I struggle to interpret recent racial events in my country, from the tragic deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police, to the bizarre Rachel Dolezal episode, to the limited victory of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stepping down, to the terrifying assault of a black high school student. It’s 2015, 150 years after slavery was abolished, 51 years after the Civil Rights Act, and 7 years in to the administration of our first black president. Yet, systematic oppression and white privilege not only still exist today, but appear to be thriving.
Racial discrimination isn’t limited to just African Americans, however. Other minority groups like Latinos, Muslims, and Native Americans have long experienced bias due to their color, religion, and ethnicity. So why is the push for racial justice receiving so much coverage now, after festering below the surface for so many years?
For starters, high profile campaigns like Black Lives Matter, growing intolerance for racism on college campuses, and political incidents like Donald Trump’s remarks labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists have propelled these themes from the shadows to the cover of the New York Times and our kitchen tables.
Yet many Americans, particularly white Americans, continue to deny the existence of racism; some even believe they are discriminated against more heavily than non-whites in this country. This is not dissimilar to another America, Latin America, where racism manifests itself in different ways prompting some Latinos to call their countries post racial.
Several of my Latino friends living in DC have commented that race is such a big deal in the United States. They have a point. It is a hot button issue, one frequently discussed and debated, prompting a PC norm that perhaps doesn’t exist in other regions. And in Latin America, some take a position of moral superiority when asked about race in comparison to the United States, suggesting racial segregation does not manifest itself in the same way. But while countries like Brazil continue to present themselves as a racial democracy or racial rainbow, this is far from the truth. Most Afro-Brazilians are poor, and on average earn half of what their white counterparts earn. They are underrepresented in higher education, presidential cabinets, and soccer stands.
With the election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, many claim that Bolivia too is post racial. Indeed the Aymara leader has appointed indigenous cabinet members, advocated for the celebration of indigenous traditions, and passed an Antidiscrimination and Racism Law. But centuries of white elitism cannot be undone in just ten years. The wage gap between indigenous and non-indigenous remains over 30 percent and Morales himself has been accused of supporting environmentally destructive projects on indigenous territory.
The examples of Brazil and Bolivia, certainly not outliers in a region that like the United States maintains a long history of slavery, indigenous extermination, and white oppression, are not meant to discredit racial progress, but ignoring racism and the prevalence of the ‘white is right’ notion negates the reality for many non-whites.
While traveling in Latin America, most decipher I am not a local and treat me with a different kind of respect- asking me to jump in their photos or marry their sons. This summer while in San Pablo, Colombia, strangers frequently suggested I walk in the shade rather than the sun to maintain my white skin. According to them, my skin color symbolizes wealth, higher education, and the US. That is not to say this distinction is always positive; I stand out whether I like it or not, But despite some surging taxi fares and extra precaution when walking alone, my “gringa” appearance is generally positively received. Similarly in the United States, people don’t suspect I am a shoplifter, assume I’m on financial aid, or question if I was only accepted to Georgetown because I’m a minority. My whiteness is usually, though not always, perceived as advantageous throughout the Americas as we don’t live in a post racial society.
Both abroad and at home, I am aware that racism benefits me and I am complicit. We all are. We all internalize biases against certain groups whether in our heads or out loud, despite the denials of racism from white and light individuals. But while some of us have the luxury to be able to ignore racism, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Systematic racism is present in the United States just as it is in Latin America, albeit in unique manifestations.
Ignoring racial realities won’t do us any favors. To learn from our painful pasts and present, and to actually achieve a more equal society, we must listen to people of color and challenge the notion that we have somehow overcome racial discrimination.
Mary is a second year in the MALAS program, concentrating in Conflict Resolution and Human Rights. She is also a founding member and current editor of Transformaciones.