Saturday, March 07, 2009

Reverse Racism

Last year I wrote a post entitled "Racism & Reverse Racism" about some of our experiences as a transracial family here in Chile. I have shared other instances as well of the attention that Owen, in particular, draws here. I had not realized until recently, however, how used to it we had become! It took having visitors in our home and going places with them - and seeing how much they noticed all the attention - for me to realize we'd learned to sort of "go with the flow" in this regard.

The pleasant reality of life in Iquique is that Owen is not as much of a novelty here as he was in Santiago. Frequently, we will see a black man or woman in different places around town. At the girls' new school, one of the construction workers is a black man. When we stopped by the office with Owen, he hurried over with a big grin on his face just to shake hands with him. And as I mentioned in my last post, we recently rode in a taxi with a black (Peruvian) driver. He was so thrilled to see Owen and kept remarking what a good-looking boy he was!

It was interesting and yet somewhat sobering to listen to the driver's perspective as a black man in Chile. He applauded us for welcoming children of color into our family because "not everyone here is like that." He spoke with respect of one or two black men he knew of in Chile who had done well for themselves financially or politically. He also spoke with excitement of Obama's election and how he thought that now there would be a wave of black presidents throughout the world. It was obvious that the idea of black men being successful and influential in Chile and beyond meant so much to him.

While Owen is not such a novelty because of his skin color alone, he continues to be a novelty because of his skin color and age combined. This is where what I call "reverse racism" comes into play. Comments such as, "I've just never seen one so little!" and "I've always dreamed of having a little black boy like that!" irk me. Is he a person, or a prize? Recently I was turned off by one of the pre-schools we visited. The woman who would have been Owen's teacher was gushing over him and when he gave her a hug she exclaimed, "I've just never been so close to this kind of little boy before!" Just prior to visiting that school we had been at another where the teacher simply said kindly and politely that she would love to have him for a student. I felt that was so much more appropriate and professional. Pedro and I agreed that we would want Owen to be in a place where he was accepted for just being a little boy rather than being the novelty of the school!

Not long ago we were getting ready to leave the house and the kids were in the front yard with the gate open. I heard a commotion and stepped outside to find a woman exclaiming over Owen and trying to pick him up. I wasn't very happy with her and intervened saying that he did not like that! She went on and on about how cute he was and where was he from and that she once had a black boyfriend from Colombia who looked just like him. Then she wanted to know if I had a nanny because she was looking for another position and would love to take care of him. I politely said thanks, but no thanks!

When I take time to think about this whole "reverse racism" thing, I feel conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I dislike the attention but on the other hand, what mother wouldn't enjoy that the whole world seems to agree that her son is the cutest thing ever? In fact, I think this weird reality has probably contributed to Owen being as happy and self-confident as he is. For instance, here is what happens when we go for a walk downtown. As Owen passes by other pedestrians, he hears them comment "Mira que lindo!" ("Look how cute!") At a street under construction, the workers yell out to him, "Hola, amigo!" ("Hi, friend!") and Owen turns with a big grin and waves. When Owen admires a toy watch at a local feria, the saleswoman calls him over and gives him one for free. (As a matter of fact, Owen gets free stuff all the time!) In the taxi on the way home, the driver almost without fail wants to know his name, age, everything about him and calls out "Chao, compadre!" ("Bye, buddy!") when he gets out of the car. Everybody, everywhere wants to be Owen's friend.

I am not naive enough to think that life will always be like this for my son. At a pre-school we visited this past week, several little boys swarmed around Owen and touched his skin. They kept asking "Por que es negro?" ("Why is he black?") and no matter how I explained it they could not understand. One boy in particular kept asking "Pero por que? Por que es negro?" ("But why? Why is he black?") and Owen just grabbed Pedro's legs and hid behind them until they went away. It made me sad to think that as he gets older there will be more times like these when he wants to hide. I know that we must prepare him for life's realities. But I also choose to believe that my son is special - that God brought him to Chile for a reason - and maybe his future will be just as bright as our taxi driver dreams. Because with God, nothing is impossible! :)


Vanessa said...

It always makes me wonder what people are thinking here when they complain about all the Hispanic people "taking over" on one hand, and stop in their tracks to see Charleigh in the next moment. She never fails to draw attention where ever we go..we get the "so cute" thing so much that I'm afraid she won't know there are other things that are important besides being cute. I wonder what school will be like for her; I mostly worry about her not knowing how to speak Spanish and that the Hispanic kids might not accept her.

I remember when we moved into our neighborhood and a white family greeted us with "I'm so glad to have a nother white family in the neighborhood." To which I smiled, "Well, we're 20 percent Hispanic!"
(I've never seen them since!)

David and Anna said...

Unfortunately, being different is always difficult. A little "moreno" boy here in our neighborhood had the experience of racism in his classroom. The teacher always hugged each student goodbye at the end of the day. When she got to him, she said, "No, tu no. Eres demasiado negrito," and passed him by! Thank goodness, his family stood up for him, complained to the principal and switched him to another school. You just have to fill him with love so that his self esteem will be able to take a beating and use each encounter as a way to educate people.