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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Can “color talk” be a proxy for “race talk”?

by JeeJee Yoon

Throughout the centuries, the world has evolved to become closer and smaller society, as trade between countries and the world population have increased. People share each other’s cultures and economical interests in daily life within this global village. The number of immigrants and migrants occupies a large percentage, so it is easy to find people who look different from the local people in many places (except some closed societies such as North Korea). As situations are changing in this way throughout the world, it is not an abnormal situation to see people with different outlooks anymore.

As the world becomes more and more diversified by having all different types of people, however, the category has been created to divide people into superiority of haves and have-nots. Because of the long history of colonization and African slave era, whites take up the higher part of the stratification of the category while blacks occupy the bottom part. With the appearance that one possesses, whether the person has bright skin color, pointed nose, or oval facial shape of white features became a criteria of racial categorization.

Talking about race, however, can hurt people as it reminds them of their history of the past being oppressed and ruled by the invaders (mostly whites). Thus, some places are trying to avoid talking about  race and rather, talking about how one’s skin color looks. In Veracruz, Mexico, people freely express the darkness or whiteness of one another’s skin color. When Veracruzanos are asked to speak about race, they hesitated and tried to avoid the question. Instead, Veracruzanos brought “color” talk, just saying that their skin is brown, light brown, or dark brown. One reason of this color talk is that Veracruz was one of the largest importers of African slaves in Spanish America where their ancestors were suppressed. Therefore, people in Veracruz avoid speaking out of the race that hurts the feeling and reminds of the oppressed history of their ancestors.

As we can see the case study of Veracruz, Mexico, it is hard for people to say about the race directly because of the history. However, it seems much easier for people to indicate how the color of skin looks like. Raising the issue of skin color seems less aggressive to others and less sensitive to listeners than bringing up the race. Not only the feeling of the people, but also “color talk” is efficient for today’s globalized world. It is unclear to trace one’s race for some people as they have complex mixed family tree. Moreover, there is no clear dividing line on indicating one’s race in many nations. It is not easy to understand one’s race fully because it can hurt people and also the society itself does not have clear boundary lines on race. Thus, I believe “color talks” can replace the realm of “race talk”, which is happening in Veracruz.