The demonstrations in hundreds of cities in the US over the police killing of George Floyd have been followed by Nicaraguans, and have resulted in discussions about race in Nicaragua. This interview appeared in Sunday supplement of La Prensa.
Juliet Hooker: “The closer you are to being indigenous, to being black, the lower you are in the racial hierarchy”
By Amalia del Cid, La Prensa, June 7, 2020
Juliet Hooker, professor at Brown University, analyzes and explains the ways in which “racial hierarchy” is reflected, which, in her judgement, exists in Nicaragua.
Juliet Hooker is a Nicaraguan academic who works at Brown University in Rhode Island, and has dedicated many years to the study of race and racism, issues that are on the minds of the world since a violent white policeman killed George Floyd, an Afro-American, in the United States.
Hooker was born in Bluefield 47 years ago and maintains that we live in a racist country. For her, phrases like “the race has to be improved” are not innocent, nor can the word “chele” [common nickname for a white skinned person in Nicaragua] be compared to the words “black” or “Indian”, in spite of the fact that the three are used as nicknames.
In this interview she analyzes and explains the ways in which “racial hierarchy” is reflected, which exists in Nicaragua, according to her. Are you racist?
Are we racist in Nicaragua? Many say we are not.
That is very common in Latin America, that people think that racism is something that happens in the United States, that it occurred in South Africa, that it does not happen in Latin America. But a common pattern throughout the region is that they are societies ordered according to pigmentocracy. In Nicaragua, specifically, there are two ways in which racism happens. One is social hierarchy. If you look at who are the people represented in the upper class, those who are in political positions, those who appear in television dramas, those who have the most visible posts and most of the economic, political and social power, they are the people who are the whitest. And the closer you get to being indigenous, to being black, the lower you are in this racial hierarchy, in terms of access to economic power, political power, to representation. Another way in which racism is manifested in that we think there are no blacks in Nicaragua, or that they are only in the Atlantic Coast, or that the indigenous were something that happened in the colonial times, but that they no longer exist. It is the racialization of space, of the geography of the country.
That which you are mentioning, about the white elite, does it have to do with historical reasons?
Of course! Who were the big families that dominated Nicaraguan politics in the XIX century? They are the families that identified as descendants of the Spanish conquistadores. There is an entire Nicaraguan nationalism that recognizes that there is an indigenous presence, but the legacy that is emphasized is the Spanish. In the XIX century there was a change in the sense that other people began to be part of those political elites, and maybe did not come from those families, but there is a historical legacy of who has had economic and political power in the country, and that is being reproduced.
If it were reversed, if the brown and short people or the Afro-descendants made up that elite, would it be thought that it was better to be brown or black than white?
We do not live in an isolated society, we live in a society inserted in global processes, and on a global level we have the fact that the colonizers have been Europeans and that has an impact. It is possible that in countries like Haiti there might be less racism, but that does not mean that it disappears. These processes and these ideas even have an impact on us Afro-descendent and indigenous peoples ourselves. At times they also value people of their group who have finer features, who have straighter hair. All this is part of that question of colorism that at times is internalized even by the groups who suffer due to racial hierarchies.
Is there a “Europeanized” idea of beauty?
Definitely. I believe that this is clear. Think about Miss Nicaragua. What is the pattern of the women who supposedly are the most beautiful in Nicaragua? It is a person with very European features who, to a certain extent, does not look very much like the typical Nicaraguan woman. The inverse of this is that maybe, for example, black women are appreciated; but in a very exotic way, as a person who is seen as hyper-sexualized, but not valued as someone who can be the ideal of beauty in the country.
But personal preferences also exist, what is the difference between racism and having a personal preference?
Obviously as individuals we make decisions like with whom we want to marry, with whom we want to relate, and so it is true that on an individual level one looks at these matters as if they were simply your personal preferences. But personal preferences are, partly, a reflection of the ideas that exist in society. Your surroundings have an impact on you. One has to think about why I have that preference, is it because I simply like cheles or whatever it is, or because I have internalized that idea about what is more beautiful or desirable. It is also important to look at what impact this has on interpersonal relationships. For example, if your personal preference are cheles and then you get married and have children, are you going to make a preference for the one that is the whitest, because that is simply what you see as more beautiful? This is something that I think many people have seen in their own families, these patterns that are reproduced in who is valued and who is not.
So we should not have preferences?
(Laughs). I do not know what we should do in our personal relationships, what I do think that we can do is think about why we have those preferences. And ask ourselves: “If I do not want to reproduce these racist patterns, how can I do things differently?”
But if, for example, someone likes a Chinese person, they have that right, no?
Well of course! (laughs). The problem is not the fact that you like a Chinese person, it is that you like them for being Chinese, because you have that idea that it is exotic and you might not be able to see them as a person in their totality, beyond the fact that they are Chinese.
Is there racism in phrases like “you are black, and you do not know how to dance?”
I would say that that type of phrases what they reflect are our racial stereotypes. They reflect the way in which we attribute to certain groups certain characteristics, like as if all the members of that group would have them. This is part of racism. Under those phrases is this idea: “Blacks are good in sports, music and dance”, but part of the problem with this is that we do not see them as capable of doing other things, like we are reducing them: “In this yes you are good, but don´t get involved in trying to be a businessman.”
Is racism calling a black person black?
There are a lot of people in Latin America and in Nicaragua who tell you that “black” is used in a supposedly affectionate way. In general people see it as an affectionate term, without a racist intention; but what has to be seen is what is it that you are trying to say. There are many Afro-descendants who do not want to use the work “black” because they perceive it as having a negative connotation, like saying to someone “black” is trying to belittle them. Now people are using the word more and say, “Yes, I am black.” What one has to see is how the word is used in society, what is the intention. The worst thing that can be done is simply say, “No, this word means this for me, and I am going to use it.” If you call a black person black and they tell you that they do not like it, do not use it again and offer an apology. There could be another person who it does not bother who might say, “that word is not an insult, I use it with pride.” The problem is when people who are in a dominant position decide that they can use the word because they “know what it means.”
In Nicaragua it is customary to call your friends “chele” and “black”, why is one thing fine and the other bad? Thinking that the word black has a pejorative meaning is assuming that being black is bad.
This is the difficulty. Because it is not equivalent. Saying to someone “chele” does not have a negative connotation, it can be that people might say, what is bad about being chele? While if you say “Indian” to someone, if you say “black” to someone, there is a history behind that, the fact that those terms were used in a derogatory manner. Maybe what has to be done is to ask, but it is very difficult because it can be uncomfortable and a burden for the person who always has to be explaining what racism is.
A little while ago a white, mestiza woman, told me that once she received insults referring to the color of her skin. Can you talk about racism when whites are discriminated against because of their color?
There are people that perceive this, but we cannot talk about inverse racism when racial hierarchies exist in society where white mestizos are above. You cannot see any country in Latin America where this issue of pigmentocracy does not exist, where these racial inequalities do not exist. It is a mistake to think that we are in societies where there are white, mestizo people who are being oppressed. In none of our societies are these people the ones who have less access to education. In general, they are the most privileged, even though there are always exceptions and differences within these dominant groups. And there are also people from the discriminated groups who have gotten to very high posts, but they are an exception. To talk about inverse racism is to ignore all the historical and contemporaneous inequalities that continue to be reproduced.
But if an insult directed at a white person because of the color of their skin is not racism, then what would it be?
What I can tell you is that there are interpersonal situations where people are going to say things to other people that maybe hurts them. But I am looking at it on the level of society. Who are the groups who have these experiences on a daily basis, routinely? And not only do they have these experiences, but they have material effects on their lives.
Have you suffered personally some form of racism?
How has that racism been manifested?
Look… I have suffered racism, but I have also been very lucky, in the sense that I had access to education. But I am going to give you an example. Once returning to Managua, there were other Nicas in that flight, and I do not know whether they knew that I was a Nica or not, but they began to talk, and one of them said that they were going to the Coast, and the others said to him, “Why do you want to go there if it is full of drug traffickers and AIDS?” And what I thought at that moment was, “Well, welcome back to Nicaragua.” Another experience I had was when at the beginning of my career (in the United States) professors and colleagues would tell me that issues of race and racism were not central in the study of political science or the history of Nicaragua or Central America. Obviously, there have been changes in that way of thinking, especially in moments like this one, but it is still true that issues like racism or Afro and Indigenous studies continue being seen as marginal in many academic spaces.
Have you experienced more racism in the United States or in Nicaragua?
(Laughs). I would say that the racism is different, but it exists in both places and I have experienced it in both places.
So, can it be said that we are racist in Nicaragua, even though we deny it?
Unfortunately, yes. It is not something that one wants to say about one´s country, but it simply is a fact.
This global discussion after the death of George Floyd, could it make a change in Nicaragua?
I hope that it also has an effect in Nicaragua. The fact that we are doing this interview suggests that people are thinking about these topics. This is important.
What do you think of the phrase “you have to improve the race?”
That is a way in which racism is manifested, it is the idea that you should marry a whiter person than you are, so that you don´t have brown children, in order to have whiter children. It is one of the most daily ways in which we reproduce racism, within the family.
In the end, is not this a way of disparaging who we are?
Of course. It is a way in which we internalize racism and reproduce it, that racial hierarchy that says that white is better, more attractive, what we have to aspire to. Instead of saying, “most of us Nicaraguans are not white, why don´t we accept ourselves and love ourselves as we are?” There are many white, mestizo Latinos, who do not know that racism exists until they go to the United States and realize that they are not seen as white here. For the first time they experience being seen as a racialized person. That is when they face themselves as being seen as inferior people, especially now that there is a lot of racism against Latinos and immigrants in the United States.
Is it racism to say that you are “proud” of belonging to a race?
I think that it is something positive, because it has always been seen as something negative. It is a revindication. To say, “I am not ashamed” is not racism, because what you are doing is trying to respond to historic racism, saying “I am not going to feel less for being this.” It is an affirmation of an anti-racist feeling. To say I feel proud of being black or Miskito does not mean that I see people who are not as less. It is saying “I am not going to accept that negative concept that they have tried to impose on me.”
Do you feel proud of being Afro-descendent?
Yes, of course. Being a Creole woman has been fundamental for me. A lot of what I have learned, of what is important for me, comes from being part of that community, having that history, those values that have been preserved with a lot of struggle and effort, in spite of everything that we have had to deal with.
Juliet Hooker is originally from Bluefield and is 47 years old. Currently she works in the Political Science department of Brown University in Rhode Island, United States, as a professor and researcher.
She is the author of Race the Politics of Solidarity (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Theorizing Race in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2017), works where she juxtaposes stories about race formulated by outstanding academics in the United States in the XIX and XX centuries, and Afro American and Latin American thinkers. This year she is working on a third book.
She likes to cook as a way of reducing stress, and because it is an activity that takes her away from what she normally does as an academic. She also likes to dance reggae, soca and salsa, and above all when she goes out with her friends. She enjoys series and movies about crimes and detectives. But she saw Uncorked not too long ago, about a boy who wants to be a wine expert, and she liked it a lot.
Another of her pastimes is reading. She consumes academic material for her research and then, for balance, reads poetry.
She lives with her partner in Rhode Island and among the two of them are raising a little girl. Her favorite color is red, she has no pets, and misses eating vigorón.