How Immigrants Fall Under the Spell of American Racecraft

My father, as I wrote in one of my earlier blog posts, is an immigrant from Ecuador. There is certainly racism in Latin America, though due to the widespread mixing between Spanish colonizers, Amerindian native people, and African slaves, race and racism are totally different ballgames in Latin America. In the region of Ecuador my dad comes from, there are not as many Afro-Latinos as there are in, say, Venezuela and Brazil. Colorism is certainly very alive and overt, however, and many insults revolve around looking “too indigenous.” Colorism also targets people of African descent, of course. When I was seven years old, I was hanging out with my babysitter’s nine-year-old daughter who had recently immigrated from El Salvador. She told me to stay away from black people, especially on the bus, because they were dangerous. I told her, “You know my mom is black, right? And my grandpa, too?” and she said, “Oh, no, not those kind of black people. I mean the really dark ones.” At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express my discomfort at her attempt to separate some black people from other black people, because to me, they were all really the same. They are all ultimately black people, regardless of their skin tone, and if some of them were not to be trusted, what did that say about the rest of them? How did she really feel about my mom, and my grandpa, and me? Seeing as she was a young kid and a recent immigrant, she learned this bias throughout her childhood in El Salvador–I doubt she had developed such a sentiment as a result of her few months living in the United States. Clearly, there strong anti-black bias exists outside of the US.

My Ecuadorian aunt who now lives in New York has expressed blatant Latin American-style colorism while talking to me. She says things like, “You would be so pretty if you only had your father’s eyes,” because he has hazel eyes and I have dark brown eyes like my mom. I just smile and look away, but often she continues, “You must take after your mom’s side of the family, seeing how dark you are. Ana, on the other hand, looks much more like our family.” It just so happens that my older sister Ana is several shades lighter than I am, with lighter hair and eyes as well. I try not to say anything in response, because internally all I can think is that many of my facial features are identical to those of her brother and father (my father and grandfather), while my sister is nearly a spitting image of my mom. What my aunt means, of course, is that because my mom has black genes, it is more comfortable to attribute my entire appearance, including my dark coloring, to her side of the family. Apparently irrelevant is the fact that my parents have just about the same level of darkness in their skin tones. This bizarre preference for my lighter sister and for my dad’s light eyes, at the price of ignoring clear genetic inconsistencies, is also clearly borne of an anti-dark agenda my aunt learned in Latin America.

My father, meanwhile, presents the most interesting case to me. He is married to a black woman, and regularly acknowledges that she is black; yet, he occasionally makes very questionable comments generalizing black people. More recently, however, he (along with many people in America) has been reading and hearing a lot about police brutality against black people, and he definitely seems emotionally invested in the cause. However, he seems to be fooled by the myth of the American dream. In August, right before I came to college, he expressed frustration that Latino gangsters were making a bad name for the general Latino community and giving people like Donald Trump excuses to badmouth the entire US Latino population. My dad said that these thugs should just quit the gang life, stop being criminals, and get jobs to elevate them socially. I didn’t have the Spanish vocabulary to explain to him that the US government was the original cause of the genocide and political turmoil that led thousands of Central American refugees into poor American neighborhoods where they had to form gangs to protect themselves. I could not see why he was so quick to turn and blame people like himself and his family–working-class immigrants from Latin America who faced discrimination and much adversity–for their own problems. He wasn’t arguing against the injustice that forced Latinos into this devastating situation. He was looking at the symptom of the problem and blaming the sufferer rather than the true perpetrator. This anti-Latino bias within my father has very strong echoes of conservative American rhetoric, which makes me sad, confused and a bit nervous. It seems self-loathing and counterproductive to think like this, especially when it’s people suffering who’s situation you could have been in. Had he not married my mom whose occupation allowed them to live in a middle class neighborhood, he probably would have lived in a working class neighborhood and his children may have ended up in the situation many Latino youths face in this country. He immigrated to the US at 35, so I would not have guessed him to be very impressionable in absorbing American racism, but clearly the foundations for other forms of racism exist in Latin America, so perhaps he just swapped in a new form of racism more applicable to his current surroundings. Additionally, I think he is trying to separate himself, the “hardworking type of immigrant”, from those “thuggish”, “lazy” immigrants. It reminds me of Irish immigrants’ unwillingness to band together with African Americans to fight for better social treatment. They instead just clung to an arbitrary difference, that they were light-skinned, and convinced themselves that this made them better and different from those black folks who deserved their suffering. It is an age-old problem of oppressed peoples stratifying themselves and blaming groups for their own problems in order to preserve their identity as separate and better, which also protects their own privilege by their convincing themselves they deserve their privilege.

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