Racism in Santiago, Chile - "Morena, morena! Rica! Que rica!!"

*A Spanish version of this post appears in Rufian Revista here

*Una versión en español de este artículo se puede encontrar en Rufian Revista aquí

I think a lot about what makes a thing appear “normal” to people. How you get to the point where something that could seem extraordinary doesn’t even make you bat an eyelash. I imagine that it’s some combination of an experience being repeated over time, in multiple spaces, among different populations. There's a word in English that I've found useful when thinking about how racism and discrimination become normalized. Inured. I haven't been able to find a true equivalent in Spanish. Maybe ennegrecer. But the word inure isn't just about becoming hardened by or accustomed to something. What is built into this word are the conditions necessary for this process to take place. To become inured to something means “to habituate to something undesirable, especially by prolonged subjection.” You're accustomed to a certain state of misery or ill-treatment and in time you think it's just the way that things are. When this goes on for generations that ill-treatment can begin to seem intractable and no longer a function of human interaction, history, economics, or politics, but something that always was and therefore will always be.

People in Latin America just love to tell those of us from the States that racism is a US phenomenon, that their respective countries have issues with classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, every “ism” but racism. And this is typically coming from someone who in the Latin American context identifies as White or Mestizo. And we laugh every time. Not just because of the many blatant instances of racism one will witness or personally experience while in Latin America, or how much research has dispelled the Latin American racial democracy myths, but because it’s comically ridiculous that someone who will not typically bear the brunt of racism would think they are in the position to tell you whether it is extant. What a privilege.

Coming from the United States, a place with its own unique brand of racism deeply imbedded into the fibers of everyday life, can make us sensitive to both the subtle and blatant ways one can be discriminated against. Many Afro-descendants from the United States are acutely aware that racism’s many manifestations are not figments of the imaginations of race-baiters and rabble-rousers. Some would argue that we have a hypersensitivity, but it is this thinking that allows racism to perpetuate and become something that is simultaneously internalized and invisibilized. Racism in Chile was distinct, yet sadly similar to racism in other Latin American countries. The racism Indigenous groups, most notably, The Mapuche, have experienced there is well known and has extended to immigrants coming from places like Bolivia and Peru. But the Afro-descendant population has been historically small in Santiago, so the marginalization and exclusion of this relatively recent influx of people from the African diaspora is only beginning to be openly discussed and documented.

Racism is systemic. And like most systems of injustice, it cannot be willed, wished, or hoped away. One of the first steps we can take to combat racism is to engage with those on the receiving end of it to understand how it operates. I arrived in Santiago in January 2013 and did just that. Thanks to a wonderful Chilean friend who would serve as my Chile guru from New York I was a visiting scholar in the Sociology department at a progressive university in Santiago.  I  conducted an exploratory research project where I interviewed 48 immigrants, visibly of African descent, about their lives and experiences in Santiago, Chile. It was eye opening and painful, but also cathartic, as I begin to work through my own experiences in Chile. I realized in how many ways those I interviewed were distinct from me, yet similar in one way that was given precedence in that space, our perceived similar racialized identities. I interviewed people of African descent from various walks of life, people who cleaned homes, were unemployed, party promoters and bartenders, entrepreneurs, physicians and other professionals. They hailed from 15 different countries where their native tongues included Spanish, English, Portuguese, Creole, French, Swedish and Swahili. They were between 19 and 65 years of age, men and women, all in a country that was not originally their own, all hoping for something better than what they had previously known.

The United Nation’s Committee of Racial Discrimination (CERD) made its closing report on racism in Chile in August and while that report is unavailable as of right now, if it does not find that racism and xenophobia are alive and well with regard to Afro-descendants in Chile, I would seriously question its credibility. Some whom I interviewed felt that the racism they experienced in their home countries was so intense that what they were experiencing in Chile was either milder or at the same level, which seemed to make them almost inured to the varying degrees of injustices they experienced. For others, in spite of what they had experienced previously, they were dumbfounded and troubled by what had happened to them in Santiago. Some hadn’t experienced things directly but virtually everyone knew an Afro-descendant who had and were able to recall specific instances.

I can only speculate about the reasons I didn’t experience more overt racism. Like many Latin American societies, Chile has a fairly well-defined class-based hierarchy so this could’ve been at play. There are a number of potentially mitigating factors: my lighter brown skin, ability to speak English, perceived higher educational and economic status as a US citizen, clothing, or the general assumption most made about me being from Brazil (a nationality that some have suggested has a favored status in Chile). The more I listened to the accounts of the interviewees, the more fortunate I felt that I hadn’t personally been on the receiving end of some of the more deplorable acts of racism. I did not have people shouting “shitty black man or shitty black woman (Negro/a mierda)” at me in the street. I hadn’t been assaulted in a nightclub and had racial epithets yelled at me. I hadn’t had those same hurtful words yelled at me as I was robbed, attacked or had my shoulder broken with a bottle. I hadn’t been fired from a job and later told by a co-worker that my former supervisor said he did it because I was black. I hadn’t worked in hotels and felt that because I was black I got assigned the worst and most arduous of all tasks; that I was blamed for anything that went wrong while white co-workers made egregious mistakes and were never penalized. I hadn’t called about a job advertisement where someone could clearly hear that I was not Chilean, told to come in for an interview and when I arrived told that the job was for Chileans only, reminding me that it was my appearance that triggered that reaction, not my foreignness. I wasn’t forced to watch my in-laws laugh at people jeering and making monkey noises at black soccer players. I hadn’t been in places of business, government offices and hospitals where I felt I was blatantly ignored or forced to wait while white people who clearly arrived after me were catered to first. No, these were not my experiences. They are the accounts of those I interviewed in Santiago, a place that Chileans will tell you does not really see race (unless you’re Mapuche, of course).

I can, however, personally attest to the incessant staring that makes you feel like you’re under surveillance or some sort of sideshow freak that folks have paid a quarter to be entertained by. And while it’s not uncommon to be looked upon as an outsider when residing in a foreign country I was amazed at the intensity and frequency of the gazes in Chile. And you couple such stares with people constantly yelling about your color on the street (“MORENA, MORENA, RICA, QUE RICA!!”), people asking to touch your hair and in the case of a number of those interviewed, especially those who’d been in Chile for more than five years, asking to touch your actual flesh, you’re left feeling like you’re in some sort of alternate universe in Chile. What’s even more bizarre is when people don’t even ask. They just touch you as if you are an animal in a petting zoo. The relatively high level of economic development contrasted with social behaviors that one would associate with a society that has been disconnected from the broader global community is just confusing. Many times I was left thinking, “Am I really that unusual to you? What year is this?”

The primary reasons many gave for going to Chile were because it’s becoming this beacon of light for those seeking to improve their economic conditions, a space for order and safety for those escaping cities and countries of conflict, a land of opportunity right in South America’s southern cone. And while a number shared that they are content with the economic strides they have been able to make in Santiago and the general peace they feel, some also shared that the labor abuses are particularly disheartening because they mar the reasons which motivated them to come to Chile in the first place. Employment discrimination and the daily work required to just get through day thanks to racism left many saying that they couldn’t foresee Chile being a permanent home for them.

Many seemed to believe that they were without any recourse, that there was nowhere to turn when they experienced racism. This led me to begin to understand the various mechanisms Afro-descendant immigrants were using to cope with their multiple positions of marginality: being foreign, of African-descent, many times without much economic or social capital and for some, being women.  Some of the very blatantly racist comments they described were considered to be “all in good fun,” just some harmless jokes between friends, or a function of youth, a lack of education or awareness. I was struck by how often the people I interviewed were unwilling to make generalizations about the Chilean population, no matter what their experiences had been. They often qualified their stories by voluntarily giving me actual percentages like “oh I would say 30% of the people here are racist and 70% are not”.  Even when the percentage of racist or “bad” people was closer to 100 they still always told me about the Chileans that they’d met who were good to them or helped them when they were in need and they therefore could not forget them or assume that all Chileans were bad people.

Many were uncomfortable discussing what they had experienced. It was almost as if they had feared retribution, or that talking about it would highlight their differences or make the experience far too real or painful. One young woman I interviewed from Haiti, when asked about her racial identity told me she didn’t understand the question and when I repeated it said that she’d NEVER thought about it. I probed because she’d attended undergraduate school in the United States where she met her Chilean boyfriend. This history plus something about her cadence and demeanor made me sort of incredulous of  her incognizance. As the conversation continued, with an uncomfortable smile she told me that she had been verbally assaulted by Skinheads in a subway station. “Go back to your country! I’ll kill you if you come by here again!” And with that same uncomfortable grin and tears literally welling up in her eyes, she eventually told me that a woman at her place of work said that she shouldn’t be with her boyfriend because Chileans needed to improve the race and that couldn’t happen with a black girl. She told me that it made her cry because she’d never heard such a thing. This was apparently not normal to her. And just when I thought she hadn’t quite become inured to the racism just yet, she giggled a bit then proceeded to tell me something that I would hear so many times during these interviews, “but ya know, there are racist people everywhere.”