The Full Body Venezuelan Blackface

Now that we denounce the many faces of racism in North America, as Venezuelans we must recognize the burden of our discrimination is still alive.

Photo: Guayoyo en Letras retrieved

The recent controversy during the Canadian federal electoral campaign about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface has poured salt in the racist wound of Canadian society. 

It’s not that Trudeau is a racist; he’s been cleared of all guilt by the Black Coalition of Québec and Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière. But his lack of sensitivity on the matter at the time (2001) when he was 29 years old and a schoolteacher who decided to wear a sultan’s costume for an Arabian Nights party, points to a banalization of racism. The fact that Justin, the son of Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, the Prime Minister, father of multiculturalism in Canada, couldn’t realize at 29 the racist component of his disguise, is a example of this.

A banalization we Venezuelans also know.

In Venezuela, during the 50s and 60s, the Carnival was taken as the perfect occasion for middle and upper-class girls (and sometimes boys too) to dress up as little black girls, a costume called negrita. Dressed in black stockings, an afro wig, a mask and very red lips, the negritas would go to nightclubs for a good time, doing things they wouldn’t normally do without the disguise. It was a way of loosening up in a society that didn’t allow “good girls” to do certain things in public.

It was a way of loosening up in a society that didn’t allow “good girls” to do certain things in public.

But why loosen up as negritas? Anyone watching would say that it was tied to Carnival itself, the celebration that turns the world upside down, where bodies are bared, identities are switched and those on top come down while the ones on the bottom go up. We can’t, however, ignore that black slaves in Venezuela were victims of sexual violence and all kinds of abuse by their white owners. The relationship between the “good girls” who take on the identity of little black girls as a gate to disinhibition, and the use of black slaves as sexual objects is obvious.

The civil rights movement for African-Americans, the Apartheid in South Africa, and social movements against discrimination give us a view of a struggle absent in Venezuela, although systemic racism was deeply rooted in Venezuelan society, expressed through everyday language when someone would compliment you by saying you were a “fancy negro.

Ramón Piñango and Moisés Naím spoke in 1984 of “the illusion of harmony,” debating whether there was, or not, any racism in Venezuela; in a 1993 piece, “Is There Racism in Venezuela or Not?” anthropologist Angelina Pollak-Eltz stated that the “racial conscience” wasn’t developed “in private and family circles with certain racial prejudices.” She even goes on saying that “in the new middle class, there are no racial-related problems and they conform to the official motto of ‘racial democracy.’”

But other researchers disagree. For example, Ligia Montañez (1993) and María Martha Mijares (1997) pointed out how hidden racism is expressed through proverbs and colloquialisms, as well as an “inner racism” (according to Mijares) in people of African descent, who showed low self-esteem just because they were black. More recently, the Japanese anthropologist Jun Ishibashi, who lived in Venezuela, concluded in an article about the representation of black people in the media that “the proliferation of stereotypical images and the ‘symbolic nullification’ of ‘black’ representation in Venezuela when compared to the case of the United States, is a reflection of the absence, until recently, of activism against racism.”

Chavismo has turned racism into a tool, as a part of its speech of hate and polarization.

Chavismo has turned racism into a tool, as a part of its speech of hate and polarization. Its propaganda machine says over and over that there’s a clash between “white supremacists” and darker skinned Venezuelans, with gross manipulations like the “whitening” of the National Assembly deputies to make a contrast against the mixed races of the National Constituent Assembly. Truth is, Chávez himself was accused of antisemitism; Maduro and his allies (like Felipe Mujica) are known for their homophobic slurs. 

As in every act of contrition, we have to acknowledge that Carnival negritas were our own blackface, so we can start shaking off certain myths about ourselves. Our mixed race society was racist, and still is.