How we see ourselves. Race, ethnocentricity and the variable concept of being.

As an alternate theory for studying human behavior, the flaws of cultural relativism have been well documented. Regardless of this, and with my admittedly limited understanding of the subject in mind, I must admit that as a Colombian living in the United States, this is a concept I often find myself calling upon. If only because of the ethnocentricity that we are all guilty of, but few realize exists. That is, until you live in another country, and then you can't help but see it everywhere.

Consider yet another interview I did with a European newspaper last week about Colombia's cycling culture, in which I was asked about Nairo Quintana being "an indian", and more specifically about his "indian blood" and cultural identity. Now, if you put aside the term "indian", and merely replace it with "native" (to account for linguistic differences) you realize that you've come upon a significant cultural divide. At least I did. This is because the way that different cultures see ethnicity and race is so vastly different, that no simple answer can be given in these matters. The question that was posed used both terminology and a thought process that are largely non existent in the Colombian mindset.

The same can be said to those who believe that Nairo Quintana is the first "native american" to win a grand tour (don't laugh), as some discussed on this forum. I've heard this point of view more than once, and I suppose that the reasoning behind it goes a bit like this: he looks "native", and he's from the Americas, so he's a native american. The levels of assumption and misguided thinking nested within that statement are nearly endless.

Was Lucho Herrera another "native american" grand tour winner? Oy.

Was Lucho Herrera another "native american" grand tour winner? Oy.

In my mind, the ways we each view ourselves, as individuals or as a peoples, are little more than flexible social constructs (often dictated by where we grew up or live) which seem surprisingly unshakable to some. Hence these comments and the question about Nairo Quintana. In reality, the fluidity of these terms, how they change in meaning, or even existence, by geographic location is fairly obvious, I think.

But how to answer that question about Nairo? Well, let me try, and I preface the following by saying that this is, by and large, how we Colombians think of ourselves, while keeping in mind the very variable nature of the topic at hand. I'm also always leery of speaking for such a vast number of people, and yet, here it goes.

We Colombians largely view ourselves as Colombian, and that usually means that we are a mix of native, European and sometimes African blood. But this is not something we usually think about, as many in the United States do with their sometimes distant Irish, Italian or German roots. The spectrum of how dark the color of our skin is speaks to that mix, and yet we continue to see ourselves as Colombian. This is not because Colombia is a utopian nation where race is not an issue (plus, our class divisions sometimes make up for that), it's just the way things are.

It's also worth pointing out that in Colombia, the term "indigenous" is reserved for truly indigenous people who usually still live as their ancestors did countless generations back. Remember, there are tribes in Colombia that have had little or no contact with "civilization" to speak of. Those individuals aside, some of whom would not probably not see themselves as Colombian anyway, since they may be unaware of the fact that they live within a country (let alone which one), it's fair to say that we are merely Colombian. We may reference the city or region where we are from to explain our use of a certain word or our accent. Or perhaps to excuse our ability (inability or unwillingness) to dance to certain style of music. Or to explain our deep devotion one a certain type of food or something of the sort. But the notion of someone from Boyaca (like Quintana) being an "indian", much less "native american" would (at the risk of speaking for the population of an entire Colombian department), strike them as bizarre. If you are Colombian, and you think I'm way off on this, please feel free to weigh in on the comments section.

And maybe bizarre is an accurate way to look at all of this anyway. Because the more you look into these matters, the more interesting examples you find. For example, consider the fact that someone like me, in the context of the United States, is a "latino". But I'm only that here, since both that term and concept don't exist anywhere else. Out there, if I'm anything, I guess I'm Colombian. See, "latino" is an American invention, a grouping based on a common language, which curiously excludes nationalities like Spain (they are European), since it's also based on location of your country of origin. Conversely, it also leaves out Belizians (because they are Latin American, but they speak English), and sometimes Brazilians are also left out too, because they speak Portuguese.

In other words, A,E,I,O,U and sometimes, Y. Except sometimes not Y.

So while I'm aware of the flaws in cultural relativism, I also think about it I often, since I find myself at a loss for words when topics like these come up. I suppose we can each view ourselves however we want, and we should, while always understanding that terms, definitions, or even the concept of being "something" are relative at best, and may very well not even exist for others.  It's there, where we overlap with one another that confusion happens. This may strike some as confusing, annoying, hypersensitive or downright troubling. Personally, I find this plurality and its implications to be refreshing. I like knowing that somewhere else, at this very moment, another person has a completely different way of looking at one tiny aspect of humanity. Even more exciting is the fact that one thing I take as fact, may not even exist for someone else. And with that in mind, I remain open to seeing the world someone else's way, if only for a moment.