Driving While White (in Argentina)

This is long and serious – not my usual practical tips or snapshots of horses – but that is the beauty of a blog; if I want to say something, I can post it here. I originally wrote this back in January, after some discussion in the Norwegian media about every day racism. I never posted it on my blog, but now, after what has happened in Ferguson, I feel that I want to share this. Long story short: White people, whether European or American, why don’t we stop being so ignorant about racism? Let’s try to educate ourselves and validate other people’s experiences. That’s all!

I am writing this in English, because I don’t have that many readers and I want all of them to understand, but it is really a comment to a debate that took place in Norway a month or so ago. [And now, almost a year later, on the no indictment of Darren Wilson.] I think it started with a discussion on whether Sweden or Norway were more racist, and then with a commentary article in one of Norway’s paper saying that Norway really isn’t that racist. Immigrants in Norway, or people with an immigrant family background, then started tweeting using the hashtag #hverdagsrasisme (every day racism) to show that well, there is actually racism in Norway. (@somalieren the first to start this I believe and came with some excellent examples.) I was fascinated by the fact that people would even argue that there is little or no racism in Norway, so I followed the debate with great interest. After having lived in the US, I feel that I have at least some experience in talking about racism and in many ways, the Scandinavian countries are quite new to issues of race and racism, so the debate can seem pretty behind.

The debate made me think of a few things that I think some white people in Norway don’t consider, and it also made me reflect on my own situation as an immigrant or visitor in Argentina. (Immigrant, guest worker, expat – I am not sure what to call myself, as I am not a typical expat in any way, but I also have a much more sheltered and privileged life than someone from another Latin American country who comes to work here.)

Here are a few things my fellow white Norwegians need to think about:

Racism exists. Almost everywhere. In the US, African Americans still experience racism (the title of this posts comes from the expression “Driving while black”, which refers to the fact that black men are many, many times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving.) In Argentina, Bolivians, Paraguayans and Argentines of indigenous background are still discriminated against. Once I went to a big box store and asked if a membership was needed or if it was open to the public. The security guard told me that anyone could enter – Bolivians, Peruvians, Paraguayans, they all come here, he added with a disgusted look on his face. In Norway, people with foreign-sounding names are routinely excluded from job interviews and rental viewings. So, well, racism exists. We can’t pretend it doesn’t, either by a liberal “everyone has the same chance as long as they work hard”, or the more leftist “I am colorblind” attitude. Studies show that even small children notice race and can react negatively to people of a different race, even with no real input, so it makes no sense to pretend it doesn’t exist. What makes sense, is to educate ourselves and our children about race from an early age, to show that yes, we are different, but we are all just as important and as much worth. Trying to shush little kids who point out that someone has a different skin color or hair texture or eye shape does no good, it only makes them ashamed and confused. (For more reading on this, I recommend the blog Rage Against the Minivan, who writes eloquently about children and race. Her recent post about the decision not to charge Darren Wilson is a great starting point: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2014/11/why-lack-of-indictment-for-mike-browns.html A short excerpt: “If the anger around the decision made yesterday is confusing to you, it’s time to listen. It’s time to research. It’s time to pull your head out of the sand and face the cold, hard facts about racial bias and police brutality. No one is saying that all police are racists. In fact, it’s quite possible that many of the cops who have slain black boys weren’t themselves racists by the general definition of the word. But they were living in the context of systemic racism . . . in a country that socializes us to be afraid of black men. Whether we like it or not, society conditions our impulses. We can try to counteract the systemic racism we’re living in, and many of us do, but research indicates that racial bias infiltrates our first response, before logic takes over.”

Reverse racism is not a thing. I do not use the expression “reverse racism.” From lots of reading and discussion on the topic, I believe that racism is a system of oppression and discrimination based on skin color and/or race, and that it is directed from white or whiter people towards people with darker skin. This might sound simplistic, but in most of history, that is true. Yes, there are examples of lighter-skinned people being discriminated against, but on the aggregate, the other way around is true. A very good example of this is that almost all over the world, white features, such as straight or wavy (not curly) hair, blue eyes and white skin are seen as “good” or desirable. In Asia, plastic surgery to get whiter features is big business, and for centuries, tight curly African hair has been seen as bad. This does not mean that white people cannot experience discrimination; for instance, in Oslo there are many examples of white kids feeling discriminated against for their religion, or for not wearing hijab, by Muslim kids in school. This is bad, of course, but I would call it discrimination or bullying, not reverse racism.

Mixing discussions on immigration and race can often confuse the topic at hand. In Norway, these two invariably get mixed up, and it takes something away from the discussion. Personally, I am skeptical to the large-scale immigration we see in Norway, because I don’t think our system can handle it. We either have to change the system, scaling back on the many social benefits we have, or scale back on the immigration. I don’t think it is OK that Polish workers in Norway can collect children’s benefits after just a short stint in Norway, and take it back to Poland indefinitely. I don’t think it is OK that certain immigrant groups have very low workforce participation. But that doesn’t mean that I feel that Poles or Somalis are less worth than Norwegians. I recognize that I can have racism latent in me, and recognizing this helps me confront it and try to move away from it.

White privilege is real. In the US, I felt this concept was at least somewhat well known. The actual expression comes from Peggy McIntosh’s excellent essay, which everybody should read, and refers to the fact that as white people, we don’t even notice our own race or our privileges, because to us, white is the default. We have the privilege to not think about race, because we are seen, and see ourselves, as the norm. Often we ignore other people’s experiences because we cannot imagine that they can be true – “you don’t really get followed around in a store, do you?”, we might say, because our default experience is NOT being followed around. McIntosh explains very well the importance of being aware of this privilege, and also what life in America is like for those who don’t possess this privilege. It is easy for white people to say that there is no racism when they don’t experience it! It is also easy to forget that we benefit from a lot of privileges in our public and private lives. The brilliant essay states: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

The majority or privileged group should not get to set the agenda or decide what is OK. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and something I feel I hear a lot more in Norway or Argentina than in the US. To me, if a member of another group says that such and such word should not be used, I respect that. If an African youth group in Norway explains why “neger” is not a great word to use, I take their lead. What drives me crazy is when white people say things like “But I don’t mean anything bad with it!” or “I know one person who doesn’t mind it” or “Political correctness has gone too far.” WTF?? My life does not get any poorer by not using those words. I do not feel that my freedom of speech is restricted because I am asked to not use terms that someone finds offensive. It is my responsibility, as a member of the majority or the privileged group (they are not always the same!) to listen to others and respect what they say. (This also applies to people with disabilities – I try to follow the consensus of the group in question. What I feel about the word shouldn’t matter. I know very well that most Deaf people prefer the word Deaf, so I use that, never “hearing impaired”. Blind people on the other hand have more of a diverse use of words, some prefer blind, others visually impaired, others low vision. Fine with me!) So when people of color in Norway say that they experience racism, I believe them.

Driving While White in Argentina: And now, to the title of my post. For over two years now, I have been la noruega en Argentina; the Norwegian in Argentina. I experienced plenty of white privilege in the US, I’ll give you just two examples: In the whole time I lived in the US, I never had to do a credit check for an apartment. Working at the IDB, it seemed that every one of my Latino colleagues had to do it whenever they were looking at an apartment. Secondly, I am the only person I know who got a DC driver’s license for ten years when my visa and contract were only valid for another six months. (According to DC rules, the driver’s license can never be valid longer than one’s G4 visa.) I had friends on three-month contracts that had to renew their licenses every three months. What a pain!

Here in Argentina, I feel that I am a prime example of someone from a minority but privileged group. This ties in with what Peggy McIntosh says: “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” So this is why I think it is important that I point out some of these advantages.

I constantly get the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes my friends and colleagues are very surprised at what I am allowed. I seem to get credit whenever we shop places after just a few times. Our chef has been purchasing meats and sausages at the same place for three different estancias for maybe six years, but was never allowed to shop on credit until the worked with me. Now, they wave him out of the store with thousands of pesos worth of meat. In some places, they offer me credit even when I have the cash with me. I am allowed to take products and test them and then return them. If they don’t have change, they tell me to pay the remainder next time, rather than the other way around – that they will owe me the change. And when you ask Argentines, they say that nobody trusts each other and that everyone is skeptical or everyone else.

But the biggest white privilege moment (or white Nordic foreigner privilege moment) happened a few weeks ago while driving in Buenos Aires. I am legally allowed to drive the car, since I have the cedula azul, a card that designates who, other than the owner, is allowed to drive it and insured to do so. I drive with my US license and my Norwegian passport, although I should have gotten an Argentine one by now. Anyway, I was not driving, the chef was, as we were going to Makro in San Justo and I really don’t like driving in that part of town. Shortly before arriving, we were pulled aside by the gendarmeria. I have been stopped by other kinds of police before, once without a license, but talked myself out of it; another time driving the big truck that I am not designated to drive – I had to pay a bribe to get out of that one. But the gendarmeria are considered to be a very serious police force, you can’t bribe them, and they will take you to jail, as our chef pointed out to me when we were pulled over.

They were serious and asked for our documents. The chef didn’t even have his license with him, and he was driving! I then explained that he was driving because I had a bad cold and a fever (which I did, although it was not the reason I was not driving.) I handed over my license, my passport (in which it is blatantly obvious that I have been in the country well over my allotted three months) and my cedula azul. They took the documents and went away for what seemed like an eternity. The chef was literally prepping me on what to do if we were taken to jail, he was that sure that we would not get out of this one. When they came back, they asked me if I needed a doctor, and told the chef to get his license in order. We then sat there looking at each other and the chef said he had never experienced anything like this. We had talked about white privilege before and I think this is the star example…

So what is the point of all of this? To show that white privilege exists, that racism exist, and that as members of the privileged group, people like myself need to be open to listen to the experiences of people of color or other non-privileged groups, because otherwise, we seem like a bunch of idiots with no compassion or understanding of other people’s experiences. Let’s recognize that racism is real and that unless we talk about it, it won’t get better. What black people in the US are experiencing is very, very real, and when whites negate these experiences, it is both very sad and extremely ignorant. As a white European immigrant, I should recognize that I have privileges and benefits that other immigrants don’t have, and try to speak up for those who are discriminated against.

Posted in Personal, Politics | 16 Comments

The Absence of Trust

When I was in university, I took a few classes in Italian history and loved every single one. Some of the books I read then I still come back to, and of one of them is Edward Banfield’s seminal work on southern Italy: “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society”. His work is heavily referenced in Robert Putnam’s books “Making Democracy Work” and “Bowling Alone”. Putnam talks a lot about social capital, defined like this by Wikipedia:

In sociology, social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.

Banfield himself didn’t use the term social capital, he wrote about trust instead, but the concept is the same: when there is trust between people in a society, it encourages transactions and investments in the future. You might lend me a tool, because you trust that I will give it back, and that allows me to build a house, for instance. I might employ someone from outside my family, because I generally trust that people will do a good job. Trust breeds trust – one trusting action leads to another. (I am paraphrasing heavily since I haven’t read the book in ten years, but this is the general gist.) People will associate with others and start self-organizing.

Front CoverIn southern Italy, Banfield points out, this trust is almost non-existing. People only trust those in their inner circle, usually the family or the clan. This means that it is difficult to set up organizations or start improvement projects for the community, because nobody believes that other people will have good intentions and are just doing it for the greater good. Banfield shows how, for historical reasons, southern Italy has developed this lack of trust almost to an extreme. While his book was written in 1956, unfortunately a lot of this still rings through, and southern Italy is still way behind the north on all economic and social indicators. And on a very prosaic level, many southern Italians will only go to the butcher de fiducia, the one they trust.

So what does this have to do with my blog, and with Argentina? Well, I believe that one of the things that the Italian immigrants brought to Argentina was exactly this lack of trust. (I am of course simplifying here – there are many other reasons to why people in Argentina are reluctant to trust others.) I am time and again struck by the lack of trust that people in Buenos Aires have towards each other. (And, the corollary to this: the almost overabundance of trust that they have towards me – this idea that as a foreigner and a northern European I am different and trustworthy.) It’s weird, because at the same time I see actions of solidarity and giving a helping hand – someone paying for another passenger’s bus fare, or helping someone carry a heavy load. But when it comes to any kind of transaction, the lack of trust is very obvious. Here are a few examples:

- As I wrote about in my post on housing for foreigners, the long-term rental contracts are quite complicated. For instance, they require a garantía: a guarantee granted by a friend, family member (preferably) or employer who has to be a property owner, and who promises to pay rent if the renter does not pay, and to intervene if the renter does not vacate the premises when he or she has to. The contracts themselves tend to be very detailed, and from what I hear, it is very common not to get the security deposit back. Some renters solve this by simply not paying the last month’s rent. I think this is the perfect example of how lack of trust breeds more lack of trust – I don’t trust that you will uphold your end of the deal, so I act on this assumption and withhold the money. In general, it seems to me that the relationship between landlord and renter has a lot more animosity than other places I have lived. (Luckily, I have a great relationship with my landlady!)

- Something very small, but that I still think has roots in the same cultural heritage: dinners, outings with friends, or meetings are confirmed and reconfirmed several times – it is like people don’t believe that you will show up unless it is reconfirmed over and over again. Weird!

- A general idea that any grouping, whether it is a political party of a building owners’ association, does not have the best interest of the collective in mind. This of course is tied in closely with the long history of populism in the country, but I also think it is linked to the lack of trust.

- Work contracts: Labor law in Argentina is complicated, and I see a real Catch 22 here: The unions are very strong, and can create a lot of problems for employers. Of course there are historical reasons for this, with worker exploitation etc., but now it means that employers often are reluctant to put people in the white, because if they want to fire them, it is very difficult, and employers often end up paying large sums to people they fire, either because they are mandated to do so by the convenio, or because the worker sues their employer. One scenario that happens often is this: an employer pays a worker in the black for two months, and then hires her officially. After nine months, the employer is no longer happy with the worker, and decides to fire her. The worker then goes to the union, who helps her sue the employer for having had her work in the black. So there is just so much lack of trust here – the strong laws and the strong unions are in place because there is and was exploitation of workers. But because nobody trusts that the other party has their best interest in mind, they are trigger happy when it comes to suing and taking advantage of the laws. Employers therefore constantly mistrusts their workers. Agh!!! (The solution, to me, would be a flexible system of short-term or trial contracts, so that the employer could hire them on trial for two or three months, with no repercussions if the contract is not extended after the trial. It could also help close the gap between the privileged workers in the strongest unions, and the really bad conditions of many of those who work in the black and are not unionized.)

It is quite obvious that all these examples create obstacles for people in many parts of their lives, and I really wish it wasn’t so. I find Argentineans to be creative and open-minded, and I wish that so much of that wasn’t stifled by lack of trust and difficult laws. But at the same time, I don’t really see how it could change. These societal patterns are difficult to change, unfortunately. Most Argentineans celebrate their Italian roots, but this is one area where old structures should have stayed back in the old country.

(Speaking of southern Italy, I have to mention maybe my favorite book about the region: Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Read it!!)

Posted in Books, Daily life, Politics, Work | 3 Comments

Abierto Argentino de Polo 2014 – The Argentine Open

The world’s best polo tournament is well underway, and I enjoyed the first two weekends of games (there are games both Saturdays and Sundays, but I have just been going Sundays.) This weekend it will be decided who goes to the final on December 6, should be exciting! I love going to the polo grounds in Palermo, it is such a beautiful oasis in the middle of the city. It’s also very nice to see friends and just hang out after the games. Also, it has been great to introduce non-polo friends to this beautiful game. Unfortunately my pictures are crap so I am sharing one from Nacho Corbalán, of the Alegría polo team. Hope they beat Ellerstina! In the high-goal tournaments, it always seems to come down to Ellerstina and La Dolfina. Since 2007, they have won the title every other year each. However, last year Ellerstina was not in the final; they lost to Alegría in the semis and shook things up a little bit. I would love to see a similar final this year!

Posted in Campo, Polo | Leave a comment

Jacarandas

I first encountered Jacaranda trees in Guatemala many years ago, and I find them amazingly beautiful. The color is so gorgeous! In Argentina, they are quite common and Buenos Aires in the spring is filled with them – it is so pretty. Here are a few shots from a bike ride earlier today.

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Posted in Buenos Aires, Daily life, Travel | 6 Comments

Two Years in Argentina!

Wow, this is crazy! Today I have now been living in Argentina for two years! Last year I wrote this nice post about my one year anniversary and now it is time for a recap of year two! I like what I wrote last year about changing as a person and I feel that holds true: I am much more calm and confident and feel that there are so many opportunities out there! I am currently considering trying to become a journalist, going back to school, running a bakery…

The last six months have of course been very different from the first 18, since I moved from the country to the city. The best thing has been the feeling of successfully establishing myself professionally and socially in the city, and I am very happy with what I am doing and with some exciting projects in the making. Freelancing and working from home has been the perfect transition to a busy city, and I honestly think I look younger, thanks to enough sleep, a good diet, and exercise! The hotel industry is fantastic but not necessarily conducive to good habits… I have made such good friends and want to say publicly thank you to all the wonderful people I have met here.

One of the biggest changes in this second year is the fact that I have stopped eating meat, which I have written about quite a bit on the blog. At first it was like my body just told me to take a break, it was hardly a conscious choice, but then I started really liking it, and I love learning more about vegetarian cooking, for instance. I eat much healthier than before and I honestly think that eating lots of avocado has been great for my skin. (I sound like a real fanatic!) In this whole time there has only been two times where I saw some meat and wanted to eat it, so even with all the asados here in Argentina it has been very easy to not eat meat. Funny how I ended last year’s anniversary post saying that the meat was actually really good!

A smaller change that is probably only funny to a few people is that I started drinking diet/light sodas. I have been a staunch opponent of diet sodas since the first time I tasted them, but somehow, about a year ago, I started drinking Coca Cola Light from time to time, and now I love Coke Zero. Before, I was quite disciplined about my soda intake (one regular Coke during the work week was my rule) because of the sugar, but now I drink it a lot! Oh well, it is not the worst vice to have.

I have to run now, but wanted to get something up on the actual day. I will edit later with some photos and maybe some more profound musings.

Posted in Buenos Aires, Campo, Daily life, Norsk i Argentina, Noruega en Argentina, Personal | 8 Comments

La Feria de Mataderos

P1160217One of the nicest ways to spend a tourist Sunday in Buenos Aires is visiting the Feria de Mataderos, a beautiful fair that takes place in the city but celebrates traditional country culture and traditions. Mataderos is a neighborhood in the western part of the City of Buenos Aires. The fair is very large and you can enjoy a variety of activities:

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Eating: You can buy choripan (sausage sandwiches) and other cuts of meat from many different stalls. Pick the one with the longest line! You can also get many different sweets such as strawberries and other fruits dipped in almíbar (sweet sirup).  There are also some sit down restaurants.

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Shopping: When you first enter the fair, there are stalls selling all sorts of random things: children’s clothes, belts, books, toys. Then you get closer to the main area and it becomes more “serious”: arts and crafts, for instance. Then there is a whole large section dedicated to food stuffs: this is the best part! There are all sorts of sausages and other meats (fiambres), cheeses, fresh bread and pastries, wines, oils, chocolates… It’s really wonderful. P1160143Jineteada: Another street is set up as a horse show, where riders compete in corrida de sortija, a traditional gaucho sport where the riders have to go at full gallop and insert a small piece of twig in a ring suspended about three meters above the ground. This is also fun to watch, although I felt bad for the horses’ feet as they hammered the pavement… There was sand on top of the asphalt but still nothing like out in the country. I totally fell in love with a horse there, I just couldn’t leave him. Beautiful!

P1160174Music and dancing: On the main stage, in front of the original market building that is the heart of the fair, there are shows going on all day, mainly traditional folklore music. In front of the stage people dance and it was so nice to see all the older people dancing for hours.

P1160125How to get there: From Villa Crespo, we took the 55 bus, which starts in Belgrano and passes through Palermo. Very cheap and on a Sunday there was no traffic, so we got there in less than 45 minutes. A taxi would probably have been maybe 150 pesos.

Posted in Buenos Aires, Campo, Personal, Practical info, Travel | Leave a comment

Random tips for foreigners in Buenos Aires

In my little series on practical information for foreigners wanting to live in Buenos Aires, it is now time for the “doesn’t really fit anywhere else but good to know”-section. Random bits of advice for happy living in this city!

  1. Work from home. Buenos Aires is a wonderful city, but as any large capital there is a lot of traffic. This means that if you can work from home, you will save yourself time and aggravation. I consistently say that public transport is good here, and I really believe that, but it is still nice not to have to be packed together on the Subte every morning.
  2. If you can’t work from home, live close to work. (Both of these points of course require a somewhat perfect world where you can simply decide what you want to do and where housing prices are of no concern!) This way you can walk to work or rely on a short commute. When I lived in DC, I walked to work, it was 35 minutes and a nice stroll. I think anything up to 40-45 minutes is fine, and a 40-minute walk is much less stressful than a half hour bus ride. My favorite thing with walking is that you know exactly how long it will take – traffic doesn’t slow you down.
  3. If you can’t work from home or live close to your work, ride your bike! Buenos Aires has quite a lot of bike lanes now and the network keeps expanding. There are also a few helpful rules in place, for instance, parking garages must keep your bicycle for a very low price.
  4. Avoid the Línea D on the Subte. This is just my personal preference – it seems to be way more packed than any other metro line, and the wagons seem smaller to me. I usually say that rush hour in Buenos Aires is from 15:00 until 20:00 but on the Línea D you might find yourself completely sandwiched in at 11:00 in the morning as well. The reason is of course that it goes through heavily populated areas like Palermo and Belgrano, where there are lots of tall buildings and new ones pop up every day. Sometimes I have taken the Línea D at five or six in the afternoon and once I had to wait until the 3rd train to get on, and this was at the starting point of the line! In the morning, coming into the city, if you live closer in to the city, it is very difficult to get on.
  5. Shop in your small local stores. For some reason, checking out at the super market in Buenos Aires always seems to take longer than necessary, while at my local verdulería or dietética things always move smoothly. I go to the supermarkets sometimes, to stock up on the basics, but usually limit it to once a week. I do, however, usually avoid the Chinese supermarkets, as the ones close to me have high prices and sometimes expired good.
  6. Research restaurants. There are lots of fantastic restaurants in Buenos Aires, but there are also a lot of mediocre ones. Of course we will all stop by random places from time to time, but if you want something special, check out a few reviews or ask your friends for recommendations. I do, however, love the big restaurant on the corner, where everyone in the neighborhood goes, but I love it for the atmosphere, not the food! :)
  7. Smile! As in many big cities, people often hurry along and don’t look all that friendly. Shake it up by smiling! All sorts of nice things will come of that.
Posted in Buenos Aires, Daily life, Norsk i Argentina, Noruega en Argentina, Practical info, Preparation, Work | Leave a comment