Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Latino racism? ¡Sí!

In a column about "traveling while black," Tamara Walker encounters what she suspects is racism in Mexico:
When I checked into my Mexico City bed and breakfast -- which had received rave reviews on from Trip Advisor -- I sensed a disconnect between the pleasant tone the owner adopted over e-mail (he even complimented my Spanish!), and the cold professionalism with which the staff greeted me when I walked through the door.
Having been here a couple of days, and by now a familiar face, I can't help but notice that the various desk clerks and housekeepers still seem to regard me wearily, if they even look at me at all. None of the "friendly and helpful" attitudes previous guests told me to expect are yet on display.
The not-so-subtle racism Walker encountered undermines the American liberal assumption of "minority" solidarity, an assumption that (like so many other liberal assumptions) has no basis in reality. Hostility between blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. is common enough, but the attitudes about race abroad -- well, that's something else.

For example, American diversity-mongers have fostered the concept of Latinos as a single ethnic group, but nationalism is actually quite a powerful force in Latin America, and there are all kinds of resentments. Ever ask a Mexican how he feels about Guatemalans? Or ask a Cuban about Puerto Ricans?

But the Latinos that all other Latinos seem to hate the most are the Argentines, who are viewed as arrogant because of their predominantly European ancestry (whereas most Latin Americans have a substantial admixture of native ancestry). And for a black person in Argentina? Tamara Walker recalls:
I was one of four black women in my undergraduate program in Argentina, and we all had tremendously varied experiences. One woman, then a student at Spelman, was always surprised to hear my stories of being stared, hissed and laughed at while walking down the street. Not to mention the too-numerous occasions when I was taken for a Brazilian sex worker. Or the time a group of doormen started making monkey noises when I walked past their building.
In her case, many people simply took her light skin and wavy hair to mean she was Colombian or Ecuadorian and pretty much left her alone.
So, two women who are considered equally "black" in an American context encounter quite different reactions in Argentina based on their different appearance. Indeed, contrary to the Kumbayah assumptions of American liberals, Latinos are quite color-conscious. If you've ever seen the Latin American soap operas on Telemundo or Univision, you know that the romantic heroes and leading ladies look nothing like the mestizo peasantry. The most popular music and TV star in Brazil for many years was a blue-eyed blonde, Xuxa.

Liberals promote the notion that the United States is uniquely racist, a notion that Tamara Walker's experiences refute. The Argentines who mistook her for a Brazilian hooker certainly didn't get their stereotypes from any Yanqui source.

The whole complex of behaviors and attitudes Americans call "racism" -- a term nowadays applied not only to harmful stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, but to even the mildest and most ordinary forms of ethnic consciousness -- is a universal fact of the human condition. The amelioration of harm and hatred is more likely to be accomplished by the acknowledgement of that fact than by its denial.


  1. I taught engineering at a large state university for many years, and as is usual nowadays, most of our graduate students were Chinese. Besides their usual contempt for blacks and Hispanics, they made all sorts of racist derogatory distinctions among various ethnic groups in China, groups we lumped together as "Chinese."

  2. Much as the libs would like to deny it, the human race is still tribal and xenophobic at it's heart.