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.

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20 Responses to Driving While White (in Argentina)

  1. Veldig bra skrevet, og viktige perspektiver! Du burde oversette den til norsk og sende den til en stor avis, for mange burde lese dette 🙂

  2. Wenche says:

    Enig, send den!

  3. carlos eduardo says:

    I’ll grant that you know more about Scandinavia and Argentina than I do, so if you say racism exists in those places, I’ll take your word for it. But you are off base when you say that racism, at least on any kind of widespread institutionalized basis, exists in the USA. Are you aware that the USA has an African-American president, elected and reelected overwhelmingly by White voters?
    There is a big problem in the USA, but it is not racism, it is class bigotry. I am talking about a bigotry that cares nothing about black, or White, or yellow, or brown. Only green, yes THE green.
    THe proof of that is the following: We have today all this supposed outrage about an unarmed Young black man being killed by a White policeman. I personally believe there are some aspects of what happened in that case where outrage is justified, but that is beside the point. That is just one death. Do you know that an average of 17 Young black men – EACH DAY – are killed with a gun, in the USA? That is 17, each day of the year on average. Why is there no outrage over that, or even any mention of it in the media? The answer is for 2 reasons. Number 1, because it is one Young black male gunning down another Young black male, there is nothing to be gained from talking about it by race baiters and poverty pimps like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Number 2, and this is by far the main reason, it is because without exception they are poor. It is not only White people who do not care anything about poor black people, the same goes for black people. Not even the black president or the black attorney general or the black first lady care about this epidemic of Young black men dying. Do they? Do any of them ever say anything about it? And it’s because the ones dying are poor. That is the problematic bigotry in 21’st century América……

    • I suggest you look up intersectionality – one can be privileged in different ways and one of them is class/economic situation. And no, as you can probably glean from my post, I don’t think I am off base when I say there is racism in America, including on a systemic level. An important point in what I wrote was exactly this, that white people deny that racism exist, because they don’t experience it, or don’t want to believe it, etc. Of course crime is a problem, no matter who perpetrates it, but this post and this whole discussion is about the systemic treatment of black people in the justice system in the US, and the different perceptions that people, including law enforcement officials, have of black men.

  4. As a child, and even to this day, I will never understand how society determined that one skin color, one group, or one race was better than another. If someone came here from another planet and saw this situation, would they not be incredulous? Aren’t we all human beings, wrought from the same elements and enveloped in the same human condition?

    Thanks for such a well written and thought out blog post.

  5. fivrelden says:

    Godt skrevet og helt sant. Takk.

  6. Hans K. says:

    Sitat “The majority or privileged group should not get to set the agenda or decide what is OK”.

    Utfordringen med utsagnet er at i noen tilfeller ønsker vi å tilfredsstillen gruppen det gjelder, og da er det enkelt å etterkomme gruppens ønsker. I andre tilfeller ønsker vi ikke å tilfredsstille gruppen det gjelder, og da er det mer problematisk å etterkomme gruppens ønsker. F.eks. vil jeg gjerne forbeholde meg retten til å bruke ordet rasist eller islamofob om personer som omtaler seg selv som en del av en upriviligert gruppe (i motsetning til “eliten”), og som absolutt ikke ønsker å omtales på denne måten.

    Uansett – dette var et tankevekkende blogginnlegg. Takker 🙂

  7. Thank you for sn excellent post. Growing up swedish/argentine in Sweden I didn’t experience the height of white privilege until I spent over a year in the Dominican Republic. When my husband and I started to greet the police instead of fearing them we realized we were living a different life – colorwise – than we did in Sweden. To the ignorant comment above, you really need to work hard to close your eyes to racism that is a big problem in any country in the world.

    • Jennifer, thanks so much for your comment, you really get it! Often Scandinavians say that we do not have racism because we are not the US, and South Americans will say they are not racist because XYZ, so it is great to get your perspective as a Swedish-Argentine!!

      • I know, it often feels like banging your head against a wall when trying to explain racism to some people. I used to write a lot about both on my swedish and english blogs, but it’s hard for people – those who do not experience racism themselves – to grasp the reality of it. So your blog post coming from someone privileged is really refreshing to me 🙂

        I love reading your perspective on life in BsAs btw, we are hoping to be there by the end of next year 🙂

  8. Heidi says:

    Eirin! Tusen takk for denne flotte artikkelen. Kort den ned noe, og send den til Aftenposten!
    (håper alt er bra der nede og at du snart kommer en tur til DC igjen!)
    Stor klem,

  9. El Queso says:

    Hi Eirin! Don’t know why, I just noticed your signature on the expat forum and went to take a look at your blog. You write very well and I’m impressed by your thoughts on racism, the second blog entry I saw on your home page.

    We’ve met, and you know my wife, who is from Paraguay. I think you’ve read my feelings on racism and discrimination here in Argentina previously. I hope you understand that I am in agreement with what you wrote about, and not just here in Argentina. But I have.one thought to make a bit more clear, at least in my mind. It was brought to mind by Carlos Eduardo’s comment.

    I think xenophobia is a “natural” human response, a latent leftover from our evolution as an unthinking (instinctual) response to “difference”. One does not actually have to treat another person in a “bad” way to be xenophobic. I’ve found this out myself as I strive to rid myself of any kind of unfair thoughts or dealings with other people in the course of being alive. The result of unchecked xenophobia on a personal level, however, is racism.

    As to the cure to xenophobia-caused racism, I have a very difficult time deciding what is the best way to proceed. Carlos’ comments about racism in the US highlights what concerns me about some of the normal problems related to curing racism by political means.

    When Carlos mentioned “reverse racism”, I’m not sure he was talking about specifically that black folk also discriminate against white folk, but rather the (probable) unintended discrimination that results as people try to legislate racism out of other people.

    Race or gender quotas, to me, are every bit as racist (or chauvinistic) as someone not interviewing a worker because of their race or gender. Or creed.

    Many people in the US have picked up the racism theme as something that “we [society] must fix”. Indeed, I think many of the politicians in the US who raise this hue and cry are only trying to take advantage of emotion to bring votes to themselves and truly don’t care about those who they are supposed to be “protecting”. I am referring to the “race card” as we call it in the US. Something President Obama has used himself at times when people (like me) legitimately have concerns (sometimes grave) about the direction he feels is correct for the country.

    Aside from ideological differences, I haven’t seen very much serious racism applied to President Obama. If anything, even racists for the most part are careful not to get tied up in that particular label when trying to criticize these policies. And yet, President Obama and the Democrats (though not as whole) play the race card when it’s really merely politics as usual (something I don’t like either).

    I have been involved in a situation in the past with a “protected” group of people in a job I once had. One member of the “protected” group used to sit in a cubicle right next to me. We were actually friends for quite some time, probably even beyond what I would have normally tolerated in a friendship due to my attempt to overcome my xenophobia. This person would sit at his phone all day long and talk to various women friends about sex and drugs in a most disgusting manner (“let’s get our freak on” was one of his favorite phrases), would talk to his male friends about the same thing, and to anyone who would listen always talked about how poorly the company treated him. Just his talking on the phone became a distraction for me.

    The fact is, he rarely concentrated on work. He even once told me that he didn’t have to, he was “protected”.

    That was what we (used to anyway) refer to as “reverse discrimination”. The HR department in the company was terrified to fire him because of his color and the race quotas that were forced by law.

    I didn’t care who occupied this guy’s seat, as long as it was someone who could do the job. His job impacted mine in a very real sense – he was responsible for email communications in the early 90s and it was difficult for me to communicate with our internationally-based offices in those days if we didn’t have good email communications. And some of our important distributed data (my direct responsibility) in those days was routed through email attachments.

    Each and every one of us must confront xenophobia and its possible result, racism, head-on in our personal lives and try not to get the collective mass of “society” involved in a legal sense, in terms of “countering” racism, in my opinion. The various governments of the world should define that no one should be discriminated against solely because of who they are, but rather how they behave. Laws exist for this purpose (at least in most “free” societies) and should be adhered to,

    And while it may be difficult to prove discrimination, if you let the government try to resolve it through special laws that go beyond basic human rights, you are more apt to end up with the situation like in the US where members of the “protected” groups are used as political capital, often to their very real detriment and that of others; you’ll probably end up with an even worse situation of polarization in the long run while trying to “fix” legislatively a grave human problem..

    Change comes from the heart and mind and what we do as human beings. It can’t be specifically legislated without consequences.

    Best Regards,

    Larry (El Queso)

    • Thanks for another thoughtful comment, Larry! I think this is so true: “I think xenophobia is a “natural” human response, a latent leftover from our evolution as an unthinking (instinctual) response to “difference”. One does not actually have to treat another person in a “bad” way to be xenophobic. I’ve found this out myself as I strive to rid myself of any kind of unfair thoughts or dealings with other people in the course of being alive. The result of unchecked xenophobia on a personal level, however, is racism.” Studies show that children naturally see difference, and therefore it is important to not try to pretend that we are “colorblind” etc. but rather recognize the differences, recognize our natural inclination to be wary of what is different and like you say, check this reaction.

      I don’t necessarily agree on Obama using “the race card”, I feel there are times when there was racism towards him but that he doesn’t want to be accused of using “the race card” so he doesn’t bring it up. I do however agree strongly about the fact that legalization like you speak of, outside of basic human rights, can be harmful and is very difficult to get right. Like you said earlier, educating ourselves and trying to have an open mind are key issues here. Such interesting stuff, thanks again!

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