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Color Correlations at Home - By Michael Caton

I was in Guatemala last summer for a wedding. A friend of mine from high school was getting married to a Guatemalan woman. Her family is fairly well-off. They are also not as dark-complected as your average Guatemalan - an observation that is, of course, less uncomfortable for me to make than for my friend's wife.

Driving around Guatemala City, I had noticed that the fashion and cosmetic ads on billboards usually showed women who were also lighter-complected than most of the people walking around the city, as is often the case in the global South. One day my friend was busy, but his just-betrothed had to go to the mall. I offered to drive her. On the way there I pointed to one of the billboards: "Juana," I asked, "who are all these white people on the billboards?" "There are light-complected Guatemalans, you know," she retorted. "Yeah," I said, "and all two hundred of 'em were at your wedding."

In some ways I feel bad for forcing the issue: my friend's wife is not racist, and many of the people I met at the wedding care deeply about their country and are doing what they can to erase the barriers that persist there. But travel in Latin America with your eyes even half-open, and what you see is that not only do these class barriers persist, they're largely based on race - and in Latin America, that means whether you're mostly of Native descent, or mostly European.

Of course, this isn't a pleasant reality, and people don't like to discuss it - either because they'd rather not think about it, or because they do think about it but don't want to inflame patients and possibly be misinterpreted as racist. I've had the same experience in other Latin American countries. In El Salvador, I had a long taxi ride with a friendly history-buff of a driver who kept talking about the Spanish conquistadors in "we" terms. If you've been to Spain, where people are white as the day is long (duh, it's Europe!) then you can't take these statements seriously. It was all I could do not to hold my white arm up next to his and ask him who "we" is. Pronouns are often more informative than we realize. Pay attention to pronouns when people talk about Oakland and you'll be surprised.

Once when I was in Coyoacan, which is kind of like the Berkeley of Mexico City, I did a pretty good job pissing off someone by suggesting to her that you could make maps of the city color-coded by average skin tone or by income; the map would look the same either way, and Coyoacan would be blazing white. Statement of fact, not meant to offend, but succeeding famously in this regard nonetheless; and I don't think it was because this person wanted to perpetuate race-based divisions in Mexico. On the contrary, she seemed to think that they were a very bad thing, but she was uncomfortable discussing them directly.

My failure was that I didn't recognize that it's much easier, as an outsider, to point out the divisions and blind spots that other people have gotten used to than to address your own. And I concede that perhaps I have a problem using my "inside voice". Much like the multiple well-meaning Europeans who have asked me - without meaning to make me uncomfortable - why, in the U.S. (for one example) Asian-white intermarriages occur at a far higher rate, given population sizes, than black-white marriages do.

Alright, I get it! you're saying. Oakland has racial issues that we don't like to discuss! But apparently we don't get it, because many of us still aren't fully comfortable directly addressing, especially in the public sphere, the largely race-based class divisions that continue to exist here in 2009, and continue to cause loss of and damage to human life.

I know I felt a little awkward posting this, and I've felt a little awkward making some of the assertions I have in post-police-killing blog posts. But the time has passed for us to continue allowing self-censorship and emotion to obstruct solutions that might solve Oakland's violence problem. So here's one question to illuminate some blind spots: how many people died as a result of violence in Oakland on Saturday, 21 March? Six. Four police officers, the person that shot them, and Edwin Bradford, 42, found dead nine hours before the police killings, 3.7 miles away from the scene of the Mixon shootings. Why was that not a bigger deal? And what about the two murders that have happened since the Mixon shootings?

Michael Caton is a guest blogger. His blog is An Oakland Citizen; check it out!
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