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Peru is a multi-ethnic country with deeply rooted racism and discrimination

Racism, discrimination and intolerance in Peru

A critical reflection on the signing of yet another convention against racism, discrimination and intolerance

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Sunflower - Last Update: April 15, 2017

Two days ago, Peru signed two Interamerican Conventions against racism and discrimination at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington DC. Ana Rosa Valdivieso, the Peruvian Ambassador to the OAS, announced that she is pleased to have the opportunity to sign these conventions as “the fight against discrimination and the protection of the most vulnerable populations are unescapable commitments” of Peru. And even the OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro pointed out that the country demonstrated its commitment to fight racism, discrimination and intolerance. Well, really?

Peruvian laws protect all citizens from racism and discrimination

At first glance, yes. Peru has numerous laws in place to protect its citizens (children, women, seniors, indigenous people, persons with disabilities, LGBT persons, actually everyone) from all sorts of discrimination and racism. To begin with, article 2.2 of the Peruvian Constitution clearly stipulates: “Every person has the right to equality before the law. No person shall be discriminated against on the basis of origin, race, sex, language, opinion, economic status, or any other distinguishing feature”. There are many other laws, acts, annexes and amendments against racism, discrimination and intolerance in Peru. Politicians hunting for votes and NGOs have a field day with this subject. So, to cut a long story short Peru has an extensive legal framework in favor of equality and non-discrimination towards its citizens – but honestly only on paper. The reality takes much getting used to and might be even shocking, especially for liberal and open-minded foreigners.

Racism and discrimination in Peru subtle, but omnipresent

Racism and discrimination in Peru might not be that apparent, rather a little bit subtle and hidden, but nevertheless if you open your eyes, you see it’s omnipresent, rooted in the social behavior and outright despicable. Even tough Peru prioritized the fight against racism, discrimination and intolerance for years, unfortunately nothing really changed.

A caste like system determines the social status

Actually, since the Spaniards arrived in present day Peru, colonizing the country and installing their viceroyalty, racism is an issue. Peru has a large mixed-race and indigenous population, as well as countless immigrants from Africa, Asia and Europe. So, in a melting pot like Peru in the year 2016 one would expect an open and tolerant society. But quite the opposite is the case: the society is divided into several social classes, similar to a caste system where not only your skin color, but also your descent, your or your family’s wealth, influence, connections and friends, an education at a prestigious institution, a membership in a club or a beach house determine your social status.

“White” still is beautiful and successful

At the top of the hierarchy and still in charge of the country are whites, with “white” not only standing for a light skin color or being non-indigenous but also combing this with being part of the elite circle that are privileged due to their social relations, riches or appearance; at the end we find the ingenious people. In between those is a huge grey zone with mestizos (mixed race), Peruvians with other than Spanish foreign descent, Afro-Peruvians and foreigners. The whiter and / or wealthier, more influential or better connected you are, the higher is your social status in the hierarchy. A journey from “rags to riches” is nearly impossible in Peru. And it might be worth noting that not only Peru’s “white” high-society discriminates everyone below them in the hierarchy; even those suffering from racism and intolerance themselves do the same thing to the ones further down or up the ladder.

Are Peruvian nicknames offending or even racist?

Racial discrimination seems normal in Peru, like a 500 years old tradition. Part of the Peruvian culture for example is using nicknames openly pointing out deviations from the assumed ideal or classifications instead of a given name: so the girl with a few pounds too many is called gorda or gordita (fatty), the skinny one flaca and a little man is a chato (shorty); a darker skinned person has to live with being called negrito (black person, nigger) while someone with an Asian background is the Chino (Chinese) and a white person a gringo/a. A Peruvian with indigenous background might be called cholo. This word in particular, but all the others as well, are just a simple nickname nobody really thought about or a offending or even racist comment depends on the context and who is calling whom. Nevertheless at least the faint hearted and foreigners not used to this practice are left with a bitter aftertaste.

Racism in Peru?! No!?

Most Peruvians won’t talk about racism and wouldn’t admit that there is a problem with discrimination or intolerance in the country. Some prefer to shrug it off as joking around or special Peruvian humor. From a young age on Peruvians are exposed to the subtle form of Peruvian racism and discrimination. They are indoctrinated that a fair skin equals wealth, power, success, opportunities, good education, intelligence and beauty, while darker skin is associated with poverty, bad education, dishonesty, failure, a low social status and ugliness.

Peru’s diversity - boon and bane

It’s disturbing that Peru advertises a country full of diversity for tourism purposes using the stereotypes of traditionally dressed Andean women, smiling indigenous children or men wearing a poncho and playing the panflute, while exactly this part of the population has to fight racism and discrimination and faces a lack of opportunities on a daily basis. On the other hand billboards, magazines and TV ads in the country solely feature the beautiful, successful “white” Latina; TV hosts, new anchors or even soap opera stars rarely have an indigenous face. Additionally, it’s sad to see that indigenous women for example receive the label “maid”, a black man “doorman at a prestigious hotel in Lima” and a native child is called stupid and ugly without anyone taking a stand against this form of racism. Furthermore, it is quite common that Peruvians with a more indigenous appearance are often refused entry to upscale restaurants, discotheques, clubs or cinemas on spurious grounds or are treated disrespectful in fashionable stores. Even with the same education and / or experience they are less likely to be chosen for vacant position than a “white” candidate.

Another signature won’t end racism and discrimination

So, despite all the anti-discrimination laws that are existing in Peru for years, racism, discrimination and intolerance is still sad reality in the Andean country. If the signing of another convention changes this, is highly questionable. Racism, discrimination and intolerance against a part of a society is a question of attitude and education. Yet another signed piece of paper alone won’t change anything. Change can only come from within the society itself. Peruvians need to see and admit the problem, take a stand and denounce racism and discrimination. Children are the future, so it’s important to set positive examples and educate them on equality and equal opportunities. Thinking critically, seeing with open eyes, listening to one another and having the courage to point out social wrongs will additionally help to build a Peruvian society free from racism and discrimination – a task that might take generations and surely is not done with another celebrated signature.

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