White Privilege in the Americas

“Usted quien es … Gánese el baloto para que se cambie el color.”

“Who do you think you are?…Go win the lottery and change your color,” a metro policeman whispered to Afro-Colombian leader Carlos Rosero, founding member of the Black Community Process (PCN). Rather than just being an isolated incident of racism in Latin America, this incident gives us a mirror, an insight as to how white privilege prevails in Latin America.

Latin America has a long history of white privilege and white supremecy, including: is colored with white privilege, from its political roots: U.S. implementation of Jim Crow in the Panama Canal, brutal Dominican dictatorship that erased African presence from its history and its culture, the massacre of hundreds of thousands indigenous Mayans in Guatemala, and blancismento (whitetification) in Argentina (South America) in which governments actively recruited Europeans to emigrate to their nations in order to “whiten” the society of its heavily indigenous and African populations.

To its social implications, white privilege has permeated Latin America’s everyday language: “pelo malo” versus “pelo bueno” (good hair vs. bad hair), negrita used as both an insult and “term of endearment” for Latinos with “darker features,” and referring to one another by our race or complexion morena, trigueña, indio, zambo.

On March 31, 2009, Grupo Afro Descendiente sponsored a discussion entitled White Privilege in Latin America: Myths and Realities as part of White Privilege Awareness Week. The panel featured indigenous persons from Peru and Guatemala, an afro descendant from Cuba, a mestiza from Mexico, and an African immigrant from Cote d’Ivoire. Each panelist shared personal accounts, reflections on their experience with white privilege in Latin America.

What we found was that white privilege began and has been reinforced in society through socio-economic manipulation, cultural jokes/stereotypes, and paternalism often implemented by the Catholic Church and more recently the Evangelical movement. In every country in Latin America one will find that people of color are often the poorest, least educated, and least empowered/politically engaged in the society.

Even though there are high levels of integration in Latin America, intense segregation still exists. Often indigenous and Afro descendant populations live apart in communities that are somewhat isolated from the mainstream. This is prevalent throughout Central and South America among the garifuna and other indigenous Latin Americans. The country of Nicaragua for example is virtually divided into two countries by the rainforest: the West mostly inhabited by whites and the East populated mostly by people of color.

This segregation is highlighted by the lack of Afro and indigenous presence on Latin American television. There are very few reflections of people of color in the Latino media. Sabado Gigante, the most popular variety program throughout all of Latin America is the greatest example of this phenomenon. With the exception of the occasional reggaeton or bachata artist and/or a futbol player, people of color are largely excluded as members of the cast and even in the audience of the popular program. Internalized racism of Latin Americans has led our community to deny or reject their African and/or indigenous heritage. This practice further reinforces the idealization of whites in our society.

Further complicating the issue of white privilege for Latinos is living in a nation who has a different type of racial hierarchy than our homelands. The identity of Latino has practically become a racial category in this country. If you do not fit in the US perceptions of Black or white or Asian (yes there are Asian Latinos) you are designated as “Latino.” In the United States white supremacy followed the one drop rule, one drop of Black or Indigenous blood or any visible signs of these ancestries would exclude individuals of white privilege and condemn one to racialized disenfranchisement. The one drop blood was almost in reverse in Latin America; one drop of European blood or visible characteristics of European ancestry granted one access to some degree of white privilege and wealth, helping open the door for some people of color in Latin America to become part of the white elite of the country.

Like in many capitalist societies, money can buy privilege, but in Latin America it can also buy your whiteness. For generations Latin Americans have paid to change their race on their identification cards. Purchasing one’s whiteness has historically been a common practice for many Latinos of African descent. Yet this practice did not challenge white supremacy rather it found a loophole to gain access to white privilege. Our discussion of white privilege and the diverse racial characteristics of our communities allowed us to see that though the white supremacist socio-economic orders of our homelands are different than the ones found in the US the deconstruction of white privilege is something that is needed throughout the Americas.

Aisha Brown is founder of Global Awareness Project and Associate of the Racial Wealth Divide Program of the Institute for Policy Studies

Dedrick Muhammad is coordinator of the Racial Wealth Divide Project of the Institute for Policy Studies

Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is host of the Race and Wealth Podcast and Director of the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the Corporation for Economic Development.