Xenophobia and Racism: The Story of a Black Woman in Chile Part 2

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South America » Chile » Santiago Region » Santiago
February 2nd 2018
Published: February 3rd 2018
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Tamara and meTamara and meTamara and me

Friend from the States who came to visit :-)
Okay, so what just happened? As I walk through the sinuous streets, I see some of the same sights but something is different. The same dotted hills, the same stray dogs wagging their tails, begging for attention. The same busy produce market. The same brilliantly blue ocean underneath a turquoise sky. But something is very different. This is Chile. The place that used to be a haven for weary souls. A place virtually untouched by racial discrimination that is experienced most other places around the world. Due to a wave of unexpected (non-European) immigration, xenophobia and racism have also arrived in Chile. The streets are colorful more than just architecturally now. There is color in the accents and in the faces of those who walk through the streets and many Chileans don't know how to handle it.

It's more about class than color.

Sometimes I wonder if the racism here is really deep rooted classism parading as racism. In the last 3 years, there has been a great influx of Colombians, then Venezuelans, and now Haitians into northern Chile and Santiago. These are people who, for the most part, are coming to Chile to better their economic standing. Because Chile has the best economy in South America, most immigrants coming here are looking for employment and to stay indefinitely. Most Chileans don't like this.

The reason I think it might be classism parading as racism is because Chile has experienced immigration before. European immigration. When the Germans, the Italians, and the British immigrated here during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, no one cared. No one batted an eye. Even the architectural influences of these cultures are shown off today with pride.

But the immigrants coming now days, aren't wealthy. They aren't coming from more developed countries. Colombia, Venezuela, and Haiti aren't countries that Chileans "look up to" like European countries and the United States. More than the color of the immigrants, that could be where the problem lies.

Why are Chileans so leery of foreigners?

Besides classism, it might be the sheer numbers that's an issue. According to statistics, there are approximately 300 Haitians immigrating to Chile daily. In a country of only 17 million, it's felt as an invasion.

Some say because Chile has seen such little immigration in the past, they have become rather xenophobic. Chile has gotten used to a society with little diversity. That is certain. As a study abroad student, the only foreigners I knew, were other people studying abroad. That's it. Now, just six years later, I know many Dominicans, Salvadorans, Haitians, Venezuelans, and Peruvians in Valparaiso, who are all here to stay. They weren't here when I was a student. When asked when they arrived to Chile, the typical answer is 3-4 months ago.

Although Europeans have historically been welcomed here, they never came in what was considered hordes. Or maybe they actually did come in hordes but because they were from Europe, Chileans just ignored it. I don't know. But in spite the immigration scare, census have proven that the immigrants in Chile only total about 6% , which is FAR less than many other countries.

Part of the problem, is definitely the stereotypes. Partly real, but undoubtedly exaggerated. Chileans don't know what I am anymore. They literally have no idea. And as a result, I've experienced different kinds of treatment, depending on what said person assumes I am. They used to assume I was American. Because of all the recent immigration, not anymore.

I'll tell
you what people think I am:

The Colombian Assumption

When they think I'm Colombian, I'm the woman who is out to seduce and steal their husbands right from under their noses. I'm the one who is sexually promiscuous, who enjoys selling her body and is waiting for any and every Chilean man, no matter how old and fat, to come and whisk me away. How do Chileans erroneously arrive at that conclusion? It's because I'm black, therefore I'm Colombian. I'm Colombian and female, therefore I'm a prostitute. As a result, I've had men ask me as I walk though the streets, how much I charge. It's infuriating, it's degrading, and I pretend not to hear them, quickening my step to distance myself. Sad. The irony is, when I was in Colombia, surrounded by almost all black people, no one mistook me for a Colombian. But Chileans tend to think all Colombian women are prostitutes, not just the black ones. But the black ones stand out more as foreigners while the non-black ones blend in with Chileans unless they speak.

The Haitian Assumption

When they think I'm Haitian, they don't think I speak
Spanish at all, but rather Creole. So they talk to me...very...slowly... I'm the woman who is shy and freezing in this 50 degree weather. I'm someone who is poor, uneducated, and needy of socioeconomic assistance which puts me on the bottom rung in this classist society. I'm not a tourist but rather here to stay.

Jimmy, a Haitian man who's been here since the earthquake in 2010, says Chileans assume that all Haitians are poor and uneducated, as if being Haitian itself is an insigne of poverty. He recounts in 2010, when a beggar on the street approached him to ask for money, initially assuming that he was African American. Once the homeless man found out that he was Haitian, he immediately retracted his request for money, and began to tell Jimmy how much better off he'd be in Chile than in Haiti. That'd he'd be able to come up financially. Jimmy was incredulous of course. This was coming from a Chilean man who was literally living on the streets. Life in Chile was obviously not going super well for him, and yet even he considered himself better off than Jimmy. I've begun teaching beginner Spanish classes at a
church in Valparaiso, and the truth is, a number of Haitians are accountants, nurses, and speak more languages than many could ever aspire to. They just need to learn Spanish.

It's a black thing but then it's not.

I don't think Chileans are truly racist although their behavior at times, causes confusion. They don't care that I'm brown. In fact, most of them like it, and openly express that. However, my blackness conveys "other-ness". It says, I'm not from here and Chileans are unfortunately rather xenophobic. A large number of immigrants coming here, freaks them out. My blackness also denotes that I'm likely from Colombia or Haiti, which are not doing as economically well as Chile. And that's where classist attitudes, and stupid stereotypes come into play.

I still have people come up to me in places and compliment me. They compliment my skin color. They compliment my hair. It's contradictory the reactions I receive. Chileans still like black people! Chileans like me. But then there's also this fear that I'm Colombian at first. It's ridiculous. I've seen people's attitudes positively change after finding out that I'm from the United States. I think, if they actually had something against brown people, they wouldn't be fond of me, American or not. But the problem is, even if I were Colombian, or any other nationality, it shouldn't matter.

"!Andate a tu pais!" "Go back to your country!" a lady yelled at me as I stood with my luggage in front of the bus terminal, waiting for my host dad to park the car. It was the first time anything like that had happened to me here, and so far it's been the last. But I'm shocked that it occurred at all because it never would have in the past. I don't know if she screamed at me because I'm black or because I'm a foreigner. It left me fuming and in a fog of what-in-the-world-just-happened?? Whatever the reason, you don't treat someone that way.

I argued with a colectivo driver yesterday. He was incredibly friendly with me. We chatted and eventually he asked me where I am from. When he found out that I wasn't Colombian, he relaxed and felt free to express some anti Colombian sentiment. I shut him down. In a respectful way, but I shut him down all the same. He was an older gentleman and I could tell that he was surprised to be met with some respectful but firm arguments about why his statements were ignorant. We parted with a handshake and a smile.

On a positive note...

There's a Dominican lady in Vina del Mar, who can do my hair now. That's AWESOME! Haha :-) And in the last 3 months, I've had random people go out of their way to converse with me and be kind to me, even while thinking I'm Colombian or Haitian. Sometimes I don't even correct them. I just go with it. Haha

Also, there hasn't been any violence toward foreigners, at least not that I've heard of. Chile is still a nice a place to come and visit. I'm just disappointed to see how some attitudes are changing and not for the better, in a relatively short amount of time. I travelled to the south of Chile, with some friends last week, outside of Temuco around Panguipulli and Huilo Huilo. People there were SO nice and just exuded friendliness towards us. I don't know if it's because they were people in a smaller town, or because they haven't been touched by the immigration boom. I saw no other black people while I was there and heard no other accent that wasn't Chilean. It was like the Chile of old. But I'd like to think it's because it's simply not everyone. I know that Chile could one day be 90 percent foreigners and there would still be some Chileans with some sense because it's never everyone.

Plus, the evangelical churches I go to are exceptions as well. The people embrace foreigners and love them. They love me too and it's a time to be free and bask in the diversity.

When asked, I just tell Chileans to look at our current president and OUR horrible race relations. I tell them that if they don't want to end up like the U.S, they better start doing something about it NOW. Because if xenophobia and racism are rearing their ugly heads in just 5 years, imagine where they could be in 20. It's a lesson to us all. Diversity needs to be taught as something positive and we all need to be reminded that all men are created in the image of God and therefore EQUAL, no matter the language, skin color, hair texture, culture, or amount of money one has in the bank. No one is better than anyone. And stereotypes need not be considered absolutes.

For more information...

Black and on the Boardwalk- The Story of a Black Woman in Chile Part 1



3rd February 2018

We are all the same...really.
I sit agog reading your missive Chekeitha...all sorts of images and emotions jiggling around. This is such an important story...the implications and perceptions of the dispersal of peoples around the World seeking economic improvement or to escape wars and calamities. May you be able to continue to rise above the prejudice and enjoy your time in Chile. Thanks for sharing. I repeat this is an important story.
3rd February 2018

Thank you for this insightful blog...
and your examination of racism vs classism, and how people accepted you are rejected you based upon where you were from. And thanks for your words about the evangelical churches being accepting of all.
4th February 2018

Fabulous blog!
Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts on this subject Chekeitha. As tourists we usually breeze through a country and rarely get to study its many faces in the way you've been able to do in Chile. Xenophobia is a fascinating subject... as someone who's lived in many places where my 'look' was in the minority, it's given me an insight into the usual xenophobic suspects :) I totally agree with you that assumptions (usually grossly misguided ones) are at the heart of the matter. Safe travels! Cheers, Ren
12th May 2018

Awesome #relatable content
Hey! This is really awesome. I'm [a black female who is] studying abroad in Chile as well. Thanks so much for posting! Keep your head up, you're amazing :)
30th November 2018

Absolutely fascinating
You shined a light on a subject I knew nothing about. Thanks for writing this.

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