Representations of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Representations of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean

For a great part of the twentieth century, largely through the work of American anthropologist Melville Herskovits and his followers, the African diaspora was conceived in terms of isolated and scattered communities of descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas. Herskovits's model consisted of defining the research project of African-Americanist anthropology, and of African diaspora studies more generally, exclusively in terms of cultural continuity: the cultures of the African diaspora in the Americas were nothing but, in final analysis, transplanted African cultures (Herskovits, 1938, 1941, 1966). The emphasis of his work on the study and discovery of "africanisms," "African retentions," and "cultural reinterpretations" that would have allowed Africa to survive in the Americas is well known (Rahier, 1999a, pp. xiiixxvi; Gershenhorn, 2004; Price, 2003).

In the 1990s, other conceptualizations of the African diaspora emerged in the work of various scholars, among which one of the most visible was Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic (1993): the Atlantic Ocean was transformed from being a site of unidirectional traveling of African cultures from Africa to the Americas (the Middle Passage) into the more complicated scene of multidirectional circulations of black cultures among a great variety of locations in the Americas, Europe, and Africa. This multidirectional traveling, Gilroy asserted, had in fact characterized the very formation of the African diaspora since its inception in forms such as the return of slaves from Brazil to Benin; the migration of Afro-Caribbeans to Central America; the founding of Liberia; the diasporic writings of African-American intellectuals; and other transnational exchanges (see also Kelley, 1999).

More recently, Percy Hintzen (2003) has theorized the African diaspora in terms that contradict the common understanding of diasporic identity as a subjectivity produced out of a collective phenomenon of displacement and dispersal from a real or imagined homeland. He criticizes the arguments that claim a universality of diasporic subjectivity and a fixity of diasporic identity. Such a common understanding of diasporic identity, he asserts, ignores the integral way in which identity is embedded in national and local, social, cultural, and political geographies. Specifically, he writes, diasporic identity emerges out of historical, social, and cultural conjunctures when constructed discourses of national belonging deny claims of citizenship on racial, cultural, religious, linguistic, or other communal grounds.

Diasporic identity emerges from situations in which representations and practices of cultural citizenship and belonging to national citizenship are actually denied. It is constructed out of memories of movement across local and national boundaries even while inculcating ideas of belonging across different localities. Rather than being based on claims of common origin and on a commonality of culture inherited from an originary "homeland," diasporic identity is a response to nationally-based notions of peoplehood from which diasporic subjects are excluded. It creates solidarities across fragmented geographies. Its manifestations can be multivalent, polysemous, ambiguous, and contradictory. It is a floating signifier of cultural citizenship that facilitates mobility across space, time, and social position. "Someone is West Indian or Black, or Jamaican, or African American, for example, not with reference to originary myths that are fixed in Africa, but in response to the social, political, and cultural geography of location, to her/his social and economic positionality, and to social and institutional context" (Hintzen, 2003, p. 1). Transnationally, blacknessas opposed to whitenessis ultimately what ties together the different populations of the African diaspora, since whiteness and its association to uncontaminated origin in Europe have conferred a "natural," "ineluctable," and "deserved advantage" over those who are not white and who have been constructed and represented as being "naturally" inferior.

Representations and the Racial Ordering of People

Representations constitute, in part, the world in which we live. As Michel Foucault explained, discursive formations, modes of thought, or modes of representation are used by people for conceptualizing the world, their existence, and the existence of "others." Dominant groups produce and reproducedifferently in different times and in different geographic contextsrepresentations of themselves and of "others" that justify or naturalize their position at the apex of racial/spatial orders and the socioeconomic and political subjugation of the negatively depicted or racialized "others." Throughout Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the colonial period has been characterized by a more or less important (depending on the specific locations) mode of production based on the enslavement of Africans; blackness has been associated with notions of savagery, backwardness, cultural deprivation, hypersexuality, and other negative qualities. An important aspect of the dominated black populations' struggles for justice has consisted inmore or less overtlychallenging, manipulating, combating, negating, and sometimes inverting representations of themselves that are reproduced in the dominant discourse of their national society or of the society in which they live. In effect, as Stuart Hall puts it, racism should be seen as a "structure of knowledge and representations," with a symbolic and narrative energy and work that aim to secure "us" over here and the "others" over there, down there, fixing each in its "appointed species place" (Hall, 1992, p. 16).

Mestizaje and Mulataje in Latin American Ideologies of National Identity

Mestizaje, mulataje, and other notions of "race" and cultural mixings have played a central role in "official" and dominant imaginations of Latin American national identities from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. These ideologies of national identities have usually downplayed the importance of contemporary racism by proclaiming the myth of "racial democracy" (En nuestro país no hay racismo porque todos nosotros tenemos un poco de cada sangre en nuestras venas ; "In our country there is no racism because we all have a mixture of different bloods running in our veins"). At the same time, these ideologies have marginalized and marked as "others" the individuals and communities that do not fitphenotypically and culturallythe prototypical imagined, national, and hybridized (modern) identities.

A long tradition of scholarship on nationalism has emphasized the "homogenizing processes" of the ideologies of national identity from the end of the eighteenth through the first half of the twentieth centuries. According to Benedict Anderson (1983/1991), for example, "national cultures" helped to accommodate and resolve differences by ideologically constructing a singular "national identity." Too often, scholars writing on nationalism have failed to recognize a contingent phenomenon of nationalism that elides a superficial reading and that contradicts its homogenizing ambition: the creation of one or various "others" within and without the limits of the "national space." Indeed, to secure unity and to make their own history, the dominating powers have always worked best with practices that differentiate and classify.

An archaeology of such Latin American ideologies of national identity shows that despite their self-proclaimed antiracism and apparent promotion of integration and harmonious homogeneity, they constitute little more than narratives of white supremacy that always come with an attendant concept of whitening (blanqueamiento or branqueamento ). Early Latin American foundational texts about mestizaje, written by "white" and white-mestizo or Ladino intellectuals, clearly demonstrate that the discussions of race and cultural mixings have been grounded on racist premises and theories that were popular in nineteenth-century Europe and North America. These texts were usually inspired by Spencerian positivism, unilineal evolutionism, polygenism, eugenics, and social Darwinism. Their arguments were based on an understanding of society as a social organism, which functioned similarly to biological organisms. Latin American (white, white-mestizo, and Ladino) intellectuals, who were convinced of the superiority of the so-called white race vis à vis blacks and "reds," deployed organistic notions and ideas of diseases and infection to support their claim to the inferiority and dysfunctionality of black and indigenous populations in their societies.

Many Latin American intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shared the idea that race mixing between "superior" and "inferior" races was unnatural. Lourdes Martínez-Echazábal has summarized the Latin American racialized discourses on identity, development and progress, and nationalisms. She argues that the period between the 1850s and 1920 was marked by an opposition between two "pseudo-polarities." These were:

on one hand, the deterministic discourse of naturally "inferior" races accursed by the biblical judgement against Ham and grounded primarily in evolutionary theory and the "scientific" principles of social Darwinism and, on the other, a visionary faith in the political and social viability of increasingly hybridized populations. Advocates of the former equated miscegenation with barbarism and degeneration; adherents of the latter prescribed cross-racial breeding as the antidote to barbarism and the means to creating modern Latin American nation-states. Closer examination of these supposedly antithetical positions, however, reveals them to be differently nuanced variations of essentially the same ideology, one philosophically and politically grounded in European liberalism and positivism, whose role it was to "improve" the human race through "better breeding" and to support and encourage Western racial and cultural supremacy. (Martínez-Echazábal, 1998, p. 30)

In the early twentieth century, many intellectuals felt the need to proclaim both uniquely Latin American identities in contradistinction to European and North American identities, and the respectability of original "Latin American cultures." This was the golden age of indigenism. Accordingly, in many Latin American nation-states, the idea of mestizaje became the "trope for the nation." Mestizaje was seen as the source of all possibilities yet to come, and a new image of the "inferior races" eventually emerged. The racial and cultural mixing of "inferior" with "superior" races would provide Latin American nations with what would become their characteristic strength, superior even to the "actual strength" of the white race. This would become a fifth race, the "cosmic race," as José Vasconcelos called it (1961).

This briefly summarized ideological history took, of course, different shapes in different national contexts at different times. Mestizaje and mulataje are polysemic, they mean different things, at different times, in different places (Rahier, 2003). Although it was first coined for the study of the U.S. racial order, Michael Omi's and Howard Winant's notion of "racial formation" (i.e., "racially structured social formations") captures well the idea of race as a polysemic signifier in Latin American national contexts:

We define racial formation as the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.racial formation is a process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized. [We] think of racial formation processes as occurring through a linkage between structure and representation. Racial projects do the ideological "work" of making these links. A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines. Racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning. (Omi and Winant, 1994, pp. 5556)

The ideology of white supremacy at work in all Latin American racial formations behind the cover of "all-inclusive mestizaje " is undergirded by "signifying practices that essentialize and naturalize human identities" (Winant, 2001, p. 317). The racialization of these identities is produced out of understandings of hierarchical biological difference. It is against this ideology of white supremacy that Latin American indigenous and black movements have been strugglingmore successfully in the last two decades of the late twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century, perhapsby voicing their opposition to "official mestizaje " (see, among others, Whit-ten, 2003; Sheriff, 2003; Beck and Mijeski, 2000).

Representations of Blackness

In Ecuador, as in other Latin American contexts, white and white-mestizo urban and national elites have imagined or invented the national identity around the notion of mestizaje (race mixing). These elites have reproduced an "Ecuadorian ideology" of national identity that proclaims the mestizo (mixed race individual who has both European [Spanish] and indigenous ancestry) as the prototype of modern Ecuadorian citizenship. This ideology is based on a belief in the indigenous population's inferiority, and on an unconditionalalthough sometimes contradictoryadmiration and identification with occidental civilization (see, among others, Whitten, 1981; Stutzman, 1981; Silva, 1995).

Despite this hegemonic attempt at racial and ethnic homogenization, the Ecuadorian ideology of national identity results in a racist map of national territory: urban centers (mostly Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca) are associated with modernity, while rural areas are viewed as places of racial inferiority, violence, backwardness, savagery, and cultural deprivation. These areas, mostly inhabited by nonwhites or nonwhite-mestizos, have been viewed by the elites as representing major challenges to the full national development toward the ideals of modernity. As Norman Whitten explained in a discussion with Jean Muteba Rahier in early 1997, mestizaje, for Ecuador, does not mean that the white Indianizes himself or herself but that, on the contrary, the Indian whitens himself "racially" and culturally: the official imagination of Ecuadorian national identity is "an ideology of blanqueamiento within the globalizing framework of mestizaje."

In this official imagination of Ecuadorianness, there is logically no place for blacks: they must remain peripheral. Afro-Ecuadorianswho represent between 5 and 10 percent of the national populationconstitute the ultimate "other," some sort of a historical accident, a noise in the ideological system of nationality, a pollution in the Ecuadorian genetic pool. The best example of "noncitizenship," "they are not part of mestizaje," unlike indigenous peoples (Muratorio, 1994). In the logic of the national "racial"/spatial order, the two "traditional" regions of blackness (both developed during the colonial period), the province of Esmeraldas and the Chota-Mira Valley, are looked down upon by whites and white-mestizos.

The ideological outsiderness of blacks in the biology of national identity is denoted in the representations of black peoples' bodies and their stereotypical hypersexuality, in the representations of black men in urban settings as being physically powerful athletes and dangerous social predators, and in the representations of black women as being nothing more worthy than being either domestic servants or prostitutes. The situation of blacks in Ecuador is of course not unique. Comparable representations can be found in other Latin American national contexts. A series of caricatural drawings called Negritos de Navidad circulated on the internet during the Christmas season of 2003. The drawings originated in Peru, and were viewed in Mexico, Ecuador, and, apparently, throughout Latin America. They clearly represent the racializing stereotypes of black males' hypersexuality that participate in the naturalization of racist socioeconomic and political orders. These images have been circulating in Latin American countries and beyond and contribute to the equating of black bodies with savagery. The fact that such drawings continue to be passed around as simple jokes is illustrative of ingrained antiblack racism, and denotes the normalized structural violence that blacks in Latin America have to face on a daily basis.

In Latin America, few national contexts allowed for the development of a black middle class. Brazil is probably the Latin American country where the emergence of a black middle class (according to local standards), in the urban areas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, has perhaps been the most "visible." As a consequence of this process, representations of blacks as respectable professionals are making their appearance, particularly in the black-owned popular magazine Raça (Brasil).

In Puerto Rico and in the Dominican Republic, blackness continues to be associated with undesirable qualities, and few choose to self-identify as AfroPuerto Ricans or Afro-Dominicans, while many prefer to call themselves mestizos or even Taínos or Indios in order to justify the brown color of their skin with something other than references to African origins. In the Dominican Republic, antihaitianismo brings many to consider blackness, above and beyond its association with savagery and backwardness, as a sign of non-Dominicanness (see Howard, 2001; Sagás, 2000). Even in Haiti and Jamaica, blackness has been associated with negative qualities (see Labelle, 1978; Ulysse, 1999).


Representations of blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean have served the reproduction of ideologies of domination and of socioeconomic and political orders more or less overtly grounded on white supremacy. These representations have had as their objective to naturalize the subjugation of black populations at the same time that they eventually celebrated race-mixing, mestizaje, and mulataje and their attendant processes of "whitening." That is because such representations have played such a central ideological role that they have been one of the principal targets of antiracist movements throughout the region.

See also Identity and Race in the United States; Media and Identity in the Caribbean; Representations of Blackness in the United States


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jean muteba rahier (2005)