- Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil
The toes on your feet are brothers but they are not equal.—Bahian Proverb
Sansone's text on ethnicity and the construction of blackness in Brazil combines descriptive and polemical ends and steers a careful course between the prudishness of anthropological descriptions of race and the shrillness of those that emerge from the tradition of ethnic studies. He begins, as most of us would, by denying the validity of race as a term of anthropological analysis. But such denials would condemn anthropology to irrelevance if anthropologists fail to recognize the strength of race as an emic category of self-understanding and one deployed in the construction of communities and political mobilization. Sansone urges us to examine pragmatic processes of racialization: the ways in which people become conscious of belonging to a given race and the ways in which they express that belonging.
Equally problematic for Sansone is the social scientific use of the category ethnicity. He identifies its resurgence as a consequence of the decline of Marxism in the social sciences with its class-based explanations of difference. This burden of explanation has been transferred to ethnicity. Ethnicity is based [End Page 763] on the identification of homogeneous communities with discrete territories. It remains a part of identity even when diasporas scatter these homogenous groups from their ancestral homelands. We tend to see ethnicities as immutable characteristics of persons, when in fact they are really only occasionally mobilized. In this case they appear in the consumption of ethnically marked commodities and in the performance of the imagined cultural traditions of one's own ethnicity. This focus on consumption and performance means that people can change their ethnic identifications throughout their lives. He demonstrates this with a description of the formation of "youthnicities" (101; cf. Rogilds 1993) in the funk dances in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. He pleads for an academic and popular understanding of race and ethnicity that leaves room for ambiguity, multiplicity and pragmatism in racial and ethnic identification. He takes as evidence the shifting sands of racial identification in Salvador da Bahia.
Sansone examines racialization in Latin America, in Brazil and most specifically in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, Brazil's blackest state. There the formation of races followed a very different trajectory than it has in the United States, the UK and the Anglophone Caribbean. These areas are all encompassed in the Black Atlantic and therefore all influence each other through global commodity flows and academic and popular discourses. But their racial systems differ in important ways which he traces to Iberian Catholic versus English Protestant colonial styles.
The main difference he identifies that in the Anglophone areas racial identification is polarized. One is either black or white. However, In Latin America and Brazil in particular, there is a color continuum between black and white with a multitude of terms corresponding to a range of phenotypes. The color term with which one identifies oneself and by which one is identified by others shifts depending on context. A consequence of this difference is that whereas race has been a focal point for political mobilization in the US and the Anglophone areas, protest movements and political parties based on race have never gained much of a foothold in Brazil's enormous black and brown populations.
This color continuum does not mean that there is no racism in Brazil, nor that Brazilians of African descent do not experience discrimination based on their color. Rather, Sansone claims, there are certain spaces where interracial cordiality prevails. These include rumshops and neighborhood street corners. There are others where blackness is valued over whiteness, such as in musical performance, the martial art/dance capoeira and in the practice of Afro-Brazilian religions. But there are other spaces, especially the job market, [End Page 764] encounters with police and the public consumption of luxury goods and services where being perceived as black is a serious liability. Sansone counters the commonsense North American notion that the presence of large numbers of people of more or less mixed African descent...