Monday, June 15, 2009

Am I Still Black if You Call Me Dark, Dark Brown?

This weekend I had the opportunity to check out the new exhibit at the Franklin Institute here in Philly called, Race: Are We So Different?. The exhibit is quite ambitious as it attempts to deconstruct this thing called race from a biological, sociological, political and economic perspective. From the website's description:

"RACE: Are We So Different? represents the work of scientists, artists, and researchers who have come together to explore a seemingly simple question—are we really so different? An immersive exhibit experience, RACE helps us understand the origins and manifestations of race and racism in everyday life through a variety of educational displays, interactive activities, and multimedia presentations."

I have to admit I didn't get to fully engage with the exhibit because I had two squirmy children as companions. (Note: Not an exhibit for the under 10 crowd) Still, one of the parts of the exhibit I found the most fascinating was the list of racial classifications or descriptions that are used in Brazil. In an attempt to show how racial categories vary by country there was a listing of the ninety seven different adjectives used in Brazil to describe the people. Yes 97!

For example, there was a term for somebody who is "bluish black," or "mulatta with kinky red hair and aquiline nose." And of course my all time favorite, "negro with corpulent body." Imagine that type of specificity. What the exhibit didn't get into was WHY there are so many different words to describe one's race in Brazil. There has to be a reason and my guess is that there is probably a hierarchy of terms. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the closer to White one is, the better off one is in society. But I could be wrong. There was a term, "polaca" which meant "having Polish features" whatever that means, but it also meant prostitute. So it may not just be about Black and White.

I'm going to do some investigating, but if you are from Brazil or have an understanding of the racial politics in that country, I'd love to hear it. So please share. And by the way, the RACE exhibit will be traveling on to Los Angeles, St. Louis and New Orleans after it leaves Philly in September. Check the website for tour details.




ieishah said...

oh! this does my head in in latin america. from what i've read, 'mestizaje' or mixed-ness has been central to latin identity since the end of colonialism and the subsequent nation-building of the early to mid 20th c. mexican writer jose vasconsuelos lays this all out in 'la raza cosmica' or the cosmic race. basically he says that as nations made of many nations, the only way to create unity was to mix. no, like literally, genetically mix. and then they wouldn't have race problems because there'd only be one race: the cosmic race. brazil isn't the only place. i heard (not sure) president trujillo was basically giving jews uncontested citizenship in the dominican republic in the hopes they'd mix with and whiten the population. argentina, (and i haven't done enough research to really corroborate this) allegedly had a small but mighty population of black ex-slaves, who were 'disproportionately' put on the front lines of the war of independence with spain. then during the years leading up to the 2nd world war, argentina did like trujillo and opened the borders to anti-fascist europeans, ironically, in the hopes of further whitening the population.

in the end, any blacks left had been discouraged from calling themselves so. i had a friend from the dominican republic, darker skinned than i, refer to herself as dark, dark indio. i couldn't wrap my head round it. and neither could she, when during our year abroad in costa rica, the people started calling her 'black'... complicated, complicated stuff.

currentsbtwshores said...

I'm forced to think of a Haitian proverb:

"Milat pov se neg, neg rich se milat."

A poor mulatto is black, a wealthy black is mulatto...

LT said...


Such great info. Thanks.And it is really so fascinating. makes me want to go back to school just to study this color line phenom.

Wow! That's deep, and kind of sad. But just more fuel for the fire.