We Want You. . . To Think Just Like Us [The Throwback]

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our newest feature, The Throwback, where we’ll spotlight some of our favorite pieces from the site’s history. First up, this August 9, 2007 piece on the collisions between perceptions of race in the U.S. and South America.

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

When most people think of American imperialism, they think of planting the stars and stripes deep into the soil of foreign lands. They think of economic dominance, the forced removal of government leaders, the exploitation of labor and resources.

But what causes less protest is often a form of Ameri-centric thought that stirs in the minds of many who fight its more tangible effects: Identity Imperialism.

A few weeks ago, friend and fellow blogger Malena (of Racewire) and I had a heavy-duty e-mail conversation about the politics of race in Brazil. She had written a short response to an article musing about how identity works within a nation of such vast diversity. While many view Brazil as a racial and ethnic utopia, Malena points out, this myth often clouds what she proposed was de facto apartheid.

Considering my having been to several major cities in Brazil and my continued interest in studying the country and its many cultures, I slightly disagreed with her assertion of apartheid insofar as race was concerned, especially considering that apartheid is explicitly linked to institutions and may be too strong of a word to apply to socially dictated segregation, but our discussion made me think about issues that went beyond the article she had deconstructed.

I wondered if by making external judgments of a society’s handling of race, were many professed anti-racists and supporters of national sovereignty free from colonial influence engaging in a dangerous process no different from that which they rejected?

The answer, for me, was a solid yes.

My response wasn’t always so firm. During my senior year of college, I dated a Brazilian guy who was convinced that I wasn’t black, and I just didn’t get it. In my exchange with Malena, I explained:

a brazilian guy I dated would always be like…wendi you are not black…and i’d be like, dude, wtf? of course i am…but he always said that where he was from, i wouldn’t be…and indeed that was the case…blackness there is like…100% african…and even then, they refer to themselves in colors…like dark brown…

Indeed, in Brazil there are many many more terms for racial classifications than there are in the United States:

The concept of race is very flexible in Brazil. People who would be considered black in Europe or in the United States in Brazil get a variety of designations, some euphemistic, including pardo (the official designation for mixed race), mulato, mulato escuro (dark mulatto), mulato claro (light mulatto), and moreno. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso whom no one would call black, says that he has a foot in the kitchen, meaning that he has black ancestors.

While the “one-drop-rule” makes the whitest American a black as long as there is a black ancestor somewhere, a lack of precision in the Brazilian race classification makes the color question a personal choice, seemingly with infinite possibilities.

Somehow, I had failed to remember this, as if suffering from a total mental lapse, when Paulo challenged my idea of blackness. Having been raised in the United States, especially considering my hometown was in the South, being black was really clear to me, and had been for a long time until the aforementioned (and a few other prior) interruptions that made me seriously question what race meant beyond my self-centered American perspective.

Race is to Paulo as snow is to Inuits. And while I had heard of terms like “high yellow,” “red boned,” and the infamous paper bag test while growing up in the South, there were far more racial categories than I could imagine and that I had ever learned because of the meaning of race in my country of origin. Race in the United States was ultimately determined by Puritanical thoughts on miscegenation, the antebellum one drop rule to increase the slave population, and the polarizing aftermath of the melting pot theories espoused by pseudo-scientists involved in phrenology and eugenics. Even though euphemistic, color-coded, race-specific categories were thrown around as terms of endearment within different racial and ethnic communities, our American history seemed to do little beyond encouraging simplistic divisions in the most explicit ways.

Brazil and many countries within Latin America framed race in a different way. Maintaining white dominance in positions of power was still the ultimate goal, but in a fatalistic twist, miscegenation was encouraged as a means of doing so. Whites of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian descent (and later, Germans) were recruited from Europe to work alongside people of African and indigenous origin, and race-mixing, though not seen necessarily as an ideal, was not frowned upon in the same way as it was in the United States.

In many South American countries, slavery followed what I call the “work them to death” model, meaning that the health of slaves was of little concern as the African slave population was frequently replenished, whereas in the U.S., we tended to follow more of the “keep them alive as long as you can and make them breed” model, which subsequently led to a drastically different treatment of race and miscegenation. If one had an extremely short life expectancy, as slaves did in Brazil, for example, their personal lives were of little concern to their masters. Of course, they were still closely monitored, as were slaves in the U.S., but the emphasis on same-race slave breeding was not as heavy considering their population received frequent “refreshing” from African countries with which Brazil maintained constant slave trading. The more favorable result for their descendants, if they happened to create any, was for them to be mixed (and ultimately bringing the population closer to non-black majority) as opposed to their being black, as in the United States, where actual slave trading ended earlier than in Brazil.

A simple varied perspective about the economic elements of slavery, just as one of several other factors, played a vital role in race relations in both countries mentioned above. This history is something that cannot and should be ignored, yet we, as Americans, tend to go blindly into assessing race in other regions, and most certainly in expressing how immigrants to the United States should consider race themselves. In discussions (from an American perspective) related to race in other countries, there tends to be a forced application of American racial categories and norms, as if our identity grid fits each racial landscape without a need to vary its shape. And though we like to pretend that race is clear-cut in the United States, it’s obvious that concepts of race are more mutable than we like to admit.

A slip of the tongue from a baseball player, a new vocab word from a golf pro, or the intelligent musings of Ms. Peterson remind us that there fails to be a set definition of different racial groups and what these categories mean to their respective “members” in the U.S., so why do we so self-righteously tend to assert otherwise?

I promised myself I would never write about this woman, but I think Mariane Pearl provides the perfect example of someone pushing lots of red, white, and blue buttons by not checking the racial box people want her to. I was disturbed to see how so many of the same people who abhorred being boxed in by antiquated concepts of race were quick to hypocritically pummel Ms. Pearl with equally restrictive ideas. How she chooses to identify is a personal decision, one upon which, in my opinion, we have very little right to infringe. On an even more broad level, the fact that so many people of multiracial backgrounds have begun to align themselves with one racial group of their heritage (as opposed to identifying as multiracial) just shows that there may be a very real folding to such pressures to pick and choose an identity, to be what society expects based solely on one or more physical features, a shade of skin, or whatever else happens to allow the identity Gestapo to force their next victims to submit.

It makes me wonder if there is a happy medium. Can we empower people of color around the world while simultaneously avoiding being cardholders in a monopoly on racial identity? Will we ever be able to expand our views on race without losing sight of our own domestic need to increase racial equality?

I personally think finding this center boils down to a simple matter of respect. Much like with U.S.-based models of other theories like feminism and democracy, the attempt to apply race-based empowerment and equality is empty without our fully surveying deep-seated cultural elements of the host nation. For example, upon following up with Paulo and his thoughts on race, he explained that he saw nothing wrong with blackness, but instead wondered why I did not honor all aspects of my ancestral heritage? Why did blackness trump everything else? I attempted to explain that it was a political choice, but in the end, I wasn’t sure if my answer was so clear anymore. I also began to recognize that American-based coverage of race matters in other nations rarely focused on the very powerful movements sparking all over the world. Our handling of race outside the United States seemed to follow one of two lines of thought:

We either compare their situation to ours in a negative light, as if America could offer a definite answer, when we are still asking elementary-level questions of our own . . .

Or

We take the “grass is greener” approach, and make the handling of race in other countries appear completely unblemished and devoid of any possible moments of instability or regression.

Instead of pushing an Ameri-centric perspective on race, what Malena and I termed race-based imperialism, it may do us some good to open our minds to incorporate other ideas, seizing the opportunity to actually learn from other countries as opposed to denigrating and quickly criticizing their ideas on race because we fail to see all the culture-specific more nuanced elements that get lost in translation. The politics of race should not necessarily boil down to good vs. bad. It’s far more complex than that. If we want to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, it’s nothing but American imperial arrogance at its worst.

  • racialicious

    Whoa, thanks for the catch – that post was written originally back in 2007 and we picked a random selection of posts by older contributors to the site to highlight. We didn’t catch it then or do a thorough re-read before re-posting, but we will make sure to do so in the future. – LDP

  • Mike A

    “Race is to Paulo as snow is to Inuits.”

    Here’s the first part of the article that links to: “The claim that Eskimo languages have an unusually large number of words for snow is a widespread idea first voiced by Franz Boas and often used as a cliché when writing about how language may keep us more or less alert to the differences of the natural world. In fact, the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does…”

    So I can only imagine you didn’t read it. Please stop repeating false assertions about First Peoples’ cultures in order to make rhetorical points (for one thing, there isn’t a single Inuit language).