Colorism and the law in Latin America - global perspectives on colorism conference remarks.

AuthorHernandez, Tanya Kateri
PositionGlobal Perspectives on Colorism

There are approximately 150 million people of African descent in Latin America, which represents about 1/3 of the total population. (1) This density of Afro-descendants is the result of the slave trade that brought an estimated 10.7 million African slaves. This represents 65 percent of all African slaves brought to Latin America in comparison to the 388,000 to 450,000 African slaves (or 6 percent) brought to the United States. (2) "Yet, these are considered conservative demographic figures given the historical undercounting of persons of African descent in Latin American national censuses, and often completely omitting a racial/ethnic origin census question." (3) Today, persons of African descent make up more than forty percent of the poor in Latin America and have been consistently marginalized and denigrated as undesirable elements of the society since the abolition of slavery across the Americas. (4)

However, Latin Americans still very much adhere to the notion that, because racial mixture and the absence of Jim-Crow racial segregation are such a marked contrast to the United States' racial history, the region is what I term "racially innocent" and thus resistant to proposals that institutions use public policies of inclusion to address the entrenched racial disparities. (5) This resistance exists despite the fact that a recent study empirically demonstrates the exclusionary effects of Latin American pigmentocracies. (6)

Princeton University's Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America (PERLA) surveyed four large Latin American countries (Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, and Peru), which together represent about sixty-five percent of Latin America's population along with many of its indigenous and Afro-descended peoples. (7) PERLA's central conclusion is that skin color is a central axis of social stratification. (8) Particularly noteworthy was PERLA's ability to study skin color inequality in depth by not only using the traditional survey method of direct questions about racial attitudes but also using a skin color palette (i.e. a chart of skin color gradations) for interviewers to record each respondent's skin shade. (9) The color palette allowed researchers to statistically document the salience of skin color and its effect on the study's results. The use of a color palette may strike some people as an outrageous reification of skin color differences, but the study persuasively shows that race and ethnicity are not simply a matter of identity or consciousness. (10) Rather, race and ethnicity also involve the gaze of the "other" in ways that indicate skin color measures capture racial inequalities that solitary racial categories often miss. This is because racial fluidity in Latin America is based upon the premise that racial classifications are determined more closely by how one phenotypically appears to belong to one race rather than strictly by one's ancestors. (11) For instance, before a racial designation of Black or "Negro" is deemed appropriate, custom dictates an informal visual assessment of an individual's hair texture, nose width, thickness of lips, and degree of dark pigmentation for consistency with what is stereotypically viewed as a Black person. (12) Accordingly, individuals with identical racial heritage can be identified socially or informally by distinct racial designations based on their phenotype.

To a certain extent, Latin American racial category practices also permit economic and social status to mediate the determination of racial classification. As a result, dark-skinned Afro-descendants with higher socioeconomic standing have more leeway in selecting a racial classification, which invokes greater Whiteness than more impoverished individuals with the same skin-color. The interplay between social class and racial classification is rooted in the Brazilian "branqueamento" (and Latin American/Caribbean "blanqueamiento") White ideal that continues to be central to Brazilian and Latin American/Caribbean race ideology. (14) "Branqueamento," which means "Whitening," refers to both the aspiration and possibility of transforming one's social status by approaching Whiteness. An individual can become socially lighter by marrying a lighter-skinned partner or by becoming wealthy or famous. For instance, it is consistently alleged that the dark-skinned soccer icon from Brazil, Pele, successfully deployed the branqueamento ideology when he had his birth certificate amended to reflect a White racial classification after achieving world fame. (15)

In concert with the branqueamento approach to racial identification, the Latin American/Caribbean race model advances the cultural practice known as "mesticagem," which asserts that race mixture has made racial identification a very indeterminate and unnecessary practice. (16) In turn, racial mixture is rhetorically idealized and promoted as the national norm. However, the national representation of racial mixture that is preferred is closer to light rather than to dark, and individuals are overtly discouraged from identifying along racial lines in order to maintain the national myth of racial democracy. (17)

In those Latin American countries, such as Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, where sizable communities of Blacks reside (18) and where Whites are a numerical minority, a favored light skin class called "Mulatto" (19) has long been recognized as distinct from the subordinate dark-skin population. (20) The late historian Carl Degler termed this phenomenon as the "mulatto escape hatch," which he defined as the "recognition of a special place for mixed bloods." (21) Mulattoes are accorded greater favors than Blacks, but fewer privileges than the numerical minority of empowered Whites: "The top jobs in business, politics and academia are held by those with light skin.... Studies show that Blacks are poorer, less educated and less respected than Whites and Mulattoes." (22) This is facilitated by employment practices of asking for photographs with resumes and posting job announcements where "good appearance" is an understood code for light appearance, which is often included as a job requirement. In turn, the greater opportunities available to Mulattoes encourage them to dissociate themselves from their African ancestry.

This dynamic is not a...

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