Living in Peru gives us an opportunity to experience how a racial and, for some perspectives, even a racist structure operates. To understand what I mean by this, we need to first illustrate, from a Western perspective, what racial and racist structures are. Let us start by defining structure: a framework, an order, a construction of interconnected elements. In other words, a building is not only made of cement. It is the cement, its relation to other objects (e.g. metal, construction workers), and the relation between all other objects that results in the structure of a building. If the objects that interact and the way they interact differ, for example, if we used wood instead of cement, then the structure of the building would also be different, resulting in a wooden house instead of a concrete one. Social structures work in a similar way. They include the media, civil society, the state, the past, the present, the international system, and local communities, among many others. Most importantly, they are the result of the random and deliberate interplay between all of those elements.
What about racial structures? If a social structure is made up of different socially constructed elements, what would happen if some of those elements were different skin colors, languages, geographies, classes, sexualities, and the intersection of all of them? Powerful agents in the state, media, civil society, and beyond, would have the highly complex task of operating on a platform of diversity. This is what results in a racial structure. And, if we approach that structure within the confines of a state, then we have what South African race theorist David Goldberg (2002) calls the racial state: a state that defines, determines, and structures populations, which are diverse in terms of race, gender, and class. Is this not the case of the Peruvian state, as it is the case of every modern state?
When skimming through a booklet entitled La Diversidad Cultural en el Perú (2014), printed by the Ministry of Culture, I was reminded that by 2007, officially around 3 million Peruvians spoke Quechua, more than 400,000 spoke Aymara, close to 68,000 spoke Ashaninka, and about 174,000 spoke other native languages as their mother tongue! One only needs to see the diversity of languages spoken in Peru in order to understand that all Peruvians participate in the life of a racial state, according to Goldberg’s definition, even if they are not aware of the existence of such diversity. Educational programs, foreign affairs, land reforms, safety policies against natural disasters, and so on, are all taking place on top of a platform of diversity, affecting it and its different agents in a variety of ways and degrees. This is when we must ask ourselves whether those programs, affairs, reforms, policies, etc., are benefiting one or more cultural groups while negatively affecting others.
Goldberg (2002) also suggests an understanding of what a racist state is. Racist states, he says, are states where “a racially (self-)conceived group (…) dominates the power, resources, and representational media of the state to the relative exclusion, subjection, or subordination of other groups racially conceived.” Simplifying the question: Could we say that in Peru one or more racially (self-)conceived groups dominate over other racially conceived groups? Maybe to answer that question we would need to first understand how race is defined in Peru as a whole and within its multiple realities (e.g., an urban area, a Quechua-speaking community).
Let us say, as an example, that it is defined in terms of language: Is there a language that displaces or overrides other languages? Does learning that particular language brings more opportunities in, say, the Westernized urban areas of the Coast than learning any other of the 47 languages officially recognized by the state? Could we claim that those who, for example, speak Spanish as a mother tongue, enjoy better living standards than the rest? We could ask similar questions of race, class, gender, and so on. Could Peru then be considered to be a racist state? Peru, certainly, does not have the official systems of racial segregation that South Africa, USA, and Germany, had during apartheid, Jim Crow, and Nazism, respectively.
Yet, it is still a country where the state, media, and civil society may be “licensing” racism in many ways. It is more like a situation of “racism within the state,” to use Balibar’s (1991) vocabulary. The goal of this article is not to answer the question I have chosen for a title but to explain what I mean by that question so that each reader may answer it from their own perspective: because living in Peru should also be about questioning Peru.
“All native languages are the expression of a collective identity and a different way of conceiving and describing reality, therefore enjoy the conditions necessary for its maintenance and development in all functions “. (Ley N° 29735. Cap.I, Art. 1.2; newspaper “El Peruano”, Lime, 05 July 2011).
(Photo: Ministry of culture Peru)
Luis Escobedo is a postdoctoral fellow at UFS Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) in South Africa. His research focuses primarily on the application of discourse and visual analysis, postcolonial and feminist approaches, and race theory in the study of racism and whiteness, ideology, and violence in postcolonial and post-apartheid contexts, particularly in Latin America and Africa. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Warsaw in Poland and later as a visiting lecturer at TEC de Monterrey in Mexico, he has actively participated in presentations, panels, and roundtables in different parts of the world. Likewise, he has organized and conducted workshops and seminars; founded, coordinated and advised non-profit and student organizations, clubs, and projects; collaborated with the press; engaged in voluntary teaching; and designed courses, syllabi, source texts, stimulus materials, and learning activities for the fields of Political Science, Humanities, and IR.