I don’t want to downplay how complicated issues of race are, but in a way, race in the United States is a pretty easy to understand concept. As Michael Jackson put it, it’s about whether you’re black or white.
Max Krochmal, a History, Race and Ethnic Studies professor at Texas Christian University, says, “The American understanding of race has been largely dictated along the lines of a black-white racial binary.”
But it’s not so black and white in Mexico, says Rogér Bartra, an anthropologist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “En México hay más grados intermedios entre lo oscuro y lo claro – lo blanco y lo negro,” he says. “In México there’s a wider diversity of shades that fit in between dark skin and light skin in between white and black.”
All those shades have to do with the diversity of countries that invaded Latin America starting in the sixteenth century – including the Spanish, Portuguese and French. But it’s also influenced by other groups who did not come as conquistadors, like people from China and Africa.
“En esa época los españoles se dieron cuenta de que se producía de manera casi natural el mestizaje,” Bartra says. “During that time, the mixing of races and cultures was almost natural.”
At least in Latin America. Back in Europe, the mixing of indigenous peoples, Africans and Chinese with Europeans did not seem natural. There are pictures from the time that depict the children from those unions with grotesque names. “Inventaron términos como ‘lobo,’ ‘salta-pa-trás,’ etcetera,” Bartra says. “They made-up names for those children calling them ‘wolves’ or ‘backward jump.’”
Bartra says that European influence was the start of the “institutional racism” in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, but it’s a type of racism that has never been acknowledged.
On Dora Burnor’s 60th birthday, she and her family celebrated with rich plates of Italian pasta. As her family leaves, I ask if we can talk about race.
“I am Mexican, I was born and raised in Mexico,” Burnor says. “The genetic lottery had it so that I am white. I am very, very white and I have green eyes and I have freckles and I sunburn very seriously and I don’t look what you would call typically Mexican at all, so it is very surprising to people when they find out that I am Mexican.”
Burnor lives in Texas. She says both here and back in Mexico being white afforded her some privileges that eluded Rocio Schmies.
Schmies is also Mexican. But she grew up with daily doses of micro-aggressions sprinkled with a hint of racism. Like when she interviewed for a position with an airline. Schmies was convinced she’d get the job since she has a degree in hospitality and speaks three languages.
“Ay, no – hasta me hicieron llorar porque me empezaron a decir es que estas muy bajita y estas muy morena – no pasas el esquema,” Schmies says. “Oh gosh, they even made me cry. They were like ‘You are short and so dark-skinned. You don’t meet our profile.’”
Years later, Schmies married a man from Germany and left Mexico. When she gave birth to their son, she went back so her family could meet the baby. “Es mas – hasta mi familia – una de mis tias se quedo asi – ay, dice – y porque no saco los ojos azules de su papa? Y porque no es rubio?” Schmies says. “Even my family is racist! When my aunt saw him she was like – how come he didn’t get his father’s blue eyes? How come he’s not blonde?”
When this year’s study from Harvard, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR came out, Anthropologist Rogér Bartra says no one in Mexico was surprised to learn that there’s discrimination in the US. “En México se tendía a pensar que racistas – los gringos – pero nosotros los mexicanos no porque aqui se exaltaba la cultura indigena.” Bartra says, “In Mexico we used to say – racists? Those gringos, of course, but not us Mexicans. We worship our indigenous roots.”
But this year’s study by Mexico’s National Institute of Geography and Statistics (INEGI) sent shock waves through the country. People polled were asked to do three main things – identify their skin-tone from a palette of 11 shades, identify their highest degree of education and identify their yearly income.
The results were astounding. About 30 percent of dark skinned Mexicans did not finish elementary school and live mostly in poverty, while almost half of white Mexicans have professional degrees and live more affluent lives.
Bartra says the veil was lifted. Mexico discovered it is a racist country, too. But is there anything to be learned from this?
“Desde mi punto de vista como Antropólogo – yo parto de la idea científica de que las razas no existen – son un invento politico y cultural que han provocado un daño terrible,” he says. “Yes, from my perspective as an anthropologist I support the scientific idea that there’s only the human race. Other races were political and cultural inventions that have terribly damaged us.”
So, maybe Michael Jackson was onto something. Although, in Mexico, the words need some adjusting – it shouldn’t matter if you’re black, white, or one of the 11 shades in between.