Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fully human (WOF)

One of the first things you learn about humanity is that we’re not equal. Or, rather, that we’re not treated like we’re equal. The supposedly more desirable positions in the hierarchy are called many things – expressions of privilege, dominance, power – but they’re all fundamentally inegalitarian and undemocratic. This inequality forms a social system (again that goes by many names, hegemony, kyriarchy, patriarchy) which infects almost every corner of life, even the smallest most meaningless minutia.

There’s a variety of ways people get sorted into acceptable or unacceptable camps, more than I can really list, but it’s important to remember that these constructed categories of “good people” and “bad” are forced definitions. They’re not reality, but a social system that has contorted our perceptions, and ultimately even ourselves. That’s one of the most essential parts of these seemingly ubiquitous systems, they majorly impact perceptions. They determine which groups of people are perceived as having individualities, having identities, having a claim to humanity.

Many discussions fall victim to this thinking, inside and outside of academia. This is visible in evangelical discussions about how evangelicals won’t be raptured because they have the unifying trait of being saved, but that those left behind are a single, cohesive category – those outside, beneath, below them. Chua, unfortunately, seems to have similar difficulties fully characterizing one group (at least in this chapter), and surprise, it’s the poor!

Having argued that class categories are excellent predictors for ethnic categories, Chua seems to then spend a great amount of time in this Latin American section detailing the complexities of which specific ethnicities get included in the larger, almost racial category of “white”. She stresses that even in colonial times the colonial forces had various ethnic old world origins:

That the Spaniards were supposed to be ‘pure-blooded’ is, to say the least, ironic. Among the numerous groups that, by the Middle Ages, had inhabited and commingled with each other on Iberian soil were Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Arabs, Berbers, and Gypsies (58).

Furthermore, there’s family history’s influence on how securely “white” a particular lineage was considered. In effect, within a few centuries of colonization, pure-blood Spaniards were distinguished based on whether they had been born to white Latin Americans or white Europeans:

And throughout Latin America, landowners preferred their daughters to marry penniless peninsulares (arrivals from new Spain) rather than wealthy criollos (American-born Spaniards). The fact of being born in the Old World was supposedly good proof of being ‘pure white’ (59).

As Chua describes it, later immigrants from various locations (not just Spain) profited from their lack of Native American ancestry, and managed to install themselves securely within the “white” category. She uses the example of Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico:

Needless to say, Slim has no Amerindian ancestors. As elsewhere in the world, the Lebanese community in Mexico is very tight: Slim’s late wife was also Christian Lebanese, and, reportedly, most members of Slim’s extended family have married other Christian Lebanese; virtually all are extremely wealthy (63).

In short, Chua describes in detail the intricate facets of several white communities in Latin America, providing specific immigration histories and detailed genealogical descriptions. She gives them specific, historical identities. She makes them people. Her writing on the various other racial categories in Latin America could not be more different – they are an amorphous, non-descript mass. She describes perceived white intellectual and cultural superiority in opposition to various, briefly undefined others:

In Mexico, mixed-blooded mestizos were for years prohibited from owning land or joining the army or clergy. In Peru, even intellectuals believed that ‘the Indian is not now, nor can he ever be, anything but a machine.’ […] In Argentina, a popular writer wrote in 1903 that mestizos and mulattos were both ‘impure, atavistically anti-Christian; they are like the two heads of a fabulous hydra that surrounds, constricts and strangles with its giant spiral a beautiful, pale virgin, Spanish America’ (58-59).

Intermediary categories like mestizo and mulatto are equated with pure-blood Native Americans, to say nothing about how an entire category of (unwilling) immigrants – slaves of African origin and their descendents, mulatto and “negro” alike – are outside of the category of ‘white’ while quite clearly not indigenous inhabitants to the region. It’s perfectly reasonable to define them as a broad social category of those that survived white rule rather than lived under it, but that doesn’t warrant writing virtually nothing of their internal identities. The few cases where Chua does this always reflect another facet of white dominance, rather than actual issues of identity negotiated between these two groups. She writes-

Not surprisingly, according to Mexican writer Enrique Krauze, Indian women desire to have children with mestizos – ‘not to betray their race but out of a desire to spare their progeny a bleak future’ (59-60).

Essentially the only time that relations between two non-white groups are discussed, it naturally relates in total to the white hegemony. In this book, there’s little description of what these groups think or how they see things, and the little we see overwhelmingly concerns the white hegemony, white categorization. Her writing denies them a self.

At the bare minimum, she outlines three separate groupings (mestizo, mulatto, and indigenous) but seldom draws the kind of sharp distinctions between them that she described within the white community. Instead, as per her previous quoting of Krauze, she highlights how these groups converged, even as she stresses the diversity within the “white” community. Even more damning, in my opinion, is how Chua extremely rarely mentions any indigenous group by name:

Mexico’s roughly 9 to 10 million indigenous peoples, about one-tenth of the population, have the highest rates of illiteracy and disease in the country. In the states of Chiapas, just thirty-five years ago, Amerindians were forbidden to walk on sidewalks or look lighter-skinned Mexicans in the eye (59).

Or, more blatantly,

The psychological effects of the Spanish Conquest were crushing and lasting. ‘The death of the sun – the strangulation of the Inca,’ writes sociologist Magnus Mörner, was a ‘profound shock, reinforced later on by the beheading of Tupac Amaru.’ Contemporary indigenous dances still reflect the profound ‘Trauma of Conquest’ (64).

The few specifics are quotation, and introduced without context. The effect that this has on this section is incredible. It’s as if indigenous peoples were before European contact unbelievably monolithic, and to a large extent remain so, according to Chua. They don’t have specific identities, competing languages and ideological conceptions of reality. There aren’t Quechua-speaking Incas and Aymara-speaking Carangas who have battled and negotiated and co-operated and conflicted for centuries (and to some extent, continue to do so). There’s only a drab, generic, grey mass of indigenous peoples who exist below the colonial government, beyond the social category of white. She seems to buy into this narrative that they’re unknowable, anti-Christian, shadows of humans defined merely by what they aren’t – white.

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