When Racism Hurts


By María Emilia Tijoux

Member of the Social Sciences Faculty at the Universidad de Chile

Contemporary Racism and Migrations Chair Coordinator

Translated by Anthony Rauld

Contemporary migration is a relevant and dramatic phenomenon that leads to complex transformations in sender societies (emigration) and in receiving societies (immigration), which highlights the two sides that come to define migrants: the absence from their own country and their presence in a foreign one.  Since migrations are the result of universalist politics and economic rhythms imposed by capital, migrants cannot plan their destination. Reduced to an “immigration”—which differentiates them from other migrants, who are referred to as “foreigners”, and from local citizens—that naturalizes racism, their names and history are erased. They will serve as the bodies for a kind of accounting that alters and frightens a society that considers itself white and European.  The Chilean nation has the appearance of being fulfilled and secured with a version of development that was forged in a north it never belonged to, but which it always dreamt of—and still dreams.  The images of the “black and the indio” will therefore return with the same ferocity characteristic of the colonial state.

There are millions of people who travel around the world looking for jobs, for survival, and for the acceptance and sympathy that can help them cope with restrictive immigration policies.  When immigration is treated as a security issue, it becomes a “problem” and governments feel obliged to confront the threat. States implement policies that are increasingly tougher in order to control it and “organize” it: visas are restricted and to obtain one, in some cases, those who arrive in Chile must classify themselves by height, skin color, eyes and hair color (like what happens today in Venezuela). Only very recently, and because of public outcry, the Minister of Foreign Relations, Roberto Ampuero, has requested to change this consular application procedure.  There are more controls, more deportations, and more sanctions, but these fail to respond to the real needs of a labor force that, having originally been welcomed, are today treated as “enemies” who “invade” national territory.

Today in Santiago, we are facing a situation where immigrants have to wait in lines that stretch for eight blocks, overwhelming the city’s public spaces, where loneliness and fear keep families hidden indoors so as to avoid arrest or insults, where the Executive branch proposes a legislative bill based on security needs and aimed at “cleaning house”, and where sanitizing, deporting and abuse is the order of the day.  We await a legislative project that is curiously worse than when the Military Junta signed the Foreign Alien Decree Act in 1975, which should make us reflect on what it is that we have constructed as an “us”, and how it has succeeded in causing those who we have defined as the “other” to suffer.   This legislation is aimed at immigrants, whose bodies are objectified, since their mere presence is subject to contempt and constant punishment.  Their features, origins, color and sex, together with their lack of money, which makes them seek work upon arrival, turns them into targets for exploitation, depredation or annihilation.  This dehumanization, which is not new, has its roots in the colonial legacy and in the formation of a white, European nation state, which crystallized the separation between the master, who dispossess, and the subjected servant, and this led to social inequality.

Attracted by the country’s economic and political stability, immigrants have come to Chile in order to work and to settle down.  They are not just passing through, they have come here to stay, and they represent a much needed provisional labor force; if they did not come, the human trafficking markets that accommodate migrants in agricultural, construction or restaurant jobs, while their papers are taken from them and are hidden, would not exist.  The need to stay forces them to accept any treatment, while the certainty of their “difference” obliges them to keep silent and accept inhumane living conditions. Their presence brings back the ghosts of the colonial period, and of the state and nation, which turn them into an  “enemy”.

But the immigrant is also a constructed discourse, the interplay between power and truth that articulate, for national citizens, their existence, their identity and their subjectivity.  Imagined to be, and pointed out as, threatening, parasitic, or ungovernable, immigrants seem condemned to be excluded.  They try to disappear into the every day world of the host nation, but they struggle against, for example, the burden of color, ascribed to their person, in order to make each of them visible as an unequal, investing in them a “difference” that condemns them and demarcates them as the clear border between those who are nationals and those who are not. Thus, they become bodies of spectacle, the bearers of an unsettled visibility that betrays multiple interpretations, which end up configuring an order, the “national order”, under which the unjust measures—based on the myths about the immigrant—can be understood. But myths are powerful, since they create truths, they naturalize stereotypes and they legitimize abuse, all of which helps to consolidate xenophobic fear and racist practices.

In the eyes of Chileans, the presence of immigrants reveals “cultural” characteristics that can allegedly be recognized and be made to stand out by their “color”, their “shape”, their “smell” or “character”, which sets them apart because they are “noisy”, “violent”, “thieves” and “promiscuous”, and therefore predisposed to crime, evil and excess.  Practices related to discrimination, exclusion, and racism, witnessed in everyday situations, have been linked to a concept of blackness—old and new—that reveals an alterity forged in colonial era representations of an “other” that operates as an a priori  “transcendental truth”, which naturalizes violence.

Racism is relational, and it is renewed and fostered by fear, xenophobia and anger.   These help to create real or imagined differences, which are definite and generalized, and are ascribed to individuals who are then excluded, rejected, expelled or killed.  A pseudo-scientific and political discourse is then able to triumph, enabling a biological racism, rationalized and legitimized, which is internalized by the racist subject and used to mark with all the violence of the “other” the grammar of the immigrant.

It is crucial to continue looking at our experiences with immigration from the perspective of our colonial legacy, which is still evident in our social relations, and which continues to reproduce old colonial hierarchies.  We see this with women who are employed as domestic workers who are given only a place to live and the matron’s used clothes in exchange for their work; or in the miserable wages Bolivian and Peruvian workers receive in the valleys of the North; or in the supposed submission of those who accept any payment or treatment.  But we never stop to think about those who, in dire circumstances, have to leave their homelands in order to find a job, and who must accept only the crumbs they are offered, and with it the abuse that often accompanies them.

We could perhaps agree to re-trace our steps, and to disarm what we have learned as truth in order to find a way out of this.  We could start by granting this “other”, which we have created through “difference”, the chance to speak so as to begin to imagine a path towards equality.  Then it would be worthwhile to look at ourselves for who we are, and laugh at this idea we have about whiteness as a symbol of Europeanization.   Our skin has different tonalities.  It does not tell us who we are, what we feel or think, because skin is only a wrapping that covers us, it stretches, wrinkles, and leaves marks.  And its color, more or less fair, more or less dark, has never been a synonym for kindness, nor for evil.

Racism is not a phenomenon that happens at the level of individuals, something espoused by “racist subjects”, nor is it something isolated or contemporaneous.  It is the product of a historical and structural formation that takes on diverse forms throughout history, and which cannot be understood without understanding the context of colonization, the formation of the nation state, or class and gender distinctions.  But it is important to be able to complement the concept of structural racism with the racism that is reproduced in the everyday practices and discourses, which is naturalized in daily interactions, organizing, reproducing, and replenishing racial hierarchies, which affirms its unquestionable status for both racist subjects and, at times, for those who are victims of violence—who will sometimes state that in Chile it is best to remain silent about this in order to remain in the country, and that since this is a “better” country, it is better to be like us.

Nevertheless, the biological racism that we thought was a thing of the past, which seeks to classify people according to “race”, and which supposes the existence of “superiors and inferiors” without basis, since there is no scientific evidence, is alive and well in the national culture, and manifests itself in the worst way against immigrants, revealing traces of violence allowed on social media.  Some media outlets eagerly show racial caricatures that help to sustain stereotypes, which end up naturalizing and promoting practices and discourses that humiliate and cause diverse forms of suffering.  The color of skin, eyes and hair is required for entry into Chile, as if passports did not provide a photograph and fingerprints for each person.

There is much to think about and do, and there are many questions and points of view that need to be explored, like the conferences we should organize in order to discuss public policies that should be in line with a humanity that has to confront the violence of racism in all of its forms, including the most familiar.

What should we do, and how, in order to promote the understanding of the reasons that drive people from other countries to come and live in our country?  Is it only an issue of “differences”?  Shouldn’t we reflect on our own history and on the production of identities and of our national imaginary?  And what should we do about the acts of violence that are unfolding today?   What role do rights play?  What role does the media play? The human sciences, the social sciences, scientific investigation, art?

What should we do when faced with racial violence against persons?  How do we ensure not just the description and quantification of particular interactions, but also our liberation from logical, institutional and imaginary structures, which help to legitimize the habits of violence, and which limit our ability to seek a collective future?



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