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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) – Paris, EHESS, 13-15 décembre 2006
Elisabeth Cunin

Commentaries on Charles Hale’s « Racial Eruptions : The Awkward Place of Blackness in Indian Centered Spaces of Mestizaje »

Traduction de Peter Marquis et CENA (all rights reserved).

Notes de la rédaction

En raison de l’intérêt de ces commentaires, nous avons pris la décision de les publier bien que le texte de la conférence auquel ils se rapportent n'ait pas été accessible pour la mise en ligne.

Texte intégral


1My reading of Charles Hale’s contribution derives from my knowledge of Colombia, specifically of Cartagena, a coastal town – once a major slave’s port – where the population is predominantly Black with only a few Indians, unlike Hale’s area of study.

2Although we roughly use the same lexical field (ethnicity, culture, race, métissage, Indian, Black), there is no doubt that, first, these words do not bear the same meaning for the various social actors in our two different areas of study, second, they are not construed and applied in the same fashion by scholars, working in distinct schools of thought, namely North-American anthropology at UT-Austin for C. Hale, and French Latin-American studies for myself.

3These discrepancies become visible on the subject of translations:  C. Hale is unsure whether to translate « negro hijo de puta » (p. 17) as « nigger ». In Europe, we have qualms about using race without quotation marks.

4Such difficulties underline the need to contextualize in social history these identity-related categories which are nowadays widely circulated because scholars draw their concepts from a worldwide scientific community and because the localized phenomena are themselves intertwined in globalized « connexions.»

5Though most of the studies of ethnicity in Latin America focus on a specific population (Indians, Blacks, « Turcos », Chinese, etc.), C. Hale’s work stresses the merits of a comparative approach, for that matter, between Blacks and Indians. I will mainly comment on the central aspect of his paper: the dichotomy between Black and Indian forms of mobilization. The latter hinges round a politicization of culture, while the former is marked by a politicization of race (p. 6). Cumulative effects are derived from this process insofar as the recognition that culture partakes in the Indian identity reinforces the imprisonment of the Black populations in a racial logic.

Mobilization and absence of ethnic mobilization in Colombia

6In Cartagena, Blacks seem to « belong » more than in Guatemala or Honduras because the city was a port of entry for slaves. Although the Caribbean coast may appear as a region where Black métissage prevails, one should bear in mind that it is considered « less black » that the Pacific coast. Besides Colombia, which favors whiteness in its self-definition as an métis country, has always recognized the Indians as the only « other.»

7One would be tempted to say that the opposite situation to what C. Hale describes occurs in Colombia. The 1991 Constitution, followed by Law 70, recognized the pluri-ethnic and multi-cultural character of the country and endowed blacks with a series of rights, such as the attribution of lands on « black communities ». An Afro-Colombian ethnicity was thus constructed, thanks to various factors, such as the mobilization of black peasants in the Pacific area. Commentators usually interpreted these factors by stating that the recognition of ethnicity derived from an insistence on the cultural and territorial components of blacks’ identity.

8The cultural claim is even more visible in my area of study since the issue of blacks lands is non-existent. Palenque of San Basilio, a vilage 70 km (about 40 miles) from Cartagena, provides a striking example. Hailed as the Afro-Colombian territory on the Caribbean coast, Palenque is perfectly integrated in the multi-cultural policies of the country. Although it was recently listed a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by the UNESCO for its « African roots », the palenqueros have developed distinct cultural features. Their language (the only Spanish-based Creole in Latin America), their social organization (by age groups), their religion (the lumbalú death ritual), their music, as well as the glorification of their anti-slavery past (embodied by Benkos Biohó, king of the slaves, or the label « first free people of the Americas), have all contributed to the formation of a cultural resistance, pertaining to what S. Cusicanqui calls the « memoria larga » of the Indians.

9Hence, should we hold the palenqueros for “ the Indians of the Caribbean,” or at least of the Cartagena area? They display cultural features akin to those of the Indians (language, territory, community). They also fit perfectly into the model of « otherness » as defined by the policy of multi-culturalism. However, one should steer clear from locking them in a strict analytical model, given that the palenqueros have developed their own brand of cultural resistance, steeped in the emphasis on the ties with Africa for instance.

10What is striking about Cartagena is that the ethnic-racial issue does not lie between Indians and Blacks, but rather between Blacks of the area and Blacks from the rest of the country, who do not fit in the culturalist pattern described above. This leads us to think that the various forms of political mobilization derive much less from group belonging (Indian or Black) than to the opportunities of action within the structure of a field that prioritizes certain features over others. Difference is, thus, much more than an a priori invariant, an « ongoing interactional accomplishment » (West & Fernsternmaker, 1995).

11Another question comes to mind reading C. Hales’ text – is the emphasized Black culture exclusively based on a reference to Africa? (p. 33). Long ago, M. Herskovits or F. Frazier discussed this issue along the lines of continuity or discontinuity in black cultures in Africa and in America. The controversy was superseded by R. Bastide and S. Mint, as well as other contemporary works, which think in terms of adaptation and formation of Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean cultures, rather than origin and preservation of African « authenticity ». The pictures from the celebration of Independence evidence that black culture is first and foremost inscribed in the demands of time and place.

12Neither Indian nor African, the Afro-Colombian ethnic mobilization takes shape in a specific social configuration which gives birth to its practices and discourses. I shall now return to two main ideas.

13First, it seems to me that politicization is neither cultural nor racial. The situation of the palenquero bears witness to a superimposition of these two dimensions. Though they are seen as an ethnic group, the stigma of race has not vanished. Thus, there is no such thing as a one-dimension mobilization. In context, the palenqueros are caught in a multiplicity of identities – in a meeting with the mayor they are an ethnic group, facing the UNESCO they defend a cultural heritage, finally in everyday life, especially in Cartagena, they are a much-stigmatized racial group. One of my respondents told me in a 1997 interview, « (…) the worst way you could treat them is to call them black palenquero. It’s even worse than black (…). »

14Thus, it is irrelevant to speak of political or racial politicization (to refer back to C. Hale’s findings) since we notice that the categorizations (ethnic, cultural, racial) are superimposed. Ethnicity is one of the many possible features, as a result there is no such thing as a « shift to ethnicity away from race and tribe » (p. 10), but rather logics of coexistence between race AND ethnicity, in other words, not so much a linear evolution than a synchronic coexistence.

15Secondly, I believe that the term « volatility », used by C. Hales to describe the differences between racial categories, should also be applied to the process of categorization itself. Categories are volatile not only when we mean that they are ever changing and malleable, but also when they result from the adaptation to specific situations. The use of certain terms and expressions, like « ontology » (p. 3) or « the category always has been applied differentially to two peoples, to be sure, from the first moments of European conquest and colonization onward » (p. 9), give the impression that the categories used to describe theoretically or empirically the Garifunas / Miskitos are fixed once and for all. It seems to me on the contrary that,

161/ the meaning of the term « race » keeps changing. It is derived from phenotypical characteristics (skin color, but also physical features) who become racialised over time, as well as genetical, such as the concept of « la sangre » or the issue of African ascendancy. What are these variations made of? What meaning do they convey?

172/ the term « race » as been applied heterogeneously to black populations, some of which were also studied along cultural, territorial or socio-economic lines. The debate over the extent of Blacks’ self-identification as blacks and their participation in the first independence of Cartagena suggests that the contemporary historical narrative is « over-racialising » the Afro-Caribbean group.

From « racial eruption » to racial dodging.

18I now reach my final point of confrontation: what happens to the black population of Cartagena in general? Are they, as C. Hales showed in another context, racialised because the palenqueros are ethnicized?

19They are, to be sure, not mobilized politically, since they do not fit in the policies of multi-culturalism. However, racial elements increasingly affect the palenqueros, showing that the categories are not established once and for all.

20C. Hales uses the words « racial eruption » to speak of the « awkward and often perplexing presence of racialised premises about blackness in Indian-centered spaces of mestizajes » which often goes hand in hand with a « burst of signification where a given understanding of race is conveyed, (…) not contested (…) because it comes directly from the political imaginary » (p. 11). In Cartagena, where most of the population is black or mulatto, the reference to race is both « awkward » and normalized, even naturalized.

21This is evidenced by these three pictures: the first (« un alcalde negro, no ») is a case of « racial eruption » the racism of which the city’s black intellectuals have condemned; the second one (a young black youth urinates on the city walls), though displayed at bus stops, triggered no reaction, suggesting that the correlation « black/ delinquent » goes unquestioned; the third one, previously commented upon by C. Hale, shows a black housemaid whose skin color purposely contrasts with the whitening detergent « Blanquita ». The last two photographs display what I call « racial dodging », a phenomenon which consists in going about everyday basis « as if » everything was normal and everyone in their right places in order to escape rupture and awkwardness caused by the eruption of a racial stigma. For instance, the use of the term « moreno » (brown) is a way to qualify the harsher term « black » and allow people to accommodate to the social order. In Cartagena, dodging the racial question is thus a form of adaptation, in no way contradictory with moments of “racial eruption:” the beauty queens, though all black are never subjected to a racial description, whereas performers of champeta – a music close to reggaeton – constantly fall under that categorization.

22In truth, dodging the racial question testifies of a remarkable ability to recognize the socio-racial norms and to use them to one’s own interests. Hence, his practice of elusion is both adaptation and resistance since the painful categorization as blacks is subtly appropriated with a new twist – the once immutable defining category turns into a malleable, opportunity-laden pragmatic category.

23A few contemporary studies on Indian in the Caribbean follow that train of thought – not only did the Indians fought along cultural lines to preserve their identity (incidentally, to what extent is this glorification of the past the result of scholars’ coercive viewpoint?), but also they manipulated the colonial order by some strategies (matrimony, legal land ownership, etc) to resist the hegemony without subverting face-on the socio-racial hierarchy.

24All in all, the very distinction Black / Indian should the questioned given the great ability of actors to use the categories to their own advantage, regardless of the heavily racialised environment they live in. The Garifunas move from freely from one category to the other and so does the population of Cartagena, as is evidenced by the fundamental bivalence of the “India Catalina” statue, one of the city’s symbol. She’s Indian but her skin is black, which led to many respondents’ telling me, « She’s Indian by blood, her family must have been Indian … » and later « Everybody living on the coast are morenos, she’s the same color as me, I believe we’re the same race ». Her racial identity is both extremely determining and greatly undetermined.

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Arocha Jaime, de Friedemann Nina (éd.), 1984, Un siglo de investigación social. Antropología en Colombia, Bogotá: COLCIENCIAS-FES.

Arrázola Roberto, 1970, Palenque, primer pueblo libre de América, Cartagena : Editorial Hernández.

Chivallon Christine, 2006, « Diaspora noire des Amériques : une réflexion conduite à partir de la notion de ‘lien transétatique’ », Autrepart, n°38.

LangebaekCarl, 2006, “Pasado indígena en la Costa Caribe: interpretación en cinco actos”, in Alberto Abello Vives (comp.), El Caribe en la Nación colombiana. Memorias, Bogotá: Museo Nacional de Colombia, Observatorio del Caribe Colombiano, 2006.

Olzak Suzan, 1992, The dynamics of ethnic competition and conflict, California : Stanford University Press.

Restrepo Eduardo, 1997, “Afrocolombianos, Antropología y Proyecto de Modernidad en Colombia”, in V. Uribe, E. Restrepo (ed.), Antropología en la modernidad: identidades, etnicidades y movimientos sociales en Colombia, Bogotá: ICAN, págs. 279-319.

Saether Steinar, 2005, «Identidades e independencia en Santa Marta y Riohacha, 1750-1850, Bogotá : Instituto Colombiano de Antropologiá e Historia.

West Candace, Sarah Fenstermaker, 1995, « Doing difference », Gender and Society, vol. 9, n° 1, February, pp. 8-37.

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Racial Eruptions : The Awkward Place of Blackness in Indian Centered Spaces of Mestizaje

Charles Hale

Why does the politicization of race so consistently mark Afro-descendant mobilization for rights, in contrast to indigenous movements’ equally consistent preference for the politicization of culture? In this paper, I advance the theoretical proposition that the cultural politics of black and indigenous peoples are best understood through a conceptual frame that encompasses both. I also want this theoretical insight to contribute to ongoing efforts of activist research in favor of rights to land and resources. I focus on a cluster of Miskitu Indian and Garífuna Afro-indigenous communities in northeastern Honduras, whose overlapping territorial claims, and general political-economic relations, have been the source of considerable tension in recent years. I conclude that race and culture conjoined, not pried apart, will prove the most powerful conceptual basis for mutually conceived collective rights, against the persistence of white supremacy in the neoliberal-multicultural era.

blackness, mestisaje, policization of culture, politicization of race, black-indigenous relations

Irruptions raciales: la place déconcertante de l'identité noire dans les espaces de 'mestizaje' indiens

Pourquoi la mobilisation politique des Afro-descendants est-elle marquée par la politisation de la race, par contraste avec les mouvements indigénistes qui lui préfèrent celle de la culture ? Dans cet article, je propose de considérer les politiques culturelles des populations noires et indigènes au travers d’un cadre conceptuel qui englobe les deux groupes. J’entends également contribuer par cette perspective théorique à la recherche militante en faveur des droits à la terre et aux ressources de ces groupes en Amérique centrale. Je m’attache ici à un ensemble de communautés amérindiennes Miskitu et afro-indigènes Garífuna dans le Nord-est du Honduras, dont les revendications territoriales et les relations politico-économiques ont été à l’origine de tensions considérables ces dernières années. La race et la culture envisagés conjointement, et non pas séparément, apparaissent comme un cadre conceptuel fondamental pour penser les droits collectifs et contrer la perpétuation de la suprématie blanche dans l’ère néolibérale et multiculturelle.

blackness, mestisaje, politisation de la culture, politisation de la race, relations noirs-indigènes

Erupciones raciales: El incómodo lugar de la negritud en los espacios de mestizaje centrados en la indianidad.

¿Por qué la movilización política de los afro-descendientes está marcada por la politización de la raza en contraste con los movimientos indigenistas que prefieren la de la cultura? En este artículo me propongo considerar las políticas culturales de las poblaciones negras e indígenas a través del marco conceptual que engloba a ambos grupos. Me propongo igualmente contribuir a través de esta perspectiva teórica a la investigación militante en favor de los derechos a la tierra y los recursos de esos grupos en América Central. Me voy a centrar aquí en un conjunto de comunidades amerindias Miskitu y afro-indígenas Garifuna del noreste de Honduras, cuyas reivindicaciones territoriales y las relaciones político-económicas han estado al origen de tensiones considerables estos últimos años. La raza y la cultura consideradas conjuntamente, y no separadamente, aparecen como un marco conceptual fundamental para pensar los derechos colectivos y oponerse a la perpetuación de la supremacía blanca en la era neoliberal y multicultural.

negritud, mestizaje, politización de la cultura, politización de la raza, relación negros-indígenas.

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Référence électronique

Elisabeth Cunin, « Commentaries on Charles Hale’s « Racial Eruptions : The Awkward Place of Blackness in Indian Centered Spaces of Mestizaje » », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 19 novembre 2009, consulté le 18 août 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.57585

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