Whiter shade of beyond the pale

November 21, 2003

Racial categories used in North America don't translate to the South, especially in Brazil, where asking people for their raca has elicited as many as 135 different 'colour' terms, says John Norvell

In the US and Canada, race is an acceptable category of social analysis, with only perfunctory reminders of its culturally constructed nature, although the specific meanings of racial terms are contested and negotiated within American racial politics.

Drawing on the long-running consensus view of evolutionary biologists, anthropologists now hold that "race" is a sociopolitical concept with utterly no biological basis as a meaningful way to divide the human species. But we also tend to be acutely aware of the political effects of publicly advancing, at least without caveats, the "no-race" position. In fact, it is political conservatives who tend to take up the no-race position to argue that racially defined public policy merely reinforces the fiction of racial difference. Their opponents on the left accuse them of cynicism, pointing out that these same conservatives decry the use of constructivist language in the politics of gender, for instance. At any rate, anthropologists writing about race as a culturally constructed pseudo-biological fiction are generally quick to fall back to a pragmatic compromise position that accepts "race" - in terms of people's and institutions' use of the term - as a social fact when talking about North America, lest they be accused of diminishing the ongoing role of racism in reproducing social inequality.

Latin America, however, is a different story. American cultural anthropologists have long used case studies of racial categories "south of the border" to teach the constructivist position, pointing out not only that racial categories in the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas do not map directly onto ours, but also that the concept of "race" itself is highly variable. For example, the English term "race" has no adequate equivalent in Brazil - adequate, that is, for eliciting responses from its natives that are comprehensible within a "race relations" paradigm. Some researchers have found that tipo , or "type", gets them answers that seem "racial", but tipo , like raça , the obvious cognate etymologically, is used very loosely to refer to many different types of "types".

Brazil's census interviewers ask about "colour", but a famous 1976 study by the census agency found that if official categories were not mentioned, interviewers were buried by a blizzard of highly descriptive and inventive "colour" terms - 135 of them in that study. Anthropologist Marvin Harris reported nearly 500 terms. Even these "colour" terms often connote other aspects of physiognomy, such as hair, or refer to specific social roles involving far more than physical appearance, such as the mulattoes made famous through samba and carnival.

One can ask - and many have - if "race" is really a good term of analysis for Brazil at all. Anthropologist Audrey Smedley has identified criteria for distinguishing a racial system from one simply based on ethnic or physical prejudices. Allowing that some form of in-group identification and chauvinism is universal, she argues that race as a cognitive, political and economic principle of social organisation is the particular accomplishment of European colonisation from about the late 16th century on. Decades of unassailed research have demonstrated that none of these conditions prevails in contemporary Brazil, although it is a deeply inegalitarian society riven by many deeply seated social prejudices. It may be a "pigmentocracy", where lighter individuals do better than darker ones, but it is not a "racial" system.

Several factors - all of them transnational in nature - have, however, kept "race" alive in Brazilianist scholarship.

First, the shared legacy of African slavery and conquest of indigenous peoples all over the Americas provides a historical framework that invites comparison between the postcolonial, post-abolition social orders that emerged.

Second, the very comparison of social formations across the Americas under the rubric of "race" has the consequence of keeping race on the table as the appropriate term for talking about social difference in Latin America.

The US-Brazil comparison, in particular, has been perpetuated in the scholarship of both countries since at least the 1920s - a result of travel and research in Brazil by key figures in the history of US anthropology and sociology and of periods of residence in the US by key Brazilian scholars.

No matter how radically different Brazilian society appeared in their accounts, the transnational discipline of race relations ensured that the comparative framework continued to be identified as pertaining to "race".

Third, through the proliferation of departments, professorial lines, programmes, fellowships, conferences, courses, journals and so on, all defined around race - a veritable sub-industry of "raciology" - many of us depend on the continued salience of the term to give meaning to our career trajectories.

Finally, some recent and surprising policy initiatives in Brazil have breathed new life into a universalist conception of "race". Brushing aside accusations that they have imported a language of race and redress from the US, a few activists in the state of Rio de Janeiro have managed to get passed, with little public debate and against a growing backlash response, an affirmative-action programme for the state university system of Rio de Janeiro that is as rigid and quota-based as anything in the ongoing 40-year-old experiment in the US. As the polar language of "blacks" and "whites" is heard more and more in public discourse in Brazil, the work of several generations of scholars on the nuances of colour and class begins to seem trivial and obfuscatory at best, and complicit with the ideological self-justifications of the Brazilian upper classes at worst.

Inevitably, academic responses to this have become acrimonious.

Anthropologists are loath to appear to essentialise the "true nature" of any culture, and to brand the anti-racist activists as illegitimate for importing foreign concepts essentialises Brazil and fails to acknowledge the significance of the global diasporic politics of which the movement is a part.

But some observers of this growing racial politics in Brazil have let the politically loaded terms of the black movement - "Afro-descended", "Afro-Brazilian", "black", "white" - enter their writing as if they were meaningful analytic categories. This leaves them unable to critique the movement's claim to speak for all Brazilians "of colour" and its self-representation as part of the inevitable emergence of an "Afro" tradition repressed within but distinct from "Brazilian" culture. The absence of these terms in the everyday discourse of most Brazilians can then be theorised only as "silence", "repression", or "invisibility".

Anthropologists, perhaps suffering from an academic inferiority complex, tend to be gun-shy about "advocacy". Whether we wish to see such movements succeed or fail (and I have grave reservations about this one), we should state our political judgements directly instead of rewriting the anthropology of Latin America to make this truly novel turn of events appear expected all along. And this means we must loosen our grip on the concept of "race" too.

John M. Norvell is a lecturer in anthropology at Harvard University. He will speak on this subject at the American Anthropological Association annual conference in Chicago next week.

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