Seeing Racism

This week on our blog, we want to share two reposts from an MCC LACA series, Racism in Colombia. While the first post unpacks the existence of structural racism in Colombia, the second post, a poem, proudly proclaims that Black People exist. Narratives and voices challenging race and the impacts of racism are often silenced or subdued. Let us see and hear so that we can work for justice, equality, and freedom.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room

by Francisca Pacheco Alvarado

Racism has existed all over the world for hundreds of years, and while it may not always be expressed the same way, one common factor across all countries and societies in which it exists is the denial of its existence.

The Royal Academy of Spanish defines racism as “the exacerbation of racial sentiment by an ethnic group that often leads to the discrimination or persecution of individuals or groups within the same society.”

According to this definition, are you sure racism doesn’t exist in your country?

On May 25th of this year, we were all witnesses to a violent and tragic act committed by a police officer in the United States against George Floyd, an African American citizen, which resulted in his death. As a result, marches erupted around the country in protest of the killing of a fellow citizen.

At the same time many voices, fed up with physical, verbal, and structural racism, started making themselves heard. People across the world have been moved to denounce this horrible act, including in Latin America where many people have ended up identifying themselves as victims in a way that ends up somewhat missing the point.

For a long time, we in Latin America have boasted that the racism we see in the United States doesn’t exist here, but how true is that? African people were brought to our countries by force too—so yes, since the era of the slave trade, racism has existed here.

As I mentioned at the beginning, while racism is often expressed obviously, through acts of physical and verbal violence, it’s also expressed structurally, in ways that are just as dangerous and damaging as physical violence. We can see racism in accounts of crimes committed against civilians, in the images used in advertising, in social integration, in political and historical economics.

Structural racism is the normalization and legitimation of public policy, daily practices, and regular activities that has negative consequences for a particular group of the population because of their skin color, country of origin, culture, traditional dress, etc. For example, we can see structural racism in the absence of justice, education, and health systems in majority Indigenous and Afro-descendent regions of Latin America, or in the way society is segregated by groups or regions, and in how access to resources and opportunities is limited in sometimes subtle ways.

In South America, we tend to omit parts of history. So many times, I’ve heard (and even said myself, I’m now ashamed to admit) the phrase “there aren’t any Black people here.” People continually deny and minimize the presence of Black people in Latin America by saying that very few arrived or were born here to begin with, or that they left, or died in the war, or didn’t survive a new climate or new illnesses.

Since 2004, when a political crisis rocked their country, many Haitians have left their country seeking safety and better opportunities elsewhere in Latin America. In Chile, where I’m from, 104,782 Haitians entered the country in 2017 alone. In some regions, the sharp increase in the percentage of the Black population has resulted in visible social changes. And, as if facing a new language, culture, and climate wasn’t enough, many Haitians in Chile have been victims of racism. Joan Florvil was a 27-year-old mother who had spent 7 months living in Santiago, Chile, after having left Haiti. Joan died as a result of institutional racism after a “misunderstanding” with the police, who made no effort at all to communicate with her. If they had, her daughter, who turned three years old this year, would still be with her mother.

In Colombia, where I live now, it’s often said that racism doesn’t exist because, according to the constitution, Colombia is a “pluri-ethnic and multicultural nation.” However, despite this, 30% of the Afro-Colombian population live in poverty, 81% work in the informal economy, 20% don’t have access to potable water, and 14% are illiterate. These inequalities are constantly normalized in Colombian society, strengthening and reinforcing each other. And I haven’t even mentioned the situation of Indigenous communities, whose marginalization and underdevelopment, they say, has “nothing to do with race.”

The problematic images we see every day are the direct result of the absence of a deep and sincere public debate on the topic of race in our countries. The fact that equality between races, ethnicities, genders isn’t seen as essential is a democratic failure. Without freedom, there is no democracy, and without democracy there is no freedom. Governments need to construct public policies that invest in and compensate marginalized communities to ensure that the entire population is treated equally and has equal access to opportunities.

Have you ever heard the metaphor about the elephant in the room? It’s used to talk about a situation in which everyone avoids talking about an obvious problem. In our room, the elephant is racism, and not talking about it is also part of the problem.

Francisca Pacheco Alvarado, from Valparaíso, Chile, currently lives in the city of Istmina, Chocó, Colombia. She is part of the SEED V group in Colombia and works with the Mennonite Brethren Church in the region in the “Peace Education” project, and in Fagrotes (Weaving Hope Agricultural Foundation by its initials in Spanish).

I am Black

by Winifred Gray-Johnson

I think black.

i think African.

and i exhale.

and i want to tell you

of how exhausting it is.

not to be black. that, i have no issues with.

it is that I have to constantly remind you that I too am human that leaves me so drained.

but okay.

my voice now carries the screams and shouts of my ancestors from centuries past:

I’m black. not less.

I’m black. not more.

I am black. that’s it.

Winifred Gray-Johnson, from Liberia, is part of the Seed program with MCC Bolivia.

To learn more about MCC’s work and to find out how you can get involved, visit our website here.

Banner Image Caption: Cacao seedlings flourish at the San Antonio Nursery, where staff plant and grow cacao seedlings before distribution. The project is run by the Mennonite Brethren Church of Chocó in Colombia, an MCC partner. (MCC Photo: Nina Linton)

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