1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Marisol de la Cadena

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

The Racial Politics of Culture and Silent Racism in Peru
In this paper, I develop a historical analysis of the changing meanings of race, and its articulation with class, gender, geography and ethnicity. The particular story that my paper unfolds begins at the turn of the century. Dominant Peruvian nation-builders produced a modern notion of race that explicitly rejected biological determinism, while accepting the allegedly irrefutable powers of morality and reason (deemed equivalent to intelligence) to determine social hierarchies. Morality and reason, they argued, were imprinted in historically transmitted culture, which intellectuals imagined as the soul of a people, their race. I explain how this process eventually yielded a culturalist definition of race, which could include (though not necessarily) some phenotypical features, randomly subordinated to the superior spiritual powers of morality. In this definition, education had a significant technical role as the eugenic device that would ‘improve the Peruvian soul’. Through education, and dissolving into essentialized images of culture, this non-biological definition of race continues to thrive, and even sustains what I call silent racism.

The paper makes two contributions. First, I offer the notion of ‘race as culture’ to help understand the seeming contradiction between the profound endurance of racism and the historical tendency to downplay the importance of race in Peru—and in Latin America in general. The centrality I assign to culture in articulating discriminatory ideas and practices may seem analogous to what Europeanist scholars have called ‘racism without race’ or ‘new racism’ to refer to current forms of cultural discrimination, no longer rooted in biologically defined race. Yet I contend that in Peru exclusionary practices legitimized by ‘culture’ are neither ‘new’, nor are they ‘without race’. Instead, they belong to a particular historical matrix in which pre-modern Christian notions of ‘purity of blood’, combined with colonial norms of honor, eventually converged with a modern and nationalist notion of race conceived as the embodiment of ‘culture’ and ‘morality’ by socially differentiated groups.

Recent scholarly works--particularly those of historian of anthropology George Stocking--show that modern concepts of race in the United States also incorporated cultural distinctions. The significant difference is that in Peru most racial projects tended to overtly subordinate biology and phenotype to culture and morality. To be sure, the emergence and gradual dominance of biological thought forcefully underpinned definitions of race worldwide. However, focusing on subordinate definitions of race (like those coined by some Latin American nation-builders, and also by intellectuals like W.E.B DuBois in the United States) contributed to my understanding that it was the work of defining ‘race’—always moving between the emerging distinctions of biology and culture--that facilitated the modern hegemony of this concept and its materialization through the implementation of colonial projects, until the first half of the twentieth century.

My second contribution stems from the ethnographic analysis of what I call ‘de-Indianization’, namely the process through which working class Cuzqueños present themselves as indigenous mestizos. By redefining Indians and mestizos as relational, rather than fixed, identities, the social process of de-Indianization also offers a grassroots alternative of mestizaje that emerges from social relations, rather than evolving from ‘Indian’ to ‘mestizo’ as in the dominant Latin American national paradigm. Hence, grassroots mestizaje does not require ‘shedding’ indigenous culture. Instead, it reflects an individual’s distance from the social condition of Indianness (defined as the failure to achieve economic or educational improvement) while continuing to practice--even ‘improving’--indigenous culture. Thus, indigenous culture goes beyond the scope of Indianness and broadly includes indigenous mestizos, redefined from this perspective as successful working-class individuals, who share Andean cultural practices, yet do not consider themselves ‘Indian’, a condition they perceive as miserable.