Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia

Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia

Johns Hopkins University Press
432 pages
ISBN-10: 9780801852510; ISBN-13: 978-0801852510

Peter Wade, Professor of Social Anthropology
University of Manchester

Drawing on extensive anthropological fieldwork, Peter Wade shows how the concept of “blackness” and discrimination are deeply embedded in different social levels and contexts—from region to neighborhood, and from politics and economics to housing, marriage, music, and personal identity.

Table of Contents

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • I. Introduction
    • 1. The Racial Order and National Identity
    • 2. The Study of Indians and Blacks in the Racial Order
  • II. Cultural Topography
    • 3. A Sense of Place: The Geography of Culture in Colombia
    • 4. Antioquia
    • 5. The Atlantic Coast
    • 6. The Chocó: Rain, Misery, and Blackness
    • 7. Heroes and Politics: Quibdó since 1900
    • 8. The Chocó: Poverty and Riches
  • III. Chogoanos on the Frontier and the City
    • 9. Unguía: History and Economy
    • 10. Unguía: Ethnic Relations
    • 11. Medellín: Working in the City
    • 12. Medellín: Living in the City
  • IV. Blackness and Mixedness
    • 13. Images of Blackness: The View from Above
    • 14. Images of Blackness: The View from Below
    • 15. The Black Community and Music
    • 16. Whitening
    • 17. Prestige and Equality, Egotism and Envy
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix A: Tables
  • Appendix B: Figures
  • Appendix C: Transcripts of Responses by Chocóanos to Questions about Medellín
  • References


  • A suburb of Quibdó
  • A street band in Quibdó
  • A woman mining by hand in the Chocó
  • A mechanical gold dredger in the Chocó
  • A main street in Unguía
  • The central square of Medellín
  • La Iguana, an invasion settlement in Medellín
  • El Salon Suizo, a bar in central Medellín


  • Colombia
  • Colombia: Northern region
  • Colombia: Northwestern region


The study of blacks in Colombia, despite the seminal efforts of a few dedicated researchers, is neglected relative to the ethnohistorical and anthropological study of the indian populations. The idea of a “racial democracy” in Colombia is still pervasive, and despite refutations of this myth from academic and popular circles alike, some people of all colors and classes can still be heard to avow the insignificance of race as an issue, especially as far as blacks are concerned.

The reasons for this have, in my view, to do with the complex interweaving of patterns of both discrimination and tolerance, of both blackness or indianness and mestizaje, or race mixture. This interweaving takes place within a project, managed mainly by elites, of nationhood and national identity which holds up an image of Colombia as essentially a mestizo or mixed nation. Blacks and indians can, therefore, although in different ways, be both excluded as nonmestizo and included as potential recruits to mixedncss. Such a racial order, I believe, is not characteristic of Colombia alone, but has echoes in many regions of Latin America. In this book, I examine the coexisting and interdependent dynamics of mestizaje and discrimination in a variety of contexts, at different levels of resolution and in distinct realms of social action.

To talk about “blacks,” “indians,” and “race” in Latin America, or indeed anywhere else, is in itself problematic. It is generally accepted that “races” arc social constructions, categorical identifications based on a discourse about physical appearance or ancestry. This is not a universalizing definition good for all places and times because what is to count as relevant “physical difference” or relevant “ancestry” is far from self-evident. There is apparently the “natural fact” of phenotypical variation from which culture constructs categorical identifications according to social determinations, but positing a nature/culture relation mediated by this “productionist logic” (Haraway 1989, 13) obscures the fact that there is no prediscursive, universal encounter with “nature” or therefore with phenotypical variation. These have always been perceived and understood historically in different ways, through certain lenses, especially those ground in the colonial encounters that have privileged the phenotypical differences characteristic of continental space, rather than those characteristic of, say, “short” and “tall” people. As such, racial categories arc processual in two ways: first, as a result of the changing perceptions of the nature/culture divide that they themselves mediate; second, as a result of the interplay of both claims to and ascriptions of identity, usually made in the context of unequal power relations. The second process is of particular significance in the Latin American context because one feature of a racial order based on race mixture is ambiguity about who is and who is not “black” or “indian.” In the United States, South Africa, and many European countries, although ambiguities do exist, there is more general agreement between claims and ascriptions, and thus more clearly defined categorical boundaries to races, than in Latin American countries such as Colombia. There, the boundaries of the category “black” or “indian” are much disputed and ambiguous, even while clear images of a “typical” black or indian person exist for everyone, including “blacks” and “indians.” In this book, although I will not always enclose the terms “black,” “indian,” or “race” in quotation marks, it should be understood that if by their very nature they are not self-evident categories, this is especially so in the Latin American context.

Ambiguity about blackness or indianness does not, however, mean the insignificance of blacks or indians, or more exactly, of people for whom blackness and indianness is an important aspect of personal and social identity. In this book, my concern is with blackness, and I focus on a region of Colombia, the Chocó province of the lowland Pacific littoral, where this is particularly evident. There, blacks form about 80 or 90 percent of the population, and blackness has been and still is a critical feature of regional history and identity. I look at the region’s inhabitants, the Chocoanos, in the heart of this province and also in the two sites of my field work: one right in the north of the Chocó, in an area heavily influenced by nonblacks; the other, beyond the Chocó, in the city of Medellín. My aim is to examine the coexistence and codependence of blackness and nonblackness, of discrimination and race mixture in these regional contexts. My contention is that the Chocoano material illuminates the more general nature of the Colombian racial order and Colombian national identity. By the same token, the Colombian material sheds light on other Latin American nations in which discrimination and mestizaje also coexist and in which projects of national identity have also had to deal, albeit in different ways, with a past and a present of racial heterogeneity.

Blacks are present and blackness is an issue in other areas of Colombia besides the Choco: the whole southern Pacific littoral is, if anything, blacker than the Chocó; the areas around Cali and Cartago have significant black populations; the Caribbean coastal region has concentrations of blacks in various areas, and more generally has a heavily negroid population; there are pockets of blacks, often migrants, in most cities, including Bogota. I do not pretend to cover all these different contexts, some of which have already been studied (see, for example, the works by Whitten, Friedemann, and Taussig listed in the References), but I do introduce two other Colombian regions into the picture, although neither is my principal focus. One is Antioquia, the other the Caribbean coastal region, both neighbors of the Chocó. Their presence in the book has two purposes. One is mainly from the central Chocó, Antioquia, and the Caribbean region; my second was in Medellín, provincial capital of Antioquia. Some knowledge of these other two regions is thus clearly indispensable in order to comprehend the ethnic interaction between their people and the Chocoanos. The second purpose is more strategic. My aim in this book is to examine the interplay of discrimination and mestizaje. My main focus is on the Chocoanos. But this interplay had very different outcomes in different regions, according to local conjunctures of political economy and demography, and Antioquia and the Caribbean coast form perfect counterpoints to the Chocó in this respect, with the Caribbean coast intermediate between the evidently black Chocó and heavily “whitened” Antioquia. In short, if the national racial order of Colombia is based on the contradictory but interdependent coexistence of blackness, indianness, mixedncss, and whiteness, then it makes sense to examine other regions where these elements and conceptual categories worked themselves out in different ways. The first chapters therefore explore these two regions before turning to concentrate on the Choco itselfc In the rest of this introduction, I elaborate the themes ot blackness, indianness, race, and the nation…

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