Racism in Latin America

This weekend I saw expressed again an idea that pops up on occasion: that race doesn’t matter in Latin America.

It’s contrary to what I’ve witnessed and, frankly, to common sense. Race, in Latin America, is not an explicit and ever-present identifier in the same way that it is in the US. However, racism exists, and therefore, race matters. It may be that in some places, the distinction between white and mestizo is not as marked as in the US, hence the misunderstanding about the importance of race in general. But even there, inequality of representation in political and media spheres does indicate that whiteness matters.

Indigenous people are largely disenfranchised; Black people are often spoken about in ways deemed grossly politically incorrect in the US. Latin America is a huge and diverse region so I’ll just briefly speak about the place that I’ve started exploring for my research on food: Chiapas.

In San Cristobal, indigenous people were not permitted to walk on the sidewalk until as recently as the 1970s. They had to walk on the road instead. In Las Doñas de Chiapas, a collection of interviews of Chiapanecan women, patriarchy is a powerful current that creates a unifying narrative of the lives of all the women. However, there are also stark differences. Indigenous women speak of the difficulties of accessing sufficient food while one of the white women recounts traveling on the back of an “Indio Chamula”* in her childhood. This was the common method of transportation for her class and generation. Most of these women are still alive; this is very recent history.

The marginalization and poverty of indigenous people in Mexico is the framework of much of the country’s social assistance. It must be visible if one is to have any functioning understanding of the dietary and cultural effects of food aid. Likewise, exploring common representations of indigenous people, their food, and their bodies, is central to understanding the transformation of their food culture through milk distribution.

In San Cristobal, I spoke to many non-indigenous Mexicans about what indigenous people ate, and why. Their answers were overwhelmingly negative and one-dimensional. Portraying indigenous diets as inherently deficient, and pinning this more on culture than on economy, has profound ramifications. The government’s decision to promote milk as a nutritional panacea instead of implementing policies that would encourage consumption of native foods is, of course, primarily about profit. However, policies, assistance programs and public health discourse do not happen in a social vacuum. And the social context in which these are formed is fraught with racism. I will discuss this in upcoming posts as I analyze the relationship between social representations of foods, social identity, and the transformation of food culture.

*Indigenous man from the municipality of Chamula.




Feminism and Islamophobia

I started writing about feminism and islamophobia in response to a comment online, then decided to post here instead. The connection with the rest of my posts may seem tenuous, but this blog started on a recent trip and a common thread through all of my travels has been…. drumroll… Islam. Yes, strangely. From my first observations of the double standards to which we submit different countries to the inevitable conversations with tourists and locals alike.

Feminist from a Muslim background here. I am less PC than many Americans and have no interest in cajoling sexists from any culture. Having said that, I get annoyed by the islamophobia in feminist forums and in the conversations of Westerners about sexism, and especially by the pseudo-caring for women’s rights when it serves a racist agenda by men who normally do not give a second thought to the rampant sexism in their own societies.

Rape or any violence and discrimination against women should not be excused, whether committed by Muslims, men of the Global South, men of color, or anyone else, but it is very important to recognize how these issues are selectively used and blown up to support racist narratives.

Muslims are a diverse group of people, with differences based on culture, urbanity/rurality, class, etc. Furthermore, ideas don’t always cluster in the same way throughout all cultures. For example, my dad is very conservative. His parenting allowed no boyfriends, no male friends even, no miniskirts, etc. But precisely because of this mentality, he thought it was extremely important for his daughters to study and be successful in their careers, so that they would not be dependent on any man and thus maintain their dignity. This contrasts sharply from the mentality of Muslims from other cultures who also value modesty, but think that girls shouldn’t go to school or have jobs. When I say that Muslims are a diverse group, I don’t just mean that different people are at different places on a spectrum of conservatism and sexism. I mean that the spectrum itself is not linear and there are not only quantitative but also qualitative differences within it.

I’ve traveled to many countries, and a lot of what’s reported about Muslims also exists in countries that are of other religions. Understanding then why the media selectively focuses on some cultures is very important. (Hint: galvanizing support for imperialistic wars/xenophobic immigration policies)

Furthermore, I do think that while we fight for change and reject the fallacies of cultural relativism, we also should be humble and recognize the complexity and beauty of other people alongside the norms we wish to change. Obsession with one’s pet social justice issue can put blinders on as to who people are, what their world is, and seeing that battle mode is not always the best mode. Cultural obtuseness is not conducive to effective communication.

Around the world, people have grown up with patriarchy as something as normal as the air they breathe. To reject patriarchy therefore entails some privilege. For a man in a village in Peru, for example, to take for granted that there should be a strict division of labor, and that his wife should not travel freely or show interest in sex, does not mean that there aren’t wonderful things about him or that he is inferior to westerners. Western culture has been (and continues to be) sexist, but our privileged conditions, which have come at the expense of other societies, have allowed us to work towards changing social norms. (I dislike using Western culture as an umbrella term when speaking about sexism, since I grew up in an extremely patriarchal Western country and realize how diverse the West is).

Since feminism should be about women first, it may seem a non-priority to afford men open-mindedness and recognition. However, the attitude I’m cautioning against affects women as well. Women do not exist as entities separate from – or merely subjugated by – their families, societies and cultures. When you plop yourself into a woman’s world armed with the assumption that her husband beats her, or that her veil is necessarily synonymous with myriad roadblocks, you risk insulting and alienating her and not only the men in her life. Openness to others’ realities can help prioritize one’s battles and avoid weaponizing feminism to prop up power imbalances, oppression and discrimination. Unapologetic feminism is one thing, hubris and a lack of intercultural interest are quite another.