Brazilians should be teaching the world and the US in particular the way to
an integrated ethnically mixed society. Unfortunately, however, they seem to
be adhering to the manicheistic way North Americans see the world: black
William Javier Nelson
Years ago, Brazil was a society which celebrated the mixtures of colors which contributed to its
mestiçagem. Hundreds of ways in which Indians, Africans and Portuguese blended together contributed to a myriad of
color terms. Brazilians seemed to have been proud of being mixed and proud of being Brazilians first and color se
cond. Nowadays, Brazilian cultural prerogatives appear to dictate a fitting of all of these colors into “black” and
“white” and the stage seems to be set for a great “black”-“white” war such as has been engaged in by the North
Americans for many years.
North Americans have made a science of distilling multiple physical types into the bi-polar conflict
groups, “black” and “white”. Perhaps Brazilian present mania for dividing itself into “black” and “white” is part of
the imitative process whereby some cultures copy everything North American. A word of warning, though;
the North Americans perhaps are moving in another direction: Brazilians might be imitating the wrong trend.
“Race” in the US
“Race” has always been a common topic of discussion for North Americans. Common as it is, most
North Americans have never questioned the definitional system which makes possible the discussion in the first
place. The “black” and “white” North American conflict groups are so defined based on the “hypodescent” rule (a
term invented by two US anthropologists, Marvin Harris and Conrad Phillip Kottak, who made extensive
cross cultural studies using Brazil as one of the points of reference).
Quite simply, hypodescent states that, in the case of a sexual union between parents of different “races”,
the offspring automatically takes on the status of the lower caste parent.
Therefore a sexual union between a “black” and “white” invariably produces a “black” (even though this
now a mulatto). Moreover, if this mulatto also has sexual
relations with a person of the “white” group,
his offspring will also be labeled as “black”. The hypodescent
rule does several things: first, it eliminates African ancestry from the “white” population. Second, it establishes
two very rigidly defined social groups. Third, it discourages intermarriage. Fourth, it encourages a mind set in
which one thinks of immutable “races” in which people are placed for life.
This system has been in effect for many years in the United
States. Ironically, both the “black” and “white” groups support the rule. The “blacks” support it because
it increases the numbers of persons labeled as “black”. The “whites” embrace it because there are enough
“whites” in the US so that partial “whites” are not needed for numerical and cultural dominance.
However, some rumblings have been occurring in the US. Adherence to the hypodescent rule has been
facing challenges from new quarters.
The Multiracial Movement
The multiracial movement has grown in the US in recent years. This is partly due to an increase in marriages
in the US that have been classed as “interracial”:
* Thirteen percent of all African-American men in the Western part of the United States are married to
women classed as “white”.
* From 1970 to 1991, the number of “mixed-race” married couples increased from 310,000 to 994,000.
* For “black” and “white” parents, births increased from 8,700 in 1968 to 45,000 in 1989.
* Seventy-one percent of teens say that they would go out with someone of a different “race”.
* In 1990, there were nearly 2,000,000 children under 18 whom the census classified as “of a different race
than one or both of their parents”.
Many of the children of “interracial” unions no longer adhere to the “hypodescent” rule. One of the leaders
of the multiracial movement, Charles Michael Byrd (editor of Interracial Voice), is of partial African ancestry,
but is not willing to ignore the other part of his heritage. The same thing goes for Ramona Douglass, president of
the Association of MultiEthnic Americans. In the past, “racially mixed” persons rebelling against the
hypodescent rule have encountered opposition from both “blacks” and “whites”. “Whites”, in the past, had reacted to
mixed persons with blanket rejection.
“Blacks” have heaped scorn
on mixed persons by alleging that they have been “deserters” to the “black cause”. Years ago, such
social mechanisms were effective. Now, however, as the country becomes more diverse with immigrants from
Latin American and Asia, and with the “white” population becoming less of a dominant percentage of the
population, “racially” mixed persons have found social space to exist in the United States.
Their questioning of the “racial” status quo has, in Byrd’s words, “blown the lid off most people’s perceptions of race.”
Ironically, Brazilians and other Latinos in the United
States could have been useful to the success of the multi-racial movement (at least in the short term).
Most Brazilians are aware that the hypodescent rule is ridiculous. Most are aware that even Brazilians identified
as “white” can have African ancestry.
Most are far more flexible in their “racial” consciousness than even the most liberal North American.
However, Brazilians and other Latinos are also practical. [As I am from the Dominican Republic, I can speak
from experience]. Latinos are aware that the “whites” control most cultural, economic, educational and
political institutions in the United States. They generally alter
their “racial” perceptions to fit in with the dominant society.
Straight hair and olive skin allow Latinos to call themselves “white” or at least “not-black” so as to fit in
with what’s in vogue. They are slow to use their insights to help bridge any gaps between “blacks” and “whites”.
Nor do they go out of their way to admit to African ancestry, since that, to a North American, constitutes being
100% “black” (regardless of physical appearance). Lastly, they are hesitant to use their “racial” sophistication
to introduce to the North American new ways of looking at “race”. Rather, they are quick to use his rigid
categories to their advantage. I have seen many mulatto Dominicans (who have fooled the North Americans into thinking
that their dark skin color is due to “Indian” ancestry) patronize North American “blacks” as though
they themselves do not have the dreaded African ancestry. What makes this so preposterous is that the
native “Indians” (Tainos) on the island of Hispaniola (home of the Dominican Republic) were largely eliminated
within the first century of the Discovery. Dominicans are African and Spanish (with some Taino). Since we are
mixed, we are all. And none of these. Brazilians can say the same thing, except that “Portuguese” can be substituted
for “Spanish” and the “Indian” contingent is larger.
What is in the Offing?
In spite of any intransigence by Brazilians or other Latinos,
“racial” lines in the United States will become less rigid and more flexible (like the Brazil of old). The
reasons for this are all demographic:
1) There has been a vast increase in immigration of “non-white” peoples from Latin America and Asia.
2) “Interracial” marriages will continue to increase as will their rate of increase.
3) Birth rates for persons classed as “black” and “Hispanic”
are outstripping the “white” birth rate, further eroding the
numerical percentage of persons classed as “white”.
4) More and more children of “interracial” unions are using
more varied and self-identifying terms when describing
Such demographics point to a United States which is far more varied than can be contained by the two
“racial” combat groups of “black” and “white”.
Time magazine did a story on this phenomenon in the fall of 1993.
A young woman was featured on the cover.
What made this woman so unusual was that she was a computer-generated composite of eight or ten
“racial” and ethnic groups. A year or so later,
Newsweek ran a cover story outlining the tremendous physical
variation of persons labeled as “black” in the United States. In this story, the hypodescent rule was clearly a focus.
These cover stories merely reflect the changing demographics of the United States. “White” backlash interests,
ranging from “conservative” magazines to anti-immigration initiatives to “white” males joining paramilitary
organizations in the countryside, also reflect this reality (in the form of fear of the coming demographic changes).
Because of an apparent increase in the cultural imperative
stressing the desirability of “whiteness” (as opposed to being mixed), Brazil has an excellent chance
of squandering its heritage of “mestiçagem” and “racial” mixing and evolving, instead, into a society
dichotomized into “white” and “black”.
As anybody can guess, stressing “whiteness” leads to exclusion of those not fortunate enough to possess
the “racial” requirements.
Stressing nationality over color while at the same time
emphasizing that being mixed is not a bad thing could have led us in another, saner direction. Ironically,
our imitative focus (the United States) could be moving in that saner direction.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
(1) Interracial Voice website:
Access to this website puts the browser into contact with hundreds of resources and thousands of
titles concerning the US inter-“racial” experience.
(2) Race Traitor journal
PO Box 603
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140-0005
The purpose of this journal is a reassessment of the non- cultural, non-linguistic, non-national term of “white”.
E.g., there is no language named “white” nor any country named “white”. According to the
Chronicle of Higher Education this is the most significant “racial” social science breakthrough in recent years.
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