My weapons to express my rebelliousness and to seem attractive to people have always been my voice and my words. In a cultural world of white supremacy, where thin white women with light coloured eyes and long, straight hair are seen and treated better, I had to do something to not go so unnoticed and not be so spurned. Why did I grow up thinking and feeling this in a country that isn’t labeled as racist? Is there really racism in Venezuela?
I have the coastline [where the Afro-Venezuelan population originating from slaving routes remains the majority] running through my veins. My grandfather on my mother’s side was from Puerto Cabello, located in Carabobo State, and on my father’s side from Choroní, Aragua state [both towns on the Caribbean coastline]. I was born in Maracay [in Aragua state, one hour from the coast]. When I go to [Aragua’s coastal village of] Ocumare de la Costa with my family, I love that the Afro community there treats me as a black woman, although when I speak, I come off as an urbanised black person with a yuppie Caracas accent that has stuck with me since I lived in the capital.
Ana Felicien is the daughter of a Haitian father and a Venezuelan mother. She is black as I am and also had the opportunity and privilege to go to university. I wanted to talk to her and clear up a question that concerns many: does racism exist in Venezuela?
"This has been one of the most pending questions in social media conversations in recent days, and most of the answers I have seen claim that there is no racism in Venezuela. Many say that what there is here is classism. To prove the absence of racism, people often use the classic argument of the country as a racial melting pot," she replies.
"I don’t agree,” she continued. “I think there is racism in Venezuela for a variety of reasons, some of which are drawn from my personal experience. But there is also plenty of evidence to support this, including the creation of policies and institutions such as the INCODIR (National Institute against Racial Discrimination). This institute was created following the approval of a 2011 law which defines racism and endo-racism in our country, and which sets up measures to sanction, prevent and eradicate discriminatory practices. The Venezuelan state defined a policy which recognises that racism exists in the country. This policy didn’t come out of nothing, but is the product of the historical struggle of the Afro-Venezuelan movement."
Venezuela's Law against Racial Discrimination defines racism as "Any theory or practice that invokes an intrinsic superiority or inferiority of individuals or groups of people by virtue of their ethnic or cultural origin, encompassing racist ideologies, attitudes based on racial prejudice, discriminatory behaviour which has historically been manifested through legislative or regulatory provisions, discriminatory practices, and, in general, by acts that nullify, undermine or impede the recognition, enjoyment and exercise of the human rights and freedoms of the person or groups of persons on an equal footing. Racism is a mechanism of sociocultural, ethnic, economic and political domination and exploitation."
How many Venezuelan black women or men have had to look down, swallow hard or feel ashamed for their hair, skin or nose? How many women straighten their hair to try to look like white women? How many families want their daughters to marry white men to "improve the race"?
How does racism operate in Venezuela?
Professor Sandra Angeleri is a retired professor from the School of Anthropology at the Central University of Venezuela and a doctor in Ethnic Studies. She says, "In Venezuela racism is camouflaged by a discourse of a mixed race or racial democracy. The population of indigenous and black origin is not part of the nation, but is integrated as a subordinate part."
For her part, Felicien thinks that racism is a system of oppression which has been built historically, in which ethnic-racial differences were hierarchically applied in favour of some and against others.
"This [phenomena] founded and structured society. It functioned as a technology of power that made the Spanish invaders’ occupation possible by stripping the indigenous peoples of their land and exterminating them, as well as through the enslavement of Africans. This is the source of the elite’s wealth,” she explains.
"However, one might say: well, that happened a long time ago. The problem is that structural racism persists through a set of mechanisms that reproduce oppression through codes which are constantly updated. As my grandmother would say: it is the same foreign white lord with a different pipe. The supposed invisibilising of racism and the existence of silent mechanisms of not only economic and political but also moral and affective- exclusion against non-whites, are some of the elements that sustain racism today," continues Felicien, who is a scholar and activist for the cultivation and preservation of the indigenous, campesino and Afro seeds and cultural roots.
The historical debt remains and our job is to overcome it
"Poverty in our country is intensely and brazenly racialised. This we can see when we compare the university student population with that of domestic or construction workers, for example. I mean, it's obvious," she says.
If our daily life is riddled with racist reactions, comments, gestures and jokes, why do some tend to think that there is no racism in Venezuela?
Professor Angeleri replies that this is because "miscegenation supposedly homogenises and equals us all out. The process of independence changed the political form to a republic, but the colonial relations – that are racialised relationships – continued. Today, one can see racism in Venezuela's colonial relations towards empires, first Spain and then the United States, but one doesn’t point out racism within the country. The analytical theoretical framework is that of the colonisation of the nation-state. On the other hand, the class approach hides racism and the connections between racism and classism, and racism and the patriarchal order. At a deeper level, power is opaque and is reproduced through that opacity."
Felicien believes that "denying that racism exists in Venezuela is proof of white privilege, which here we might call “mixed-race' privilege”. Some of that denial has been seen markedly in recent times in which our anti-racist mobilisations have failed to be even remotely comparable to the magnificent displays of solidarity expressed at all levels of Venezuela society with the demands of the Afro-American people in the United States. We are not questioning the latter, but rather pointing out the gap between the inner and outer looking perspectives. I insist that discussing racism in Venezuela means questioning the privileges of the whites, and the problem is that no one is willing to cede their privileges."
Are there rights that have been achieved to reduce racism in Venezuela? What has the Bolivarian Revolution achieved?
"From the constitution to the laws related to indigenous peoples and the law against racial discrimination, the fundamental achievement has been to open up space for the debate,” Felicien claims.
“I believe that the Afro-Venezuelan movement has come a long way in this framework, achieving very important victories. But racism runs right through our society. One shortfallis the level of anti-racist mobilisation, which is the responsibility of the 48 percent of the national population who don’t describe themselves as Afro, black or dark skinned. This historical debt remains and it is our job to overcome it."
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translated by Paul Dobson, with editing by Lucas Koerner for Venezuelanalysis.