The overlapping concepts of race and colour in Latin America

The overlapping concepts of race and colour in Latin America

Ethnic and Racial Studies
Volume 35, Issue 7, (July 2012)
pages 1163-1168
DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2012.657209

Edward Telles, Professor of Sociology
Princeton University

I thank Ethnic and Racial Studies for the opportunity to participate in this symposium and I am honoured to be in conversation with Michael Banton. an esteemed contributor to the Sociology of Race (and Colour), with whom I respectfully differ.

Banton argues that ‘U.S. scholars followed the ordinary language trend of using race instead of color’, as W. E. B. DuBois originally had, and that my use of the term ‘race’ erringly uses the experience of North American ‘black white relations as a paradigm case to offer a conceptual framework for the analysis of relations in Brazil.’ Banton objects to my use of race and colour as rough equivalents. For him, colour refers to a ‘first order abstraction’, which describes physical differences that are used in society as markers of social distinction, while race is a ‘second order abstraction’ that is neither visible nor measurable and that varies from place to place, ‘making it more difficult to identify what has to be explained’ (p. 4). Banton (p. 6) seems to find it odd that my book. Race in Another America, should bear the subtitle ”The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil’. But the title of my book simply reflects one of its central findings: that, in Brazil, conceptions of ‘race’ and conceptions of ‘color’ overlap.

Banton is right to separate folk and analytical concepts, but I think he goes about it in the wrong way. Race is clearly a folk concept, and it lacks analytical validity, but his race/colour distinction begs more questions than it resolves. Race and colour are both folk concepts but race and many references to colour are based on the social process of racialization, which classifies people according to race, privileging some while excluding others. Racial and colour inequality and discrimination in Brazil and the USA are rooted in a common western racial ideology, although one that has been interpreted in different ways in both countries. Whereas colour might be seen as merely descriptive, it also elicits a racial ideology where Brazilians are keenly aware of human colour variation, which they often place on a naturalized hierarchy of worth…

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