Let’s talk about racism in Colombia

Mainstream media (and therefore, the majority of the population) in Colombia believe that racism is just a problem of a “few bad apples."

Two vendors, of Afrocolombian descent, watch beachgoers enjoying the surf on Colombia's Pacific coast (Photo: Sol Robayo, via Flickr CC.

Last week, a classified advertisement appeared in a Colombian newspaper. It read, in the broken language of pay-per-word ads,

A female surgeon doctor with college degree Internship in Clinic Inscription. 25-30 years old, of white skin. Needed, a personal interview Dr. Guarín, next July, 22nd, 10 A.m.

The keywords are: “of white skin.” Soon every news outlet in the country, as well as social media (including, El País, the newspaper which originally published the ad) got wind of it, writing stories. It was universally, and rightfully, condemned.

On the day the ad was published, a small crowd gathered outside of Dr. Guarín’s office to protest the racism of the ad and at least one organization, the Fundación Chao Racismo, announced it would sue the physician for breaking the country’s anti-discrimination laws. The media backlash prompted the managers of the Farallones Clinic, where Dr. Guarín has his private practice, to distance themselves. The clinic made it clear that the doctor merely rents a space there and is not affiliated with them, and then by asking him to stop renting it.

The whole ordeal was forgotten quickly, though, with Colombia’s relentless news cycle bringing a different scandal each day. Still, it was mildly refreshing that at least this small outburst could have happened in a country where racism is rampant, yet it rarely hits mainstream conversations, where it is easily disregarded and treated as a foreign ailment.

As with everything else in Colombia, our racism is also a problem of elitism. Black and native voices are often dismissed because they tend to come from the periphery. Freed black slaves in the middle of the 19th Century settled in their own neighborhoods or their own towns, away from their previous oppressors, while the native groups that preserved their cultures managed to do so, mainly, by staying away from the European settlers. People who belong to any of these two groups, then, tend to come from remote and depressed areas, forgotten by the government, where basic needs are unmet, public services are lacking and education is of low quality.

Therefore, from the “center”, from the main cities of the country where things are sometimes better, these people are seen as “inferiors.” For example, it is a common assumption among some Colombians that dark skinned people are poor, while fair skinned people are rich, or at least well off.

Of course, there is also the purely racial aspect of it. I have only mentioned “black” and “native” people in the last paragraphs, because those are the only “races” we can think about in Colombia. They are the ones that steer away from what is more common. Most of us (including myself) are mixed-race. We have a word in Spanish for it: “mestizo”. Even people whose skin is very pale declare themselves as “mestizos”. This is what we are taught in school: we are a “mixed” country; this is what the 1991 Constitution declares: we are a “multiethnic, pluricultural nation.”

The Spaniards originally used the word “mestizo” to describe a “half-white, half-indigenous person,” but it is likely that most of us have also black ancestry at some point, though it is hard to know, as often this fact would be hidden from family histories out of shame. Many have changed their names and obscured their lineage in hopes of looking more “European.” So for the majority of us it is hard to tell exactly where we come from and we simply decide to be part of the “raceless” bunch.

The most recent national census, done in 2005, asked about ethnicity, rather than about race. In it, 3.43% of the country’s population identified as “indigenous,” 10.62% as “afro-Colombian” and 85.94% as “without ethnicity” (and 0.01% as “Rom”, which is a whole other story). It is hard to speak about racism in such a place where “race” and “ethnicity” are, largely, not a concept. Modern Colombia lacks the vocabulary for it. “Race,” “ethnicity” and “racism” are things that only apply to others, to that periphery I mentioned before, to those who are not part of that “mixed country.”

It is telling that this ad was published in Cali, the third most populated city in the country and, among the top three (which includes Bogotá and Medellín), by far the one with the biggest black population. As it sits on the Western edge of the Colombian Andes, Cali is just a few hours drive from the country’s Pacific Coast, where most freed slaves decided to settle, and where most of Colombia’s black population is concentrated. It is the first choice for many young black people who want to get a college education, or a chance of a better job. This is somewhere in Colombia where the “mixed country” interacts daily with those people who have an “ethnicity”, where the phrase “white skin” makes some sense, where it means “not black”.

Also telling are the arguments used by Dr. Guarín for his defense. “I am not a racist”, he said, “I asked for those requirements because that is what my partners from Bogotá asked me to do”. We are supposed to disregard the fact that this doctor published a racist ad because people in Bogotá–where there is very little presence of both black and native people–told him to do it, and they don’t understand these things, you see?

He went on to say: “I even have friends who are ‘morenos’.”  Not “black”, but “morenos.” It literally means “dark-skinned.” It is not a race or an ethnicity, but just a state of being. When you get tanned, for instance, you become a bit more “moreno.” Sure, you can call black people “morenos,” as they have dark skin, but calling black people by that name, devoids them of their racial identity, it places them in the “mixed country,” where racism is meaningless.

That the news media of the country acknowledged that there was something wrong with this ad was a step forward into truly dealing with our discrimination. Nonetheless, El País didn’t hesitate to publish such a thing, nor did it acknowledged any wrongdoing while reporting the story. For now, it seems that the mainstream media (and therefore, the majority of the population) believes that racism is just a problem of a “few bad apples”.

Yet, as more and more black and native artists, musicians, actors, athletes and writers start to become part of the general consciousness, hopefully, we can find a way to truly talk, in the mainstream media, about Colombia’s discrimination.

Further Reading

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