Casual Racism and Cinco de Mayo

I hate when we refer to the US as a “melting pot”. The Schoolhouse Rock song Great American Melting Pot sounds horribly racist as an adult. That phrase is meant to illustrate how accepting and diverse this nation is but what it’s really saying is, “Assimilate! Melt into our dominant white culture!” Mainstream United States culture is white.  There are cultural centers and ethnic grocery stores, little outposts of culture that are erased in the mainstream. We try to make up for this a few times a year by wildly celebrating “cultural” holidays.

Do Irish people appreciate American St. Patrick’s Day? Do any Mexican people appreciate American Cinco de Mayo? Has anyone ever felt honored by being worn as a Halloween costume? Probably not. Gustavo Arellano, who writes the awesome Ask a Mexican column, shared his views on Cinco de Mayo or “Gringo de Mayo” on CNN’s In America blog. Spoiler alert: he thinks it’s pointless.

Pointless? But we’re so excited to celebrate cultural diversity! Our good intentions are thwarted by a history of racism and ignorance, both of which are exacerbated by white privilege. We don’t even know we’re being ignorant and racist. This is because privilege is invisible to those who have it. White people generally can’t see whiteness, or how it constantly advantages us in society. I try to be aware of my privilege. I still mess up all the time. I make hurtful mistakes and throw around my white privilege, even when I’m trying to be conscious of it.

Just the other day, I referred to my friend as Mexican when she is, in fact, Hispanic. Those are not the same! I immediately followed this moment of racial misidentification by asking where her family was from. I was generally curious. I would like to know more about her family, about who taught her Spanish, what her experiences have been. But asking, “Where are you from?” is not the same as asking those questions. Asking, “Where are you from?” implies an inherent Otherness. My friend said, “My family is from the same state I am from, and we always have been. It was your idiot white ancestors who showed up, enacted horrific genocides, and still have the audacity to assume that any culture that isn’t your own must have come from somewhere else. Get out of my face!” …okay, she didn’t say any of that and was very kind about unpacking my moment of white privilege.

I had a moment of casual racism. It wasn’t overt or explicit- I wasn’t directly stating that I view Whiteness as superior. But that is what I was unintentionally implying. It’s hard to explain racism to white people, because we don’t recognize when we’re exerting our cultural dominance. We think that if we treat everyone the same and view everyone as a human not a race, we can’t possibly be racist. This results in a lot of really uncomfortable moments of casual racism. Those moments reinforce the dominant white narrative, and further marginalize and oppress every non-white person.

That’s why we need to be especially aware of our actions on cultural holidays. Today, Cinco de Mayo, will probably involve a lot of white people getting drunk on “Mexican” beer and eating “Mexican” food, and wearing sombreros and ponchos, never minding that most of the beer, food, and clothing are American bastardizations of an entire culture.

We need to pause when we think we’re honoring a culture, because most of the time we’re actually engaging in more of that harmful casual racism. Who gets hurt by our inaccurate and insensitive (though very enthusiastic) representations? At the end of the day, white people get to take the costume off. The sombrero and poncho get thrown in the closet, and we go on with our lives. Meanwhile, we’ve just reinforced a lot of stereotypes and historical and cultural inaccuracies that have real ramifications. Really, when was the last time you saw a Mexican wearing a sombrero or a poncho? This is the difference between talking about race (“I’m not racist!”) and acting race. For most white people, our actions and representations, which we don’t mean to be racist, show our ignorance about race.

The fact is: nobody ever dresses up like white people. There isn’t a holiday where we celebrate and embody stereotypes about white folks. This is because we don’t view whiteness as Other. In our minds, white is the de facto universal race. We see things through a lens of whiteness, which problematizes our attempts to ‘honor’ and ‘celebrate’ different cultures.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ask my neighbors to kindly stop celebrating Cinco de Mayo by drinking Coronas and eating Taco Bell while making immigration jokes in bad Spanish accents.

10 thoughts on “Casual Racism and Cinco de Mayo

  1. I think about this sometimes, the little ways we’re racist. the assumptions and actions we take that we don’t even realize are racist. obviously, Cinco de Mayo is overt, but like you said by asking “Where are you from?” you’re implying “other”. and people ask that ALL THE TIME!

    • The minute that came out of my mouth, I wanted to sucker punch myself right in the face. I tend to think of myself as this super aware, social justice-y person… and then I do shit like that. I definitely need to keep working on putting my education into action!

  2. Yes! Thanks for this post! I once tried to explain to a white friend they ways in which I, as a Mexican, am uncomfortable with Cinco de Mayo celebrations and she quite literally shut me down. Her entire body language changed, her facial expression was clearly annoyed and she told me I was overreacting. She said it was the same thing as people who aren’t religious celebrating Easter or Christmas. I then tried to say why I thought it wasn’t, but she cut me off, groaned and said, “ok, ok ok.” It shocked me as she considers herself an activist and feminist. It can be discouraging how many people who obviously understand oppression and the importance of activism don’t take the time to understand how it can play out in real life. So thanks for the post and thanks for listening to your friend explain. That really makes all the difference :D

    • Thanks for stopping by! Sometimes I think it’s harder to talk with folks who identify as activists. It’s easy to wear that label and think of ourselves as “good guys” without actually addressing the many ways we’re not so great. I’m sorry your friend derailed the conversation and I hope she’ll soon realize how unhelpful that is.

  3. You didn’t know the difference between Mexican and Hispanic?

    That doesn’t make you racist in any form, it makes you a moron

    • The purpose of that story was to illustrate how the many forms of white privilege, one of which is never learning about cultural demarcators, contributes to misunderstandings, stereotyping, and casual racism, which then contributes to perpetuating the larger racist systems and structures that enact violence in this country. While not understanding the difference between Mexican and Hispanic *is* moronic, the point is that MOST white people don’t know the difference, and that has to be addressed if we’re going to get anywhere. I hope this makes sense.

      I’m glad you stopped by and read through this post. In the spirit of effective dialogue (and clearly listed on the Rules page of this blog), we call out actions, not individuals. So, a comment like, “That idea is moronic because…” would be acceptable but saying “You are a moron.” is not. These comments just aren’t productive for any of us. We’ll never get anywhere by attacking each other.

  4. Pingback: Don’t Be Racist this Cinco de Mayo | Angry Feminist Killjoy

  5. Lydia I think you need more education as well as many other Americans too, I come from a predominately Italian descended town in Puebla and my ancestry is Italian, Polish, and Basque… though people there don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo, as it’s not even a Mexican holiday we celebrate all other Mexican holiday’s and all facets of our culture, why? Because we’re Mexicans of course… many Mexicans are white. Race and culture are two separate things.. obviously, it’s a racially diverse nation even though Mestizos and Indigenous people are the majority, but that doesn’t give US Americans any right to erase white Mexicans, you speak about Mexican people/culture.. white people/culture (no such thing as a white culture) as if it were not our culture, do you know how offensive that is to us?

    • I’m sorry you’re so confused by this post. I’m writing about cultural appropriation. Obviously you have a right to your own culture. Nobody else has the right to make a mockery of it. That’s literally the entire point of this post. I think you were confused by my reference to ‘white people’ but since you say there’s no such thing as a white culture I don’t really understand what you’re missing here. We’re saying the same thing. You should be able to celebrate your culture without it being grossly appropriated and made into a stereotype. Yes, there are people with white skin who are very much a part of non-American cultures. That is very clearly NOT who I was referencing here. The problem is that there is not a good linguistic term for generic white Americans who appropriate cultures they don’t belong to. Those are the people I’m talking about. I hope this clears things up for you.

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