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26.12.02

People Of Color Who Never Felt They Were Black

"But you are black."

That came as news to Martins, a Brazilian who, for 30 years before immigrating to the United States, looked in the mirror and saw a morena -- a woman with caramel-colored skin that is nearly equated with whiteness in Brazil and some other Latin American countries. "I didn't realize I was black until I came here," she said.

That realization has come to hundreds of thousands of dark-complexioned immigrants to the United States from Brazil, Colombia, Panama and other Latin nations with sizable populations of African descent. Although most do not identify themselves as black, they are seen that way as soon as they set foot in North America.

Their reluctance to embrace this definition has left them feeling particularly isolated -- shunned by African Americans who believe they are denying their blackness; by white Americans who profile them in stores or on highways; and by lighter-skinned Latinos whose images dominate Spanish-language television all over the world, even though a majority of Latin people have some African or Indian ancestry.


This is a good example of what makes me skeptical about affirmative action. How can a simple entry under "race" really capture the differences in life experience that affirmative action is meant to address. A person's racial identity is a combination of their self-identification and their identification by others. Those two things are influenced by a host of factors -- physical appearance, geneology, family and social environment, home region, class, gender, interests, personal style, etc. What basis is the definitive one on which we assign a person to a race? In part that depends on the rationale for affirmative action -- if we're looking for cultural diversity, self-identification is a better measure, but if we're rectifying racial injustices some external criterion like skin color will more accurately reflect the basis on which those injustices have been imposed.

It's possible that cases like the ones in the Post article are fringe cases, and that the construction of race in this country has homogenized the experience of each race to a workable degree. Social policies have to make a simplification of society to be effective -- for example, the atomistic and voluntaristic model of the individual has proven quite successful in promoting beneficial social arrangements such as freedom of speech, even though it's far from an accurate portrayal of how humans work. So maybe racial categorizations for the purpose of affirmative action would be effective in promoting racial equality in a way that makes up for the crudeness of the standard in borderline cases. But I have a suspicion that race's social manifestations may turn out to be much like its genetic ones -- there's more variability within the group than between groups.

I'd also like to make a note of the fact that it amuses me that Cuba's white supremacists call themselves the "Ku Klux Klan Kubano."

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