Originally published on gentnormal.com
Sept. 10, 2015
A Little Preface:
I realize these critiques and opinions can provoke a sense of defensiveness, both because I am not Spanish or Catalan and because of the seriousness of the topic. However, I am not condemning anyone personally or culturally, especially not a people and place I hold so dear to my heart and currently call home. What I hope comes from this particular article is a conversation; conversation within groups of the same and different nationalities, cultures, generations, genders, classes, etc. I share my own perspective being a Jewish North American in an exchange of thought and identity. Here’s to opening channels for respectful responses and critique. Racism is a big, huge, corrosive problem that requires all the physical and mental power we can put towards it; the more, diverse people exchanging ideas, getting fired-up and working towards equality, the better.
Racism in Catalunya: A North American Perspective
The United States has a serious problem with racism. Gross understatement.
But so does Europe, including Catalunya.
A clear and concise history of racism in the USA, past, current, future is impossible for lack of space and lack of expertise on my own part. But let’s create a very general platform to build this article upon.
The idea of ‘race’ is a socially constructed tool used to oversimplify people and place them into categories (mostly separated by those who are ‘white’ and everyone else). Race is different from one’s ethnicity in that ethnicity implies being part of a group with a common nationality or culture. There is nothing scientific about the label of ‘race’ because genetically human beings are much more complicated than the few boxes we are offered to check-off. But, unfortunately, this social construction of race is one of the most widely used descriptors of people. So, we will continue to use this language for the mere fact of simplicity, keeping in mind we say words like ‘black’ and ‘white’ always inside metaphorical quotation marks.
People in the USA are being and have been murdered and mistreated systematically and purposefully based solely on the notion of one’s ‘race’ and/or the race prescribed by society, mostly due to physical features (like skin color). There is a particular problem in the USA with police, people in power (which tend to be white people) and in bureaucratic positions worsening bigotry through persecution; persecutions based on the notion of ‘race’ and whiter ‘races’ being superior to any other ‘race’.
I believe every person carries within them their own set of biases based on their socialization. So, in some ways, you could say everyone is racist. Racism is a very bad thing, but obviously not every person is bad. Good people can and do have racist thoughts, sometimes without even realizing they’re racist. Telling someone they are doing something racist does not mean you’re telling someone they’re a horrible person (although sometimes they are). In fact, in my own experience, when someone points out a bias of mine, it’s because they have an opinion that I’m intelligent enough to steer clear of stereotypes and harmful human shortcuts.
Living abroad has only amplified my gaze of the USA culture of institutional and social racism. I literally cannot imagine being a person of color in the USA right now. Fearing for my life, the life of my children, family, loved ones at every and any moment during every single day.
I am constantly asked how people in the USA manage to live in a culture so deeply entrenched in such racism. Fair question.
Being physically and mentally outside a society or situation gives one a unique and important perspective that can be impossible to see while living there. The more time I spend outside of my birth country, the more context I gain on the specific struggles of the USA. In addition, integrating myself here in Barcelona into a new culture, it is useful for me to compare and contrast histories and presents, leading to more vantage points both on the USA and Catalunya.
I know Catalunya and the USA are very different places, with very different histories, but I do think there are commonalities. And in these commonalities, opportunities to learn from one another.
Racism is not something created by, solely perpetrated by, or limited to the USA. North America does have some of the most intense institutional and social racism both historically and currently. But, because of this history, there is also extensive, compelling critical and contemporary dialectic thought on racism and race theory. Not to mention seriously powerful social justice movements centered around equality. Unfortunately, all gained from centuries of prejudicial experience.
Catalunya population palpitates with a recent wave of 2-3 generations of immigration. Currently, there is the ongoing movement to become independent as a Catalan people while interestingly and simultaneously the Catalan population is in the process of changing significantly.
This leads to a logical and normal question: who exactly is Catalan? Where is the distinction between an independent identity and a nationalist identity? Are there people who are ‘racially’ Catalan and those who are ethnically Catalan?
Many independence groups warmly welcome all people into Catalan culture. But how can we ensure all people are actually integrated equally?
For example, I do not think voting left or far left automatically translates to not being racist. Because we all have prejudices, anti-racism is a constant decision to be made in all thoughts and actions, not just by placing a vote for a party which rhetorically represents fair-minded people.
And, in rare cases of nationalism, instead of including immigrants in the struggle for independence, Catalan groups can be found separating themselves from both the Spanish and the ethnically ‘immigrant’ or ‘minority’ population (how many generations does it take to become a native anyway?).
The combination of immigration and changing Catalan identity has opened opportunities for something truly beautiful; the establishment of a society based on equality and fairness. But within this large space also comes a large responsibility; I do believe in this formation there is the possibility of racism violently equivalent to that in the USA. The difference is, because of the newness of this immigration, there is not widespread, solid race theory from which to discourse.
It seems to me, many don’t quite know what to do or if there’s even a problem with racism in Catalunya. What does racism look like? Where does one begin to address these inequalities?
There are opportunities to be critical about racism in every moment of every day. Some are simple and easy, especially compared to the struggle of those who constantly suffer from race injustices.
Anyone who is for equality, would be open to constant self-reflection and assess how to always become a better and better ally; there is no end to the personal, political, and social work to be done for justice (until we live in a totally just society). This requires constantly asking ourselves very hard questions, answering them honestly, listening to all different opinions and most importantly listening to those affected.
We can work together to hold each other accountable to being our best, most equal selves.
But it’s kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is admitting you have a problem so you can, in turn, begin to remedy said problem.
Hello, I’m Shaina, I’m from the USA and me and my country have fucked up about a lot of things, especially race.
The truth is, I really do think you’re better than all that Catalunya. Catalunya is at a critical time of change, with an opportunity to not repeat the mistakes of others. Below, simple sharing often of my own simple, hard-learned mantras, as a North American, that I believe apply to my current and beloved home in Catalunya.
Repeat after me: ‘It’s not an excuse.’
1. Everyone doing it is not an excuse
Calling a candy with an exaggerated black-faced baby ‘Conguitos’ is racist. Calling all fruit stands and convenient stores ‘Paki’s’ is racist. Calling all bazaar’s and dollar stores ‘Chino’s’ is racist. Even if it’s just what everyone has been calling them. Why? It’s a matter of unfairly over-simplifying a person and culture.
Hopefully, the candy example is obvious. As for the store names example, Chinese and Pakistani communities have now been in Catalunya for several generations and are a vital part of the Catalan community. These shop names reinforce a harmful and heavy stereotype that limits people from these cultures into only these two jobs and makes the assumptions the people in these stores are from specific places.
Fair means any and all people have not only the chance but are encouraged to develop into whichever career desired. Avoiding stereotypes and generalization is an intelligent and powerful statement that brings us all a little closer to this fairness. If we can make even a tiny difference, for example, only by changing our store name vocabulary, why not?
2. Being in a monochromatic or mono-raced group is not an excuse
My experience here (and in the USA) has been most social groups tend to be mono-raced/mono-ethnic. As immigrants are integrated more into society (which requires deliberate and extensive action), I hope to see this change. In the meantime, being an ethnic majority should not be a ‘secret club’ in which people express their most discriminatory self (and no, having a friend or lover from a particular group of people does not give you a free pass to say whatever about said group of that friend or lover). When someone uses unjust language, even in the presence of their closest friend, they are perpetuating racism by signaling that racism is ok.
It doesn’t matter if no one from the race they are talking about is present. A good rule of thumb I like to use is, when considering saying something about a particular group of people, pretend someone from that group is present, and if you wouldn’t say it to them directly, best not to say it at all.
3. Tradition is not an excuse
Can we finally put to rest the blackface during Three Kings, assuming all Latin Americans come straight from the rainforest, using the word ‘Chino’ to describe anyone from any part of Asia, and using fingers to tug on the corners of eyes to make them appear more closed?
Honoring the past is important; celebrating and keeping a history as a people is invaluable. Equally important in honoring traditions is looking back critically on actions and mentalities and discontinuing those that are destructive or marginalizing to the true complexity of who a person is (like those listed above). I am constantly making mistakes but am comforted by the notion that these mistakes can lead to growth. However, this type of evolution can only happen through acknowledgment and forward motion.
4. Humor is not an excuse
Each culture has its own particular humor. And humor can be a healing and obviously important means of expression. Simply put though, when this joking affects someone in a negative way, it’s just not worth it. The power of harming someone has to outweigh any other reasoning. Also, we are smart and funny, surely we can think of another way to get a laugh.
5. Not saying anything is not an excuse
Conversation is a chance to educate and be educated. Because the voices of white people or the racial majority are almost always heard more than those of the minority, it’s that much more important to speak up. We’ve got a choice. Remaining silent means being an ally to someone who is furthering inequality. Speaking up means actively becoming an ally to those who suffer from inequality.
6. Having a hard history is not an excuse
Even if your people had it rough at one point of time, it doesn’t mean you have the right to make the lives of others rougher. If anything, coming from a culture that experienced trauma should encourage sensitivity to the struggles of others. In addition, all struggles are unique; majority people can never truly understand the struggle of minorities and vice versa. Even if it’s impossible to know exactly, it is possible to sympathize with the facts; like study after study showing being a person of color means having unequally less opportunity.
7. One example is not an excuse
Unfortunately, stereotypes not only seem to stick with minorities more intensely but have a greater impact as well. It doesn’t matter if you saw one person of one group fulfilling a stereotype, not every person from a group fits into that box. Because we all want to be given a chance and acknowledged as individuals, we should do the same for others.
8. They’re just words is not an excuse
Language, spoken, written, or through any type of expression, shapes present society and later writes its history. Imagine an entire people who use words intentionally to promote equality among race, class, gender. One could envision this ‘word purposefulness’ leading to a society reflective of those same qualities.
9. Other problems are not an excuse
History has shown us again and again that acknowledging one form of discrimination and not others is fruitless. Race, class, gender are all tightly interwoven and self-perpetuating. If you are a politician who is for gender and class rights, you must be for anti-racism. A true revolution cannot be won without equality. Therefore, attacking one set of discriminatory problems without addressing them all is simplistic, two dimensional, and falls flat. Ending injustice means ending injustice for ALL, not just one specific population.
10. Being uninformed is not an excuse
We are smarter than all that mess. We are capable of questioning, of intense thought and reflection, of eloquence. Let’s use the intellectual tools our privilege has bestowed. If it is rare to have conversation and reflection on race in Catalan culture, the only way to change this is to start talking and educating ourselves and others. Not sure how to best be an ally to a minority? You can literally google it. Or read a book. Want to know how a person prefers themselves and their culture to be referenced? Let’s ask, and listen. And it’s your responsibility to educate yourself, other people have enough to worry about.