Colorism in Latin America; Not about Race

by Oscar Manzano

If you are reading this blog about colorism and you already have prior knowledge on the subject, chances are that you don’t agree with the title of this piece. This may be because Latin America’s preference, or more specifically the preference in México and Brazil, to talk more freely about a person’s skin color as opposed to race may seem like a contradiction to you. Why? I suppose it is because many believe that skin color or other characteristics that we attach to race, in order to be able to identify and categorize people, are indicators of race. It is this idea that I believe is incorrect, which leads me to believe that when Mexicans or Brazilians talk about skin color they are not talking about race as an American might see it. In this context I believe that color talk in México and Brazil is not the equivalent of race talk in America.

My reasoning for questioning color talks being the same as race talks draws upon human history and humans themselves. Humans have always had a history of migration and settlement. This alone prevents us from applying skin color or other characteristics to a certain racial group. So, unless we believe that Whites with certain characteristics grew out of the ground in Europe, and Blacks in Africa and Browns in Latin America and they all remained stationary, then can one possibly make a correlation with race and physical characteristics. However this is not so, and when we hear Mexicans and Brazilians talking about skin colors so nonchalantly, we believe that they what they are really talking about is race.

So if Mexicans and Brazilians are not talking about race, then what are they talking about when they refer to skin color? I believe that when Mexicans and Brazilians refer to skin color, they are acknowledging the great diversity and mixture of physical characteristics that have been as a result of human migration. Not physical characteristics of race but characteristics of human diversity. In saying that color talk is not a talk about race does not mean that colorism is preferred or more desirable over race talks, or that it is immune to social and moral problems that race deals with. On the contrary, the problems that color ideology faces are similar to those that race ideology faces. But the problems are not similar because racism and colorism are the same thing; rather, the problems stem from the fact that we have been socially trained to see physical differences and categorize them under a racial stereotype, confusing color and race.

A second reason as to why racism and colorism share similar social problems is because both are the result of global inequality. This brings up the issues of colonization. Why were White European countries the ones able to colonize? It would be difficult to say that Europeans were able to be the colonizers simply because their skin was white or their race was a certain specific one. It goes beyond that, and the ‘why was Europe the colonizer’ question involves a multi-sided understanding to find the answer to. Possible reasons include the amount of wealth, resources or strength those countries had and as a result, once colonization was achieved, the aggressors implanted various forms of discrimination based on race and color. In this sense it is possible that racism or colorism didn’t create inequality but inequality created racism and colorism.

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One thought on “Colorism in Latin America; Not about Race

  1. This is a really nice read and I think it is very important too. I was surprised when a Brazilian friend of mine mentioned this while we were discussing the debate on “Ebonics” in one of the classes last year. Since many people are not aware of this “colorism”, both Americans/most of the world and people of those countries may have a difficulty in understanding why it is used for race in one place, and not in the other.

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