Colombia is one of the most ethically diverse countries in the world and Cali in particular has one of the largest black populations in Latin America. Nevertheless, one of the greatest obstacles to accurately examining racism in this country is the lack of official data on the socioeconomic situation of non-whites. There are, however, a few independent statistics which help to paint a better picture. Only 1 in every 5 afrocolombians reach higher education, half of afrocolombians are unemployed, 44/1000 black children die before the age of 1 and 45% of afrocolombians do not have healthcare. Statistics about racism in Colombia seem to only focus on the afrocolombian population, this is an indicator of a common 'identity' crisis in Colombia where those who have even a tiny bit of white ethnicity, which is probably most of the population to some degree, will identify as white, making any meaningful study on racism very difficult to carry out.
As is common in many countries in the South, the media is inundated with photos and adverts of aryan white, blonde, blue-eyed tall models who are either hired from Argentina (a predominantly white country with large Italian/Germanic heritage), the USA or Europe, or are sometimes Colombian highlighting the almost absolute lack of racial mixing between those with European ethnicity in the 500 of years since the Spanish invasion. There is an obsession with eye colour here and Colombians seem to have a superhuman skill to notice whether someone has brown eyes or not. My boyfriend recently showed me a model's profile whose description said that his eyes were 'greygreen with honey' and that his hair was light brown. Unfortunately what he wants to look like doesn't change the fact that his photos showed very dark brown hair and eyes, but it demonstrates the desperation to look as far removed from the darker races as possible, even for a white successful model.
The most ethnic diversity you will see in the media or fashion catwalks is one black person and this may be because in the western media there are some famous black models and actors, which means that Colombian outlets can believe they are not being racist, however, the indigenous, predominant races here are almost never represented.
On the other hand, it is always shocking and uncomfortable for me when this obsession for blonde whites with light eyes ('mono ojiclaro' such a commonly used phrase here) becomes apparent when I walk down the street or meet new people and they stare at me in admiration. Although, obviously they are being nice, they are simultaneously implying that they are unhappy with the way they look and their cultural heritage and it creates a sort of artificial superiority. And here I am thinking I am too white and need to get myself a tan, much to the surprise of my boyfriend's family! Clearly neither my culture, nor theirs is getting it right, but unfortunately the race issues here have far deeper consequences for people's every day lives.
The issue with racism here is that it is not direct, there are no racist riots or people being beaten up or killed in obviously racist attacks. However, there is an institutionalised and normalised racism that seriously impinges on these ethnicities' human rights leading to low levels of social mobility. This is reflected in the every day language of the society with 'indio' being an insult synonymous with stupid, ignorant or animalistic, generally inferior in all ways. Also I have heard people talking about the fact that a mix between black and indigenous really is the most ugly mix and how people strive to improve their blood by 'marrying up' i.e. marrying someone lighter skinned than yourself. The cleaner my boyfriend's parents used to hire is black and she once said that she would never work for a black family, that it would be humiliating. It is clear that the social hierarchy by race, not only by class, is deep rooted and that challenging this is seen as disruptive and odd.
An example of the ignorance of racism in this country and the reason why most people when asked would deny its existence, is the country's recent first-ever sentence for racism given to a town councillor who stated the following: 'being honest, difficult groups to manage like the blacks, the displaced and the indigenous are a cancer that the national government and the world has' ('Siendo sinceros, grupos difíciles de manejar como las negritudes, los desplazados y los indígenas, son un cáncer que tiene el Gobierno Nacional y mundial'). In spite of the sentencing, he stated he did not regret what he had said and did not retract his statement.
My final observation regarding race is that another reason why even the black and indigenous populations may not acknowledge racism even though they are denied social mobility because of it, is because it is simply accepted that this is the way things are. During my interviews with these people for my dissertation, the most common theme was that they were resigned to this situation that will never change and they deserve to live this way as this is the 'natural' order of things. They are given the illusion of freedom and rights in order to not complain and to ensure that the situation of racial hierarchy remains unchallenged.
To date, I have only heard an indigenous language being spoken once, when I was at the Migración Colombia office getting my visa, and I think I was extremely lucky to have heard it. And, again, only once have I seen an indigenous wearing authentic clothing from their culture. Here is a photo I took, so you can see the stark contrast between him and what the media lead us to believe Colombians look like.