January 11, 2004

Yet another open letter Danny Glover probably won't read...

So, Danny Glover is in Caracas to witness the revolution's great strides in helping black Venezuelans. But does he have any clue how race relations actually work in Venezuela? More importantly, can he and the rest of the US left be bothered to find out?

If you want to annoy, really annoy, a Venezuelan opposition member, tell him that he's only against Chavez cuz he's white and rich, engaged in a sotto voce oligarchical conspiracy to keep black Venezuelans poor and oppressed. Then kick back and enjoy the show, as his muscles tense up, his veins bulge, and, if you look closely, you see a bit of steam coming out of the guy's ears. Fun!

Not that I'm immune: the righteous race-struggle pap chavismo puts out abroad may be the single most misleading, destructive, and intellectually dishonest part of their international public relations campaign. It's a line they barely ever use in Venezuela: it just doesn't mobilize the masses, cuz it's so transparently bogus...but it sure does come in handy when you want to rally first world lefties to the cause.

The strategy rankles so much because it so clearly flies in the face of Venezuela's day-to-day reality. Racism may be the only acute social problem Venezuela doesn't have. Yet, by its very nature, a charge of racism is fiendishly difficult to refute without sounding, well, like a racist.

So it's easy to see why the government uses this line. The charge is devastatingly effective as a propaganda tool in the first world. Americans and Europeans are extremely sensitive to charges of racism, and any group tarred with the label becomes immediately suspect.

But the fact is that portraying Venezuela's political struggle as race-based is just plain silly. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Caracas can tell you why: there are remarkably few black people in Venezuela, and remarkably few white people as well! A good 80% of the country is mestizo - mixed blood - covering a chromatic scale of browns that does not consider itself either white or black - just "moreno", or "cafe con leche", just plain brown.

This gives rise to a social dynamic that is totally different from what you see in the United States. In the U.S., you're either white or black, period. These days you can be "other", on the census forms, but in everyday life you will be assigned to one or the other of the racial categories, and you'll be treated accordingly. If you're white you eat jell-o, listen to Bryan Adams, pray in a nice white episcopalian or evangelical church, think OJ Simpson did it, and can't dance. If you're black, you eat fried chicken, listen to Al Green, pray at a Southern Baptist Church, think OJ was framed and dance like you were born to dance.

Yes, those are stereotypes. This is exactly the point. You can come up with a list of immediately recognizable stereotypes for whites and blacks in the US, because in the US racial categories are really ways of describing ethnic groups. After a long history of segregation, the two groups evolved in radically different ways. Each acquired a unique culture. Blacks and whites in the US cook different things, vote in different ways, they live in different places, hell, they even speak with different accents. They are two separate ethnic groups, and what are described as "racial" problems in the US usually really boil down to ethnic tensions. This is why the phrase "African American" became established: because in the US, it really isn't about black or white, it's about membership in a group.

But in Venezuela - and this is the key thing that Danny Glover and Ignacio Ramonet seem determined not to understand - it just doesn't work this way. Racial categories do not map onto ethnic groups like they do in the U.S. Black people in Venezuela eat the same things as brown people and white people. They speak with the same accent. They live in the same neighborhoods. Except for Barlovento, they listen to the same music and dance the same dances. They go to the same churches, they pray in the same way. Their skin colors may be different, but they know full well what their ethnicity is: they're Venezuelans! Describe any black person in Caracas as "Afro-Venezuelan" and they'll just stare at you in incomprehension.

So the dynamic of ethnic tension that pervades the US cannot really arise in a country like Venezuela: we're just too much alike. The thing that really confuses gringos is that, unlike in the US, race actually is just about skin color in Venezuela. For instance, I remember talking to a lot of confused Venezuelans in 2001, when Colin Powell was appointed US Secretary of State. "They keep saying he's the first ever black secretary of state, but, but look at him! He's not black! He's nowhere near black!" I tried to explain that, in the US, the thing that made a person black or white was not actually his skin color, but rather his ancestry, family history, and belonging to a given ethnic group. Mostly, I got blank stares back. It seemed so evident to them: "no, no, you don't understand: look at his skin. Is it black? No! How can they say he's black if his skin is cafe con leche? It doesn't make any sense..."

And at that point, I stopped arguing, cuz clearly he was right: it's US attitudes towards race that make no sense at all...the way we deal with it seems like a model of inclusive common sense in comparison.

Most gringos would be really surprised, probably inspired, and definitely confused if they saw the way white and brown and black Venezuelans relate to each other. Every American I've ever met is stunned to realize that seemingly racially loaded terms like "catire" (blond) and "negro" are tossed around casually, both in public and private, as terms of endearment. Lovers use "negro" and "negra" as pet names - pillow talk fodder. Parents call their fairest skinned kid "catire" across the breakfast table. Chavez's Education Minister, Aristobulo Isturiz, is nicknamed El Negro Aristobulo by both supporters and detractors, both when talking about him and when talking to him. It's a totally unremarkable thing.

Relations between people of different skin colors are remarkably fluid, in all sorts of circumstances. I've seen German-born, blue eyed Chavista political organizers in Barinas state leading groups of brown-skinned pro-Chavez campesinos with no problems at all. I've seen black TV presenters from the anti-Chavez media bossing around white staffers in his production team as though it was the most natural thing in the world (it is!) Because their culture is the same, when a black Venezuelan and a white Venezuelan talk, race is nowhere near the forefront of their minds...it's an aesthetic detail, probably closer to what happens when a blond North American chats with a brown-haired North American.

You see this throughout the society. In Venezuelan high schools, you never see the situation you see in racially mixed US high schools, where blacks tend to hang out overwhelmingly with other blacks, and whites usually only make friends with other whites. Venezuelan high school students mix, make friends, go to parties, fondle each other, cheat on tests and riot against the cops with an inclusive color-blindness that would be the pride of any good first world liberal.

(If you've seen "City of God", you have a sense for just how color-blind these societies can be...though the film is about Brazil, a shocking amount of what it shows would hold in Venezuela also, including both the appalling everyday violence and the easy mingling of people with different skin colors.)

This kind of matter-of-fact mixing can happen because, deep down, Venezuelans of different races don't see each other as fundamentally different, they don't endow differences in skin color with the kind of deep social meaning that skin color acquires in a society as racially polarized as the US. In Venezuela, skin color really is skin deep.

Sure, it's true, the lighter your skin, the more likely it is you're well off, for historical reasons. And you do sporadically hear pretty tasteless jokes about negros, that's also true. But stacked against the mountain of everyday conviviality between the races, these signs of prejudice don't amount to a hill of beans. I mean, the undercurrent of real menace that a racist joke carries in South Carolina is wholly absent here, which is why you'll hear jokes about race in Venezuela told in racially mixed groups, and as often as not by darker skinned people. Plus, remember, any time you gather more than 3 or 4 Venezuelans together, chances are that you'll have a "racially mixed group"...it's just a fact of demography.

Venezuela's is very far from an apartheid society: there are any number of dark-skinned people who've made it, and (especially these days) any number of very poor light-skinned people. Does someone in a barrio have it easier if he's light skinned? Does someone in a board room have it harder if he's dark skinned? I really don't think so, in either case.

The point is that race and skin color don't have the same social meaning everywhere. That's the thing that's so frustrating about trying to talk to first world lefties who've been told that the political crisis in Venezuela is basically about race. They import the little mental schema they've developed to think about race in their own societies, and they transfer them willy-nilly onto a totally different context, onto a society where the same biological fact - skin color - has a vastly different and far less salient social and political significance.

It is, in the end, just another instance of U.S. cultural imperialism, of the laziness that comes with being the biggest and the most powerful. Americans don't think they have to go through the trouble of actually learning about the social dynamics of other societies because they're actually so self-obsessed, so enamored of their own navels, that they can't really conceive that other societies work differently from their own.

The left in the U.S. imagines that this is purely a problem of the right. But as Danny Glover's visit makes clear, good chunks of the US left also resist the effort of the imagination it takes to conceive of a society that's really, deeply unlike yours, a society that cannot be understood using the intellectual categories you've developed to understand your own society. This is hard work, it's not easy or comfortable or reassuring. But if the endless paeans to the wonders of diversity, tolerance and cross-cultural understanding are to be anything beyond cliches, the U.S. left ought to take a long, hard look at its own myopia, its own difficulties with understanding political dynamics that are genuinely different from what its used to.

And proving that old editors never die...
...they just start doing it over email, my ex-boss Toby Bottome writes in:

A nit: it's not 80% as you say.

The Fundacredesa study determined 97% of all Venezuelans (defiend as born here of a venezuelan-born mother) carried all three genetic markers in their blood - white, black and indigena..