Saturday, September 5, 2015

I Just Look White

It's Saturday midmorning, and it's quiet here in the food court, where I've come with my computer to check e-mail, and infuriate myself by reading racist memes on Facebook.  I guess there isn't a home game, and then too it's Labor Day weekend, so many students will have gone out of town.  Others have not, though, and I was startled to see drunken parties already underway on the sidewalks outside some new student-oriented apartment units at 9:30 in the morning yesterday.  But then, the weekend in a Big Ten college town usually begins on Tuesday night, judging from the festivities I hear in those buildings.

Anyway.  Most of the visible workers in the food court are students employed part-time, and since it's so quiet I can clearly hear some of their conversations.  One was trying to explain to one of the managers why she's not comfortable talking to a co-worker, and the manager teased her that she must be racist, because that co-worker is Mexican.  Well, part-Mexican, on her father's side.  The young woman was stunned, she had no idea, because aside from not having an accent her co-worker doesn't look Mexican, she looks "white."  Her mother's white, the manager said.  I had to zip my lips, because I so much wanted to jump up and say that many Mexicans are "white."  If I'd been wearing my "I Just Look Illegal" t-shirt today, I might have done it.

Over the past several years I've watched a fair number of classic studio-made Mexican movies, from about 1940 to 1970.  These were mainstream films, corresponding to Hollywood product, and so of course there are almost no indio faces in them, except a few scattered in crowds of extras.  It's still true of Mexican TV.  One of the notable exceptions was the comic actress María Elena Velasco, whose character La India María was popular for decades.  But she was the exception who proved the rule.
Velasco, who before La India Maria was usually cast as a maid or a servant, got her big break when director Fernando Cortés recommended her to portray an indigenous woman named Maria in a comedy sketch. Over the course of 30 years, the character appeared in 16 films and a spinoff television series, Ay María, qué puntería. La India Maria was usually garbed in colorful, traditional blouses and skirts—costumes that Velasco’s mother helped make— and braided hair, and countered racial and class discrimination with her good nature, strong morals, and slapstick sense of humor.In addition to creating the iconic character, Velasco was also a screenwriter, producer, and one of Mexico’s few major female directors.
"A maid or a servant" -- sound familiar?

I suppose that young woman thinks that Mexicans are all of American Indian ancestry, and so are visible to the ethnically anxious eye.  If so, she's probably unaware how many students attending this university have recent ancestors who speak Spanish, or are themselves foreign students from Spanish-speaking countries.  She probably attends classes with such students, but they don't "look" Hispanic, so they must be "white."  It's convenient to suppose that she's just ignorant because she's an undegraduate, but there are white Americans with advanced degrees and cushy think-tank jobs who also think that "Hispanic" refers to a non-white race.  I imagine they're more common than anyone knows, because who bothers to count them?

It struck me how entertaining it would be to say something to people like this that someone they know is of mixed race: her father is English, her mother is white; his father is white, his mother is Swedish.  Or Polish.  Whatever.  If you want more evidence that "race" is a social construct, consider the confusion that nice, educated liberal white people exhibit over what a "race" is.  In any case, non-"white" Mexicans might better be referred to as Indians if you really must label them -- those who aren't of African or Asian descent, that is.