Friday, August 18, 2006

Defining Race - It's Not What You Think It Is

There's a very interesting thread going on right now over at Pandagon about how people think and talk about race. The thread is inspired by a post from Pam Spaulding about the boneheaded claim by Tramm Hudson, who is running for the U.S. Congressional seat in Florida’s 13th district, that blacks can't swim. As an historian of Latin America, I have a particular take on this kind of thing. As I posted in that thread, Latino cultures generally think quite differently about race then we do. In many countries, the emphasis is on skin tone. Rather than having a bipolar or tri-polar world, with everyone shoe-horned into one group or the other, people in these societies live in a complex racial environment with infinite gradations. Carl Degler called this "the mulatto escape hatch," and suggested there was less racial solidarity in a country like Brazil because light-skinned people of African descent think of themselves as a distinct group from darker skinned Afro-Brazilians, and identify more with white Brazilians. Some of Degler's conclusions have been strongly debated, but the point that Latino cultures define race differently than we do is critical. Light skinned mulattos, who would be called black in the U.S., might well be called "white" in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. For that matter, people from those countries who think of themselves as "white" would likely be thought of as "black" here.

There was a time in this country when people talked about the "Irish race," the "English race," the "German race," and genuinely believed in such things. Now that idea has largely gone poof. Race is culturally defined. Race is an idea. It exists in our head. We define it as we choose, and we can redefine it as we choose. We decide what to think and say about it, and we can choose to think and say different things. The historical legacy of racism is a real, concrete thing, but the idea "race" is a cipher, a will-o'-the wisp that confuses our brains precisely because it does not conform to empirical reality. The more people who understand this, the closer we can all come to sanity.


binky said...

I don't know how much you keep up on the academic debates over race in Brazil, but things are hot there too.

Dr.T said...

Thanks for the tip - looks interesting.