White superiority in Peru

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Gervase Poulden is a British freelance journalist living in Lima; he says, "...discrimination, and deeply unhealthy assumptions about race ... exist in Peru in a strong way."


I arrived in Peru six months ago. Just a few days ago, I saw the film 'Choleando', which crystallised many of my thoughts and ideas since that time.

'Choleando' comes from the noun cholo, which is a slang term that can be applied to anyone of mixed race; the film was about discrimination in Peru, and more specifically, racial discrimination. This topic has huge ramifications in Peru, yet the issues are completely different than those in the Western world. Whilst European countries today have to contend with the growing forces of anti-Islamism and the ever-present threat of far-right Neo-Nazi groups, Peruvian racism takes a more subtle yet arguably far more pervasive form. This is a society where categorization is rife, and the hierarchy of races seems to be etched more strongly in people's minds then in almost anywhere else in the world.

'Choleando' included various interviews with people on the street who talked about their ideas on race. There was overwhelmingly agreement amongst the interviewees that there are distinct racial groups in Peru, into which all people can be classified. This did not surprise me too much, as I had already been told by various people that there are 'two groups here, white Peruvians of European descent and Inca Peruvians.' This notion of separate homogeneous racial groups in Peru is of course, ridiculous - mestization is complete here. Perhaps it might have been accurate in 1700, but 300 years on, there are clearly no families of 'pure' Europeans left.

Regardless of its accuracy, the belief that there are distinct racial groups, as any student of race relations will know, is an important first step towards the belief that those racial groups posses certain characteristics, and from that that a hierarchy of races can be constructed. In the Peruvian racialist analysis, white Peruvians are universally rich, well educated, intelligent successful and of course, beautiful. At the other end of the scale, anyone with darker skin must inevitably be poor, uneducated, unintelligent and a criminal.

The film piled up numerous examples of how these assumptions manifest themselves in modern Peruvian life. For example, Peruvians with darker skin often find that nobody will serve them at first in expensive stores such as first-hand car outlets — the assumption goes that such a person could not possibly afford to buy such a car. In the expensive beach communities towards the south of Lima, darker-skinned Peruvians wanting to buy property have had to fight off attempts to evict them from residents suspicious of their new neighbours. Of course, when such cases go to court, eviction attempts are shot down as ridiculous examples of discrimination, but the fact they make it so far underlines the extent of the problem. In other areas, outright discrimination is even more common. Various night-life establishments in wealthier areas of Lima such as Miraflores have been temporarily shut down for underhand racist tactics. As exposed by various secret-camera sting operations, many establishments turn away non-whites, telling them that the club is booked for a private function, only to wave on in anyone of the correct race who later drops by.

Alongside these examples of outright discrimination, there exists a strong undercurrent in society which simply reinforces the idea that to be white is the ideal, and anything else is slightly substandard. Perhaps the most ridiculous representation of this comes from the media. You can walk around the streets of Lima and every single billboard, particularly the ones advertising the higher end consumer goods, will feature some often very un-Peruvian looking beaming, white family. As a little test, I took a photo of every advertisement I saw on my 10 minute bike ride through Miraflores, they are shown below. Particularly telling is the picture of the attractive white lady and the caption 'Ser Bella' – '[To] be beautiful'.

On the television too, the people that feature are predominantly white with western-looking features, and in the social pages, double page-picture spreads of social events will feature almost 100% white faces. None of this is accidental either, in fact it's ruthlessly intentional: a telling part of 'Choleando' featured an interview with a photographer who had worked for a variety of media outlets and regularly been told to avoid pictures of 'brown' people.

This constant subliminal and overt message of white superiority has some tragic affects and manifestations amongst some sectors of Peruvian society. There are people who cruise the streets of Cusco and Miraflores seeking out white foreigners seemingly for nothing else other than their beautiful white looks (and of course, in many cases, a visa). Any other characteristic of the person is irrelevant, the gringo/a merely becomes an ivory trophy to be displayed as a status symbol. But wait! I hear you cry, surely this happens in all countries; it's an obsession with the foreign and the exotic? Perhaps, but you are far less likely to find people hunting down the black or many Asian visitors and immigrants who come to Peru... It all seems to be part of the unsettling idea that white is better.

For some 'white worshipping', goes even further. Choleando featured an interview with a plastic surgeon who spoke of clients who had come to him with pictures of white people's noses or chins or lips, asking him to make them look more like the people in the pictures. Of course, as the surgeon pointed out, to suppose that 'white' features are inherently more beautiful is ridiculous; beauty depends most of all on proportions (think golden rule) in the face, he said, which have no correlation to skin colour whatsoever. Many Peruvians are seemingly not in agreement, and many will attest to the fact that lighter skin and 'western features' are inherently desirable. When countless advertising companies and media outlets are telling them that's the case, it is easy to understand why.

Of course, the picture is not as extreme as I have painted it. Many people interviewed in the film responded that they considered themselves a 'cholo' and were proud to be so — something which raises questions about how they reconciled this with the fact that they believed that distinct races exist in Peru. Either way, it shows that many Peruvians are not ashamed to be mixed race. However, discrimination, and deeply unhealthy assumptions about race certainly exist in Peru in a strong way. I hope to explore some other aspects of the issue in future posts. For now, please post any comments you have.

(You can read more by Gervase Poulden in his Peruvian society blog.)

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White superiority in Peru

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