Chileans' views of Americans vary widely

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

I have touched on the theme of stereotypes previously, but this week I want to talk specifically about the sort of image we as Americans have crafted for ourselves -- wittingly or not -- through our various cultural and political exports.

Chileans hold a robust collection of stereotypes about Americans. As I constantly reminded my students, many of these stereotypes only make sense if you consider the source and one's own point of view. For example, gringos are considered to be tall and blond, with big features (feet, ears, etc.). And though we might not think it of ourselves, compared to most people here, the gringos that Chileans encounter are noticeably taller and have considerably lighter hair than Chileans do.

The deluge of American TV programs, movies and music has given gringos the image of being particularly fond of drinking, partying and having sex. We typically dress ourselves in bright colors, I am told, and often do not use underwear.

Though some of the stereotypes are strange (we hate Canadians?), others are something to be proud of. For example, my students told me they think Americans have more rights than other people, and Chileans of all types have given me overwhelmingly positive comments regarding the march toward full legal equality for homosexuals in the States.

The Chileans I have met are seemingly unanimous on a few points. Although we are known to be an incredibly wealthy country, we are also thought of as being uncaring and cold when it comes to helping other peoples and nations in need. We are a country of racists and classists. When faced with an international problem, we use our superior military capabilities to enforce our will on others, ignoring the innocents that we hurt in the process.

These types of actions make us appear to think we own the world. Even our use of the word "American" to describe ourselves is seen as arrogant, since the truth is anyone from North or South America is rightfully an American. We are ignorant, knowing and caring little about the rest of the planet unless we have an economic interest at stake.

Of course, many of these stereotypes have been fueled by our country's recent invasion of Iraq and our rebuff of the United Nations. As I have written previously, Chileans can generally separate President Bush from the people he governs, and they typically lay most of the blame for our recent actions at his feet.

However, Bush's re-election would be seen by most as a stamp of approval by the American people. If that were to happen, the demarcation of the U.S. government from the U.S. people -- and the subsequent division of responsibility -- would no longer make sense. At that point, we would all be held accountable.

Justin Cox is a graduate of Scott City High School and Washington University in St. Louis. He is teaching English in Chile.

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