Challenging the Oblivious: What You May Learn in an Afternoon with a Race Conscious Person

I must say, after engaging in an identity re-discovery process, I see things that others do not. I am still half way, and I continue to learn from those who have more experience than me in matters of race/sex/gender/class. Whereas many of us in the area of race and gender studies speak of “whiteness” as the big-monolithic-ugly, the reality is that there are all sorts of shades of whiteness that make one oblivious to issues of social justice. Often times we see “The White” as the male-privileged-colonizer that benefits from our oppressions and is unwilling or oblivious to intersectional inequalities.

However, there are other kinds of whiteness. One of them is prevalent in my “homeland.” I grew up as “white” because of the way I look. Never mind that my mother is Indigenous, and that we come from a long line of mixed descent. Unlike Canada, the land where people identify each other according to race and background (have you ever been asked where are you really from??? Or, you look like you are from _____?), in Mexico we assume that we are all half Spanish and half Indian. In fact, in Mexico, white is just the colour that describes the national ideology (and myth, I must say) of the “whitened Indian.” Aside from the fact that this myth is used to assimilate Indigenous peoples, this idea completely also disregards Mexico’s history of black slavery (descendants live primarily in coastal areas) and the persecution of Asian populations (primarily Chinese, their descendants live mostly in the center of the country).

La Malinche. Jose Clemente Orozco.

While I haven’t lived in Mexico for a little while, I was reminded of such notions upon my father’s visit. My father is a man who is relatively socially conscious, educated and well-read, but who has, for many years, believed the idea that Mexico is the land of the mestizo (privilege, anyone?). After countless arguments and shocks between the both of us, it became apparent to me that Mexico’s notion of mestizaje as national identity has been extremely effective in transforming the colonial experience in that of “success.” By that I mean that we are truly educated to feel like “mestizos” while denying any other identities.  Today, “proper mestizos” are whiter, are educated, have jobs, live in monogamous-heterosexual families, speak Spanish, engage with the neoliberal market without complaints, think the Indians are far, far away and have mestizo babies.

In Mexico some Indigenous populations were not completely exterminated like in Cuba. Instead, they were assimilated. The famous legend of La Malinche, which Kim Anderson equates to that of the Indian Princess in Canada, represents an Indigenous woman inevitably falling for the Spanish conqueror charm and therefore betraying and selling off her own kin. Whereas in the national discourse she is seen as a traitor to Indigenous nations, she is also credited for being the mother of the first mestizo children. Her womb is the one which gave birth to the “civilized Indian” and the “whitened Indian.”

Post-Independence, the Spanish became the evil people who crushed the Aztec empire (never mind the hundreds of Indigenous groups in Mexico) and almost annihilated Indigenous peoples. The rhetoric was later revived during the Revolution of 1910, which resulted in the proliferation or art that has deemed Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueros internationally famous. However, that has not made Indigenous lives better. On the contrary, the primacy of the mestizo identity has made extraordinary efforts to crush Indigenous nationhood. Today, some Indigenous peoples may be phenotypically identifiable as such, but they won’t call themselves Indigenous. This fact was my dad’s main argument in saying that Mexico has been successfully configured as a nation on the base of a fake identity.

Tlatelolco Before the Conquest. Diego Rivera.

But we need to understand that Indigenous peoples in Mexico have gone through a lot. Not only have their territories been occupied and exploited by governments, but they have also been forced to assimilate. Sovereignty movements have been violently attacked and resistance against neoliberal policies like NAFTA continue to be targets of state violence (see here and here). To identify as Indigenous carries numerous connotations that may affect a person’s employability, access to the market, his/her right to land and just the right to live in a discrimination-free environment.

And to all this, I think that there is a very basic thing about privilege. Our own privilege is invisible to ourselves until we lose it. Therefore, as it happened to me upon my arrival in Canada, my father started realizing that first, he was not considered white; next, he was not considered to be worthy of any privileges by The Whites (the big ugly); and that he was suddenly lumped into the category of the illegal/lazy/ignorant/Catholic/Mexican immigrant without any more reasons than the lack of “real” whiteness and a thick Spanish accent.

After three weeks, I am proud to say that this experience has changed my father… perhaps not enough, but it is an important start. Now he realizes that White-Western-Privilege sees him differently; he recognizes that many privileges are attached to race and that one’s identity can be a source of conflict in colonized lands. So, although I somehow agree with some of my fellow thinkers that haters will be haters and there is no point in engaging with them, I think there is room to show others their own intersectionalities. Perhaps The Whites won’t be convinced… but other “oppressors” may be…

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