You don’t have to look too hard, here in Bolivia, to find examples of casual day to day racism. Of course, the not-so-casual form is in over-abundant supply as well, but somehow its the little incidents that tend to bring me up sharp. Outside my apartment in Sopacachi, a posh neighbourhood in La Paz, sits one of the many small kiosks selling snacks and cigarettes late into the night. This one also has a set of telephones that can be hired by the phone call. Several nights in the last month my friends and I have stopped by on the way home to buy drinks and sweets off the middle-aged owner. A few weeks ago a gaggle of rich, drunk teenagers got there just after us. Leaving aside the usual teenage lack of social skills, this lot were an obnoxious bunch – hassling the woman when she was already busy, stealing sweets behind her back, knocking the phones off the hook in stumbling attempts to call their girlfriends. The kiosk owner was dressed in the style of indigenous women who live in the city – her hair tied in two thick plaits that fell down her back in long parallel lines, a shin-length gathered skirt, and a long cotton apron over her woollen jumpers. It was late, and she seemed tired as she climbed out of her kiosk to go unlock the one just a little further along, but she raised no protest as the kids pushed her around.

As we waited, another customer came along, a middle class woman with big bouffy hair bouncing round her head and her plump body squeezed into high heels and a skirt suit. She grabbed one of the phones and, to catch the attention of the kiosk owner as she walked past, reached out and gave one of her plaits a sharp tug. The owner barely reacted, only waved to indicate she could use the phone. But my friends and I stared in amazement. It had happened in a moment, and everyone else acted as if it was perfectly normal. I turned to the others and asked in English “Did that women really just pull her hair?!”

As we walked home we ended up having one of many conversations about racism in La Paz and Bolivia in general. As we talked one of my North American friends described another ‘racist incident’ that had happened to him in the smaller town of Tiwanaku a few years ago. My friend – lets call him Ed – had been working there all summer as an archaeologist, and become fairly friendly with the men from the town that he worked with. Indigenous men in the highlands of Bolivia tend to wear Trilby hats (also known as Fedoras) on most occasions, and Ed wanted one. So on a recommendation he went to a hat shop in town to buy himself a hat. On walking into the shop and surveying the hundreds of different hats arranged on the shelves, he asked the elderly Indigenous man who owned the shop for help. The owner looked him up and down and told him “We don’t have any hats here.” Well, Ed was a little taken back. He stepped out of the shop, thought for a bit, then went back in. “Look”, he said, “I’m not a tourist, I just want to buy a hat. My friends on the archaeological project told me to come here.” The shop owner looked at him straight in the eye, and told him “We don’t have any hats here Buey.”

Now, ‘Buey’ is not a nice word in Bolivia. In Mexico, I’m told, its the equivalent of something like ‘motherfucker’ (in the US) or ‘arsehole’ (in the UK), and more usually used by teenage boy messing about with each other. It literally means ‘castrated bull’, but in Bolivia its never used in such a casual manner, and means something much stronger and more insulting along the lines of ‘evil white devil’. Anyhow, Ed got the message and left immediately. As Ed has described this story to me on several occasions, the man in the shop was being racist towards him because he was a white American. I don’t know what to make of this story. Does Ed’s experience of once being denied service in a shop compare with the experience of someone who has been subjected to so many large and small acts of daily belittlement and insult that another woman pulling her hair seems normal?

I like Ed. In our brief friendship, he has always seemed like a nice guy. Like pretty much all North American anthropologists I meet here he deplores the racism inherent in Bolivian society, avoids the diplomatic ex-pat set who never leave their gated communities in the Southern Zone of the city, and tries whenever possible to make ethical decisions about where he shops, eats, and fraternizes. He would think of himself as actively anti-racist – and yet a few days earlier he and some other friends of ours had been having a long and animated conversation about ‘gypsies’ and what a scourge they are on Europe. Like many North American and European liberals Ed is able to berate white people who won’t vote for Barack Obama and white Bolivians who lynch effigies of Evo Morales, and in the same breath describe all Roma, Cinti and other ‘gypsy’ people as ‘dirty thieves’. All of them – every single gypsy. Even though he’s never met one in his life, he knows a guy who knew a woman who once got robbed by someone she knew instinctively was a gypsy, and that means all gypsies everywhere are dirty thieves. Obviously. His conclusion to the conversation, that he ‘would have no problem with gypsies if only they would just settle down and live properly like we do’, would revolt him if the word gypsy was only replaced with Indian, Black or Jew. Or, probably, if it had been “Buey”. Like a good anthropologist he knows that its wrong to believe that anyone who lives differently from you is sub-human, but somehow he – like many others – stops being a good anthropologist when it comes to gypsies. Casual acts of racism come when you least expect them, and are contradictory by their very nature.

As a foreigner and a white woman, I rarely find myself on the receiving side of racist encounters. Such moments when the colour of my skin, my nationality, or my ethnicity are the subject of differential derogatory treatment are rare – and I would find myself uncomfortable describing them as ‘racism’ in any case. The first time I came to Bolivia a upper-class Bolivian woman came up to me in a bar, ran her hands over my skin and congratulated me loudly and admiringly on how beautifully white my skin was. I found it a startlingly experience. But as uncomfortable as it made me, her racism was not directed at me but at everyone – perhaps even including herself – who wasn’t like me. What made me so uncomfortable was the sudden realisation of my own place in her world view, and the kind of world view it implied.

Having lived in the US a few years and had such experiences in South America, I occasionally used to think back to how few of these daily reminders of racism I encountered when I lived in the UK – and I used to think this was because there is less racism there. But such thoughts are pathetically naive. A recent report about inter-racial adoption brought up the uncomfortable idea that white middle class couples, no matter how loving and well intentioned, will never be able to understand the racism that their adopted child is subjected to. Like my white British friend, who said he never realised how racist Cambridge was until he saw how people treated his Peruvian wife who they mistook for Asian: white people don’t see racism until it stumbles into their own day-to-day life, but it doesn’t mean its not there. Racism is a matter of creating hierarchies, of putting some people at the top and others at the bottom. Some of us are lucky enough to be at the top, looking out at a clear blue sky all around us. No matter how graciously we pull some of those under our feet up to our own level, there will always be someone else down there in the shit. Its only by trampling those people down further that we are able to get high enough to look around us, smile, and enjoy the wonderful liberal world we live in.

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