They ugly face of racism, or as we say here in Chile, classism

This weeks topic is racism/classism in Chile.  If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that this is a topic I am fascinated by. In fact, I think I think about it much more than I actually blog about it. Still, I am really looking forward to what other people have to say (check out the links at the bottom of the blog– they are updated as people post).

Also, take a look at some of my past posts on racism and or classism in Chile:

And other posts just on classism or racism in general:

One of the things that is really interesting to me is the way Americans, in general, are comfortable about talking about race issues and racism but not class issues or classism.  Chile, on the other hand, is the opposite. People are more comfortable talking about class issues and class than about race issues and race.

In fact, the conversation I generally have, goes like this:

Chilean person: There are real race issues in the states.

Me: Yes, there are huge problems. But I think race is a problem here.

Chilean: No, we don’t have race issues here. We do have issues with class.

Me: What do you mean.

Chilean: Well, people of lower class are really looked down upon.

Me: How can you tell who these people are?

Chilean: You just can.

Me: (finding a darker skinned Chilean in the crowd) What about that person… over there… what class are they?

Chilean: They are lower class.

Admittedly, this is not the exact wording; I am not transcribing this conversation.  However, I have had the essence of this conversation well over 200 times with a huge variety of people in my dozen years going back and forth.  Really, it doesn’t matter what the person I point out is wearing or where she is– the skin tone is a give away for class. In the US, you would be hard pressed to have this conversation. Not that classism doesn’t exist; it simply isn’t talked about or addressed.  Therefore, I wanted to talk a bit about class, classism, class issues, theories on classism, types of classism in general. I guess the easiest way I can think of is by defining all pertinent terms.

Key Definitions for Classism

Class – Relative social rank in terms of income, wealth, status, and/or power

Classism – The institutional, cultural, and individual set of practices and beliefs that assign differential value to people according to their socio-economic class; and an economic system which creates excessive inequality and causes basic human needs to go unmet

Class Indicator – a factual or experiential factor that helps determine an individual’s class

Class Continuum – The ranking of individuals or families in a society by income, wealth, stats, or power; the range of experiences of which particular class identities are defined. Lines may be drawn at different points along this continuum, and labeled differently. Class is a relative thin, both subjectively and in terms of resources; our experience varies depending on whether we look up or down the continuum. However, it is clear that everyone at the top end is mostly agent/dominant, while everyone at the bottom end is mostly target/subordinate. The following demonstrates this:

Agents – Owning Class, Ruling Class

Mostly Agents – Middle Class

Mostly Targets – Working Class

Targets – Lower Class/Poor

Class Identity – A label for one category of class experience, such as ruling class, owning class, middle class, working class, lower class

Ruling Class – The stratum of people who hold positions of power in major institutions of the society

Owning Class/Rich – The stratum of families who own income-producing assets sufficient to make paid employment unnecessary

Middle Class – the stratum of families for whom breadwinners’ higher education and/or specialized skills brings higher income and more security than those of working- class people

Upper-Middle Class – The portion of the middle class with higher incomes due to professional jobs and/or investment income.

Lower-Middle Class – The portion of the middle class with lower and less stable incomes due to lower-skilled or unstable employment

Working Class – The stratum of families whose income depends on hourly wages for labor

Lower Class/Poor – The stratum of families with incomes insufficient to meet basic human needs

Individual Classism – This term refers to classism on a personal or individual level, either in behavior or attitudes, either conscious and intentional or unconscious and unintentional. Examples include the thought or belief that a certain type of work is beneath you, or the assumption that everyone has the financial resources to go out to an expensive restaurant.

Institutional Classism – This term refers to the ways in which conscious or unconscious classism is manifest in the various institutions of our society. Two examples from colleges – some schools give preference to children of alumni, thus making it harder for first-generation college applicants to get in; some schools reserve the most convenient parking spaces for faculty, even though they usually work more flexible hours than support staff.

Cultural Classism – This terms refers to the ways is which classism is manifest through our cultural norms and practices. It can often be found in the ideology behind something, as in the commercial for peanut butter, “choosy mothers choose Jif,” implying that if you buy the less expensive store brand you care less about your kids.

Other Chilean Bloggers thoughts on Class/Race in Chile:


  1. We do have race issues and I think you’re right about it. It’s just that those issues are hidden, covered, but they do exist.
    However, I believe that the ultimate class indicator (to use your concept) in Chile is language: the words that you use, the words that you won’t use whatsoever, and how you pronounce them. There are sets of “cuico” words and sets of “roto” words; for example if someone is lower class will probbly say “cancelar la cuenta” instead of “pagar la cuenta”. Another example is the verb “colocar” (to put), which someone from the upper classes probably won’t use. Bottom line is you can actually tell the class origin of someone just by listening 4 seconds of their talk.

  2. Socioblog– I think that is a very astute and correct comment about language. Similar conversations have been had in the US in terms of race (although really it is a class issue) through the speaking of ebonics.

  3. I don’t know how it is in Chile but in Mexico there is a Race issue IN ADDITION to a class issue.

    I can relate to the “Cuico/Roto” thing because I’m pretty sure it’s the equivalent to our “Fresa/Naco” classism system. And what you say applies quite well to Mexico as well.

    But in addition to that, Mexicans are also highly racist.. it’s just that they are not aware of it because they’re not confronted with Race issues so blatantly.

    I remember some friends visiting us for the first time in France. The first thing they said was how surprised they were to see so many “Negros” in France. It didn’t seem like a racist comment to them because, indeed there isn’t a Black community in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a RACIST view towards them. The same applies to Asians. Any Asian (or Asian looking) person will automatically be labeled as a “Chino”.

    Sad, but true.
    Great post btw.


    • Well said. I have also observed the latent racism of Mexicans and Latinos in general towards blacks as well as Asians.

  4. Hi.
    Yes, we have had racial issues in Chile for decades. You know, this country was made of inmigrants from Spain, Germany, Italy, and most Europe, many of whom gradually mixed up with the local indigenous population.
    European’s education and skills soon let them take over the trade, mining, agriculture and other strategic business in Chile, leaving the less educated indigenous population bound to low-skilled jobs and poor education, cutting down their chances to overcome their situation.

    There are 3 Chiles, one made mostly of inmigrant descendants, well educated and generally getting better jobs. You can tell them in the street by their aspect: taller, well dressed and white skinned (looking much like Mediterranean Europeans), though there are also many Asian descendants -mostly jewish, Middle and Far East, holding a big share of the local economy.

    The second Chile is made of a huge mid-class, racially mixed population. You can tell them out because they aren’t exactly white, but they don’t meet the latino stereotype either. Most of them are office clerks, professionals and technicians who make just enough money for a decent living.

    The last Chile is made of strong indigenous blood, They can’t afford enough education so they have remained near the poverty line for decades. You can tell them easily for their look, short stature, slang and well-defined cultural values. They show a notorious class-consciousness and discrimination to other classes, as autodefence against a social regime imposed on them by the huinca (spelled “ween-kah”, meaning white or Spaniard in Mapuche)

    Of course, all these are sensitive taboos you won’t pick easily from any street conversation, so I hope these 2 cents help you.


  5. I briefly went over the site and some of the issues you broach about racism/classim vis-a-vis Chilean culture. I am from Chile originally and what you speak of is not foreign to me. However, I have to disagree with you when you say “One of the things that is really interesting to me is the way Americans, in general, are comfortable about talking about race issues and racism but not class issues or classism.” I simply don’t think this is entirely true. I’ve been living in the US for twenty years, and all I can say is that my experience is been quite the opposite, and in California of all states. I have met tremendous resistance and this is not limited to my own experience. Even the public discourse around race is disengenuous. “In general” just over-generalizes your case. In the last analysis race and class are two aspects of the same thing, with some exceptions. I know how “cuicos” are; I know about “flaites.” And I agree with you that Chileans may not be comfortable talking about race, and I think this is because they don’t know what to say about it. In the US there have been the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and many others who have helped people become conscious of the problem. Still, this hasn’t reached the whole population. Chile, as far as I know, has not had anything comparable. Still, for you to say that Americans are “generally” comfortable talking about racism is an overstatement.

  6. Hi Roberto—

    I was in no ways saying that people in the US are good at race issues. In fact we still struggle with it daily. However, we talk about it. We talk about it being a problem, or not being a problem, or being a part of a situation, or having no relevance. We question every action surrounding our president and every reaction and if any of that is influenced by race.

    But class. In the united states, class arguments make us very wary. We steer away from them whenever possible.

    Chile, on the other hand, talks about class– and not just flaite or cuicos. They look at class as a defining piece of a person’s social being. They look at speech patterns connected to class. They articulate it in a way that we in the states don’t.

    In the US when we talk about Ebonics– people are thinking of African Americans. They don’t take into account the white people who share the same social class and physical space who also speak this way. They do not think of middle class and upper class African Americans who do not speak this way. They think of and define Ebonics in the terms of race, shying away from class whenever possible.

    Obviously, I cannot speak for EVERYONE. In each society people will be different. However, overall, generalize, I stand by my statements.

  7. Hello

    I’m a black man living in Santiago, Chile. I’ve lived here for approximately three years off and on. I’m from London, England and I’m a man of a certain age, which means I grew up in the 60’s & 70’s when racism was very bad in the UK.

    Racism is a universal problem. Always has been and always will be. Perhaps the best we can hope for is ”management” of the problem.

    Some countries have had the courage to be honest with themselves and admit they are systemically racist. They have entered into national dialogue to address racism and put laws into place to to give victims of racism some rights and redress.

    I think the process of self examination with regard to racism, homophobia, sexism and domestic violence in Chile will be a long and onerous task.

    I have had discussions about racism with Chilean people from all walks of life and all social classes and the response is always the same. Complete and utter denial.

    There always follows a reflex action to deny racism and to say that Chilean people are friendly, helpful, kind, generous and welcoming to visitors (foreigners) to Chile.

    This has not been my experience here in Chile.

    As I said right at the start, racism is a universal problem; it is not isolated to Chile. I do live in hope that one day I will meet a Chilean who will acknowledge that racism exists.

    Similarly, with all the problems we have as a human race, we can only hope to change when we are aware of our problems and shortcomings.

    ‘Denial’ is not river in Egypt but a very powerful force to resist change and growth, individually and nationally.

    Vida Luminosa

    • Well said Vida. I like your insights. I am an Indian female (dark skin) born and raised in Africa , lived in Europe and North America and will soon be moving to Chile for ten years with my soon-to-be-husband. He will be a professor there and I will study correspondence or hopefully find english courses I am interested in. Anyways…I am not so keen about Chile as I am about Canada or even South Africa. Maybe I just need robe open to it? But it will be hard to be open to a place that isn’t open to me? Whatever the case, I hope I have a wonderful experience and meet good Chileans who will be my close friends. Any advice?

      • Any advice? Yes, stop reading web posts like mine 😉 If your life is taking you to Chile, then trust your life and go there with an open mind and experience the wonders and marvels of the Chilean culture. Immerse your self into their culture and language, art and history and I’m sure you will have a unique experience that will remain with you forever. Isn’t that one of the reasons we travellers yearn to live and experience other cultures?

        Kind Regards

  8. okay ummm hi my name is samantha and i just want tuu say i really hate Racism, it puts me down b-coz i really hate it when people jugde other people by the color of there skins thats just really sad:(:(:

  9. If a woman moved to Saudi Arabia from a western nation, should she expect to drive her car wearing shorts and a halter? Each country has its social rules, right or wrong.
    When you are searching for an alternate place to live, it is imperative to visit first, talk to the locals and get your take on the social scene; if you like it, do it. If not, keep looking.
    PS I am not a racist either; just a realist.

    • Frankania, would you choose to date or not date a person based on the values in their home country? This is how people often end up in an ‘alternative place” they find challenging.

      Are you a realist to this extent?

  10. Race issues in tthe U.S. and Europe might be different than in Latin America, I’m not saying that there is no racism, but ist seems to me that the division between races might be more accentuated in the U.S. ans E.U. and a slightly better integration of other cultures in Latin America, true there are cultures that remain more close knitted, and contrary to the U.S. and E.U. there might not be that many different groups. I used to work at the airport in Puerto Rico and apart from One Mexican several Dominicans and later and Argentinian, most of the workforce was local. Now I work at DFW Airport in Texas and the work force is from all over the world, and although every group tends to clan together (Asians, Africans, Middle Easterns, Latinos, African Americans, Caucasians) they also integrate well with the other groups, there will always be certain amount of discrimination between groups, mostly due to ignorance regarding each others culture but there is also discrimination within the groups in the form of classism, former status in the country of origin, last names and education level, regardles we all are performing the same type of manual labor there is that snob factor. And by the way all of those who start beating their chests now claiming they are not like that, you are the first ones.

  11. Clare, I wanted to start by saying that I think you wrote an excellent piece that has shed light on a topic of interest for me. My girlfriend and I would really like to live in South America for a short period of time, but we have had a difficult time deciding where would be best. I am a white male and she is of mixed ethnicity and has relatively light skin; I wanted to get an idea of how we would be received as a couple. Is it common in Chile to see couples who look similar to how we do? We have dealt with our fair share of racial issues living in the northern US, but I think it might be more difficult to handle in a foreign country.


    No Mad Spirit

    • Hi No Mad Spirit,

      I think that you do find mixed race couples in Chile and lighter skin mulattos tend to stick out less. Santiago is quite cosmopolitan, Vina and Valpo are not bad. In some rural areas you may get more stares. In some ways, as foreigners, you get a pass…. because they assume that on the class side, you have money. Good luck whatever you choose.

  12. Hi Clare: you are just what I was looking for. Your information is what I needed for my work, my research and my artwork. I completely agree with you. People in Chile are racist and they base this racist issue on the colour of your skin, where you live, what car you drive, what school you go to, etc, etc. Very narrow minded. I live in Australia and yes we too experience racism here but to experience racism from your own country and people is not right. Chilean society has serious issues and one racist issue I am interested in is racism towards the Mapuches. I could not find any reference to them in any of your post but with the information I did find here, I have plenty to add to my research. Thank you.

  13. Hi,
    I am from Canada and was married to a Chilean for many years…I have been to Chile twice, first for 6 months and then again for 1 year, but that was about 16 years ago…things may have changed since then.
    I found that Chileans are often openly racist…they just don’t think think they are and don’t think that what they are doing/saying is offensive.. They identify you by your most outstanding trait….They call bald guys baldy or “pelado”, if you are skinny,” flaco”, if you are dark, “negrito” or “cholo”, if you are foreign, “gringo” etc etc. I met a rather Germanic looking Chilean who told me that the white race is certainly the superior race, right?..when I looked stunned he realized I didn’t share this view and shut up about it….Many Nazis escaped to Chile and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe he might have been one of their offspring.
    They are also very sexist…for example, my husbands brothers teased him when they caught him washing dishes at home, and grabbed a mop and told him to mop the floor when he was finished all the while laughing about his “womanlike” domesticity…doing “women’s work”.
    My sister in law married a Chilean man of Chinese heritage and his own relatives on his mother’s side all called him the nickname “Chino.”.It didn’t seem to bother my sister in law at all and he was her son.. They didn’t apparently see it as wrong…. it was not said hatefully,but with affection. They loved him as one of their own but because he looked very Chinese, they called him Chino.

    Chile’s beloved comic book “Condorito” portrays many racial and sexual stereotypes.
    I also met many Chileans are more sensitive to these issues and don’t talk like this, but many do and don’t consider it wrong. .

    It is true that classism is very strong in Chile…there is a big divide between rich and poor, with a small middle class…. and it is often has a lot to do with how you look…with a preference for lighter skin…This is also common to other countries in Latin America…just turn on the television and you will see.most of the people on television look European.. .

    Having a maid is a symbol of status…..if you can afford a maid you will have one even if you live in a very small house. I once went to view a newly built housing complex with very small attached houses. They all had maids’ quarters As a Canadian i found this to be very odd. Why would you want a maid living in such close quarters with you?. They often have to put locks on all their rooms because their maids steal from them….as a Canadian this all made little sense to me.

    I heard an expression in Chile, that to be from “una familia buena”, or “a good family” is one that has lots of money. I thought a good family is one that is virtuous….Classism/racism/sexism is a big problem in Chile and is very entrenched, but I suspect and hope that this may be changing…as I said before it has been 16 years since my last visit. .

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