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Jean Muteba Rahier, Blackness in the Andes: Ethnographic Vignettes of Cultural Politics in the Time of Multiculturalism

Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Tamara Hale
p. 187-191
Référence(s) :
Jean Muteba Rahier, Blackness in the Andes: Ethnographic Vignettes of Cultural Politics in the Time of Multiculturalism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 256 p., 2 maps.

Texte intégral

1With this book, Rahier presents a collection of mostly previously published essays on race, nationalism and “identity’ politics in Ecuador. The unifying narrative centres on the turn from what Rahier calls “monocultural mestizaje“ to multiculturalism and promises an ethnographic take, as well as a still much-needed Andean perspective, on blackness in contemporary Latin America.

2Rahier’s main argument, which comes across strongest in the introduction and the final chapter, is that despite greater political visibility for Ecuadorians of African descent (which accompanied the introduction of policies promoting multiculturalism in the late 1990s) they continue to inhabit a marginal place in imagined nationhood as “ultimate Others”. Rahier argues that because these populations face ongoing discrimination and disenfranchisement on multiple levels, racism continues to do its work even in the era, and language, of multiculturalism. Rahier’s voice joins that of many other authors who have drawn attention to the ongoing exclusion of Latin Americans of African descent throughout the Americas and he makes the point in several, effective ways. To do so he offers evidence drawn from an impressive array of subjects: from the poetry genre known as Décimas, to state constitutions and legislation, to ethnic mobilisation, to beauty pageants and football.

3Strengths of this collection include an older chapter on popular Catholic practices taking place during Easter week in a rural Afro-Ecuadorian community. The chapter stands out for its vivid descriptions of a series of rituals and performances, which Rahier interprets within the analytic framework of creolisation – a concept still underexplored for the Andean context –. Arguing against the spectre of Afro-centrism and cultural essentialism, Rahier argues that what is remarkable about these practices are not their origins but what they reveal about local people’s worldviews. Underneath the familiar story of the Passion of Christ, he reveals a ‘hidden transcript’ (invoking James Scott’s term) in which local people invert common associations of blackness with evil and disorderliness. Instead, locals enact a link between blackness and godliness, order and respectability, which goes against the grain of anti-black racism. They do so by reverse essentialism: casting the Jews and Romans of the Passion story as the “ultimate Others”, implicitly employing limpieza de sangre doctrine to their own advantage.

4Rahier’s reflections on being a foreign scholar who identifies as Afro-European, peppered throughout several chapters, are particularly illuminating for our understanding of local ideas about race (these observations deserved more space in the main text, rather than being partially relegated to endnotes). White and “white-mestizo” Ecuadorians interacting with Rahier are often at pains to distance him from his subject of research. Seeing him as a respectable, educated European, whose skin colour can be ignored, and whose foreign status places him in an altogether separate, historically unrelated category from Afro-Ecuadorians, make him a different, better, kind of ‘black’ in their eyes. This is a good illustration of the complex relation between class, culture, education and race in ideas about race in Latin America. A mention of how different Afro-Ecuadorians saw Rahier would have made an interesting point of comparison.

5In the two newly written chapters Rahier offers an analysis of mestizaje (chapter 3) and of constitutional changes in the region (chapter 4, co-authored with Mamyrah Dougé Prosper). I found Rahier’s discussion of mestizaje somewhat difficult to parse. It seems to me a truism that mestizaje must be understood within particular national, historical contexts, which is his central argument. Few scholars of Latin American race and ethnicity today would dispute this. The notion that mestizaje is itself a complex, multi-valent concept has been made including by an author whom Rahier singles out for allegedly universalizing. The chapter does contribute an insightful comparative discussion of French-language material on métissage, which will be benefit many readers.

6Merits notwithstanding, possible reservations about this collection concern two promises made in the title. Readers looking for a more ethnographic engagement with ‘race’ and with Latin Americans of African descent in the Andean region will be left wanting. This volume leans rather heavily on mainstream media and online sources, as well as on interactions with ‘white and white-mestizo’ Ecuadorians, revealing more about their ideas about race and blackness than those of actual Afro-Ecuadorians themselves. Readers are perhaps advised to turn to Rahier’s other recent publication, Kings for Three Days [2013], for a more in-depth and emic perspective. The voices of ordinary people of (mixed) African descent, a sense of what the transition from ‘monocultural mestizaje” to multiculturalism means for everyday life, and how black Ecuadorians might themselves challenge or participate in the production and reproduction of national narratives, is left largely unexplored here. As a result, while one learns much about cultural politics in Ecuador, “monocultural mestizaje” and the “racial-spatial order’, remained monolithic and abstract terms.

7A partial exception are the life histories, more precisely the sexual histories, of four Afro-Ecuadorian women included in a chapter (7) about the embodiment of blackness. These stories read as illustrative of women’s objectification and subordination in general and deserved more scrutiny as such. Instead they make for some awkward reading. For example, in discussing one woman’s story of sexual awakening and relationships with men, the author doesn’t do enough to problematise his informants’ distinction between “clitoridian sexuality” and what she sees as real, normal, proper sex (of the penis-penetrating-vagina type). Rahier traces the woman’s feelings of inadequacy, her “penetration phobia”, desire to be raped, and the development of a medical condition affecting her reproductive organs, to “the profound impact of the racial-spatial order” as manifest in the hypersexualisation of black female bodies. Surely the heterosexualised, male-dominant construction of normativity in these narratives is equally, if not more, striking.

8The collection constitutes an important resource on issues of blackness and race in Ecuador. For it to be truly “Andean’, as indicated in the title, it lacked a more sustained comparison to some of the other Andean countries in the region, particularly neighbouring Peru. To give one example, Rahier asserts that people of African descent are constructed as both racial and cultural outsiders within “monocultural mestizaje” and by extension, in the era of multiculturalism. Throughout the region, however, people of African descent have often been constructed as culturally similar but racially dissimilar within mestizo/creole society (by contrast with “Indians” to whom the inverse often applies) – it is precisely this, seemingly contradictory, part inclusion/part exclusion which makes for the special challenges facing both ‘cultural politics’ and ordinary people.

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Rahier Jean Muteba, Kings for Three Days: The Play of Race and Gender in an Afro-Ecuadorian Festival, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Scott James C., Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1990.

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Référence papier

Tamara Hale, « Jean Muteba Rahier, Blackness in the Andes: Ethnographic Vignettes of Cultural Politics in the Time of Multiculturalism », Cahiers des Amériques latines, 77 | 2014, 187-191.

Référence électronique

Tamara Hale, « Jean Muteba Rahier, Blackness in the Andes: Ethnographic Vignettes of Cultural Politics in the Time of Multiculturalism », Cahiers des Amériques latines [En ligne], 77 | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2014, consulté le 02 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Tamara Hale

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Department of Anthropology.

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