Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On Racism in Mexico

Daniel Hernández has an interesting post about the use of blackface in Mexican World Cup advertising, and, more generally, the significance of racism in Mexican society:
Many Mexicans will say they are not racist and that very little racism exists in Mexico, a nation, after all, of mestizos, who are of European and indigenous blood.

As proof, they point to the fact that slavery was ended in Mexico decades before it was abolished in the United States, and that Mexico never institutionalized racism the way the U.S. did with its segregationist laws that lasted into the 1960s.
Mexicans, it turns out, just don't see caricatures of Africans or black people as inherently racist, bringing to mind the flap in 2005 over a historic comic book character named Memin Pinguin, beloved by Mexicans but reviled in the U.S. for his exaggerated African features. Wilkinson adds:
Still, in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, people operate with a different comfort level when it comes to physical attributes. It remains common for Mexicans to use nicknames like "Chino" for someone with almond-shaped eyes, "Negrito" for someone with dark skin, "Gordo" (Fatso) for a plump person.

These terms are jarring when seen through the prism of U.S. sensibilities, but here they are usually used in a context of affection and friendship.
In online reader comments to an article in the El Universal newspaper on the Times report, many readers reacted with indignation to the suggestion that the Televisa skits are racist (link in Spanish). "Disgusting double standard for an imperialist and invading country," wrote one El Universal reader. "They should be ashamed criticizing a cartoon."

But another reader commented: "Showing people in black-face as primitive persons is the same as showing Mexicans as delinquents, and of course the latter doesn't strike us as a joke. Both acts are racist, but the difference is one makes us laugh and therefore it's approved."

Author David Lida, in a post on his blog, discussed the image used on a Mexican snack cake called "Negrito" as another instance of Mexico's blithe treatment of racial caricatures:
I've never met a Mexican who copped to being a racist. Some, particularly from the upper echelons, lament that their society is class-based, but argue that since nearly everyone is mestizo -- with a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood -- therefore how could they be racist?
Meanwhile, in an article on the Memin Pinguin controversy in the Boston Review, historian Claudio Lomnitz argues that the scandalized American responses to Mexican racial caricatures reflect a recent phenomenon of identity politics and "political correctness" that has no direct equivalent in Mexico or the rest of Latin America.
When Mexicans say there is no racism in Mexico, by American standards, there certainly is. (To take but one example, the telenovelas are far whiter than the population at large.) What there isn't any of (or is very little of) is racial hatred, which there is an unfortunate abundance of in the US. There is no equivalent of the N-word in Mexico, there is no equivalent of the Klan, there is no equivalent of dog-whistle race-bating in politics. The two countries are just vastly different in this regard. And because of the widespread understanding that references to race do not reflect an underlying race-based contempt, Mexicans are more free in making references to color.

I have wondered for years now about how appropriate US standards for racism are for Mexico. My initial reaction was that if Mexicans are at peace with their racial circumstances, the US, with its set of higher standards stemming from a racial history far more awful than that of Mexico, shouldn't really have much to say. Though the sentiment is well intentioned, it feels almost arrogant to conclude that, because black cartoons with exaggerated features were part of a Jim Crow mindset in the States, then Mexicans are racist for enjoying Memín Pinguín, and have no business doing so. The American experience isn't universal. Racially speaking, Mexican history is much less hateful than in the US (though not without its tragic episodes, such as the Caste War and the treatment of the Indians generally) and while national standards for offensiveness in the US need to in a sense atone for our history, other nations should not necessarily have to do so.

At the same time, we do have something like a set of global standards regarding offensiveness toward other groups, specifically Jewish people. The traditional stereotypes of Jews are offensive to enlightened people in Latin America, Europe, the Australia, wherever. We look down on people who don't live up to this standard regardless of their own nation's history. Perhaps this uniquely universal standard can be justified because the Holocaust was unique, but then again African slavery was also unique, and in any event what's offensive shouldn't be determined by comparing atrocities. Furthermore, nobody is worse off because centuries-old stereotypes of Jews are now held up as a sign of ignorance, and I don't think Mexico would be worse off if it inched toward the US sensibility regarding racial offensiveness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Vicente Guerrero was the second president Mexico and a black man. The capital city of Michoacan, Morelia is named after a black man. The most common bill of currency, the 20 peso note has another famous president on its face, Juarez, who was indigenous.

I have seen and felt a certain antipathy against "gringos" and "gachepines" (spanish)but as a Native American, I live comfortably without conflict in Mexico. The worst time I ever had in my life was in Canada where discrimination was a daily reality.