One of the first people to come visit me in Argentina was my friend Paul. Paul is about 6 foot 4 (193cm), 240 pounds (110kg), has Nigerian black skin and at that time sported an afro. Now I am the one who is used to getting all the attention when I walk around because I am 197cm with curly blond hair and I too sport an afro at times. But when I took Paul to calle Florida to people watch, they ended up watching him. I have never seen so many heads turn and stare. Thankfully, Paul is very easy going and has a great sense of humor. We discussed it afterward.
The conclusion we arrived at, was that there was not the slightest hint of racism or prejudice conveyed by the Argentines. What we witnessed, was novelty. Paul said, “It’s like the first time you go to the zoo and see a giraffe—you stare—not because you hate the giraffe, not because you wish it ill will or think it’s going to steal from you but because it’s very different than any other animal you have ever seen before.” And Paul is right, with less than 4% of the population of African ancestry, and most of those living toward the north of the country, it is not surprising that this country of mostly Italian and Spanish immigrants is surprised when they see an African face.
I took Paul to several parties where mainly locals were gathered at people’s homes, drinking, playing cards, etc. He was welcomed and kissed just like any other person and nobody gave it much thought. There were some comments made, like “Che, ese negro es un negro de verdad, “ and the like, but these were simply observations/ jokes/comments that meant nothing more than calling the guy with the big nose “pipa” (like pipe) or calling me “grandote” (giant). It is a real assessment of the physical nature of the person and says nothing about stereotype, prejudice or bigotry. This tends to be the way of things in Argentina in general. Here, they call a spade a spade.
Interestingly, the word “negro” in Argentina can often be used like we use the word “dude” in English. Often, the person in a group who has the darkest features will be called “El Negro.” But the interesting thing is that I find that Americans in particular, myself included, will be ultra sensitive to race issues as we have been conditioned to think this way. Many Americans, even though we are not racist or bigoted in the slightest, will look at a Black person or Hispanic (in the U.S.) and think (within a split second) “Oh, there is a (person of color) and I shouldn’t stare. But I also shouldn’t look like I’m trying not to stare so I won’t look away too quickly. And I’m not supposed to assume that they are going to rob me, because they aren’t, they are just normal people. Why would I assume something about a person (of color) I don’t know? Oh, shit I’ve thought about this too long, maybe I am a racist. I’m such a horrible person for even thinking that it would be ok to not stare at a person of color. I’m still thinking about it….” An Argentine would never over-think, let alone even think about this type of situation in that fashion. When it comes to physical appearance, they are direct: a fat guy they call “el gordo” and that is how he is designated in place of his name, a skinny guy is “el flaco”, a redhead “el Colorado”, a bald guy, “el pelado,” etc. This is not out of malice, this is the way things are. Es así.