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Saturday, July 02, 2005
Do you find this racist?
Update: Moving this post up to reflect updates.

July 2: Earl Ofari Hutchinson weighs in on the Mexican stamp controversy:

The Mexican government's sale of the racially offensive cartoon character Memin
Pinguin as a commemorative stamp is an outrageous sign that top Mexican officials still refuse to deal with the country's racism. But it's just that a sign. Racism goes much deeper in the country. Even while Mexican writers and politicians rail in articles against American racism, many Mexicans are quick to boast of differences in skin color among their own family members.

A few years ago, a Mexican-American friend made me acutely aware of the rigid race differences in the country. When I told him that I'd be traveling extensively in Mexico, he urged me to pay close attention to the workers doing the hardest and dirtiest work in restaurants and hotels, and who the beggars and peddlers on the streets were. They were overwhelmingly dark, and in most cases with pronounced Indian or African features.

Many Mexicans refer to dark skinned persons, both Mexican, and non-Mexican, as negritos or little black people. This is not seen as racially offensive, but rather as a term of affection even endearment. A popular afternoon telenovela has a comedian
in blackface chasing madly after light complexioned actresses in skimpy outfits. Ads have featured blacks in Afros, black face, and distorted features. The most popular screen stars in film and on TV, and the models featured on magazines and billboards, are white or fair skinned with sandy or blond hair. That's the standard of beauty, culture, and sophistication that's held up as the penultimate standard to emulate, and that standard is unabashedly commercialized, and peddled as top commodities
in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Mexican President Vicente Fox and most of Mexico's past presidents, top officials, business leaders, educators, and government leaders, for instance, are light skinned or Castellan Spanish. They routinely boast that they can trace their bloodlines to Spain (Fox's mother is from Spain...

Hutchinson's observations square with my experience both in Mexico and in viewing Spanish language media. I'll never forget traveling to Oaxaca, in the very south of the country, by car one summer in the early 1980s as an early teenager, and witnessing the stark difference between the city, where we stayed in one of several homes owned along a beautiful block by a Spanish-Mexican woman and her family, and the "colonias" -- hillside ramshackles where the Indian and other impoverished, dark-skinned Mexicans lived, literally overlooking their more affluent, Spanish-descended peers. We literally ate black beans and homemade tortillas every day that we stayed in the colonias (my mother was contributing to a book with an anthropologist) -- though they were really good, as I recall, and the people throughout the country were wonderful. And while I don't remember ever experiencing what I'd call racism from the people in that city or others where we stayed, we were sometimes treated as something of a curiosity at the time -- three Black, American kids and their mom, driving around in a station wagon, with trinkets like digital watches and radios that locals were somehow shocked that we could afford. (Then again, when I traveled to France as a junior in high school, people there couldn't believe we could afford to fly overseas, because the enlightened French seemed to assume all American Blacks were poor, criminals or servants...)

But the issue here isn't how Mexicans treat tourists, Black or otherwise. It's whether racism exists in the country, and whether the Memin character illustrates that it is so. Mexicans may not see the cartoon as racist, but try to think of it this way: remember the old American characterization of lazy, sleepy, slow-talking Speedy Gonzales as the typical hombre Mexicano? Why do you think that cartoon -- like Amos n' Andy and various other exaggerated ethnic parodies, isn't on American TV anymore? Think about it. (BTW, it used to be considered "endearing" for even White children to refer to adult Black men and women by their first names, rather than as "Mr." or "Mrs." That didn't make it "cultural, not racist.") Terms of supposed "endearment" can be as sinister as any racial slur.

Original Post (June 30):

Do you find this racist?

If you answered 'no,' I'd like to ask you a second question: are you from Latin America? Unfortunately, Latin America is still chock full of racism. It's not just true in Mexico, although blogger MarkinMexico makes a solid case for it there (also has more pics of the character depicted in the above cartoon, Memin Penguin, and also on the postage stamps causing so much uproar here in the states):

Memin was a popular comic book character for about 20 years in Mexico [Note: it's actually from the 1940s], up to about 1977. By our standards, it is blatatantly rascist. By Mexican standards it is not. Mexican society is a rascist society kind of like that of Japan. Intermarriage, even fraternization, between the mestizos and the indigenous peoples is frowned upon and is rare. Even more rare is intermariage or fraternization with blacks. By mestizos I mean the lighter complected Mexicans of mixed Spanish/Indian or European/Indian descent. In Mexico, the whiter your skin the better.

According to an AP story:

Carlos Caballero, assistant marketing director for the Mexican Postal Service, said he stamps are not offensive, nor were they intended to be.

"This is a traditional character that reflects part of Mexico's culture," Caballero said. His mischievous nature is part of that character."

However, Penalosa said many Mexicans still assume all blacks are foreigners, despite he fact that at one point early in the Spanish colonial era, Africans outnumbered panish in Mexico.

... Ben Vinson, a black professor of Latin American history at Penn tate University, said he has been called "Memin Pinguin" by some people in Mexico. e also noted that the character's mother is drawn to look like an old version of the U.S. advertising character Aunt Jemima.

"The whiter your skin the better..." The same could be said of Brazil, Argentina (I'm told this is not a good example), Guayana, Aruba (just ask those two security guards), the rest of the Caribbean, India, America... you get the idea). The issue of complexion is perhaps the last bastion of the racial caste system, and it's prevalant almost anywhere you look in the world. It's why Halle Berry gets more parts than Nia Long, or why it was "safer" to cast a Latina actress opposite Will Smith in "Hitch" (so the movie could "travel"). As for full-on prejudice, if you've ever been to South Florida, particularly if you are Black, you know that it, too, is still alive and well, whether it's the Cuban-Americans who treat you with barely disguised contempt in Miami or the Venezuelan neighbors in Broward who won't let their kids play with yours. (Edit: by no means all, of course, and by no means only Latinos...).

If you ever get a chance, take a gander at Spanish language TV (Univision or Telemundo.) There you'll find images you might have thought went out of style with "Mammy" and Step 'n Fetch-it: everything from Blackface to Vaudevillian Black absurdism. Pet names like "negrito" (little black one) and "negrita" (the female version, even self-coined by the late Black Cuban singer Celia Cruz) are commonplace. Vicente Fox's slur about jobs "even the Blacks won't do" didn't even phase the populace.

To be sure, there's racism everywhere -- in England and France where "Moroccan" has become a curse word, to right here in the U.S., where things are much more P.C. but you still get the occasional Black men chased through the neighborhood with baseball bats.

The thing is, when racism does rear up in European or American society, it is quickly slapped back down by the P.C. machine, usually by other whites who are genuinely outraged and embarrassed by the assorted dodos in their midst. In Latin America, racism flows more freely, mostly, as MarkinMexico observes, because folks there don't see things like Memin Penguin as racist at all. It's just "cultural."

Update: The original post was, to be sure, my unedited initial response to the issue. That's the good, and bad, thing about the web. Hopefully this edit makes things more clear. There is certainly no blanket statement you can make about racism anywhere, because unfortunately, it is everywhere, in every group. (There's plenty of racism against Latinos out there, too...) The bottom line is, the Mexican cartoon isn't seen as racist by Mexicans, and that type of depiction of Blacks is, I would say, fairly uncontroversial in Latin American entertainment. That doesn't sit well with African-Americans, and the Jesse Jacksons of the world may even be able to make enough noise to force the stamps back into the desk drawer, but the cultural issue won't go away so easily.

Update 2: Vicente Fox says: the stamps stay.
posted by JReid @ 12:50 PM  
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