Racial Politics, Racial Identities Race and Racism in the Americas, Part III

September 25, 2007

“Racial Politics, Racial Identities,” the third report of our “Race and Racism in the Americas” series, explores the ways oppressed and excluded groups of the Americas, principally Afro-Latinos and indigenous peoples, have responded to oppression and exclusion with political mobilization and self-affirming forms of expression. There is a broad range of politics on these pages: the “rising up” of indigenous peoples, painstaking transnational Afro-Latino coalition building and lobbying, the struggles of indigenous women both within and on behalf of their communities, and the sometimes surprising turns of U.S. ethnic politics.

There are also descriptions of how racial identity has also given rise to processes of affirmation in a number of non- or pre-political ways. Peter Wade, for example, writes of how some Afro-Colombians have created, reinforced and expressed a racial identity through music and dance. Margot Olavarría traces out a similar process among Afro-Cuban youth who are using hip-hop as an instrument for social criticism. In both countries, very different forms of musical expression—from salsa and vallenato to rap—have helped people carve out spaces that are social refuges and often serve as a platform for cultural politics.

Identities based on color, biological descent and culture clearly intersect in the Americas. Sheila Walker makes a cogent distinction between blackness and Africanity: “Most Afro-Brazilians...have maintained a great deal of obviously African culture because the African presence remains an integral, defining and acknowledged component of Brazilian culture.” But not all Afro-Brazilians are black; a wide variety of skin color can exist even in the same Brazilian family. Nonetheless, she points out, Brazil is no “racial democracy”; people of visible African descent have significantly less access to social and economic privilege. This has given rise to a black political movement, and this movement, she writes, may be leading to Brazil’s evolution toward a white and black U.S. racial model.

Michael Turner applauds that conscious evolution and the adoption of the term “Afro-Latino” by last year’s UN Conference on Race and Racism. “Official acceptance of the term should be understood more for its political implications than for narrow academic appropriateness or accuracy,” argues Turner. A clear Afro-Latino identity is a necessary precursor, he argues, for a politics of resistance and affirmation.

This point is echoed in Juan Flores’ discussion of U.S. Latino identity and politics: Especially in New York, he maintains, many young Latinos feel a strong affiliation with African-Americans. “In the case of Puerto Ricans,” he writes, “this perspective entails not only an emphasis on Afro-Boricua heritages but, because of the decades-long experience of close interaction with African-Americans, an identification and solidarity with American blacks....” In some cases then, a black identity can become a powerful construct for U.S. Latino politics.

Indigenous politics turns out to be quite different. We get a sense of the difference from Guillermo Delgado’s discussion of “territory” and the indigenous connection to the land—not lands which can be divided, apportioned, bought and sold, Delgado insists, but the land or territory, the basis of social and political life. Territory for indigenous peoples is a social, ecological and political construct that gives definition to a cultural identity. The debate over “autonomy” that emerged, for example, in Mexico, is closely linked to questions regarding the integral connections of peoples to their territories. “Such proposals,” says Delgado, “focus on communities that struggle to maintain, or to reinvent themselves using their ethnic and social memory.”

Resistance to racial oppression can bring greater awareness of other forms of domination. The many expressions of indigenous feminism emerging in Mexico and Guatemala are examples of this awareness. Aída Hernández Castillo details the struggles of Maya women “to change those ‘traditional’ elements that exclude and oppress them.” Identity-based politics, then, has become a force in the Americas, and a key part of the struggle for a more just and inclusive world.


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