Does the idea of “anti-racism” work in Latin America?

by | Oct 13, 2020 | Uncategorised |

Does the idea of “anti-racism” work in Latin America?

Peter Wade, 9 October 2020

At a recent meeting of CARLA researchers, Carlos Correa, the researcher working (virtually) in Colombia recounted a conversation he had recently had with a Black man with whom he’d been at university. His friend is now an actor – let’s call him Juan – who also participates in various cultural and solidarity activities to support marginal neighbourhoods. Juan vigorously contested the use of the term “anti-racism” in the CARLA project for three reasons. First, he says it is a concept that derived from the United States and is appropriate for that context in which racism and the struggle against it mobilises large numbers of people, who use an explicit discourse of racism and anti-racism. Colombia is different, in his view. Second, to organise one’s struggles around racism as the key problem means side-lining other equally important dimensions of social inequality and injustice, such as class. Juan refused to reduce his solidarity initiatives to a single-issue fight against racism (although he does not adopt a Marxist-type position that class is the ultimate determinant and thus should always be the primary focus of action). Third, the people among whom he works in the barrios of his city, despite the fact that many of them are black and brown, did not see racism as the main issue – or sometimes even a significant issue – in their lives.

These are all valid arguments and it is important for us, as researchers, to understand how various different people understand racism and the fight against it. But it is also important to engage in dialogue with these views and to put forward our understanding of what anti-racism means.

To start with, the fact that the term anti-racism itself (antirracismo) is felt by many in Latin America to be a Anglo-Saxon import – they might feel more comfortable talking about la lucha contra el racismo (the fight against racism) – can act as a distraction from the shared histories and experiences of colonialism and racial hierarchy that connect the various regions of the Black Atlantic as well as other parts of the world. This does not mean reducing all these experiences and contexts to a single format – there are very important regional differences – but it does mean be alert to the possibility of common ground alongside diversity. I think a key issue here is that “racism” is often seen in Latin America as typified by the US experience: it is therefore seen as necessarily involving explicitly racialised hatred and violence. It is telling that it is in Brazil – where we are increasingly seeing the overt emergence of emotions and violence that have inescapably racialised dimensions – that the idea of anti-racism is more widely used. Yet even in Brazil, many still adhere to the idea that their country enjoys an important degree of racial conviviality, intimately linked to histories of racial mixture. The point is that the existence of such conviviality – which we can see as one aspect of the social reality of Latin America – does not mean the non-existence of racism. The two co-exist in the same space and time. And racism can take on vitriolic and violent forms when traditional racialised hierarchies are challenged – as they have been, to some extent and in uneven ways – by the multiculturalist reforms that have been in place since the 1990s.

Second, it is important to see anti-racism as an inherently intersectional fight. As Audre Lorde reminds us “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”. This remark is often cited in the context of bringing together issues of racism and sexism, but it is equally important to understand intersectionality in terms of the older and perhaps more straight-jacketed debates about the relationship between race and class. In Latin America, a history of what might be called conquistador colonialism gave rise to powerful correlations between race and class. These remain even in areas where a white settler colonialism became an important feature in the late nineteen and twentieth century, as European immigrants flooded into Argentina and southern Brazil. Thus the lower classes in Latin America are generally speaking also the darker-skinned classes, with people who are seen as blacker and more indigenous-looking by the whiter and more European-looking middle and upper classes. This marks a difference with the United States and Europe, where whites are a majority in the working classes. This means that, in countries like Colombia, it is impossible to really disentangle racism and classism. Even if the impacts of race and class on social position can be separated by statistical techniques – which consistently show the independent role played by racism – in social life, it is much harder. So anti-racism necessarily has to be understood as a struggle on multiple fronts. In the United States, too, anti-racism cannot be grasped as a single-issue struggle, even if sometimes a single issue – such as police violence and Black Lives Matter – temporarily channel protest and outrage.

Third, we of course have to accept and take seriously local people’s perceptions that racism is not a major issue in their lives, compared to poverty, violence and marginalisation. We can, however, engage in a dialogue with them, trying to convey how racism can be understood as being not only about overtly racialised hatred and violence. It can be understood as involving less visible structural dimensions and, for example, involving correlations between race and class. In that sense racism can be seen as an integral part of the problems that, for them, are primary concerns. It is true that it has taken the Black Lives Matter movement to make “structural racism” a term frequently used by mainstream news media (at least in the UK); the Latin American context may be less conducive to revealing the operations of structural processes of racism. But there are indications in Latin America of what I call a “racially-aware class consciousness” – an awareness that the class-based inequalities, violence and dispossessions that a person or community suffers is integrally linked to the fact that they are perceived as black, indigenous or dark-skinned by the people who control power and resources. This kind of consciousness provides a foothold for an understanding of anti-racism as addressing more than overtly racialised hatred and violence. I think that art is particularly well suited to dramatising and channelling such a “racially-aware class consciousness”.