17 marzo 2016

Supermarket racism: A bedtime story

Once upon a time there was a woman named Maria who lived in a large Latin American city and decided one Sunday to have a barbecue with her friends. So, she went to the supermarket and bought: a White Girl brand mop and sponge; Brown Latina Maid bleach for the table cloths; Little White Boy brand flour; and European Slave brand lighter fluid (she really loved the picture of the white man with long stringy hair dressed in animal skins) with some charcoal for the BBQ.

When Maria got home, she prepped the food for her cook out just in time to sit down and watch her beloved show Pleasant Sundays. She laughed at her favorite character, Police Officer Gringo, played by a man with his face painted blindingly white. He could not dance; no one could understand what he said; and he screamed loudly while he looked for food and threw people in jail when they did not feed him. He was hilarious! Just as her show was ending, her first guests arrived with a dish from the restaurant Cabbage from the White Man and wine. Maria said “thank you” and enjoyed a great night. The end.

Unfortunately, days like this are very possible for Afrodescendants and Indigenous peoples in the Americas. On walking through any supermarket in Latin America one encounters the following brand choices, displayed prominently on the shelves: La Mulata sponges, mops and scrub brushes (Colombia); El Negrito charcoal (Peru); Blancaflor flour (Argentina) that carries a picture of a black woman cook; and Limpido bleach (Colombia) that carries the picture of a black woman with a white turban on her head. There are restaurant choices like: Menestras del Negro (Ecuador) and Manos Morenas (Peru). And on television you find characters like Soldado Micolta (Colombia), Paisana Jacinta and El Negro Mama (Peru) and Memin Pinguin (Mexico). If you watch sports, you can turn to a Washington Red Skins or Cleveland Indians game.

The difference between Mr. Clean and Uncle Ben

“Can´t you take a joke? You don´t hear white people complaining about Mr. Clean”, you may be thinking. Well, Mr. Clean´s name alone shows that he is nothing like the images I reference. Under both the American system of enslavement and subsequent Jim Crow (US) and whitening policies (Latin America), Africans and Afrodescendants were denied most forms of social respect, including the use of titles.  For that reason we don´t have Mr. Johnson’s rice and Mrs. Edwards pancake syrup, rather Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.

A greater problem is that these images are among the very few images of Afrodescendants and Indigenous peoples in a media milieu in which white skin and straight European textured hair is normalized. This is true even in a country like Peru, where the majority population is brown-skinned and coarse black-haired. The result is the reproduction of discrimination and the reinforcement of the relegation of dark-skinned people to servitude.

In the book Racism in Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito, the authors make clear that advertising, television and print media have a role in “normalizing racism…confirm[ing] people’s preconceived notions of the racialized world around them.”  There is no clearer example than the results of an IDB study of head hunter agencies in Lima that in reviewing applicants demonstrated a clear preference for white candidates over Asians and mestizos (in that order) and discounted Indigenous and Afro-descendants for professional jobs.

In fact, job announcements continue to request “good appearance” or more directly that applicants not have brown skin, linking white skin higher social class. If we are to reduce inequalities in the Americas, we need also to both rid ourselves of racist imagery and require that the media and companies mirror to the society that they serve.

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