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Colloques | 2009
Des catégories et de leurs usages dans la construction sociale d’un groupe de référence : "race", "ethnie" et "communauté" aux Amériques (Mascipo) – Paris, EHESS, 13-15 décembre 2006
Odile Hoffmann

Commentaries on Peter Wade’s « Defining Blackness in Colombia »

The other and the same, together
Traduction de Peter Marquis (all rights reserved)

Notes de la rédaction

Ce dossier est publié en collaboration avec le Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Le commentaire disponible dès maintenant sur Nuevo Mundo concerne donc un article du n°95-1 (2009) du JSA ( dont le résumé se trouve en annexe.

Texte intégral

1It has been well established since the birth of anthropology that categories and identities are first and foremost constructs. They are malleable, changing over time and the result of various processes of external and internal identification. What needs emphasizing, however, is that conflicting categories are often used by social actors in a specific context to say something about who they feel they are. The situation of enunciation determines what will be stressed or not. Thus, systems of classification are vectors of communication, or, as Durckheim and Mauss wrote, « [They] aim at […] rendering intelligible the relationships between people » (Durckheim and Mauss 1968 [1903] :82, quoted by P. Fry in this symposium).

2The quest for intelligibility underlines that classification is not only produced on a political or social level but it also bears an almost subconscious subjective, emotional, or even existential dimension. To quote P. Fry again, «  To discuss the color of people is to enter a complex world of emotions: feelings of guilt and remorse, of anger for past and present suffering, which are in large part derived from the taxonomies and classifications in dispute" (Peter Fry, 2006:4).

3Once the dynamic nature of categories has been demonstrated, the interest lies in deciphering the conditions in which such and such aspect of a category or concept emerge in the public sphere. This allows us to analyze society at large, even in its regional or trans-national sub-divisions, in order to trace the construction of « collective agreement » (construction du consensus), a process which is informative of wider phenomena of social and political change.

4Peter Wade’s survey of Colombia is particularly relevant in this regard – like in many other Latin American countries, the « métis model of Nation », established in the nineteenth century, has traded places over the years with « the multi-cultural and pluri-ethnic Nation, » legally recognized by the 1991 Constitution and the 1993 Law. Throughout this evolution, Black people have moved from a racial group to an ethnic one, called « black communities » or « Afro-Colombians. »

5The consensus being formed these years seems to sit well with a host of groups (the State, churches, activists, intellectuals, politicians, etc.), however it does not follow that it is total, transparent nor egalitarian.

6First, the consensus is not total since it leaves many areas, geographical or metaphorical, in the dark. As E. Cunin showed in her study of the Caribbean coast, entire groups do not fit in the consensus. They may however use it to their own interest. Overall, though fragmentary and partial, the consensus is pragmatic and operational for whoever wants to use it.

7Second, the consensus is not transparent. In fact, it derives from a functional misunderstanding - the varied groups seem to agree on it for varied reasons which are contradictory but still compatible in the context of today’s Colombia. In this country shattered by violence and discredited internationally, the consensus offers the best working arrangement and provides a degree of social cohesion.

8Third, it is hierarchical, although it gives the impression of leveling every priority. This is evidenced by the priority accorded to the collective entitlement of lands to black communities. Clarifying land rights is a sine qua non for the country if it wants to open a land market and ensure the lawful settlement of international agro-industrial companies.

9The latest and most recent step in this evolution lays stress on the term « Afro-descendants, » a notion born out of the 2001 Durban Conference, which assumes the existence of a vast pan-American collectivity, from Uruguay to Canada through Brazil and the Antilles. The need to « speak the same language » emanates from the political desire to combat discrimination and inject money in certain areas for that purpose. The technicalities require that the targeted populations be assessed numerically and, thus, bundled into a group whose denomination should be comparable throughout the continent.

101/ Looking for « Afro » everywhere, we find them. The numbers of « ethnic or racial population » (as they were previously known) increases forcibly.

112/ the inclusive term « Afro » refers to a wide spectrum of shared references, mostly pertaining to the field of consumption (music, dance, body movements)

123/ by ways of consequence, the other groups (métis, whites, Asians) become invisible, referenced as « non-blacks » or « non-Indians, » thus contributing to a polarization of society between « ethnic » and « non-ethnic. »

13Such a racialisation of social relations is connected to the issue of métissage – how should non-ethnic components of complex societies be thought if not in terms of negatives or infinite fragmentation? To be sure, studying whiteness opens perspectives as shown by other presentations at the symposium. J. French favors a return to métissage, a notion well-accepted in daily life in Latin America, which « might therefore have the potential to facilitate a "creative process of transforming identity making systems" (Field 2002:22) and (...) could permit ethnoracial, regional and local identities to coexist without the loss of benefits" (…) "Mestizo", in addition to being an identity in and of itself, might also be imagined as a space within which people can move, a concept that provides openings for choices about self-identification and political identity making" (French 2004:665).

14Scholars face the same dilemma - when circumscribing a « reference group » for analysis, they partake in the process of particularization. P. Wade, speaking about Colombia, mentions the use of phenotypical categories in the field of socio-demographics. Such tools are very controversial among anthropologists, or here in France.

15Wade shows that, first, the use of four main types (black, mulatto, métis, white) simplifies the vast array of common categories (there are nearly 100 self-adscriptions in Brazil).

16Secondly, the device enables to debunk the myths formed by « common sense » and shows, as evidenced for Cali, that the « ghetto » is not where people thought it was. Similarly, the association made between race and class, although confirmed at the extremes of the social continuum, is disproved for the middling classes who tend to rise and regress more.

17Regarding the question of the divide between « cultural activists » and « intellectuals-scholars », P. Wade concludes on a rather conciliatory tone that the frontiers are now too blurred to be efficient. I tend to disagree. Although there is no doubt that each of the two spheres has become more porous and more complex, my experience in Mexico has proved that the intellectuals (in this case, North-American scholars, self-promoted as « supporters of Afro-descendants » and perfectly in tune with the views of international agency for development and some local intellectuals) imposed their view, virtually in the imperialistic fashion described by Bourdieu and Wacquant (1998).

18I shall end by returning to the subject of « collective agreement» so as to highlight the merits of the comparative approach.

19In Colombia, the « taxonomic consensus », which recognized black communities as a racial group, was formed along diverging lined by various actors who had a vital interest in coming together and working a pragmatic arrangement. The convergence has lost its impetus today and actors are looking for new alliances.

20In Mexico, convergence is slow to form because of a lack of potent and visible stakes. Blacks are inexistent in the eye of the various hegemonic sectors. They are unable to gather as a group and have political claims. Besides, activists fail to raise awareness on black-specific issues that go beyond the indictment of discrimination and marginalization, two plagues they share with some Indians and poor métis. At the moment, the only spark towards convergence arises from scholars who, fearing marginalization, look to the global community for concepts and arguments validated by their peers. This is where the interplay between the local and the international levels gets interesting – although the global community does not single-handedly impose the racialising logics, they become legitimate and structured, when the terms of the debate drift from the global to the local.

21The text Charles Hale wrote for the symposium provides us with yet another example of category construction. He remarks that in Central America, Blacks’ politicization tends to rest on racial claims while the Indians emphasize culture as a determinant of their identity, which falls in line with the tenets of the UNDP and the ILO. Interestingly enough, such a model of dichotomy, which stems from the historic forces at play in Central America, fails to reproduce in other national contexts. In Colombia, for instance, Blacks have gained cultural recognition, as evidenced by the 1991 Constitution. In Mexico, the racial component of the Indian identity is frequently brought to the fore as shown in the 2001 Marcha del Color de la Tierra by the EZLN or these declarations made to the police at an Oaxaca demonstration in November 2006, « Look at your skin. Your hands are the same color as ours; you too are huicholes, mixes, tarahurnas (Mexican ethnic groups). The color of your skin is the very proof of it » (La Jornada, 3 November 2006). French’s study on Brazil also underlines that the various dimensions are intertwined and conducive of a greater mobilization. Color, race, culture and self-adscription of identity combine along lines informed by each historic context, especially the nature and evolution of power, domination and resistance.

22P. Wade demonstrates that the trajectory toward the convergence of various « black-related» groups (Afro-descendants, Afro-Colombians, etc.) has been one of accelerations and pauses. All in all, our recurrent use of quotation marks shows that, to quote A. Dzidzineyo, « race does not exist but I run into it everyday when I go out in the street » (seminar in Mexico, 2006). In Mexico, or in Cartagena (Cunin, 2003), many people are black in certain situation and not in others, depending on whom they are talking to, the stakes of the conversation or their fluctuating mood (which is undoubtedly shaped by their previous experiences).

23The volatility of the taxonomic convergences goes hand in hand with the dynamics of society. Our own analytical constructs should not reduce them to either instrumentalist or essentialist postures. In this age of prevailing international racialisation, it seems capital to come together and observe critically the racialised aspect (objective and subjective) of our societies, here or in Latin America, and to reflect upon the métis composition of the majority of the population. We should reflect upon métissage and otherness simultaneously, without giving precedence to one or the other. Though many individuals and local groups do it every day, scholars seem to be lagging behind.

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Badie, Bertrand, 2000, « Vers la responsabilité cosmopolitique ? », Les Temps Modernes, 610, p. 95-104.

Bourdieu, Pierre et Loïc Wacquant, 1998, « Les ruses de la raison impérialiste ». Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, v.121-122, mars 1998, 109-118.

Cunin, Elisabeth, 2003, Identidades a flor de piel. Lo "negro" entre apariencias y pertenencias: categorías raciales y mestizaje en Cartagena, Bogotá, ICANH-Univ. de los Andes-IFEA-Observatorio del Caribe.

Durkheim, Emile et Marcel Mauss, 1968 [1903], « De quelques formes primitives de classification. Contribution à l'étude des représentations collectives ». In Marcel Mauss, Œuvres. Paris, les Editions de Minuit, vol.2

French, Jan Hoffman, 2004, “Mestizaje and Law Making in Indigenous Identity Formation in Northeastern Brazil: ‘After the conflict Came the History’”, American Anthropologist. Vol. 106, issue 4, pp663-674.

Hooker, Juliet, 2005, "Indigenous Inclusion/Black Exclusion: Race, Ethnicity, and Multiculturalism Citizenship in Latin America", Journal of Latin American Studies 37, num.2, pp285-310.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1999. "Two or Three things that I Know about Culture." The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 5:399 - 421.

Wacquant, Loic, 1997. "For an analytic of racial domination." Political Power and Social Theory 11 (Symposium on "Rethinking Race" with Ann Laura Stoler, Patricia Dominguez, David Roediger, and Uday Singh Mehta):221-234

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Defining Blackness in Colombia

Peter Wade

This paper looks at the complex relationship between concepts employed by social scientists and those used in everyday practice and discourse, arguing that the standard ideas about how ideas travel from one domain (state, academe, social movements, everyday usage) to another, and become essentialised or destabilised in the process, are often too simple. Changing definitions of blackness in Colombia, through the process of multiculturalist reform and after, are examined with a view to exploring which categories of actors were influential in shaping these definitions and which were involved in essentialisations and de-essentialisations.

Afro-Colombians, race, ethnicity, Latin America

Définitions des populations noires en Colombie

Cet article explore les relations complexes qui existent entre les concepts utilisés par les chercheurs en sciences sociales et ceux qui sont mobilisés dans la vie et les énoncés quotidiens. Il met en lumière que les idées standard sur les façons dont ces concepts circulent d’une sphère à l’autre (État, universités, mouvements sociaux, rue) et, par là même, s’essentialisent ou se déconstruisent, sont bien trop simples. Les définitions des populations noires en Colombie ont changé avec la réforme qui a institué le multiculturalisme et après. Elles sont ici analysées en tenant compte des catégories d’acteurs qui ont pesé sur leur élaboration et celles qui ont joué un rôle dans les processus d’essentialisation ou l’inverse.

Afro-colombiens, race, ethnie, Amérique latine

La definición de la población negra en Colombia

Ese trabajo examina las relaciones complejas que existen entre los conceptos que utilizan los investigadores de ciencias sociales y los que se usan en la vida cotidiana y en los enunciados de todos los días; insiste en el hecho de que las ideas comunes acerca de las maneras en que estos conceptos pasan de una esfera a la otra (Estado, universidades, movimientos sociales, uso cotidiano) y en que a través de esos movimientos se vuelven esencializados o descontruídos, son demasiado simples. Las definiciones de las poblaciones negras en Colombia han cambiado a raíz de la Reforma que instauró el multiculturalismo y después: aquí se analizan dichas definiciones con especial atención sobre las categorías de actores que influyeron en su elaboración así como las que tuvieron un papel en los procesos de esencialización o de des-esencialización.

Afro-colombianos, raza, etnia, América latina

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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Odile Hoffmann, « Commentaries on Peter Wade’s « Defining Blackness in Colombia » », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 12 juin 2017, consulté le 27 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.56664

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