I have a funny relationship with Greg Wilpert…

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…who’s one of the of the Venezuelanalysis.com people. We don’t agree on anything, but we ought to. We’re both academics who want to address a broad audience. We share a basic concern for the poor; we make genuine efforts to write with integrity. I think he’s a bit naive, but then he thinks I’m a bit naive too. We’ve never actually met in person, but probably ought to. Most importantly, we seem to be able to hold a debate across ideological lines, which is rare enough to be valuable in Venezuela these days.

His latest piece in Venezuelanalysis.com is, in part, a response to my earlier post on racism. As so often happens, I find myself surprised and slightly confused with Greg’s line of argument. He starts with a frank admission that 95% of Venezuelans don’t see race as a problem, which is a good start. But then he goes on to say they’re wrong, that a hidden form of racism is prevalent in Venezuela. He urges us to believe Greg Pallast and Richard Gott (even though they’re a-not venezuelan b-don’t live in venezuela and c-are white,) over the judgments of the vast majority of dark-skinned people in Venezuela.

I’m afraid this strikes me as insulting, and highly implausible. How is it that two gringo lefties are able to magically peer through this veil of appearances and get at the deeper racial dynamics at play? Does he really mean that 95% of Venezuelans (including, by statistical necessity, a huge number of dark-skinned Venezuelans) are either too stupid or too ideologically brainwashed to notice a major reason for their oppression? Greg, man, if you really think Greg Pallast and Richard Gott understand more about race relations in Venezuela than 95% of the people there, you’re less aware of your own cultural blinders than you imagine.

The Transafrica Forumsters got it wrong. The editorial cartoons calling them “quemados” (burnt ones) were not racist. Even to decry them as racist demonstrates a serious inability to get to grips with the way race works in Venezuela.

Racism is a system of social control, a social and psychological framework for keeping a given ethnic group subjugated, scared and excluded. Racism is the mechanism whereby one ethnic group controls and oppresses another ethnic group.

All of that is absent in Venezuela, and you know it.

When race does not map onto ethnicity neatly – which you’ve admitted is the case in Venezuela – a cartoon like the “tour de los quemados” is a commentary on skin color, on appearance, not on ethnic identification. It’s worth noting that “quemado” has the secondary meaning of “having lost their credibility” in Spanish – the cartoon had is supposed to be a humorous double entendre. Ask 100 black people on the streets of Caracas if they were offended by it, and how many do you think will declare themselves oppressed by it?

Venezuela, thankfully, does not need the skittishness about discussions of race that dominate the US. Because race is so much less important, so much less divisive, it’s possible to talk about it in a depoliticized way, even in a humorous way, without stirring the tidal waves of social conflict that similar talk unleashes in the US

It’s only when approached from the standpoint and using the mental categories of race relations in the US that a cartoon like that is re-interpreted as racist. Outside the context of an ethnic struggle like the one in the US, a cartoon like that loses all its bite. The undercurrent of menace, of deep foreboding that a racist remark has in the US is absent in a place where 95% of the people just don’t think about themselves or those around them in racial terms.

So what I would say to the Transafrica Forum is simple: the US is not the whole of the world. You spend two thirds of your time telling George W. Bush precisely that, it stuns me that it’s so hard to convince you of it. The mental categories, the norms and understandings that govern race relations in the US are not fixed and universal. They are particular to your country. Please don’t shove them down our throats.

In order to understand Venezuela – or indeed any foreign culture – you need to put that mental framework aside for a minute and learn, really open yourself and learn, how a different society operates. And once you do, you might, just might, come to realize that some things that seem perfectly unquestionable in one cultural framework – that a cartoon making a reference to skin color is necessarily racist, for instance – actually don’t hold in another cultural context.

If you don’t make a commitment to learn about and understand the particularities of a given country’s social and cultural system, I just don’t see where you get off pontificating about it. (That goes for Amy Chua also.) This is why I try to write only about Venezuela in this blog: it really bugs me when people write about topics they don’t understand, and I refuse to do it.

To my mind, people like Gott, Pallast and Chua have failed to understand the dynamics of our mestizo society. They and the Transafrica Forumsters end up exercising a funny sort of reverse cultural imperialism on us: foisting their highly politicized, divided and divisive racial framework on a society that has no use for it at all, and in fact would do much better to export its model than to accept any imports! Sure, their rhetoric makes for delicious chavista propaganda in the first world, but it adds pathetically little to an audience’s understanding of what’s actually happening in this country.

So Greg, please, if you want to have a discussion of income inequality, social exclusion, and privilege, let’s have it. I think I can show Chavez has deepened each of those, not with rhetoric, but with statistics. But please don’t falsify Venezuela’s reality by making claims about race relations that are not only wrong, but destructive.

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