'How Are We Registering the Suffering of Racialized People?'

Openly racist governments, white sensitivity; in 2021 racism is still present in every part of the world. Colombian activist Mauri Balanta Jaramillo talks about life in Cali, institutionalized anti-blackness and the role of allies in the struggle.

ifa: What is life like as a black person in Colombia?

Mauri Balanta Jaramillo: In my opinion Colombia is not only a racist country. I think it's an anti-black country. The majority of cities in Colombia have constructed a meaning of the urban experience that contains very particular notions, where talking about blackness or Afro-descent reflects a clear socio-spatial division. Cali, the city I live in, has this huge discourse of being multicultural and inclusive but there is a model of urban civic culture called 'Caleñidad'. It is promoted from the collective unconscious of the white and mestizo elites and bureaucrats that inhabit the urban and capitalist centrality and denies black people the possibility of wellbeing and dignity. We can translate that into a high level of homicide, femicide, unemployment, sexual violence and police brutality.

ifa: Can you give me an example of how this model plays out?

Balanta Jaramillo: Talking about the work force of black people in the urban context is synonymous with informality, precariousness and exploitation with few possibilities of social elevation. I live and work in the District of Aguablanca, one of the peripheral areas in the east of Cali and inhabited mostly by black impoverished people. These black territories strategically function as manufactures for the creation of cheap work without there being a regularization for such trades. In this way, social inclusion politics do not have a greater scope than pretending to teach us how to manage the poverty we are condemned to intergenerationally. The east of Cali also shows the lowest level in education and a sense of resignation towards educating the black youth because of the idea that they won’t achieve anything different than their parents did. The paradigm of inclusion has become a way to manage the rejection of ‘blackness’ as part of the civic culture.

Racialized populations experience the most critical situations in the midst of openly racist governments.

Portrait of the Colombian activist Mauri Balanta Jaramillo
Mauri Balanta Jaramillo, 2020, © Anthony Soto

No Matter Where, the Situation Is the Same

ifa: Is this what you mean by 'anti-blackness' and how it goes beyond racism?

Balanta Jaramillo: Yes. Racism is the result of the modern relationship created under the logic of colonialism. Anti-blackness is the logic that considers, produces and administrates the notion of 'blackness' as a social problem. In commemoration of the International Day against Racism I would like to suggest a question to reflect on: How are we registering the suffering of racialized people? And by register I mean the everyday ways in which we think, narrate and project that reality from our own places, especially if this racialization is not experienced by oneself. Speaking of racism implies recognizing it as something structural that has been a constituent of the society and its institutions. In the framework of democracy, they are the systems of the state: The educational, health, housing, employment, recreation and judicial systems. In addition, it expresses how this condition of citizenship makes us assume the 'otherness' of black people. For example, I think it is necessary to reflect on how terrible 2020 was in terms of racism.

ifa: Are you talking about Colombia or the world?

Balanta Jaramillo: I'm talking in global terms, the scenario of the pandemic increases social inequalities. Racialized populations experience the most critical situations in the midst of openly racist governments like the Trump presidency in the USA, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil and Duque in Colombia. Moreover, during the Duque government in Colombia almost 400 social leaders have already been assassinated, leaders, that represented the racialized, rural and impoverished population of Colombia, mostly black people.

No matter which part of the world, the situation is the same. We are peripheral, impoverished, criminalized. That’s why I think the way in which society assumes democracy, human rights or equality, we barely question the normalization of violence and criminalization of black people. On the contrary, it continues to guide citizen security policies that still condemn black people to live a second rate citizenship conditioned by the racial relations that were established during the slave system.

'Carnival of light for the defense of life' in eastern Cali, XXXII anniversary of the Cultural House 'El Chontaduro', 2018, photo: Mauri Balanta Jaramillo

A Way to Be Racist

ifa: Could you elaborate this for me?

Balanta Jaramillo: There is this myth that equality and human rights are guaranteed in the same terms and conditions to all people. At the same time there is a naturalized and tolerated inferiorization through the very conception of 'blackness'. For example, the relation of black people and the law system is always problematic because of the installed criminal bias. A black person could go to the justice and the first thing they have to face is to be a suspected criminal. In places like Cali you can tell this logic is present but at the same time it's not recognizable as part of the citizenship because the territory we represent has the reputation of being the problematic part of the city. So black people are seen as nothing but problems.

It is difficult to recognize how hard and how deep the expression of racism is when we are insisting on this model of society where discrimination due to race is something barely accepted. People that have not had racialized experience can say 'I'm not racist' but at the same time these people could register racism as something that is not constituent of their own subjectivity. Denying how deeply we are constituted by racism is a way to be racist. Because we are socialized, educated and have been raised in this system under the conventions of racism.

ifa: On March 21st is the International Day against Racism. It was founded by the United Nations 55 Years ago. Looking back, how do you evaluate the development and current state of the fight against racism?

Two children holding a poster celebrating the anniversary of the cultural centre 'El Chontaduro' in Cali, Colombia, in 2009.
Childhood Festival, XXXIII anniversary of the Cultural House 'El Chontaduro', 2019, photo: Jeanne Liebermann

Balanta Jaramillo: I don't feel quite optimistic regarding all the normativity, policy and advocacy around fighting against racism. I’m always connected to the idea of anti-blackness. You can understand the meaning of human rights in terms of democracy but that does not necessarily imply a recognition or even better a transformation of the way you are used to relations to the 'otherness'. It is seen as a black people problem. If someone's experience is not conditioned by it they can say 'good luck with that and I hope you are in a better position in the future' but it doesn't necessarily imply a social commitment. It is not enough to recognize the framework, it is important to recognize yourself and your political position within this framework. Otherwise you can't be more than a witness.

To Be an Ally Don't Make it about Yourself

ifa: For someone who wants to be an ally and not just a witness what can this recognition look like in concrete terms?

Balanta Jaramillo: We need to keep naming and describing problems rather than jumping towards the comfort of the resolution. Non-black allies can participate in and embrace this struggle but at the same time they continue living their life, experiencing privilege and 'normal' recognition of their rights. Black people need to embrace the struggle because there is no other way. Allies refusing to situate themselves in the power relations of slavery thus refuse to recognize the necessity of black defence. For many allies it's hard to manage the racial feedback because if you don't understand how deep the violence is and how deep and hard living this experience is, any suggestions to reflect on it could be considered as an attack to your subjectivity. Recognizing our roots, our position and thus in many ways our complicity in the racial system is hard but we can't avoid it. We need to embrace and politicise it. If it's possible this self-criticism means the opportunity to not only rethink oneself in terms of how racist one can be but it is also a way to transform the notion of race in social terms.

ifa: So far we have been talking about what the individual can and has to do but what can institutions like ifa do as they are also part of the system?

Balanta Jaramillo: Post-conflict Colombia has attracted many international donors and projects in areas like Aguablanca but their interventions generally fail to mobilize the community in the search for endogenous and creative responses to local problems. In so many cases this results in a waste of resources and time with very low effectiveness in reducing social inequalities and promoting economic opportunities that could mean sustainable equality, peace or social change.

It is important to create a dialogue between the community and institutions and try to understand the political vision of this intention to share resources, support projects or bring creative alternatives to the problems that communities face. In our research we have discovered that this political vision not necessarily expresses a commitment towards changing the relations to black people or to 'blackness'. So I want to invite institutions to keep analysing the type of notion they might have towards targeted communities. There is a significant difference between 'we are supporting and sharing resources' but ending up barely financing poverty and ‘we are going to strengthen these communities' capabilities to transform the reality themselves'.

Interview by Hannah Latsch

Editors and Authors
Mauri Balanta Jaramillo

Balanta Jaramillo is a black-queer-working class researcher, activist and film-maker. She is the Director of Communication and Information Management of the Culture House 'El Chontaduro'; a grassroots organisation that became a reference in the struggle for racial justice and the political emancipation of black youth, black women and black LGBTIQ in Colombia. Additionally, she is a member of 'Intersectionalities', an activist research group linked to the Center for Afrodiasporic Studies of the Icesi University (Cali,Colombia) that is focused on gendered, sexed and racialized dynamics of spatial oppression.

Balanta Jaramillo is an alumni of the Cross Culture Programme of ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen).