A few weeks ago I was walking down the street with a close friend when we came across a promotional poster for comedian Gabriel Iglesias on the side of a building. His face stretched across the gluey paper in a glorious display of his buzzcut and trademark handlebar moustache and beard – my friend turned to me and jokingly remarked, “Wow, look at that guy! Could you look anymore Mexican?”
Though it was meant simply to be a passing joke about his looks (which isn’t exactly cool either), I immediately retorted, “Wow, look at that girl over here. How Asian is she? And that White guy! Look at his blonde hair! Could you look anymore White?”
Racial ambiguity is something that is not incredibly common in Australia; everyday pedestrians more often than not fall into the categories Black, White or Asian. Unfortunately, in my case, being Latin American, I don’t fit into any of these categories, and in fact, am incorrectly assumed to be Asian or Black. But unlike Gabriel Iglesias, I was not the “stereotypical looking” Latin American that is too often perpetuated in response to racial ambiguity.
With people of Latin American ethnicity making up only 0.91% of the Australian population (2006 Census), there are certain misinformed assumptions and expectations of what Latin American people – from South America, Central America and the Caribbean – should look like, and in this case, much like Iglesias. Regrettably a common issue with having so few Latin American residents in Australia gives way to tokenism and casual racism.
Though considered merely harmless gags, or ‘slip-of-the-tongue’ commentary, casual racism appears to be rife in most if not all kinds of social settings in Australia. One of its most commonly forgiven forms is the trivialization of race and how it can be disguised as unintentionally offensive humour. Because of small numbers of Latin American people in our community, the comparisons are drawn from the countless “stereotypical” Latin American characters on television and in movies, played by the likes of Danny Trejo, Sophia Vegara and Michele Rodriguez seriously distorting the realities of the people of this race.
Unbeknownst to my friend, her ignorant passing statement is only one in thousands made daily that further perpetuate the misguided social idea of the Latin American image. Indeed, not all of us look like Gabriel Iglesias and by asking if he could “look anymore Mexican”, she seemed to assume that the individuals who look most stereotypically Mexican are they ones that truly represent the culture.
For twenty years I have been confused as Middle Eastern, Sri Lankan, Indian, Native American, African American, the list goes on, all because people can’t distinguish what I look like. When I eventually tell people I’m Latin American, I often get an unhappy face and get told that “I don’t look it”, as if there is some stereotypical way all Latin Americans are meant to look like.
I don’t eat Tacos everyday for lunch nor do I wear a poncho around the house, and unfortunately these are the kinds of stereotypes that I get pushed into because that’s all South American people are “known” as in Australian society. Because there are so few of us, we as a race are unable to dispel these myths and reconstruct our identity within the community. Years of anti-racism activism have shown the public that there are many different-looking types of Black, White and Asian people. However, again, because of our relative obscurity in the populace, we aren’t able to represent the vast assortment of Latin American people and actually show that we can all look different, just like Black, White and Asian people have.
Binding together race and image is something that ethnic communities struggle with across the world. Assuming that race can be discerned from image contributes to discrimination and makes expectations of what people look like. Those of us in the “Other” box are still struggling to craft our image in relation to race and typecasting or complete disregard that we exist in the media (looking at you Home And Away) isn’t assisting us in doing so. People like me, ethnically ambiguous people, should be appearing in the public eye and diffusing the idea that if you are not Black, White or Asian, you are all the same in the “Other” box.
Unable to fit into any particular “known ethnicity”, people are constantly preoccupied by my race rather than deeper aspects of my character. What is even worse than already being excluded because of my non-White skin colour, was not being accepted by fellow ethnicities and continuously being pointed out for being not Black, White or Asian – the other in an already separated class of others.
In the modern age of globalization and multiculturalism, what we as a society need to do is strive to break down characterization of race and ethnicity. Particularly in Australia, with higher rates of interracial marriage than most other nations, we need to strive to stop using race as an explanatory and descriptive term. Rather than comment on an individual and immediately attributing them to their race or refer to someone by their ethnicity, it is necessary to break down racial boundaries.
Gabriel Iglesias isn’t anymore Latino than I am, though our visual (racial) features may indicate otherwise. In Australia, we recognize that not all Black, White or Asian people look the same and no one “looks” more “real” than another. However, this needs to translate over to those of us in the Other box. There are variation in looks among Middle Eastern, African and Latin American people and calling someone out for “looking Mexican” or “not looking Mexican enough” only reinforces the idea that race and image are explicitly tied and cannot be broken. It should not be just Black, White or Asian but Black, White, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Indian and all those in between. I may not look Latino, but I am, and no one person should “look” it more than another because of ignorant expectations of image in connection to race.
Illustration: Whitney Duan.