Bogota, Colombia. Photo: Jackie Hadel.
“Is there racism against black people in Colombia?” my best friend from Chicago, South Side Trey as I’ve taken to calling him in articles—most visibly in a New York Times Magazine article I wrote— would often ask me during my first 3-year tour in Medellin, back in 2o15.
It’s a question I would hear many times over the next 8 years. Dark-skinned-black as he is, and visibly nervous when forced to interact with white people while traveling around just his city— America’s segregation capital, where some of Trey’s friends had rarely even left the enormous, often deadly confines of the South (and mostly Black) Side of Chicago—I could hear the hope in his voice, the silent prayer in the inquiry, of hearing that I’d found the Promised Land: a tropical country teeming with the world famous beauty of Colombianas, and where people wouldn’t look down on him for being a dark-skinned black man.
Racial makeup of Chicago, 2010. Trey lives approximately in the center of the dark blue area: near infamous gangland territory. It always feels strange to be in his hood at night, in a huge modern-day U.S. city, while cognizant of the fact that there are likely no more than a few non-CPD white people for miles. And miles.
Possibly a destination to aim for, in his retirement: a warm, affordable, so-far-from-Chicago-in-every-way country. One where he could surely find a gorgeous, loving, and intriguing partner (a dark-skinned black woman speaking Spanish as her first language? An idea akin to a beautiful black unicorn to Trey)— a soul mate, maybe— likely a chocolatina, as he called them. After a lifetime of dating disasters in Chicago where, as Trey and his friends are always quick to opine, “The black girls in the ghetto just want money, or a model-looking, exciting/dangerous dude with rep,” perhaps he could find a wifey. At last, to needlessly quote Etta James. At last. For a while, I simply parroted what the average mestizo or white Colombians say, or don’t say.
2019. Global African Worker. “Afro-Colombian Workers and the Fight Against Racial Discrimination. “It was not until the 2005 census that some progress had been made towards collecting responses on ethnic-cultural identity…During the 2008 review of its human rights record before the UN, Colombia suggested that its official policy is to now recognize the existence of various forms of racial discrimination. However, the state’s decades-long policy of non-recognition not only contributed to the invisibility of Afro-descendants, but also prevented the collection of valuable information that could have confirmed claims of decades of discrimination.” [Bold and italics mine.]
“NO, no. They’re just all friends here, all races, and you never hear anything about racist incidents, or any furious black people exploding in the streets, like in Riotsvillle USA over there.” But after a good full year of spending nights, and days, and nights with Colombian party friends (and I mean literal consecutive nights and days and nights, as in coke and alcohol binges) the truth began squirming out from between the fingers of the light-brown hands usually clamped over their mouths– in vino veritas, and all that.
Women in Choco, the Afro-Colombian capital of Colombia
Read my caption at the end of this article, beneath the street art photo taken by Jackie Hadel, a.k.a Toki Doki Nomad, and which appears in our 2-months-in-the-making interview from earlier this month (those of you who haven’t checked it out, go read/view it/even just skim it if you want. You’ll be glad you did, I promise). That caption gives you an idea of my personal experience with the way in which people from Medellin, at least, will openly announce in front of audiences that they absolutely hate all black people, without a second thought. I’ve heard it come from all manner of people, from groups of PhD students, to wealthy, otherwise progressive (e.g., pro-LGBTQIA ++ square-root-of-pi or whatever it is now) women, to young BLACK female college students, expressing their disdain for their fellow black males.
El Colombiano, 2016. An organization of Afro-Colombians walks through downtown Medellin, proudly showcasing their Afro-Colombian heritage. “Why do they all [non Afro-Colombian passersby] look at us like bugs?” mused one of the women. “The more than 236,000 Afro-descendants in Medellín live, the majority, in the most marginal areas of the city and have difficulties accessing education.”
I then began to really pay attention to the race situation in Medellin, and the obvious finally hit me, right in my grill the whole time, as it had been. I realized I had rarely ever seen a non-Afro Colombian interacting in any way with a black Colombian on the street. I then remembered that in 3 years, I had never been to a nice restaurant (and by “nice” I just mean waitstaff-with-uniforms, white-table-cloths, surf n’ turf section on-the-menu quality), and seen a single black waiter. Back in the kitchen I would catch glimpses of black cooks and other workers— only glimpses— which made the contrast all the more stark. With a chill, the thought began coiling itself around my mind: the black people here…almost…seemed….to be…not allowed (in unspoken terms, of course. Again, see Colombian street art, end of article) to work as a server of meals out in the open. I asked my then-girlfriend why this was— a bilingual, hippie Colombiana who loved Frida Kahlo, 1960s Nouvelle Vague French films, had several queer friends, and who often attended protests for mistreated aboriginal Colombians— and she said, with a shrug, that “Black people just don’t like being waiters at expensive restaurants.” I was shocked. This was before I had heard her well-educated and well-traveled, Airbnb host of a mother declare her hatred of all black people, casually, at the head of her large Christmas dinner table.
“So,” I replied (as the fact that she knew my father was African-American slowly surfaced in my mind),”you’re telling me that none of the black people in this city of over 2 million wants a chance at the tips these waiters are getting? They just uniformly, in some sort of mass, shared psychic decision, prefer to be tucked away in the back, laboring over fryers, and dealing with the restaurant’s garbage?”
A community of Afro-Colombian families built on stilts in a mangrove swamp, at the edge of the ocean near Tumaco, on the Colombian Pacific coast.
“I guess,” she said, visibly uncomfortable, eager to squirm away from the pesky race issue that this gringo, from the world-famous most racist country on the planet— Amerikkka— just of course had to bring up. A pesky race issue that applied to my racist country, certainly, but which didn’t belong being brought up apropos her racism-free Colombia. “If they didn’t like always being in the back of these restaurants, they would say something. Like the angry black people in your country. They don’t complain here in Colombia, so the negritos must be happy in the back. And they did do a great job with this fish…” she said, quickly shifting topics.
Only later that night did the perfect retort come to me (witty comebacks always arrive posthumously, don’t they?): she didn’t have a single black friend. She hadn’t even ever associated, in any way, with a single black person in the 2 years I had been with her (besides half-me), walking around every corner of the city together as we had, eating at hundreds of establishments, spending entire days at dozens of huge city events, where everyone she had ever known would approach and hug her—all her accquaintences from 32 years on this planet. Not one of them black, or even darker skinned than the ubiquitous Mestizo Colombians. Therefore, how did she know if black people were, or weren’t, complaining? How did she know anything about black people, if she was raised by a black-hating mother who had very likely steered her away from making black friends, and now, at 32, never even associated—even on an Hola-Chao basis— with any of the Afro-Colombians strolling around this bustling city?
Apparently the means by which my ex thinks Afro-Colombians decide which jobs they like, and which they don’t: the well known (in the U.S. at least) “Magical Negro” trope. Also represents the caliber and type of racist offense that U.S. citizens now have the luxury to bicker about.
I then began looking at the employees of “higher-class” job positions in Medellin. The easiest type of establishment by which to gauge this race situation hit me one day: banks. I had to go to banks at various points, for various reasons, and not once did I remember seeing an Afro-Colombian working inside, or even outside (say, as the security) of a bank. I then proactively began to step inside of and take a stroll around every bank I happened to come across. The chill from my first realization, re: the people who were and weren’t allowed to be waitstaff in the more elegant restaurants of the city, continued its bitter spread as the truth materialized, clear as a rural night sky: I literally could not find a single black person working in any bank, anywhere, in the entire city of Medellin. I again asked my girlfriend about this. And to my utter disbelief….she stuck to the same excuse.
Afro-Colombian children displaced from their rural homes, find refuge near the city of Buenaventura. “UN Experts Urge Protection of Afro-Colombian Communities Against Elevating Violence.” United Nation News. 2016.
“WELL, the negritos just don’t like that type of job. Why are you so obsessed with race? Always with gringos— well, of course, because you are such a racist country. Well not here. We don’t treat our negritos badly, like you do. They can do whatever they want to do here. They like some jobs, and don’t like other ones, is all.”
So. She would have me believe, essentially, that black people simply disliked jobs that tended to pay more, and just loved them some low-paying, menial labor gigs. The absurdity was so great, I could only laugh, and stare at her. I continued to press her on the bank issue, though, pulling her, by hand, into every bank we came across (our relationship wasn’t destined to last very long, as you can imagine. We will likely never again be on speaking terms, after our spectacular break up a year later) to show her the sheer absurdity of the claim that not one black person in the entire city of Medellin had ever— in the past 50 years or so, at least— wanted any of the jobs that GOTTdamned banks had to offer. Finally, she cracked.
Advertisements for Banco de la Republica, Banco W, and Banco de Occidente S.A.. Hey, they chose these snapshots to showcase their workforces. Click to enlarge and search. Banco W is actually bragging about the equality in their workforce right in that photo’s caption— between men and women. But they also take home the diversity prize, if you look closely!
“People here don’t trust the negritos handling so much money. It is a part of this culture. I guess. I didn’t start it. And well, if you think about it, the black people are usually poor, and some people don’t like them— (*ahem, like you and your mother, perhaps) the racistas in Colombia — [ah, so there are just a few racist bastards in this country, she finally admits!] so they are angry about that. So if you have poor people who want revenge, of course you cannot have them handling the light people’s money. It is logical.”
The sheer circularity of the argument. Almost beautiful to behold.
Some, perhaps superficial progress (but then, wouldn’t the same apply to the argument that my country’s election of a black president was proof of substantial racial progress in the U.S.?) has been made, since the racism-squabbles my ex and I had. Here we have Colombia’s first Afro-Colombian vice president, elected in 2022. BUT . See next caption.
That was all I needed to hear, and see. Well, I also looked at photos of the Colombian Congress, fully convened, from that year, and the prior year, all the way back to the 1990s, which confirmed what I suspected I would find. Seas of white and Mestizo Colombianos, with maybe one or two Afro-Colombians here and there, some years, probably representing the well-known Afro-Colombian state of Choco (Jesus, I’ll never get over how the black area of Colombia is literally called Choco).
To wrap this up: the general, somewhat amusing truth— being someone who is on-track to spending half of their adult life in Colombia, and half in the U.S.— is that as soon as I cross the border into the U.S., I become somewhat like my black father was— irritated by the wokescolds endlessly claiming that systemic racism is a supreme threat to the U.S., that it is somehow impossible for black people to be racist, that all cops are fucking horrible humans— and taking more of an—yeah, I’ll say it— Uncle Tom-ass position, as some from “my team” would snarl. Like my father, someone who was born a sharecropper in Mississippi, who actually dealt with Klan violence, with blatant systemic racism as a youth, and who fled to the North, by himself, at the age of 14, just to get to the relatively racism-light North, I tend to believe that the “white supremacy in the U.S. is rampant and threatens everything in the 2020’s” narrative is a large exaggeration. I believe—as my father fervently believed— that, regardless of what many U.S. wokescold-types would loudly protest, the U.S. has truly made some incredible progress in its engagement with anti-black racism, if one looks at the US of the 1950s, compared to the 2020s. (But then, sometimes, I wonder if I, like my ex-girlfriend, like so many Colombianos, am simply poo-pooing awful, obvious racism in my country that is easy to see for, say, a British visitor.) I certainly agree that the U.S. Justice (and with it, prison) system is an incredibly racist institution—the racism long-baked in as it may be, and nearly inextricable from the clusterfucked complexity of poverty in Black America, and its wanton roots in slavery. De facto segregation certainly still exists— see Chicago, third largest city, as a prime example— and implicit bias will likely always and everywhere be with us (cue the “job applicants with ‘black-sounding names’ vs. those with ‘white sounding names'” studies).
Photo: Julian Castro, Colombia Reports. Figures place the Afro-Colombian community at as high as 25% of the total population of Colombia. In comparison, Congress, composed of a 102-seat Senate and 166-seat House of Representatives, only holds two seats for Afro-Colombians. “How is it possible that five-million people are represented by just two people of the 102 seats of congress?” mused one senate candidate.
Conversely, as soon as I cross into Colombia, I know that I am in a society that is truly— though very subtly; so subtle and quiet that one just may miss it if they don’t spot the quiet scream in the eyes of the occasional black menial laborer, sweeping the garbage away from the entrance of some bank in a white Colombian neighborhood— inarguably, systemically, racist. Where the unspoken rules are nearly as harsh as Jim Crow America’s wall-posted rules: no black people handling the light people’s food out in the open, now! Customers will be disgusted! No black people getting anywhere close to the light people’s money, now!
Each time I step out of José María Córdova airport and into the shimmering Aburra Valley sunshine, I am dizzied by the fact that I have just, essentially, time traveled back to a version of the 195os U.S. South from which my father fled as a boy— a version, I gladly admit, that is greatly watered down, and far more low-key: the rules go unposted, unspoken, here. I used to wonder if it was just Medellin that was like this— if maybe things were different in, say, Bogota, the capital of and by far the biggest city in Colombia. But again, see photo at article’s end, of a street artist’s work in Bogota, expressing in paint about Bogota the precise same thing I have expressed in words here, about Medellin.
How does the saying go? Something to the effect of, “Places where people are constantly, loudly, and safely arguing about issues of injustice are invariably places where much of the arguing is trivial. Places where no one is arguing about injustices, and where it is claimed that a total utopia of equality has long existed, are invariably the places where there should be immediate action taken against the horrible injustices present.” I guess we all have to learn to discern when the screaming is loud, but largely disingenuous and selfish, for attention, and when the screaming is muffled, almost impercitible—perhaps even inaudibly confined to a spraypainted wall—yet more urgent than anyone would have you believe.
So, to play on the immortal editorial by Francis Church, I have now changed my answer, when Trey occasionally asks The Question.
Yes, Trey. There is a racist Colombia.
2012. Bogotá, Colombia. . Photo Jackie Hadel, from the Great Hadel Interview of 2023. Jason: I’ve often asked Colombians, playing naive: “Is there racism here?” and they’ve often replied— in front of rooms full of strangers (yet fellow non-Afro-Colombians)— “No, not at all. We’re not like YOUR country, with racist police always killing blacks on TV. But personally, I hate black people. They’re all lazy, violent thieves.” They simply CANNOT see the irony of such self-refuting statements, coming from otherwise intelligent people. The ensuing arguments were always unbearably frustrating. And they’ll say this to me knowing full well I’M half black.
Note: None of this is to say that Colombia is even the worst offender in South America, let alone the rest of the Americas. I spent two months in Brazil, and in just those two months saw some jaw-dropping, 1920s-style old mammy and African Mandingo handcrafted products in gift shops, for tourists to buy. Not to speak of the tours I took of black favelas in Rio. That’s a whole ‘nother article, for the U.S. black guy who spent 7 years living in Brazil to write, ha. I simply have the most experience with Colombia and the U.S. I love them both, and so best know them both.
(I’m taking baby steps on Instagram now)