Saturday, October 22, 2011

Talking (or not) about race: privilege and silence

"We're all Guatemalans."  "Using these categories, Ladino or Maya, just divides us. We're all part of Guatemala." Friday, October 21, I spent most of the day in a conversatorio (the word doesn't appear in any dictionaries I can find, but it seems to mean something between a dialogue and a colloquium) about constructing a pluricultural state. Pluriculturality seems to be the term preferred over "multicultural", implying, I think, plurality or pluralism as well as multiples (sheer numbers) -- pluralistic in being open to different expressions and ideas and values, different cultural systems, not simply many different flavors of people gathered under a single, hegemonic rubric. At least that is how I interpret it based on use.

I will write at more length about the conversatorio and its content, but I was struck by the recurrent discomfort in acknowledging difference, which permeated the discourse of non-indigenous Guatemalans. The audience for this event was predominantly Maya (there were two women who identified as Garifuna and one man who identified himself as Xinca), from throughout the country, with maybe 20-25% of those in attendance being ladino/ladina.  I didn't do a count, but that was my impression.  Several ladina professionals (mostly women) spoke, and each of them said, in essence, something very similar. Yes, we have had different histories, but if we keep emphasizing what differentiates us, we cannot unite. We need to unite to build a democratic country. We are all Guatemalans, we shouldn't use labels like maya or indigenous and ladino, but we are all Guatemalans. One woman, from Alta Verapaz, said that she had been discriminated against because she was ladina and that when she went to the office of the Attorney General for Human Rights (Procuradoría de Derechos Humanos or PDH) to report the incident, she was told that she would have to go to Guatemala to report the incident, that they could not handle the complaint there because their office was set up to handle human rights abuses and discrimination against indigenous people. These were all people who seemed to be committed to working for the public good; they all worked in public agencies or NGOs, and clearly were concerned enough to take a day and spend it in the conversatorio.

But this struck me as being a Guatemala version of the "post racial" arguments that I used to hear in Cuba: "being Cuban is more than being black or white." But I don't want to imply that this is a Guatemalan or a Cuban problem. This permeates the U.S. -- with claims about reverse racism, or fantasies that we live in a post-racial America. Or the kinds of comments I find among my white students in Massachusetts, who often exhibit or articulate impatience when the subject of race comes up. They treat it as something that belongs to the past, a problem that has already been solved, and they are often visibly annoyed or uncomfortable when I force them to talk about it.  "That was in our parents' generation but we treat everyone the same now. No one is racist any longer." I usually calmly bring in specific examples of the way race, as much as we would rather not admit it, still shapes individuals' social experience, and back up the students of color who speak up to challenge this.  But this is something that I have discussed often with friends and family -- how people with privilege, even ones who style themselves as radical or progressive -- often to go great lengths to deny that privilege exists. It has become so naturalized, perhaps, that it is invisible to them.

So, it was interesting to observe how pervasive the "post-racial" or "non-racial" or "reverse discrimination" discourse is in Guatemala. The speaker, who is a mestiza woman from Bolivia, calmly responded to at least one of these comments by talking about power and inequality, and saying that the differences had to be acknowledged, not ignored, in order to move forward, but that acknowledging differences didn't mean reifying them. And several of the Maya participants also responded, saying that they did not experience complete citizenship in the nation.

These are, of course, the "good" ladinos/ladinas -- and by that I mean the ones who see themselves as progressive, open-minded, interested in improving the lot of the indigenous majority.  Maybe some even see themselves as "ladinas solidarias". One can only imagine what the "other" Ladinos and Ladinas talk about behind closed doors. I do not have a lot of contact with Ladinos, so I cannot speak from deep personal experience here.

However, I did hear a chance comment from a ladina acquaintance, a business owner in Santa Cruz. We were chatting about handicrafts, specifically hand-woven garments, and I mentioned something about how hard it was for people to make money by selling handicrafts because very few people in the U.S., for example, were willing to pay a fair price for hand-woven items when they could buy similar-looking items that were mass produced in China. She responded, with a knowing half-smirk, "Oh, but a lot of the Maya are now taking advantage of this, and charging high prices, and making a lot of money off handicrafts." I only made a mild reply, saying that I did not think that anyone was able to make a lot of money off crafts.

I did not make a sharper response for a couple of reasons. One is that I do not know this woman well; if she were someone I considered a friend I would have felt more strongly about pushing the discussion farther. The other is that the employees in her business are Maya women, and they have to deal with her every day. I worried that if I said something more harsh to her, and if we really got into an argument (which would have been pretty inevitable; I think most ladino business owners in majority-maya areas, have deeply held views on the maya, and one conversation with a foreign visitor is not going to shake their prejudices), I would be able to walk away, and decide whether to continue to patronize her business or not. But her employees cannot walk away, and they might be ones who bear the consequences. So my white skin and my status as a foreigner confers a kind of privilege of confrontation -- and the privilege of being able to walk away from the situation.

My reticence was prompted in part by a conversation a few days earlier at an anthropology conference at the university. In my presentation, I talked about having witnessed a clear legal and human rights violation when the COCODE (Community Development Council) in Doña Fermina's community forced the women's association to vote itself out of existence. Someone asked if my decision to not confront the situation was a kind of complicity. I replied that I had asked Doña Fermina what she wanted me to do, which seemed the appropriate response since it was her community, her association and not mine.  Someone else in the audience -- Beatriz, a professor in history -- made the point that if I registered a complaint and there were a backlash, the women in the community would be the ones to bear the burden, not me.

But it is clear that a lot needs to be done -- what, exactly, I am not sure -- to push the discussion beyond a stalemate.

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