On representations of race

Given the sheer volume of conversations that occurred on this campus regarding students at the College wearing stereotypical costumes that specifically depicted Mexicans and, more generally, Latinos, I was struck by the lack of depth to these conversations. Most of the debate focused on the question: Do Latinos on this campus have the right to be offended? At that point the issue became divisive, and those who felt that these costumes were not offensive did not give more than a cursory glance at the more important and revealing question of why these costumes were offensive to some. Conversations failed to move beyond this flat discussion because many people were preoccupied with who does and does not have the right to offend and be offended. Catholics? Pilgrims? The Irish?! What separates an appropriating and damaging costume from good, harmless fun?

Personally, I find “taco” and “mariachi” costumes to be offensive and bigoted in their depiction of Mexicans. Period. However, the problem with these costumes does not stop with their attack on a racial identity. The issue with the costumes is not solely that they present a negative depiction of Mexican-Americans, but that this depiction of Mexican-Americans and Latinos as a whole is the dominant one. Neither Latinos nor non-Latinos get a chance to see a complex and positive representation of Latinos in the mainstream media. What is implied when an entire ethnicity – an entire race – is reduced to funny props for white people to don for one day a year? Characteristics and traits are imposed upon an entire group of people. When a Mexican-American enters a room, the words “lazy,” “uneducated” and “dangerous” might speak louder and faster than the person is able to, thanks to the predominance of these depictions.

You might be wondering about how the Irish fit into this dynamic at this point. While it can be argued that Irish people are faced with negative stereotypes that are imposed upon them, their livelihoods in this country are not at stake in our current social climate because of these stereotypes.

In contrast, mariachi and taco costumes are a symptom of white supremacy – the system where all those who are not white are “others.” Mexicans and other Latinos living in the United States face systematic socioeconomic disadvantages. The reductive stereotypes held by many Americans are fueled by the mainstream representation of Latinos, such as that expressed by certain Halloween costumes. This allows society at large to dissociate from those problems experienced by Mexican-Americans and to shift systemic blame onto individuals and so perceive them as responsible for their own status. These stereotypes perpetuate discrimination, and this discrimination perpetuates stereotypes.

What many fail to understand is that for many students at the College, the effects of this prejudice are not part of some far-off ethnographic study. Whether we want to or not, we, as Latino students at the College, have grown up around these issues. We grew up seeing this cycle. We cannot simply disassociate and choose not to engage with it. Struggling against these damaging tropes is something that we watch our parents, our aunts, our uncles and our grandparents contend with every day. It is something with which we, personally, have had to, and will continue to have to, contend. No Williams degree will ever make me pass as a white.

So when the widespread campus reaction to our outrage is to talk over us, to call us overly sensitive, to paint us as the antagonists of innocent white victims when we ask for community accountability – the College, like society, perpetuates our “othering.” Our voices are deemed not worth listening to. Our concerns are considered irrational and overemotional. We are made to look so different that we simply do not deserve any understanding. The overwhelming message begins to feel like: “You’re lucky to be here. You should not be asking for more.” However, we are not simply diversity ornaments for the College to proudly display. We deserve to make the College a safe and comfortable space for us and we do not have to sacrifice ourselves for others’ amusement.  Do not ask us to remain calm in the face of white supremacy that seeps into every aspect of our lives.

Paula Mejia ’17 is from Miami, Fl. She lives in Mark Hopkins.

  • NINA

    Have you heard of NINA, a common word in many job ads in the 40s,50s,70s? It abbreviates “No Irish Needs Apply.”
    Welcome to history.

  • Paul

    I agree with everything you’ve said here. They should have dressed as enchiladas or tortas instead.