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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)

Comparative remarks on Peter Fry's paper from the Colombian case

Anne-Marie Losonczy

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Palabras claves:

Brasil, acción afirmativa
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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°95-2 (2009) du JSA ( dont le résumé se trouve en annexe.

Texte intégral

1Peter Fry's communication raises the core issue of the different types of racial taxinomies, their historical processes of legitimation and delegitimation, in the interaction between the scientifique sphere, the state and the new political actors. The discussion and historical contextualization of the transformation of multiple categories into bipolar taxinomies in Brazil evocates both striking similarities and differences with the Colombian case. My comparative material from Colombia points to another model in which the taxinomic "temptation" implicit in the proclamation of multiculturalism is checked by the territorial definition of ethnic groups. The first system is tri-partite, Indians, Blacks and implicitly, Whites and co-exists and combines with a second one, where Communities, legally defined, are nesting within the Nation underlying the State, and can be construed as a hierarchical opposition (à la Dumont). My approach integrates as well the "popular" (i.e. non scientific) social usages of categories of colonial and republican origins.

2The 1991 Colombian Constitution is indeed a radical departure from the century-old republican tradition, which was both restrictive and centralizing, definig the State as "multicultural" and pluri-ethnic. The new legal statute for ethnic minorities, Indian first, then Black (ley de las Negritudes- a neologism in Spanish- and later ley de las Comunidades Negras) creates thus a new juridical category, adding to the individual category of "Colombian citizen" a collective one, rooted in an "ancestral" territory precisely bounded, and invested with collective rights, both cultural and political attached to this territorial establishment. In spite of the rural and communitarian inspiration of these legal definitions, the new polarization of the social field applies equally to positions and identities of urban Indians and Blacks.

3The first consequence of these innovations has been an intense mobilization and re-organization of identities, allowing the emergence of new social and political actors, between communities, regional and national scenes: ethnic leaders, academic advisers and advocates, lawyers and activists, NGO members, public officials implementing the new ethnic and multicultural policies. These actors are building up and shaping the visibility of cultural and political groups hitherto unknown, promoting a new language, the administrative and militant jargon of territorial and identitary recomposition of the population. Such terms as saneamiento de los resguardos (litterally "cleansing of the reservations") and "relocation of colonists" describe the stages of a policy aiming at the coincidence of a recognized territory with an ethnic group, as defined by its linguistic, cultural and identitary boundaries, through removing those, recently or formertly settled there, who lack a distinctive ethnic identity (the "colonists"). The symbolic charge of these terms (cleansing or purification, colonists), designating the territorial and cultural homogenization of a jural and political subject ethnically defined, points to, in a negative a contrario manner, the mixture, the mestizo, the inter-ethnic, and unifies the multiple instances of co-existing groups variously mixed into an implicit category of prejudicial beings. Mestizo peasants without a definite ethnic identity are thus re-classified as "colonists", lacking the legitimacy of local autochtony. This process of ethnic and identitary re-classification is building up a new cultural and political visibility on the national and international scene for Indian and Black groups hitherto invisible. As a corollary, the categories of criollo and mestizo are fading into, respectively, those of colonos and a regional class of identity (such a paesa, costeño, boyacense etc).In popular terms of classification, these categories are subsumed in the pair of opposites etnico/colombiano.

4In effect, the ruralist, isolationnist and local character of the new national multicultural legal framework has had little impact on lively and highly contrastive regional identities; furthermore, numerous populations of Indian and Black origins have been forced to migrate to cities, through the ceaseless multifaceted armed violence that devastates most of Colombia. Hence regional cities have become melting pots for new identitary references, combining the official multicultural scheme with the regional mode of classification and the generic categories of identities, both transnational and transcontinental. The latter, such as Negritud, Indianidad, Afro-descendencia, Caribeanidad… constitute the emblematic designations for groups and networks of people, based on esthetization and stylization of body appearance, adornment and performance, mostly in the context of urban representations. These practices appear relatively independant of territorial localization and very distant from the traditional cultural and symbolic characteristics of Indian and Afro-american local societies. Thus cities become exemplary of the coexistence of identitary references grounded in the body, the ethnic, the region, the nation, and the supra-national generic.

5In this context, mestizo is turning into a qualifying adjective, used again by observers, social analysts, advertisers to describe artistic, culinary, esthaetic and cultural practices- essentially urban- perceived as innovating and mixing cultural references and elements borrowed from diverse traditions, national as well as foreign. Thus new cultural types are created and diffused in the capital and in regional capital cities, specifically from the urban institutional milieu. Their favorite emblematism resort to both adjectives criollo and mestizo, mobile and contextualized categories. Whereas the former will affirm the regional cultural roots, the latter is rather open to transnational (or supranational) references, such as "caribbean" or "latino-american". Far from indicating the phenotype of social actors, who invented and diffused these pratices, both qualificatives now apply to the latter type. Their common feature, and their occasional synonymy, is to evade the national referent as welle as the ethnic one. These terms currently connote three facets of the new figure of métissage in Colombia, its urban location, its function as a bridge between the regional and the transnational and its passing from the socio-racial model to the multiform cultural practices.

6This brief comparative attempt raises three general questions:

7How do these taxinomic categories rest on other notions, developped by history and social sciences, such as quilombos, community, ethnic, etc ?

8What are the effects of these taxinomies on popular usages, rooted in traditional auto- and hetero- definitions of identity?

9What is the place of amerindians in the new bipolar taxinomy evolved in Brazil?

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The politics of « racial » classification in Brazil

Peter Fry

This paper traces the genealogy of « racial » taxonomies in Brazil arguing that recent policies which focus on the « black population » or the « black community » depend upon a belief that Brazilian society is neatly divided into « blacks » and « not blacks », thus superseding taxonomies which produce ambiguous « racial » categories based on the social « appearance » of individuals. The paper argues that such new political orientation may be a form of self fulfilling prophecy, bringing into being that which it assumed to exist.

race, Brazil, affirmative action.

La politique de classification « raciale » au Brésil

Cet article retrace la généalogie des taxinomies « raciales » au Brésil, et émontre que les récentes politiques publiques en direction de la « population noire » ou de la « communauté noire » reposent sur la croyance que la société brésilienne est clairement divisée entre « noirs » et « non-noirs ». Ces politiques remplacent ainsi des taxinomies produisant des catégories « raciales » ambigües fondées sur l’« apparence » sociale des individus. L’article montre qu’une telle orientation politique s’apparente à une prophétie auto-réalisatrice, amenant à être ce qui est supposé exister.

race, Brésil, discrimination positive.

Las políticas de clasificación « racial » en Brasil

Este artículo traza la genealogía de las taxonomías « raciales » en Brasil argumentando que las recientes políticas aplicadas a las « población negra » o a la « comunidad negra » parten del supuesto de que la sociedad brasileña se divide nítidamente entre « negros » y « no negros », suprimiendo, así, taxonomías que producen categorías « raciales » ambiguas basadas en la « apariencia » social de los individuos. El artículo argumenta que esta orientación política puede llegar a transformarse en una profecía auto-cumplida, estableciendo lo que se presupone que ya existe.

Brasil, acción afirmativa.

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Référence électronique

Anne-Marie Losonczy, « Comparative remarks on Peter Fry's paper from the Colombian case »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 18 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Marie Losonczy


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