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Des catégories et de leurs usages dans la construction sociale d’un groupe de référence : "race", "ethnie" et "communauté" aux Amériques (Mascipo)

Commentaries on Peter Wade’s “Defining Blackness in Colombia”

Paul Schor

Entrées d’index

Mots clés :

ethnie, race, afro-descendants

Palabras claves:

afro-colombianos, etnia, raza
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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

1In this paper Peter Wade addresses two important issues for students of the social construction of racial categories: the genealogy of different concepts of blackness in Twentieth Century Colombia and the ambiguities of racial concepts for the different actors involved: the population itself, cultural activists, academics, international organizations and national state organizations. He shows how the circulation of these concepts is a complex thing and that tracing their origin is not enough.

2Given my ignorance of the history of Colombia, I will focus mostly on the second point, although his genealogy is extremely useful to understand what seems to be at stake in the recent years: competing or conflicting definitions loaded with social and political significance. My comment will be in the form of questions, that I hope will be of interest to the author and to the audience.

3One thing that struck me while reading the first part of his paper was the fact that for a long time, the concept used to describe and include the black population of Colombia was derived from an existing definition forged for another group, that of the indigenous group. The fact that this translated into a concept of comunidad negra that was supported by black activists and academics is an interesting case in which different logics coalesce as seems to have been the case in the redefinition of Colombia as a multicultural State with the constitutional Reform of 1991.

4What is a little puzzling to me is the fact that this concept, that applied best to the rural “community” of the Pacific Coast was dominant among academic and prevailed in the law but seems to have encountered a strong rejection on the part of the population, when asked to self-identify in the census of 1993, since only 1.5 % of the population chose to identify as belonging to a comunidad negra.

5The debate around the competing notions of comunidad negra and of afrocolombiano was apparently way under way before 1991 or 1993, and I was wondering how we could explain that one notion prevailed so exclusively in the Census of 1993, and in Law 70, if by then it was clear to some that comunidad negra applied best only to a specific part of the population that could be described as black. To put in other words, did this figure of 1.5% come as a surprise to everyone, or were there people who objected to it but where not heard, and if so, why ?

6The variation in the estimates of the black population produced by the state in the 1990’s (16 % in one 1996 study, 26% in a 1998 estimate by the Department of planning), are interesting in that they indicate a sort of indetermination about how to define and count blacks, combined with a strong desire to do so. I was wondering how the method and figures of the 2005 census, where 10.5% of the population identified as of African descent, were received among different circles. Are they considered a “good result” and is the debate settled, or is it still going on ?

7To return to the period discussed in the paper, I was struck, as a specialist of the racial categories of the United States, by the range of international influences in the definition of blackness, be it the United States or the Brazilian experience, or European or international experts. (By the way there is some irony in the fact that French experts from the IRD contributed to the definition of a color based category, something that is unconstitutional in France).

8The paper shows at the same time the different influences, be it that of American black activists on Colombian black activists in the 1970’s, or the idea of looking at the black population through the prism of discrimination and not that of institutional definitions, and reminds us of the fact that foreign influences do not mean that the local actors lose their agency. The ways in which foreign influences have been adapted to the local context, how different actors mobilized over different definitions of blackness is a case in point. Also the circulation of ideas between activists, academics and state actors is described in a nuanced way, that raises general question about the social construction of concepts used by academics and not just of “field actors”. A welcome remainder that the global debate over categories, fueled by corrective policies such as affirmative action, complexifies local debates but does not necessarily deprive local actors of their agency and does not mean that the global convergence in terms and notions translates into a global meaning of what blackness means.

9Nevertheless, the paper also refers to what seemed to be the imposition of categories by one group able to mobilize the State to impose the category of comunidad negra, indicating that if the categories are the result of local processes, there are prevailing notions and others that we might say have been defeated.

10The other point I will address is the concept of afrocolombiano and its relationship to the idea of descent. I was intrigued by the apparent separation between the official ideology of mestisaje and the mutually exclusive categories of race/ethnicity. In its most extreme case, it appears in the survey about discrimination, when a household is defined as black when at least one member is black. More generally, the idea that individuals are either black or not, seems to be at odd both with the results of the different surveys (the changes in definition resulting in major variations in the results) and with the recent evolution in academic and activist circles about the flexible nature of racial categories for the individual themselves.

  • 1 I would add that this confirms not only the ambiguity of racial classifications in Latin America, n (...)

11In light of what is said about the importance of the race of the interviewer, something that has been observed in other contexts, such as the United States at the turn of the Twentieth Century1, or Brazil in the example given by the author, one wonders why the consensus of the late 1990’s produced an inclusive definition that left no space for intermediary categories, such as trigueña, or generally for mestizo-like categories that emerge from interviews. Is it that Colombia has opted for a local form of the one-drop-rule ? What are the implications for academics and institutional actors of this discrepancy between the range of categories used by the individuals interviewed and the unity of the category used by the census and other institutional/official actors ?

12How does it work concretely: are they instructions for the census takers to reclassify these into either Afrocolombiano or no ethnicity ? Has there been a debate about this comparable to the one over the “check more than one” choice for the race question in the US Census of 2000. Are they explicit rules of hypodescent that apply to children of mixed black/non-black parents ?

13Are they people arguing in favor of official mestizo-like categories ? Is the current consensus around the notion of afrocolombiano not just flexible as Peter Wade has shown, but also unstable ?

14And to conclude, I have a separate question: I was quite surprised to find that there was a Rom category in the questionnaire of the census. I was even more surprised when I looked at the figures for the 2005 Census on the site of the Colombian Department of Statistics. The Rom are 4.832, less than 0.01 % of the total population, nevertheless, they are one of the only three ethnic groups recognized by the Census, with Indigenas and Afrocolombianos, whereas 86.09 % of the population consider themselves without ethnic affiliation.

15What is the reason, and the meaning of a specific category, that we know is costly, for such as small fraction of the Colombian population?

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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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1 I would add that this confirms not only the ambiguity of racial classifications in Latin America, nut of racial classifications in general. In the United States, although it is not so often acknowledged, the same phenomenon has been observed, most notably when the “mulatto” category was used (between 1850 and 1920). Responses varied greatly according to the race of the observer, leading the US Bureau of the Census to drop the category after 1920. the effect of gender on the classification as black, mulatto or white has also been observed, women being generally perceived as lighter, and this being also positively correlated to education and status. (See Washington, Mary Lynn (1997), White, Black, or Mulatto: A Sociological Exploration of the Meaning of Racial Classification in the United States Census of 1880, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University and Schor, Paul, “Statistiques de la population et politique des catégories aux États-Unis au xixe siècle. Théories raciales et questions de population dans le recensement américain. » Annales de démographie historique, no 105 –2003(1).

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Référence électronique

Paul Schor, « 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 29 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Paul Schor

Université Paris-VII and CENA-EHESS

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