Cultural fetishisation in Australia

Latin Americans are exotic in Australia. We do not carry racial stigma the same way that being Latinx in North America does, and because there are so few of us, we do not congregate in insular enclaves of Spanish-speaking communities like certain area codes of Miami or Los Angeles tend to.

So you’d think that our status as exotic and different could only be of benefit as we are vaguely western in the eyes of Australia’s white Anglo culture. Yes and no. Being othered still comes with challenges of its own, and a lack of representation means that stereotypes gleaned from Hollywood media mean we have to deal with some unfortunate ignorance that braids Cuban music, Mexican food, Colombian drugs and Puerto Rican faces into one congealed mass: “Latino”.

In comparison to other ethnic groups, we have it easy. There hasn’t been a Pauline Hanson-like figure who has come out to say “we are being swamped by Latinos”, and there certainly are no stereotypical “Latinx jobs” here in the same way there ostensibly are Indian and Pakistani jobs such as Uber drivers or taxis. We certainly do not face any violence like the Muslim community experiences.

Aside from the obvious things, such as having to deal with being asked if I ‘speak Mexican’ or deal drugs, our culture is homogenised and then fetishised. For a region of the world that comprises over 25 countries, speaking varieties of Spanish, Portuguese, French and Creole, to most Australians, being Venezuelan may mean the same thing as being Chilean. As though from Guadalajara down to Tierra del Fuego we all eat the same empanadas, shout ‘arriba andale andale’ and “do the salsa” to mariachi music…

I used to think of it as an advantage when I met people and they showed interest in speaking the little Spanish they knew to me. Even if they would ask me if I knew anything about what Mexico is like, I would take it as an opportunity to share my own Venezuelan culture. The fact that I was different was a point of pride for me, thinking that in some way it must be a social tool, perhaps.

Yet, of the last six job interviews I have been to, four of them have turned out to be because I am Latino.

Don’t get me wrong. Job hunting for me is hard. I hate it, I feel as though I spend four hours on an application, only to fold it up like a paper plane and to launch it into the abyss. It feels as though one in ten returns with a “thanks but no thanks” and one in fifteen returning with a “would you like to come in for an interview?”

These interviews usually appear normal until after the introductions, the usual questions begin:

“So you’re from Venezuela, that’s so awesome, my husband and I just started salsa classes!”

It’s pretty disheartening that 2/3 of the interviews you receive more or less are because of someone showing an interest in your ethnicity. The truth is that of this exchange I am being reduced to my culture, and in an act of white vampirism these employers want to continue to consume my culture – I am valuable to them not because of my education and experience but because I am Latinx. It may not seem racist because of the special position Latinx American’s find themselves in, but it comes because I am Other, and being othered is the same foundation for all the racism many Australians of colour face.

So why don’t I just remove any notion of my culture, or my cultural interests/hobbies from my resume and applications if it comes as a detriment to my success? Well for starters, white people don’t have to so I don’t see why I should have to. Further, my name is Saúl Alexander Zavarce Corredor, my culture is part of my very identity, right down to my name.

In a country where it is proven that having an ethnic (read: not anglo) sounding name makes it harder to get job interviews, I find myself constantly opening with the fact that I am Venezuelan Australian, in an attempt to clarify my visa status and to ensure they do not question my English ability, despite my clearly foreign name.

It’s not just in professional spaces either, in dating I find a very similar situation. Using Tinder is an exercise is meeting women who are learning Spanish and want to practice. It is easy to dismiss this as being a perk of being foreign, that you meet people interested in your culture who want to learn your language and you are in a unique position to not only share your culture but also meet people you are also attracted to.

Sounds great right?

Sure. I love being reduced to an ill-informed stereotype of my culture for a vampiric white person to feel better about themselves because of how “cultured” they are for dating a brown person and speaking another language. That is cultural fetishisation, it’s creepy and it’s damn objectifying.

The test to show whether or not you are being fetishised is simple: is the other person attracted to you only because of your skin or ability to teach them your language, or not?

If you find yourself in a relationship where the other individual is consistently saying “I love your brown latin skin”, “I love your curly latin hair” and introducing you as their “Latinx” Significant Other, then you are being fetishised. They’re using you to profit for themselves, to feel better for being open to other cultures. The greatest problem with being fetishised is that in this two-dimensional construct that people fetishise, entire cultures, regions and communities are reduced to stereotypes and essentialised. And when people don’t fit that stereotype, they face violence.

As much as I am Latino, I also want to be free to be myself. The same societal pressures that reduce cultures into stereotypes creates expectations upon those people, that when not met, are reinforced with statements like “oh you’re not very Latinx then”. When I challenge the stereotype of Latino Machismo and womanising it shouldn’t make me any less Latino, but it nevertheless does in the eyes of Anglo-Saxons who don’t know any better.

The truth of it all is that while some ethnicities’ challenges are more salient than others, the effects of colonisation and racism are subtle and felt differently by individuals in foreign countries. My own experience has been a slow realisation of how creepy it is to be reduced to a stereotype for personal gain, but for others, it may be empowering if only because we are lucky enough to not be the centre of Australia’s xenophobic rage for the time being. Because for whatever benefits we gain from this “positive racism”, it comes from the same place, the same othering that has left the door open for others to be the victims of hate crimes.

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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