July 26, 2016
Watching the American political conventions from another country is a strange experience. The summer of 1984, I was living in Dublin, Ireland and only heared second hand reports about the amazing speech Jessie Jackson gave at the Democratic Convention. Now, thanks to the global wi-fi (and CBSN), I can stream it live and watch from my bed here in Morelia, Mexico.
One of the funny items that has been circulating (besides Melania Trump’s beautiful tribute to Michelle Obama) has been the image of very Caucasoid-looking people holding “Latinos para Trump” (not “Latinos por Trump”) signs at the RNC last week in Cleveland. The implication is that there are no actual Latinos for Trump, so the RNC made the signs up and handed them out to the whitest crowd assembled since Kenny G’s last concert, hoping that the internet wouldn’t notice. “Look, Latinos do support Trump! Everybody was wrong!”
First of all, there are Latinos that vote Republican. They’re called Cubans. Secondly, Latinos come in all shapes and colors. From dark indigenous people to European Spaniards and old fashioned whites. Not all Latinos look like George Lopez. Having said that, and being married to a full-blooded citizen of Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (That’s “Mexico” to you gringos), I feel pretty confident in saying those folks holding the “Latinos for Trump” were about as Latino as a crunchy chalupa at Taco Bell.
I was thinking about the issue the other day as Andrea and I were sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Plaza de Armas in the center of Morelia. We were enjoying our very European cappuccinos while dark skinned indigenous people (the “O.G.s of Mexico”) tried to sell us trinkets, clothing and candies. Andrea was quick to point out how Mexico has adopted it’s own version of racism that grants privilege to the lighter-skinned citizens. The darker the Mexican berry the harder the struggle.
The United States exports a lot of wonderful stuff. I saw a kid in Mexico City last week playing Pokemon Go! USA! USA! Some might argue that rampant consumerism is not our best export. Now that nearly everyone in Mexico has a credit card, the latest clothes and gadgets are accessible (along with a lifetime of debt to the happily profiting banks). But before the exported version of the variable interest rates came our views on race and the basic idea that the whiter you are the better you are.
If you don’t believe me, look at the origin of the term “redneck.” Poor whites had to work the fields and their tanned skin reflected that. Eighteenth century aristocrats hid from the sun and prided themselves on their porcelain skin. And if that wasn’t enough, they would cake on the white face powder and powdered wigs. (The great irony was a lot of that white powder contained lead and poisoned the wealthy.) But anything was better than looking like the darker common folks.
Add “negroes and mulattos” to the mix and you have the completion of the “white is right” hierarchy. And it’s not like this idea died in 1865. All over the globe there are Asian-originated people getting plastic surgery on their eye-lids in a sad attempt to “look white.” And all over the globe there are African-originated people who are bleaching their skin in a sad attempt to “look white.” And if you’re a Latina, there’s blonde hair dye on sale! There is a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry that regularly tells women around the globe that being beautiful means being “white.”
I had a Latino student in one of my Hate Crimes classes at Portland State who did a fascinating research project. He did a content analysis of images of women in fashion magazines that targeted the Latina audience, like Vanidades and Latina. The images of ads and articles were either of Caucasian women or very light-skinned Latinas. There were no images of indigenous women or even mestizo (mixed) women. The message was clear – white is beautiful and, therefore, non-white is ugly.
It’s no secret that Mexico has it’s own version of American racism. Just watch any half hour of Univision or UPN and try to find dark brown faces. When they do pop up on telenovelas they are maids, peasants, villains and even witches. The news presenters all look like Access Hollywood hosts. Off the screen it is just as clear. The lighter skinned people work in banks and the darker skinned work construction and peddle. White is money.
But this racial class divide is not always so divided. The teacher’s union in Oaxaca is waging a bitter strike against the reforms of President Peña Nieto. Last month six demonstrators were killed and more than 100 were injured by federal police in the conflict. The teachers are often lighter-skinned and more educated than the demonstrators but they are all in the struggle together. Last week we were in Pátzcuaro and traffic stopped for what I thought was a festival of locals. That was until I saw the anarchist flag and the barricade on the railroad tracks to stop trains from getting through. These young dark brown people were shutting the system down to support teachers in another Mexican state.
I know to a lot of Trump folks (and maybe Americans in general), “Mexicans” are anyone whose family comes from south of El Paso. That includes El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and even Brazilians. They are all the same skin tone and education level. Malcolm X once said, “What does a white man call an educated negro with a PhD? He calls him a nigger.” That attitude is often extended to the “beaner” in America. (But if you can get a few of the light-skinned, dyed-blonde GOP Hispanics in front of the camera at the RNC, no problema.)
So it should not be a great surprise that the attitude that white is better permeates south of the border and across the globe. Racism is a planetary sickness that devalues indigenous people pretty much everywhere (outside of Northern Europe). But maybe, if Trump wins, white will be out and the world will become a nauseating shade of orange.