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Race-Blind, or Just Blind to Racism?

from the Jan. 26, 2022 Bulletin

race and racism Mexico-US history

Mónica Moreno Figueroa, a Black-mestiza sociologist at the UK’s University of Cambridge and a social sciences fellow at the University’s Downing College, has been helping to lead the Collective for the Elimination of Racism in Mexico, COPERA, since 2010. Her latest book, Against Racism: Organizing for Social Change in Latin America (University of Pittsburgh Press), will appear this March. We complete this week our interview with her on race and mestizaje — racial mixing — in México.

Last week, you talked about how Mexicans of color accepted the project of mestizaje, or racial mixing, as the way to create a national identity. Are they still accepting?

Monica Moreno Figueroa: In México, people did not and do not identify first and foremost by race. But skin color matters! Color matters less as a question of belonging to a particular race” a social construct based on false ideas of difference and value and much more about whether you look darker or lighter than others in a relational and contextually specific way. You can be “lighter” in one setting, “darker” in another.


México’s official message holds that “mixing is good” and “everyone is included,” but you can clearly see who enjoys favor economically and socially. Darker people mix to “improve” their families through whitening. This whitening includes their culture as well as their skin. So indigenous peoples do not teach their children their own languages. They want them to become more mestizo and less Indigenous to succeed. This reflects the ancient Spanish caste system. This caste system ended, but white superiority survived, with mestizaje and assimilation its essential racist practices.


Sparked by the Zapatista uprising in 1994, Black Méxicans began organizing and re-claiming their identities. Have they had an impact on national policies?


Yes! For example, in 2020, for the first time since 1810, the census included a question on Black, Afro-descendant, or Afro-Mexican self-identification. Being counted as Black recognizes a particular history of oppression. Afro-Mexican has become the official term, added into the constitution in 2019  another victory. Afro-Mexican aligns internationally with how nation-states name African-heritage populations. The term “Afro-descendant” gives space for more recent migrants and their offspring, and the United Nations and other international bodies use it.


The census questions represented a huge victory because Blacks, never mentioned as a group, had been rendered invisible. The questions first appeared in a 2015 intercensal survey trial question. Only 1.2 percent of the population chose one of these new categories. But over the next five years more people self-identified as Black. Now about 2 percent of the population, or 2,576,213 people, so self-identify.


Did the Black Lives Matters movement in the US, and George Floyd’s murder, motivate Afro-Mexican activists?


News about the protests fell on fertile ground. The protests allowed us to bring public attention to how racism was happening within our country and enabled us to raise up important questions. We started analyzing the violent treatment of Black and Indigenous people by the police, to point out that prisoners in jail have a color, that the women killed in thousands of femicides had a color.


How does your anti-racism group, COPERA, see racism manifested?


COPERA sees as fundamental, first, the understanding of mestizaje as México’s racial project. We focus on how insidious and violent everyday practices promote “whitening.” Second, we explore the different ways racism manifests itself in our society today: as the anti-Indigenous racism that thrives in reproducing narratives of backwardness, underdevelopment, and racial inferiority, in the anti-blackness racism that promotes both a denial of Black existence and an active disfavoring of Black people, and in the anti-Asian particularly anti-Chinese — racism that emphasizes xenophobia and a fear of certain peoples deemed unfit for mixing. Other forms of racism, such as anti-Semitism, also remain extremely relevant to getting at the subtleties and nuances of mestizaje.


How does COPERA oppose racism?


We’re working to bridge academic and activist thinking. Our perspective considers racism’s emotional effects. Our workshops on “collective racial healing” surface the emotional impact that racism has had on people and help participants recognize that their own emotions can get in the way of a radical vision of what the world could look like without oppression. Racism will never be simply a personal attitude, but racism does have personal effects that can stop us from critical thinking about our personal and collective lives.


We’re also currently developing workshops for psychotherapists and mental health workers that explore the connection between racism and mental health. Racism doesn’t just impact a person’s mental health. We find racist logic reproduced between therapists and clients, a reality that deepens mental health oppression. We hope this work will open up the political and liberation potential of anti-racist mental health work.


Do you think that AMLO is tackling racism?


A commitment to fighting racism appears in AMLO’s 100 agenda points. Is this commitment being realized? Too early to tell. We have yet to see what progress can be made. What we can see: the racist attacks directed on AMLO, attacks that reflect the discontent of Méxicos middle and upper whiter classes with his government’s priorities. AMLO has given financial support to the poor, and poorer people are darker people. His direct statements about the need to improve the lives of Indigenous and rural people make some people uncomfortable and thats good! No one should feel comfortable with racism, and I am pleased we’re having so much more openness to this discussion.