Encounters with Complimentary Racism

Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo by Juan Rodríguez Juárez, 1715

Near the end of last year, I became a father. As expected, it’s been full of ups and downs, joys and frustrations, precious moments and sleepless nights. But one thing I didn’t expect to encounter was racism. More specifically, racism in the guise of compliments.

My partner is Mexican and currently we are living here as we wait an eternity for the US immigration system to process her visa request. During this time, we’ve been inundated by visits from her family members and friends. And I’ve been consistently taken aback by how many have pointed out the color of our child’s skin and complimented us on it – as if we somehow genetically modified our baby to meet their racialized expectations. “How light-skinned he is!” or “Oh, what a good color! Congratulations!” are some of the more frequent comments.

To be certain, our child is light-skinned and at this moment can easily pass as white. But the phenomenon of an individual telling my partner that she had “chosen well” by reproducing with me and as a result was “improving the race” was not a response we had been anticipating. Nor the other range of comments, such as our child being smart because “first-world babies are more advanced.” One wonders what words would have been (un)spoken if our child had different skin pigmentation.

Upon overcoming the initial shock of these comments, I’ve been left confused with how to respond. After all, these are my future in-laws and I’m the gringo foreigner. Is it really my place to give a lecture on racism, let alone internalized racism? How do I offer a constructive response, something beyond my current awkward silence and sideways glances at my partner? I don’t know. So I’m writing something here.

On the one hand, perhaps I should not be surprised. Anyone who has spent much time in Mexico cannot avoid noticing that it is a racist society, with white supremacy intersecting with anti-Indigenous mestizaje subtended by an overall anti-Blackness. One need only turn on the television to see that what the hegemonic cultural production of Mexico reifies as desirable is whiteness. Be it in advertisements, TV shows, newscasters, or musicians, what one sees are white faces and bodies. This has in turn sparked a backlash with the term “Whitexican” being used to deride those who benefit socially and economically from the current racial hierarchies of Mexican society.

White supremacy in Mexico, a legacy of Spanish colonialism and consistently reinforced via Western modernity, nonetheless clashes with another racist construct that is the unofficially official racial doctrine of Mexico: mestizaje. Ostensibly, mestizaje is meant to celebrate the uniqueness of the Mexican people as a mix between the white European colonizers and the original Indigenous populace. Yet in effect, it has as its goal the erasure of Indigeneity, seeking to subsume it into a mestizo identity, thereby alleviating the shame, violence, and racism of a colonial process that carries on into the present day. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the most ardent advocate of mestizos as “the cosmic race,” José Vasconcelos, was a fascist. Such is the power of mestizaje that the hospital form given to us after our child’s birth had a box to check if the mother was Indigenous. Without asking my partner, who claims Indigenous ancestry, the staff by default selected “No,” for who would want to be Indigenous?

Along with white supremacy and mestizaje, racism in Mexico is notable for its anti-Blackness, so much so that Afro-Mexicans were not officially recognized to have existed in Mexico until a few years ago. As such, they inhabited a state of non-being, of neglect, of humiliation, and of disposability, a plight shared by all those constructed as Black and therefore ontologically excluded from the project of the Human, indeed, on whose exclusion the Human is based.

Admittedly, this is an extremely cursory review of racialization and racial construction in Mexico. And ultimately, it does not lead me to an answer as to how to respond to the racist compliments directed toward our child. But it has generatively helped me in thinking through how I might approach such conversations in the future. Of course, once we cross that colonial border north of here and our child suddenly changes from white to Mexican American, a whole other set of racisms and racialized structures will present themselves, and likely not in the form of compliments. And there, as here, it will be rooted in white supremacy and anti-Blackness, in a world predicated on the negation of most so that a few may exist in psychic and physical comfort.

Here’s to the end of that world!

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