Some Thoughts on the Politics and Power Struggles of “Global South” Diversity

Some Thoughts on the Politics and Power Struggles of “Global South” Diversity

A few years ago, I was in a meeting with some Global North colleagues planning an international law conference. We were trying to make sure we had diverse panels and while gender-wise we were doing fine, I pointed out we still only had one person of colour. “Well, two”, said one of my co-convenors, “counting you”.

I am sure my Northern colleagues must have forgotten this exchange by now, but I never did. This short, well-intentioned comment sent me on a path of (self)discovery that has profoundly altered how I approach my career and my research. You see, I was born in Peru, a country where 60.2% of the population identifies as “mestizo” (mixed-race) and another 29.4% describe themselves with identifiers we, Peruvians, would also recognise as “racialised”; or “of colour”, in more Anglo parlance.

Peru is an incredibly racist country. Just to name a well-known case, in 2011, Ricardo, a Quechua-speaking young man from the indigenous community of Qeros, was watching a movie with some friends in Larcomar – an elite mall. He left the screening room to go to the bathroom and when he tried to get back in, he realised he had left his ticket stub in his seat. Noting his indigenous clothing, the usher did not believe him: “Yeah right, you have a ticket! Sure!”, he told him, and called security.

Ricardo’s is but one out of millions of racist interactions that happen every day and things have not got better since then. Arguably, they are worse. People close to me, including family and friends, have suffered such discrimination. I have seen it with my own eyes and been outraged by it. But it has not been my experience. I have never been asked to show my ticket stub when I return to a Peruvian movie screen after a bathroom-break. I have never been discriminated because of my (urban, Lima) accent or the colour of my skin. Which is why, despite having both Andean and German ancestry, I am one of the 5.9% of Peruvians that self-identifies as white (criollo, in Peruvian Spanish).    

Because of this, hearing my colleagues describe me – me! – as a “person of colour”, caught me completely off guard. I eventually and politely clarified that I identified as a white Latino and the discussion quickly moved on, but the issue stayed with me. White Latino had been, in fact, a category I discovered late in life, while studying for my masters in Washington DC. For most of my life, I had identified as “Peruvian” and, at most, “South American”. Mexico’s cultural influence in the region brought with it some sense of closeness but Honduras, Dominican Republic and any country that played in CONCACAF were, from a purely Peruvian worldview, cousins, not sibling nations. The first time I connected with my full Latinness was when I found Mexican chili and Peruvian maíz chulpi side by side in the “Latin Favourites” section of my local Safeway grocery store.

This Latin identity was my otherised one. It was the one that made me be “randomly selected” at airports for extra screening (because “lone male Peruvian = cocaine smuggler”). It was the one that made a British man who heard me speaking in Spanish with my dad point a finger gun at me and demand that I “get the f**k out” of his country. It’s the one that made a US woman react furiously at my partner and I for apparently queuing “too close” to her at a store. “I don’t know what kind of country you people come from but in America we respect personal space”, she yelled. My Latinness is the identity I am given when others stop seeing me as part of the privileged 5.9% of Peru’s population.

The duality of my identity as a white Peruvian in Peru and as a Latin American anywhere north of the 30°N parallel, was at the root of my confusion that day. Certainly, I had not transformed into a person of colour overnight, by the sheer fact of crossing an invisible line that separated the Global South from the Global North, right? And yet the categories available seemed frustratingly limited. I don’t think the politics of my situation as a (white) (Latino) migrant are the same as that of a white person from Europe or the US. I don’t think it is the same as that of a person of colour from Europe or the US either. I was, somehow, in diversity limbo. In fact, there is no category I feel comfortable with in the British census, where I identify as “other ethnic group”.

Since that conversation, I have had many others, often with friends and colleagues who also feel “in limbo”. White Irish friends have told me just how much they identify with the histories of former colonies, feeling an instant connection with the postcolonial world, despite the fact that they themselves are “Global North”. Turkish friends have also shared their confusions with me, as they also feel trapped in “non-Western but not-of-colour” limbo. Recently, and quite publicly, the #intlaw Twitter community discussed whether Greeks can be Global South.

Diversity is complicated. In fact, it is often relational – it depends on who is the observer and who is the observed (and in what context). While we like to define it in terms of seemingly objective categories (the “Third World”, the “Global South”, the “Postcolonial World”), it is quite possibly impossible to essentialise it in objective terms. Take, for example, the “Global South / Global North” divide. It is often conceived as a map, a spatial geography of resistance or, as one author defines it, “a group of states that suffer from relative marginalisation within the international system (…) cast in terms of racialised hierarchies”. But should we even conceive the Global South in Westphalian terms? Is it truly a group of states?

Framing “Global Southerness” in the language of statehood can trap its definition in the same kind of US/Euro-centric explanations of how the international racial hierarchies came to be in the first place. In the Anglo-American tradition, the rules of the international society “expanded”, irradiating from a European metropolitan centre. This “expansion”, however, is often a rather troubling euphemism for colonialism. And in the Anglo-American world, colonialism is predominantly framed through the lens of British settler colonialism, seen as a process whereby the white colonialists wiped out and replaced indigenous people, similar to what happened to Native Americans in the United States.

This framework may be helpful in explaining some of the Global South’s experiences with colonialism, like, for example, in the Southern Cone region of South America (Argentina, Southern Brazil, Chile and Uruguay), but certainly not all. Most Global South societies are majority-racialised societies. The theoretical framing of British settler colonialism does not properly translate to regions where the local populations where not replaced – like, for instance, the Andes or the Mexican Sierra Madre.

Because of this, the theoretical bases of settler colonialism have not really settled well within Latin American scholars. As Lucy Taylor and Geraldine Lublin explain, “Anglophone settler colonies are built (ostensibly) on the spatial and intellectual separation of ‘settler’ and ‘indigene’, while Latin America is characterised by social, cultural and racial mixing (known as mestizaje in Spanish, mestizagem in Portuguese and créolization/creolisation in the Caribbean region)”. Thus, usually the largest ethnic marker in Latin American census data is “mestizo” or “pardo”, not a neat differentiation between “white”, “Black” and “Indigenous”. It is the general absence of mestizaje from the Anglo-American epistemologies of colonialism that explains, at least in my opinion, the surprisingly widespread belief that Latin Americans (myself included) are all people of colour – an oversimplified explanation for an otherwise complex and problematic colonial process.

In Latin America, mestizaje featured prominently in post-independence republican projects as a means to construct a Latin American identity distinct from the US’ “Anglo Saxon” one – an “official discourse of nation formation” that functions as a “new claim to authenticity that denies colonial forms of racial/ethnic oppression by creating an intermediate subjects and interpellating him as ‘the citizen’”, as Florencia Mallon argues.

Its adoption as national policy, however, “marginalises and even erases indigenousness (and, one might add, blackness)” as a “system of ideas that appeared to include everyone as a potential mestizo, but actually excluded black and indigenous people”. In other words, if Latin states are post-racial democracies where everyone is mixed, then there can be no racism.  

This is, of course, not true. Latin America is extremely racist. As Boaventura de Souza Santos notes, in Latin America, “the colourist code establishes that the ‘whiter’ the skin colour, the larger the probability that someone can be a candidate for the privileges of whiteness”. But this idea of “white” is “a social, cultural, economic and political construct” that varies from society to society, even within a single country: “within Brazilian society”, de Souza Santos notes, “whoever is considered white in Bahia can be considered black in São Paulo”. Thus, he concludes, “only political reasons and power struggles can explain the social instrumentalization of skin colour; and, likewise, only these explain how the probable increment in the multiplicity of tonalities of skin colour, resulting from miscegenation or creolisation, does not translate into the end of racism and the violence and injustice it causes”.

These political reasons and power struggles, therefore, need to be accounted for in our conceptions of diversity (and these will vary from region to region, both within and beyond the Global South). The Visible C, as Dimitrios Kourtis and Chris Carpenter recently called it, can help understand why it is perhaps fairer to give a chance to the white male first generation academic early career scholar from a middle-class blue-collar Southern European family over an Oxbridge-educated tenured woman from an elite business-owning family in Mexico or Brazil that self identifies as “mestiza” or “parda”.

Diversity is therefore complicated and cannot be expressed in simple check-boxes. If you are planning an event, it likely requires planning, policy and method, not just good intentions. For starters, everything I have discussed here cannot be extrapolated to Africa or Asia. The politics and power struggles of different peoples in different regions need to be approached with care and an open mind. Australian First Peoples or US African-Americans can be side-lined if we conceive diversity as a Westphalian group of “Global South” states. Racialised Latin-American scholars based in Latin America can be side-lined if all Latin American scholars are perceived as being in the same situation. These nuances need to be accounted for. Gender, race, ethnicity, geographic location, and class can all affect the result of our academic output. In a truly diverse community, they would all be accounted for.

Of course, this is a process. I do not expect everyone to understand all the politics and struggles of every single part of the world. I do not understand Africa or Asia as well as I understand Latin America. In this issue, at this point, awareness of the problem and engagement with those who are culturally competent to give advice is key. Include people who know about these issues in your teams and learn from their contributions. Little by little, we will all get better at it.      

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Critical Approaches, Latin & South America
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