Is Political Correctness just for Americans?
I didn’t know any Indigenous Americans until I was 21 years old. That was the summer, I’d moved to DC with just 2 suitcases in hand. I was immersed in DC life: working on Capitol Hill, perfecting the craft of brunching, and studying sessions in the evenings. I was so preoccupied that I often only saw my roommate, Raina, in passing. On a rare evening when we both happened to be home at the same time, she volunteered to make us dinner. My loathing for cooking is only paralleled by my joy of eating so, of course, I never turn down an opportunity to have someone else cook for me.
When I peered over the stove to see what she was making, I saw a square of pink meat frying in the pan. I had never seen anything like it before. Reading the look of confusion on my face, she said, “It’s SPAM. We eat it often on the reservation.” I am embarrassed to even write this, but the first words out of my mouth were: “Reservation? I thought you were Filipina!”
I am forever indebted to her openness and patience with me as she explained that she was actually Navajo from Arizona. She then proceeded to answer all my questions and dispel many of the tropes I’d often heard about both reservations (hers didn’t even have potable water, much less casino money), tribal benefits (the federal government made them go through hurdles to get the benefits they deserve, even “free” college tuition at colleges with racist mascots), and indigenous peoples (the rumors of their demise had been greatly exaggerated).
Fast- forward now to Panama, which has a very visible indigenous population of over 300,000 people (about 5% of the population) that is simultaneously marginalized and thriving. The Ngöbe-Buglé make up about half of the indigenous peoples of Panama and the Guna Yala of San Blas and Emberá make up the rest. My first two Spanish teachers in Bocas, like many of the people from the Bocas del Toro province, were indigenous people from the Ngöbe ethnic group. One of my current roommates in Panama City is Ngöbe as well.
On a number of occasions, I’ve been out with Latinos when someone whom I'd generally consider a good person will make a joke offhand about the indios:
“I’ve been the first one at work in my office. I don’t want my boss thinking I’m an indio.”
“Housekeeping is a job for indios”
"That's my indio. She works for me"
"So and so sounds like an indio"
"My English isn’t very good. I speak like an indio”
Finally, on that last occasion, I decided to engage the person on what exactly he meant. He was a Venezuelan friend of mine and I considered us close enough to be able to have conversations about touchy subjects. After he made the comment, I asked him how exactly an indigenous person spoke. “You know,” he said and then proceeded to lower the baritone in his voice and speak in broken English reminiscent of an old Tarzan movie.
The look of discomfort on my face made him stop, “It’s just a joke, France,” he tried to reassure me.
“Do you know indigenous people who speak like that,” I asked causally.
He thought about it for a moment and replied, “No, but it’s just supposed to be funny.”
“But it’s not funny. It’s a stereotype and it’s not true.”
“Ugh, are you going to say it’s racist, France? You Americans* think everything is racist,” he said in exasperation.
(I’d actually avoided using the R word knowing how it immediately puts people on the defense and can become an obstacle to dialogue. If I call you a racist, it’s meant as a final observation on your character and a wave goodbye; we have nothing further to discuss.)
I didn’t respond and let him continue, “Latin America isn’t like the U.S. Here we can talk about each others races without people being surprised or feeling offended. For example, in Venezuela, I can say “Hola, Mi Negra” to my black friends even though I’m not black. When my white American friends hear me say “Mi Negra”, they freak out and say that I can’t say that! Why can’t I say “What’s up, Blackie” or “What’s up, Black” to my friend just because the U.S. has a race problem?”
“Nope, you can’t say Blackie,” I said.
“But-,” he started again.
I cut him off, “Nah.”
“Ok,” he said, sighing resolutely.
Now that that had been firmly established, I can honestly say I understood exactly what he was trying to convey. The U.S.’s racial history and institutionalized racism is different than the rest of the region and it gives words a different historical context and meaning than they may have in Latin America. For example, I've grown to prefer that Latinos refer to me as “Mi Negra” as a term of endearment rather than Morena**. I understand the former as a radical embracement of a quality that was once considered a negative (not necessarily a slur) in most Latino societies. To be black has always been associated with all the worst things: crime, poverty, laziness- to be a libertine. Thus, I embrace the rise of black consciousness led by Afro-Latinos across Latin America that radically embraces blackness as something positive to be proud of in subtle ways such as rejecting of the word moreno/a and more visible ways as in the embracing of natural hairstyles.
Why he couldn’t say “What’s up, Blackie” and especially not “What’s up, my n*gga” to me was because those words continued to be hurtful-especially in English with no meaningful direct translation in Spanish- given the current racial climate in the U.S. They still carry a heavy historical burden. The U.S. was not undergoing a radical process of embracing black people. In fact, it seems that just the opposite is happening. Thus, neither would be perceived as a term of endearment from him by me or any other black person from the U.S. In fact, those would be considered fightin’ words- words aimed to provoke a physical altercation.
However, just because the U.S. continues to languish in its racist past and present, doesn't mean Latin America is a racial utopia free of racism by any stretch of the imagination- natural hair movement or not. So, let’s get back to "indios" which, unlike "negra", was not something the indigenous people preferred to be called and was always used in derision. “Let’s not talk about America right now," I said, "often Latinos try to dismiss issues here by pointing out racism in the U.S., but the contexts are different,” I said.
“What I mean is that Americans are too sensitive. Here in Latin America, no one takes things like that seriously. Jokes don’t hurt our feelings,” he tried to explain.
“Then why do you guys get so upset every time Donald Trump calls you rapists,” I asked pointedly
“Well, he’s just talking about the Latinos in the U.S.,” he quipped.
“So it’s okay to say all Latinos are rapists?!”
“Of course not! There are so many different types of Latinos. You can’t say that about all of us!”
“What if I said I am so starving like a Venezuelan,” I asked pointedly.
His jaw tensed for a moment. I could see he was trying to compose himself before he responded to me, “Well, it’s true that some Venezuelans are hungry right now but…no, that’s not okay, France,” he said finally.
“Of course it’s not okay,” I replied, “it’s a stereotype and it’s hurtful. Now can you imagine what it would feel like if you were a little indigenous kid and all you ever heard about your people was how dumb, poor, and lazy they are?”
“I honestly never thought about it like that. Those are just the types of jokes we make. I never stopped to think about the meaning behind it.”
“Do you know indigenous people like the jokes people make?”
“Not really, but that’s what I saw on TV about indigenous people growing up.”
“When I was growing up, all the Latinos on TV were in gangs and used the word “ese” a lot,” I told him.
“That’s just stupid,” he laughed before growing quiet, “You know what? Thank you for this conversation. It’s really been eye-opening. I can see how what I said could be hurtful and now I'm ashamed that I even said it.”
I told him it was no problem. It was the least I could do to repay Raina for making her explain SPAM to me all those years ago, and for the indigenous people across the Americas fighting to protect their land and their traditions.
*I've noticed that when people want to disagree with me here, the easiest way to dismiss me is by calling me "American" lol. Any other time, I'm la Haïtiana.
** Moreno/a- literally means brown (rather than black). It’s a word often used to signify that you are a little farther removed from your African ancestors and, therefore, better. Probably unironically, I almost always hear the word morena used with an underlying sexual connotation, mostly by men catcalling me on the street.