segunda-feira, 1 de fevereiro de 2016

Argentina's tango with whiteness and europeaness

When travelling abroad, one expects difference. How does it feel then, when one is confronted with Europeaness, so far away? And why? This article, about the problem of whiteness and the invisibility of blacks and indigenous populations, will be divided in two specific parts: a remembrance of my short trip to Argentina and, secondly, an investigation of what I could learn about Argentina's troubled racial relations.

This does not mean that I want to single out Argentina as a racist country. Instead I think of racism, as Teun van Dijk, as a “system of dominance, a systemic abuse of one group over another” and that “historically, this domination has been of the white Europeans over the peoples of Africa, Asia and Americas”. Argentina presents then an interesting and complex case, because it is, geographically, a Latin-American country with the “soul” of an European one: an apparent paradox?

First of all, I'm aware of the problems and complexities of my condition as a foreigner – Portuguese, white, male - writing about a specific country, even more of a completely different latitude and with an opposite history of colonisation. Again, I do not aim to single out Argentina as a “bad apple”. Most countries share similar policies and attitudes, including my own, where whites have benefited from white supremacy.

I aim instead to a reflexive recounting of my experience as a traveller there, reflecting on my previous notions of what meant to be “developed”, “organised” and “superior”. I had, I now realize, an Eurocentric notion of the world, where, even if I stem from a peripheral country in Europe, saw myself as superior to others. Of course I didn't think it or voice it as clearly as this! Nor were my ideas anything close to something close to social Darwinism or eugenics. But that is the root of the problem. Most whites and Europeans are able to walk around with an unchecked sense of privilege which derives from their “whiteness”.

But let's back it up. My colleague and I had been in São Paulo, Brazil for something close to 3 months when we took the trip. We were homesick and most of all uncomfortable with all the fuss of the big city, the “chaos” of São Paulo. When we arrived at Buenos Aires the architecture, the public transportation and the roads all welcomed us to “Europe”. I distinctively remember talking to my friend about how much Argentina resembled an “European” country and how much more at home we felt there. We even regretted, at the time, not choosing Argentina as the country to enjoy our scholarship. I was nowhere near to grasp the many ways in which the country and its elites have gone to make it a European white country. I also remember being completely clueless about race relations there, but realize now that blacks seemed to be nowhere to be seen. And this occurs, from what I learned, for many different reasons, past and present.

The article that brought my attention to this part of Argentina's history was Blackout's “How Argentina 'eliminated' Africans from its History and Conscience”. How can it be that a country that had, during slavery, a black population of around 30%, now has, according to the same article (and the CIA World Factbook), a 97% white population? The reasons vary and are both historical and ideological. The article points out, among others, the war against Paraguay, where blacks were the majority (also in others wars, such as the Civil War). Furthermore, surges of yellow fever and the gender gap between black women and men that led black women to marry white men are also presented as powerful reasons. However this is not the whole tale.

In Argentina, there was,  according to Arielle C. Knight, author of the thesis “'De Donde Sos?' The Impossible Union of Blackness and Argentinidad”, a official policy of 'blanqueaminto' (whitening) of the population,“in the principle of white supremacy” and blaming “those classed as Black and indigenous for the worsening state of the nation”. This policy and “strategy” led to the encouragement of European migration and explains, among many other things, why Argentina is known and reputed for its rugby team - a European sport - who finished, for example, fourth in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

In fact, this “encouragement” was so strong that it has been written into the letter of the Argentinian constitution, where Article 25 explicitly states that: “[t]he Federal Government shall foster European immigration”. And let's not forget the indigenous populations also, who have been victims of military campaigns in the 18th century and policies of invisibilisation ever since.

Fast forward to the present. In an over recounted anecdote it is said that former Argentinian President Carlos Menem remarked, in a trip to the United States, that: “[b]lack people do not exist in Argentina, [it is] Brazil [that] has that problem”. As Miriam Gomes stated, in a BBC Mundo piece called “¿Hay negros en Argentina?”, “there's a double fallacy from the official (of the government): firstly saying that there are no blacks and more saying they are a problem!”.

But as with race itself, blacks do not exist in Argentina, because the majority of the population believes they don't exist. Or as Knight affirms “They do not exist because Argentines say that they don’t exist and have repeated this narrative for long enough that it has become true". Norman Whitten and Arlene Torres call this practice the 'rhetorical strategy of reification'”. Furthermore and still according to Knight, two practices make it harder for someone black to become “Argentinian”: children of Black immigrants never become Argentinian,  and they are seen as both a threat or something exotic, but always foreign. This is why Knight mentions the impossible union of blackness and "argentinidad".

Argentina still today seeks to be a “racially white, culturally European” country, which makes it impossible for indigenous or blacks to “fit in”. This is not unlike many other countries, including my own, where the official narrative may not be that “there are no blacks here”, but instead that they do not actually really belong here. In order to accomplish this, he history of many peoples who inhabited the country, including Arabs or Blacks, is erased. What is paradoxical is that the “Paris of America” and the whitest and most European country of Latin America is also the birthplace of tango, a dance with African roots. In the process of Europeanization, Argentina has physically and culturally erased and eliminated people who, it seems, “damage” this image. Argentina's tango is, however, far from finished.