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Turns Out I’m American

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

We all know the idea that the farther away you travel, the more you learn about home.  And it’s true.  While in the US, it’s easy to be repulsed by the political chaos and to joke about moving to Canada.  But from down here in the other hemisphere, I am remembering, wow, there some things I like about America (even besides peanut butter).

The day I traveled home from Mexico, I burst into tears as I was waiting in line at Customs in Dallas.  Sure, they were playing my favorite Tegan & Sara song, and I was I was going through an extended break-up situation, guaranteed to make me emotional, but it was more than that.  As ridiculous as it sounds, I was proud that the people in line as “US citizens” didn’t all look the same.  It’s not that Mexico was homogenous– the government recognizes sixty-eight indigenous languages– but people make blanket statements about black and Asian people without thinking because there aren’t any black or Asian people (well, extremely few)I’m not saying that the US has got it all figured out about race, but at least we try.

I thought about this again as this week, when, as part of the school Mother’s Day Assembly, one elementary class did a skit that involved a student in blackface.  I had heard a few teachers talking about this earlier, and I thought to myself, I hope I’m not hearing this right.  Please.  But no, sure enough, as part of a dance routine, one blond little boy bounced onto stage in head-to-toe black clothing and his face and hands painted black, and the crowd of students, parents, teachers and administrators laughed.  For many, it was a highlight of the day.

What is my role in this situation?  So far, I’ve only talked about it with other Americans (with one exception), because though I’d love to hear Chilean commentary on the event, I’m not sure how to bring up the subject, and stay true to my perspective, without seeming accusatory.  How to explain that what they think is hilarious brought my college to a halt when a Smith student attended a party in blackface?  Then again, this is Chile, and maybe the act doesn’t so directly refer to the very particular racist legacy that it does in the US.  One friend of mine commented that the school probably wouldn’t take it so lightly if the skit featured someone dressed as a Mapuche, the largest indigenous group in Chile.  But even so, even if the incident is without malintent, I can’t help but think, this is too bad.  What will these kids be like when they grow up?

As much as I was saddened by the blackface incident, and other similar situations– for example, here something difficult is called “un trabajo chino“, a Chinese job– I see the benefit of being able to talk about difference.  I remember my host family in Mexico going through the kitchen, pointing to objects that were the exact shade of each student they had hosted– “She was pale, like that plate.  He was black, like the stove.  No, but the other black one was more like that carton” — as well as ordering everyone from skinniest to fattest– “You’re skinny, but not nearly as thin as that other girl!”  We don’t do that in the US.   We don’t comment on appearance, especially not race or weight, but of course we see it.  So in a way, it’s not so bad that Mexicans (and Chileans, who also love to talk about weight and skin color) are unafraid to name what they see, as opposed to hiding behind an indoctrinated “We’re all one family” diversity that is afraid to point out difference.  Hopefully we don’t have to chose between a faux-colorblindness and blunt, superficial classification, but I can see how each extreme has both its limitations and perhaps its advantages.

So as much as I know the US has a deep race problem, as well as many others, I have to say, in most parts of the country, you can’t just say, “That’s hard, that’s so Chinese” without raising some alarms.  And that’s good.  Because as much as we live segregated-ly, we can’t help but run into each other, at least sometimes.  And I think it’s safe to say we’ve gotten better– this is way too complex a topic to breeze over in a blog post, but basically, I think Americans are less racist than we used to be, and it’s not just a change in the way we talk.  Here in Palena, it’s very possible that most students in the school have never met a black or Asian person.  Well, there was a Colombian dancer that came to do a special workshop in April who was generally referred to as “el negrito” [affectionate and/or condescending, “little black person”].

I could write another post on things I’m starting to like better about Chile, as well as the other most foreign thing about me here: the belief that things should work, and if they don’t, you can and should do something to make it better.  Are people happier and more relaxed, or are they just lazy?  That’s one of big questions right now.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. jane woodman permalink
    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 9:36 am

    Interesting, to see all of this through your own lens of being American. I do think things here are (slowly) evolving in terms of racist attitudes, comments, and imprinted beliefs. Even though segregation socially continues and the poor-wealthy gap is just getting more outrageous. And Obama is questioned as a real citizen, a real president, a real person, as well, real.

    Keep the reflections coming!

  2. LYS permalink
    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 10:40 am




    • Friday, May 20, 2011 5:11 pm

      “here’s the thing: a country founded on ideals. But who decided that it would be a country founded on those ideals? A bunch of white guys with powdered wigs. But that’s not a natural thing, it’s not how you make a country.”

      — You on USA

  3. David Russll permalink
    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 7:02 pm

    Interesting perspective. It is not just in the US that we are imperfect. Around the world humanity has not yet amassed the most impressive record visa vi tolerance and justice, and it is impressive what we have been able to accomplish here through struggle over the centuries. Interesting, yes, to see how things play out in other countries, and always especially interesting when we are surprised by what we learn. I’m curious what your developing thoughts are going to be on your last question.

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