A fight song blared from the loudspeakers and the cheerleaders—las porristas, my friend whispered—rushed onto the field. The team mascot removed his helmet, moonwalking through the crowd to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, and I can still feel the color draining from my cheeks as I examined the thick-lipped, wide-eyed, black-faced mask underneath.
As a cultural phenomenon emerging in the 1830s, Blackface was a comedic variety show popular in working class communities in the U.S. White actors would paint themselves in order to portray African-American characters, and their performances were notably lewd, rowdy and exaggerated.
Today Blackface is widely recognized as an act of racial contempt.
How could this be allowed at a college sporting event? I was shocked. I shifted around in my seat to gauge the reaction of my friends and classmates, who had already resumed cheering the Verdes on to victory. How could they tolerate the blatant racism?
This would not be the first time that Mexico and the U.S. have clashed over this very issue. In 2005, Mexico released a series of postage stamps commemorating popular comic strip characters, among them the beloved Memín Penguín. With his exaggerated features and slapstick comedy, Penguín provoked accusations of racism from White House officials to civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
Former Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Luis Ernesto Derbez, dismissed this criticism as “simply a lack of knowledge about our culture,” in Enfoque Noticias. His observation cautions activists who ignore cross-cultural context in their assessment of social issues.
Although the performance on the football field seemed problematic from my perspective, I soon discovered that racial identities in Mexico are not identical to our own. Sitting on the bleachers, the so-called blackface mask staring back at me, I wonder who it is that I’m really seeing. Who does the mask represent from a Mexican point-of-view, and does it carry the same social power it would back home?
What defines Blackface as a racially charged act has everything to do with how race is classified in the U.S. We are used to clear racial categories in how we identify ourselves. Blackface is problematic in the U.S. because it contributes to a system of racial inequality, it reinforces racial classifications.
On one hand, Blackface depends on these classifications. The comedy of a white man dressing up as a black man, after all, is that he’s traversing carefully constructed boundaries. On the other hand, critic and author Mel Watkins explains, these exaggerated performances confirm about black people “what mainstream America had been thinking all along.” Audiences would receive a clear vision—or so they thought—of African-Americans, separate from how they imagined white America.
Not only would Blackface reinforce racial classifications, but it would also convey a particular value about these groups. Music historian Dale Cockrell indicates that some whites attended the performances to assure themselves that blacks are were a cruder and more primitive class of people. In other words, blackface reinforced the message that whites are socially superior.
Blackface, therefore, is much more than comedic impersonation. When we are able to classify the population within distinct racial boxes, we are able to assign value to these categories. Furthermore, when we assign value to these categories, the result is unequal treatment and racial marginalization. Yet while blackface in the U.S. refers to a particular African-American subject, racial classifications are far less clear across the border.
In Colonial Mexico, for example, the Spaniards imposed a strict sistema de casta, or caste system, that differentiated between European colonists, African slaves, indigenous workers, and each subsequent racial mix. Mestizajes, for example, had one Spanish and another indigenous parent, while mulatos came from mixed African and Spanish ancestry. These castes regulated economic, religious and political status.
Sociologist Andrés Villarreal explains that by the 19th century these racial distinctions were reduced to three or four categories. By the post-Independence era, it became more of a challenge to determine a person’s ancestry. Today the use of skin color has practically eclipsed racial categories as a form of identification.
This means that there is no systematic way to classify contemporary Mexicans based on race. In response to the National Survey on Discrimination in Mexico (ENADIS), people self-identified from güero/light-skinned and moreno/dark to cinnamon, swarthy, chocolate, or brown.
Although Mexico has no set racial categories that divide its population, Mexicans still have views about skin color. Consider the fact that 54.8 percent of Mexicans believe that people are at least somewhat at risk for being harassed on the street due to the color of their skin. But because Mexico’s racial system is not based on clear-cut categories, blackface conveys a far different meaning within this cultural context.
We can observe this difference by asking ourselves who (or what) blackface represents to Mexican communities. What quickly becomes apparent is that the meaning of blackface is intimately tied to Mexico’s relationship with blackness and those of African heritage.
During a speech on immigration reform in 2005, former Mexican president Vicente Fox said that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. take jobs “that not even blacks want to do.”
This reflects the erasure of the more than 450,000 Afro-Mexicans, who have only just been officially recognized by their government. Culturally and politically marginalized, Afro-Mexicans are unlikely subjects of blackface. In other words, they tend to be ‘forgotten’.
That being said, blackness is often thought about as a more abstract concept. In 2010, the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination replicated a 1930s experiment conducted in the U.S. that presents children with a white and black baby doll. When asked which doll was better or more desirable, Mexican children overwhelmingly selected the white one.
Similar to the U.S., cultural depreciation of blackness manifests itself through social inequality. In the U.S., black children are three times more likely than white children to be living in poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.
In 2010, for example, Villarreal conducted an in-depth examination of the relationship between skin color and socioeconomic class in Mexico. He discovered that—adjusting for gender, age, and region—white respondents were 57.6 percent more likely to have a college education than dark-skinned participants, and 29.5 percent more likely than those who are light brown.
While former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Derbez claims that we do not fully understand Mexican culture (which I agree with) I would further question who benefits from this culture and who does not.
Because there are no racial categories in Mexico, discrimination works a little differently. Whereas in the U.S. somebody might be targeted for belonging to a specific devalued social group, Mexicans are measured against a scale of blackness and treated accordingly.
This distinction is fundamental to understanding why blackface is considered racist in the U.S. but socially acceptable in Mexico. Recall that blackface in the U.S. is problematic because it maintains a hierarchy between clear racial classifications.
Blackface in Mexico, on the other hand, does not evoke the image of a particular group. Though the depreciation of blackness creates inequality, the act of blackface neither specifies who belongs to the targeted group or perpetuates their marginalization. It does, however, call into question the need to reassess the state of blackness in Mexican culture.
In short, applying U.S. perceptions of racism to Mexico will fail to adequately address the cultural context. At best, it doesn’t help anybody. At worst, it betrays cultural egotism and the expectation that all cultures are alike.
While blackface in Mexico isn’t necessarily ‘racist’ as we understand the word, the treatment of blackness remains a question that must be addressed. By treating blackface as a spectacle and skin color as something to take off and put on without material consequences, Mexico withdraws from this conversation and ultimately normalizes these inequalities.
Derek Siegel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and is studying abroad in Puebla, Mexico. This is part of a monthly column about his abroad experience.