For those who already know me or have seen me on social medial it is clear that I am not white. However, being born with notorious European features in a country like Venezuela gave me the “privilege” of being considered “la catira“, term used to refer to blonde women. The color of my skin, my hair, and my facial features allowed me to have a privilege that I acquired just because my look conformed to the white beauty ideal.
The Ugly Truth: Venezuela’s rarely recognized Racism
Over the last ten years, hardly a day has gone by without news coverage of Venezuela’s political, social, and economical crisis. Most of 3 million Venezuelans had fled the country due to political persecution, poverty, and social unrest. Millions of Venezuelans looking for opportunities to have a better quality of life abroad.
Before Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuela attracted little international attention. It was a Caribbean country frequently seen as exceptionally stable by Latin American standards, and was best known for its beauty queens, award winning beaches, and its huge reserves of oil. Little was shown, known or even acknowledged of Venezuela’s long history of racism that defined the life, career, and status of many Venezuelans in our country.
Let’s start with our beauty queens, for example. While a majority of Venezuelans identify themselves as black, indigenous or mestizo (mixed-race), the country’s beauty queens have invariably conformed to white beauty ideals. The organizers of the country’s most important beauty pageant have stated that black women are not pretty because their noses are “too wide” and their lips “too thick”. Afro hair is commonly referred to as pelo malo or “bad hair”.
This belief in the natural superiority of Europeans was also evident in the economically crucial, foreign-owned oil sector. Professionals and middle managers were white Venezuelans, but labourers were recruited from black and mixed-race sectors. By the time oil was nationalized in 1976, Venezuelan middle class habitants had come to identify with and adopt US-style culture and consumer patterns. For these Venezuelans, traveling to the United States and Europe symbolized civilization, while the black and mixed-race masses represented the inferior past of colonial times.
“While a majority of Venezuelans identify themselves as black, indigenous or mestizo (mixed-race), our country’s beauty queens have invariably conformed to white beauty ideals…”Flor Bretón-García
My family didn’t escape this reality. I was told by many family members that luckily I would marry a white man to “improve” the race and I also learned from a very young age that neighborhoods where people with darker skin color lived were less safe than white neighborhoods, being this the case both in Venezuela and in the United States, country where I spent many summers of my young life.
I was, many times, part of the racist jokes and comments, too. I also thought that beauty conformed to European standards was the real beauty, and I also felt superior because of the social status my light skin color granted me. Racism was part of every day tales, news, political campaigns, and social gatherings. However, we always thought it was okay to be like that… to say all those highly racist comments because los negros venezolanos no se ofendían (Venezuelan blacks didn’t get offended by racist jokes).
Motherhood, living abroad and change
I came to realize how wrong all these openly unrecognized jokes and traditions were, when I moved to the United States in 2002. I learned about the constant struggle of African Americans and Latinos to access the health care system, education and job market due to race issues. All of the sudden I was slapped with the reality of being part of the unprivileged group. Even though I married an American born, we were both Latinos who came to the States to find a better future and who spoke the English language with a strong accent.
No, I don’t feel I was discriminated during that time, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see the mayor racial gap in educational attainment between the white, brown, and black population in the USA. I was appalled and also decided to raise my three children with the tools and knowledge to be part of the change our world needs. Racism is systemic and it has always been there. It is my constant duty to remind my kids and myself that we need to create a more equitable society for everyone.
What to do as mothers and caregivers
First of all, it is imperative to start the race conversation early in life. In my opinion, we need to get ahead of what our kids will learn in school and start talking about racial differences and racism from toddler years. If your children are older and you haven’t had this conversation with them yet, please do it now!
My husband and I have wanted to ensure that both our cultures are always represented for our children in music, books and social issues. We also added the culture of Germany, country where we currently live. We know our kiddos are still brown who will be treated as such many times in their lives, but we are raising them as a citizens of the world and agents of change.
Second, you need to be brave. There is no one right way to talk to children about race. Mistakes are bound to be made, and kids’ racial thinking does not begin or end with a single conversation. We, as mothers and caregivers, should never stop talking about race, or educating ourselves. Remember, there will be moments when the conversation will turn out to be a disaster, but it is okay. We will be learning with our children to actively acknowledge and reject a systemic issue that many ignore.
Third, ask your kids if they’ve seen racist language in YouTube videos or comments. Help them understand how following or sharing racist accounts helps spread hate. Be brave, again. Embrace yourself and ask you child if they think you have ever made a racist remark or comment. Prepare for their answer. This would be an eye-opening experience for you, too. Now that my children aren’t so “little” anymore, I get called out when I let my biases, consciously or unconsciously, take the best of me.
Fourth, depending on the age of your children, use social media, movies, books and TV shows to help spark discussion about racial violence. Even video games can be an ice-breaker for parents to start a conversation with their children about stereotypes, biases, and racist remarks.
Resources List to Talk about Racism
Moreover, be willing to watch hard stuff with your older kids. You need to expose them to the cruel realities of racism throughout history and through the current day. Carefully select the films and documentaries. I suggest something along the lines of:
- The 13th,
- McFarland USA
- American History X (16 years old and up)
- The Butler
- Hidden Figures (also good to promote healthy feminism)
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (animated for the whole family)
- I am Not Your Negro (documentary)
- Pocahontas (animated for the whole family)
- Schindler’s List
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
For toddlers and preschool age children, books and magazines are the best way into the conversation about racism. Here is a list of my favorite ones:
- A Baobab is Big, by Jacqui Taylor
- Young Water Protectors, by Aslan and Kelly Tudor
- All The Colors We Are, by Katie Kissinger
- Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison
- Let’s Talk About Race, by Julius Lester
- The Legend of the Colombian Mermaid, by Janet Balleta
- Separate is Never Equal, by Sylvia Mendez
- Something Happened in Our Town, by Marietta Collins
- Saturday, by Oge Mora (Ages 3-5)
- Hair Love, by Matthew A. Cherry (Ages 3-5)
Wherever you live, whatever your language, please do speak with your kids about racism, systemic racial gap, and the equitable world that we all need to start building now! If you don’t know where to start, take the first step and inform yourself. Reflect on your own biases. Think about the cultural identity aspects of your own upbringing, what remarks made by your parents and grandparents were racist and promoted a discriminating attitude towards minorities and under privileged groups.
Special note for Latino parents: don’t forget to stand against racist jokes told by relatives and friends of the family. We come from countries where classism and racism were ALWAYS present but RARELY acknowledged. Do not laugh at racist jokes and don’t allow yourself to stay quiet in front of racist actions coming from a family member. Your children learn by example. YOUR EXAMPLE. So stop tolerating your great-grandma’s racist comments and speak up.
If you need support, a friendly voice, or Spanish lessons, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m just a click away.