one college-educated, had suggested in family council that perhaps the father should be placed in a nursing home. His working-class Italian-American family was appalled. Giordano recalled: "My brother stood up and said, 'Is this what we sent you to college for?"' His father spent his last months at home.

Growing up in an Italian ghetto of Brooklyn, a steam fitter's sone, Giordano ran with a street gang whose main activity was fighting a rival gang of Puerto Ricans. When his family moved into a multiethnic neighborhood, Giordano left behind some of his antisocial behaviors but clung to the sense of loyalty and of extended family he had learned on the streets.

When an ethnic group moves too quickly away from its values and traditions, Giordano said, there is inevitably "that sense of alienation, that sense of search."

Even in the most economically devasted community, Giordano said, "Eighty percent of the people are coping. How do they cope in a poor black family? Religion is extremely important. The black community is probably the most religious community in the world."

He spoke of "informal adoptions" that are commonplace in the Black community, where there is a strong sense of community and babies who are not blood relative are taken into a family as "cousins." He suggested that public policy ought to be more sensitive to ethnic strengths; why not financial assistance from the government for those who care for these children, why not financial assistance for those who care for their aged at home?

Poverty as a Strengthener

While "poverty has its own problems," Giordano said, poverty does tend to strengthen ethnic ties because those people "don't have that much support from the outside." He noted that "the problems of ambivalence are much more glaring among successful people," who either out of pain or out of ambition elect to throw away the values with which they were reared.

He spoke of the "high rates of depression" among the new wave of immigrants, those from Southeast Asia, a problem "largely exacerbated by a policy of dispersion. When you do that, you're really taking away their basic coping abilities."

But he sees encouraging changes since the turn of the century--"We're much more accepting of differences in others when we're secure about our own background." Nevertheless, human frailty endures and, Giordano said, "Jews are a good target. Blacks are a good target."

Today, with the economic reality of working wives in conflict with tradition (Is it practical to keep Mother and Dad at home? etc.) ethnics need more support than "the next new therapy," suggested Giordano, and they can find it in their own family trees.

As an adolescent, Joseph Giordano watched insipid family sitcoms about the Nelsons ("Ozzie and Harriet") and the Anderson ("Father Knows Best") on the family's tiny screen and felt uneasy. Where were the big, warm, working-class Italian-American families like his?

He still feels uneasy. Italian-Americans in particular, he feels, are chosen to represent the dark and evil side of American society.

Giordano said developments in Geraldine Ferraro's campaign raised the stereotypical idea that if one digs deep enough into an Italian-American's background "you'll find some dark, hidden secret, or some ill deed--because that idea is in most people's minds and one needs only to click it."

The Biaggi bill is not legislation with teeth; rather, it is designed, he said, to "make people aware. I basically see it as an education issue, also as (a vehicle for) documenting violations and mobilizing some kind of action in the community."

The bill calls for establishment of a clearinghouse for collecting and analyzing complaints about radio and television programming, an education program and an annual conference to focus public attention on images of ethnic groups in the electronic media.

To Giordano, media images are symptomatic of an underlying problem: A general tendency of media decision-makers to think of ethnic cultures as some sort of "immigrant phenomenon" that will subside in time and is only a passage toward Americanization, not something to be valued and preserved.

Was the Ferraro candidacy, in retrospect, a plus or a minus for Italian-Americans/ "Both," said Giordano. There was, he said. "a sense of pride that an Italian woman has been elevated and she handled herself with a great deal of dignity and strength," but "it hurt--the exposure, the efforts to associate her with the Mafia, and the bad judgment of her husband" in not anticipating the scrutiny his business dealings would undergo.

So, Ferraro was, for this Italian-American, another source of ambivalence. He shrugged, smiled and said: "We do have a Mario Cuomo. We do have a Lee Iaccoca ..."

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