The Genocidal Rick-Roller: Ethnicity, Racism and Being Visible in Chile
“¡Cara de ángel!
The Chilean students were pointing and giggling like they had never seen a blondish, blue-eyed white guy this close before. As soon as I had slipped through the classroom door, the tenth-graders slammed their books shut and loudly described my body, often comparing it to something they had seen on TV.
Though some of these schoolkids were as pale as me, I’m from the United States, and that makes me visible. Extremely visible.
The teacher had graciously organized this classroom observation as part of my ethnographic research. She gave me a half-sympathetic, half-amused look, gesturing to two chairs in the corner. My friend was already sitting there, pen in hand, quietly waiting for the fuss to die down so she could observe teaching methods. Apparently there was radio silence when she entered the now-riotous classroom because Santiago students see Mexicans like her as more Chilean (and thus normal) than tall Swedish Americans like me.
In his book, The Invention of Culture, anthropologist Roy Wagner describes how a fieldworker in an unfamiliar culture moves from being the “village idiot” who commits daily blunders to the “child” who constantly asks basic questions to the “government agent” who suspiciously sticks his nose into other people’s affairs. Considering all these phases of local notoriety, Wagner concludes that the anthropologist eventually learns more about himself than the host culture: “Against the backdrop of his new surroundings it is [the fieldworker] who has become ‘visible.’”
Let me share some more stories to illustrate what I mean by being “visible.”
“The Genocidal Rick-Roller”
While taking roll call in my first-ever Chilean university lecture, the professor read my name, then asked me if my ancestors committed genocide against Native Americans. (Nice to meet you too!) I wanted to take the time to explain that my mom arrived in the United States only 25 years ago and that my father’s family likely had few encounters with any of the Sioux or Ojibwe tribes, but I knew that as a pale guy I still benefit from settler colonialism and that the professor was only trying to make a comparison between Chilean and U.S. colonial history, so I just nodded my head in silence. Soon enough the class clown realized (out loud) how much I look like Rick Astley, the 80s pop singer-turned Internet meme famous for “Never Gonna Give You Up”. And that’s how my peers came to know me as the Genocidal Rick-Roller. (We’re friends now.)
“1% At First Sight”
I sat in on another tenth-grade class discussion, this time about ethics. The teacher provoked the students with a question that hit close to home: What to do about the recent spate of in-school cellphone theft? The first student said it was immoral for students to steal each other’s phones but okay to steal mine. The reason? She knew that most of her peers were poor, but assumed that I was cuico, meaning rich and stuck-up. The teacher pointed out that she doesn’t even know me and shouldn’t make such assumptions. She stated that I was a white, blonde, well-dressed gringo as if to say, “How could he not be cuico?” Considering her experience, I don’t blame her for placing people who look like me at at the rich end of a Robin Hood scenario. The students of the priciest private school in Santiago are almost exclusively rubiocitos con azulitos (blondies with blue eyes) and Hollywood movies don’t show that almost 20 million white Americans live in poverty. Still, it feels odd to be thrown into the 1% at first sight.
“The Potentially-Heartbreaking Smile-and-Wave”
Walking home from the university, I looked up the sidewalk and saw I was bound to cross paths with three schoolkids — one girl flanked by two boys. They were high schoolers, judging by their uniform. One Chilean guy who I recognized from my history lecture passed by the schoolkids first. No potentially-heartbreaking smile-and-wave. Another compañero, whose deep eyes and tasteful facial hair I found attractive, walked by the schoolgirl second. No potentially-heartbreaking smile-and-wave. Finally I, with all my aforementioned physical features, walk by the schoolgirl flanked by two boys. Smile-and-wave, potentially heartbreaking. I know the two schoolboys noticed her notice me. I wonder if they noticed how the girl did not seem to notice my Chilean counterparts. I wonder if they would care. Do the schoolboys have a crush on her? Did they glance at their forearm, a shade darker than mine, afterwards? Would they run their fingers through their hair, comparing? Or maybe it was just a friendly smile-and-wave, not potentially-heartbreaking.
In these ways, I feel much more visible in Chile than in Minnesota or New York. Not discriminated against, just visible. None of the above stories are “reverse racism.” The real racism in Chile targets indigenous groups (e.g. Mapuche, Aymara, Rapa Nui) and recent Latin American immigrants (e.g. Dominicans, Peruvians, Haitians) who have a structural disadvantage in terms of capital and citizenship.
Even in Chile, where class analysis reigns supreme (thanks to its chart-topping rates of income inequality), it’s all too easy to find racist explanations for the status quo. I hear it in elementary school playgrounds where Chilean kids with Peruvian maids tease their Peruvian playmates and my host mother’s car as she drives through city center spewing stereotypes left and right.
By now I know all the stereotypes. Dominicans? Prostitutes. Colombians? Narcos. Mapuche? Terrorists. Such is the selective xenophobia in Chile. Bigots would take a Justin Bieber over a Bolivian PhD any day.
But it’s not just the conservative elite who boast of German ancestors and Italian vacations who maintain this tradition. It’s also the working-class people raised on the myth that Pinochet’s dictatorship transformed a chaotic country into “the Jaguar of Latin America.” Chile’s other long-standing nickname — “the England of South America” — also fits nicely with its long history of blanqueamiento (whitening) through state policies and cultural practices.
All of this amounts to an anti-immigrant sentiment in Chile that is all too familiar to Americans like me. What may be more confusing for study abroad students is the seemingly racist nicknames that abound among Chileans. For example, my host mother calls my host sister chinita (as in “little China girl”) and my host brother negrita (as in “little black boy”). These are commonly used to describe anyone who has thinner eyes or darker skin, just as gordita (“little fattie”) refers to anyone who is even slightly overweight or big-boned.
Last month, while making a fairly academic remark about the nineteenth-century Chinese economy, my history professor pulled back the corners of his eyes and said something along the lines of “Wing-shing-shong-dong-ding.” The Chilean students cringed and chuckled, surprised but not shocked. I wasn’t in shock either, having already lived in Chile for six months, but I can’t speak for the South Korean exchange student who was sitting behind me.
Sometimes the casualness (?) or lack of sensitivity (?) regarding ethnicity that creeps into many conversations here makes me long for the more nuanced discussion of racism in my history seminars in New York City. But then I remember Donald Drumpf and all that he represents. And then I remember my own prejudices. I probably have been what that history professor was to that South Korean student at some point. It’s the United States; I know I have.
One upside to being visible abroad — be it due to envy, fear or curiosity — is that you become not only visible to others but also to yourself. It’s an exercise in reflection. Whether welcome or not, the wide-eyed stares and incessant questions force you, the foreigner, to come up with answers about who you are.
(“No, I’m not in One Direction. But you can steal my cellphone.”)
Read more on travel, education and history at The Dandruff Report.