The Social Origins of Race: Race and Racism in the Americas, Part I

September 25, 2007

“When the international scientific community rejected race as biology,” writes Marisol de la Cadena in this Report, “it did not question the discriminatory potential of culture....” That not-always-visible discriminatory potential is the theme of this report, a theme especially appropriate for Latin America where, as de la Cadena tells us, “culturalist” definitions of race have been central to Latin American nationalisms and identities.

This is the first in a projected four-report series called “Race and Racism in the Americas.” We intend it to set the tone for that series by focusing on the cultural and social origins—and cultural construction—of race. In this first report we look at the roles played by race in the organization of exclusion, at the ways in which oppressed and subjugated groups are imagined and represented by other groups, and at the ways in which these images and representations can be both internalized and resisted in the formation of racial identities.

These images, of course, are far from uniform. Since race is a cultural construct, not everyone sees it in precisely the same way. Norman Whitten and Rachel Corr trace out some interesting variations on the theme of racial representation in their discussion of the varied perceptions of “blackness” by indigenous peoples of the Americas. The indigenous people they write of, for example, do not associate blackness with “slavery” as much as they do with images of self-liberation. “Race,” they remind us, “is a malleable carrier of historical and cosmological meanings.”

Many of the racialized assumptions of culture, of course, are particularly powerful and persistent, especially when held by dominant groups. Antonio Sérgio Guimarães illustrates this phenomenon for Brazil, and Alejandro de la Fuente for Cuba. In his discussion of the survival of racism in Cuba, de la Fuente shows how, despite the anti-racist efforts of the Cuban Revolution, racist attitudes have persisted to the present day and, in the current crisis, have been “powerful enough to be mobilized by whites responding to a unique set of opportunities.”

Racism intersects with other forms of oppression, and these “intersections” of inequality will be examined throughout this four-part series. In her essay on race, hair and gender, for example, Casandra Badillo examines the symbolic weight carried by curly hair among Dominican women of color. Because the oppressions of race and gender are so intertwined, she finds, the decision to not straighten one’s hair becomes a double resistance, “a two-fold act of rebelliousness” for which women, especially poor women, must, of course, pay the price.

“Race and Racism in the Americas” will be spread over the next year and a half, and will move from a discussion of the principal forms of racism and racial representation in the Americas (this Report), through a discussion of the ways in which racial categories may be both reinforced and transformed in the process of migration (Part II, later this year) and an examination of race and artistic expression (Part III, early 2002). The series will end with an analysis of resistance to racism and the role(s) of racial identity in progressive and liberatory movements (Part IV, to be published in late 2002). The series, that is, will move from oppression to resistance.

Our hope is that the series can successfully link discussions of race with other crucial contemporary discussions, including the debates about economic and social development and the analysis of other forms of exclusion and discrimination, especially along lines of class and gender. In addition, we will make a particular effort to examine the ways in which the Latin American racial experience bears upon current struggles and dilemmas in the United States. Above all, we intend to produce a series that will be a useful tool in teaching about and organizing against the many forms of social, cultural and political exclusion.


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