I’m not sure what you know or assume about my racial heritage, but I’m African & Native American (Wampanoag) on my dad’s side and British, Italian, Polish & French(-Canadian) from my mom’s. I’m mixed-race. It’s a bit of a complicated existence, but an interesting one. I think all mixed-race people go through their own personal journey of self-discovery to figure out where they belong. There’s generally a push and pull tension experienced. White people would treat me like I was black and black people would treat me like I was white, but also white people would accept me more than a full-blooded black person and black people would accept me more than a full-blooded white person. It was never really too big of a deal, although it was a bit confusing and challenging at times. I was lucky enough to grow up in a pretty diverse area, so I was fine. I’ve never felt particularly discriminated against and am very proud of my diverse heritage. I’ve also always felt pretty comfortable amongst a lot of different types of people and at an early age I mastered the art of being a chameleon. I would act whiter around white friends and blacker around black friends, for example.
I always felt like I existed outside of race or somewhere beyond it. I thought it didn’t matter and I never thought too much about it, but that changed when I went down to South America. Nowhere have I been more aware of my race and how it affects me.
First off, Backpackers in South America (and I assume other regions) are the least diverse group of people that I’ve ever come across. Pretty much everyone is white. Like super white. I met so many blonde hair, blue eyed Europeans in hostels that I would often confuse them. On the contrary, I can pretty much count on one hand the number of black people that I encountered while backpacking, Blackpackers. Sometimes I came across Asian and South Asian people (generally North American in nationality) and the occasional non-local Latino, but they were rare as well. I found the lack of diversity disappointing.
What was even more disappointing than the lack of diversity, was the very clear difference in treatment I experienced. As a foreigner, there’s a special attention you receive from locals. They tend to be more interested in you just for the sake that you’re different. They are curious about who you are, what you’re like, etc. The thing though, is that this works a lot more for white people. Me being an ambiguously brown person, I blended in. Maybe I didn’t look like I was quite from their country, but I looked enough like a South American or native Spanish or Portuguese speaker that my appearance didn’t warrant much interest. I could walk the streets with an American flag draped from my forehead and they’d probably think I was just some weird Brazilian or something. It was a completely different story when I walked around with white people though.
I remember the first time I walked around with white people in South America. I was in Colombia and walking through the same exact streets that I had been walking the previous day, but this time people would stop and stare with wonderment and amazement at the group I was in. One lady even wanted to take a picture. Another time I was walking around with some white people in Colombia and all these kids would shout English words and want to talk to them. They didn’t even care about me. Another time I was walking with this Aussie dude who had long, blonde hair and blue eyes and the general surfer vibe. These school girls came up to him and squeaked out a sheepish, “Hello” through their nervous giggling and he let back a lazy, “hola” and they screamed like he was Justin Bieber or something.
The treatment from local women was different as well. While I did alright for myself, I had to work much harder. Being foreign in general is helpful, but more so for white people. Say for example, if being a foreigner gives you a +1, being a white foreigner gives you a +2. I can’t speak for every black or brown person who traveled down there, but from their anecdotes, they faced similar struggles. One time I got me and the group I was in, into this group of pretty Colombian girls at this concert and started dancing with one of them. Pretty normal, but there was this one dude in our group who happened to have blue eyes. To me he looked pretty normal, but these Colombian girls were literally shoving each other to have the chance to grind with him. Another time I was in Chile at this club and there were two tall white dudes and these beautiful women would literally throw themselves at them. Like literally wait in line to get a chance. The dudes didn’t have to do anything. They just stood there. It seemed like South America really subscribed to Western/Colonial beauty standards that the blonder, taller and more blue eyed, the better.
It was a bit of a rude awakening and did make me a bit bitter. In the States and the Western world, I’d say white people still have it a bit easier in the dating department, but the difference isn’t as stark as in South America. It seems that South America (and maybe all of Latin America) really absorbed Western beauty standards. I think it’s a mixture of the heavy colonial mindset that still exists and the prominence of Western media.
South America was brutally raped by the Spanish and Portuguese. There was a clear and absolute dominance of the Europeans who installed themselves at the very top of society and they subjected the Indigenous to harsh treatment at the bottom. This got a bit complicated with the racial mixing that happened, (which is very fascinating and I’ll get to in another entry) but still the general Colonial mindset rules apply – the whiter you are, the higher your status. The whitest people still seemed to have the most power and the majority of the wealth of each country I visited.
Additionally, the South American media is filled with white people. Look at an advertisement in Ecuador and then look at what Ecuadorians typically look like.
Notice the discrepancy? Ecuadorians, along with Peruvians and Bolivians tend to have the most Indigenous heritage, but their advertisements and other forms of media usually only show white people. On top of that, South Americans are bombarded by the greatest force of Western cultural imperialism in the modern world, Hollywood. They watch our most popular TV shows and movies (albeit, shittily dubbed) and all the people tend to be white there as well. You can’t really blame them for absorbing the beauty standards. It’s a shame though because these people are getting beauty standards imposed on them for people that just don’t look like them. Imagine how a little Bolivian girl feels about herself when the media tells her that beautiful women look a certain way and it’s different from how she does? I don’t get it. I particularly like the mestiza look. I think women from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia are beautiful.
Now, all this stuff is variable country-to-country. As I mentioned, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia tend to have the highest concentration of Indigenous heritage. Brazil is incredibly mixed and diverse, probably the most in the world and Colombians (and Venezuelens I assume) are also very diverse and mixed between Indigenous, European and African blood. Argentina, Uruguay and Chile are the most European and least diverse countries in South America. In that order. Argentina and Uruguay, which are incredibly closely related in heritage tend to be the most European. They tend to be a mixture of Italian and Spanish heritage (with pockets from other European countries). I guess that’s why they’re all annoyingly good looking. Chileans tend to be more purely Spanish, but also have more Indigenous heritage in their country, particularly from the Mapuches. This is just a simple breakdown and each country has its own individual complexities, but these are the generalities I observed.
While in Colombia and Brazil, I didn’t stand out much. Less so in Brazil because I look pretty Brazilian. I’d say my treatment strictly based on appearance was neutral. I don’t blend in in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia. The countries are all brown, but they have Indigenous features. I was generally treated the best and received the most attention there based on appearance. I’d say where I was treated the least well was Argentina. Argentinians tend to be very proud of their European heritage and look down on brown people, especially Peruvians, Bolivians and Ecuadorians who they tend to be pretty racist against. While I was living in Buenos Aires for two months, I could definitely feel it. Argentinians don’t even really mask their opinions on it. I was asking my Argentinian AirBnB host what he thought of Bolivia and he told me it’s a really poor and run-down country and the people were ugly. It was the most casual comment. He was the coolest dude and really nice, but that’s just how he felt and he saw nothing wrong with it. I for one loved Bolivia and really dug the women there. They were certainly nicer than Argentinian women.
Another thing with all this is to what degree was my treatment a result of me blending in and being mixed-race versus just generally being brown and having African features? I don’t really know. This isn’t a scientific review, just a personal reflection. I undeniably have a flexible appearance that could be a whole range of things, such as Dominican, Brazilian, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Venezuelan, Arabic, and of course Mixed or Light-Skinned Black. I can’t speak on every minority’s experience in South America versus that of a white person. Also, at the end of the day, white people are more exotic down there. They stand out in a sea of brown skin, dark hair and brown eyes and that combined with the prevailing beauty standards works in their favor. It’s just a bit disappointing that such a difference exists. However, my appearance didn’t come without its benefits. I didn’t stand out. I could walk wherever I wanted unmolested. I generally felt safe and I could pretty much travel anywhere incognito. People charged me less. No one gawked and no one bothered me. People treated me and accepted me like a fellow Latino.
I love my multi-racial heritage and wouldn’t have it any other way. It makes me diverse, broadens my perspective and gives me access to a lot of places others couldn’t really go. I’m proud of who I am. I may not receive the attention and I guess implicit respect that white people do, but I don’t really think I need something like that. And also, I may have been greatly outnumbered in the Back Packer community, but I am one of few and early Black Packers. It’s a community in and of itself. Travel, especially international travel still isn’t very common for people of African descent, but the fact that now it exists and is growing is a very positive sign of our rising prominence and equality in the world. White people aren’t the only people who can take a gap year and travel and live abroad. Now we can do it too.