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The term race denotes a category of distinction among groups of human beings based on the assumption that they share a set of immutable biological characteristics and/or common cultural traits which set them apart from other people. While many scholars today agree that race is a social construct and not a naturally given essence, the term remains controversial for both scientific and political reasons. However, both the ongoing impact of racism on those constructed as racial others in a society and the deployment of racial discourses within the emancipatory movements of racial and ethnic minorities have rendered race a viable category of social (self-)identification and identity politics to this day.

History of the Concept

Ideas of race have been in circulation in Western cultures since antiquity. Before the 17th century, the term mainly designated family lineage and kinship relations, even though the term was also applied to notions of socio-cultural difference, such as religion or place of origin. Tied to the hegemonic belief in the superiority of the Christian European civilizations over other creeds and cultures, racialized notions of difference were taken to legitimate the exploitation, domination, or persecution of those considered the other. The modern idea of race emerged in the 17th century and flourished especially from the 18th through the mid-20th century as a key category of differentiation among large populations and their systematic categorization. Earlier systems of social stratification based on religion, culture, and kinship were expanded to integrate a ‘biological’ differentiation among humans. The new ‘scientific’ concepts of race divided people into a small set of “distinctive racial types” (Wade 2002: 2), based on supposedly discernible physical features. These were tied to social, intellectual, and moral capacities as well as cultural differences in a stable hierarchical system which placed people of European descent above all others. Such racialized socio-cultural stratifications were employed to naturalize and hence legitimize the subjugation of Jews, immigrants, and rivaling nations in Europe and of native populations in the colonies as well as the Africans brought to the Americas to provide slave labor (cf. Hannaford 19968; Wade 2002: 2, 7-9, 37-68; Gates 1992).

This conceptualization of race came under scrutiny during the 20th century, as scholars across disciplines increasingly understood race as a socio-cultural construction and showed that intellectual abilities, moral values, and cultural practices cannot be logically linked to physical and genetic variations among humans. Controversies remain, nevertheless, focusing especially on the question whether the construct of race is based on a naturally given and immutable biological or cultural essence. While scholarship in the life sciences often operates with an essentialist notion of race, there is a certain consensus among scholars in the humanities and social sciences that “race is a way people think about some aspects of human difference which has no base in biological reality but which, interweaving with inequalities of colonialism, class and gender, generates its own very potent social reality of racism, discrimination, [and] racial identities” (Wade 2002: 2; cf. also 2-36, 69-122). Informing the popular understanding of race and the deployment of racial discourse, essentialist biological or cultural concepts of race continue to validate the racialized social and economic stratifications that characterize many Western societies. A (strategic) essentialism further underlies most of the emancipatory racial and pan-ethnic minority movements in the Western hemisphere as well as post-colonial movements across the globe. Despite the many differences that characterize their beliefs, strategies, and goals, (re)appropriating the racial identities originally assigned by colonial powers or white hegemonic elites and turning these into a source of self-identification to claim social, political, and economic agency is at the identity political core of these movements to this day (cf. Gates 1992: 49-50; Wade 2002: 3).

Race in the United States and Canada

In the United States and Canada race is a prominent category of social distinction among population groups. From the 17th through the early 20th century, native populations, European settlers, Africans imported as slaves, and Asian migrants were conceived as belonging to different races. Following the classificatory schemes developed in European thought, racial identity until the early 18th century was commonly based on physical appearance and fraction of non-white ancestry. While indigenous people continued to be classified along these lines, black racial identity came to be defined in the 19th-century United States as encompassing anyone with a black ancestor. After the U.S.-Mexican War, the ethnic identity of Mexicans in the U.S. Southwest was defined in racial terms that intersected with social class status, and the racialized subordination of Asian immigrants in 19th-century California varied according to their countries of origin. Moreover, ethnic and class conflicts among European immigrants were often framed in racialized terms that would exclude, for example the Jews, Irish, and Italians from the prestigious status of whiteness until as late as the mid-20th century (cf. Winant 1994: 22, 39-43; Driedger 1996: 232-40, 248-50, 279).

The different identity political movements of racial and racialized pan-ethnic minorities in the United States in the course of the 20th century – especially the Black Civil Rights and Black Power, Asian American, and Chicano movements of the 1950s through the ‘70s – reappropriated the term as a category of positive self-identification and distinction from the dominant white culture. The Chicano movement took up the 19th-century Latin American notion of La Raza to underline their Spanish and Amerindian origins and critique the racist implications of the English term. Race/raza, in these contexts, serves as a signifier of collective identity and empowering in the struggle of minorities against racial discrimination and their claim to social, political, and economic participation (cf. Winant 1994: 6, 18-20, 24-26, 32, 44-49, 60-61, 94, 163-66).

The heyday of these movements has passed; yet their strategically essentialist racial identity political projects remain viable today, for example against the political right’s endorsing the notion of a color-blind society in order to delegitimize the socio-political changes the movements once brought about. And while the Canadian state has committed itself to a national policy of multiculturalism since 1971, race remains a key category of (at times violent, racist) social distinction and societal stratification here as well as in the United States. (cf. Driedger 1996: 79, 108, 145-46, 246-51, 279-80; Winant 1994: 2, 27-36, 47-49, 53, 63-68, 74, 80-81, 86, 166). Many Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean immigrants to either country reject racial or racialized (pan-)ethnic identifications in favor of ethnic labels emphasizing national origin. The fact that Hispanic/Latino is an ethnic category often causes dark-skinned or Indian-looking Latinos to be categorized as Black or Amerindian and to be racially discriminated against both by Anglos and Latinos on these grounds. In the United States, the growing presence of Latinos and Asians has led to an increasing perception of whiteness as a racial identity and further bears the potential to complicate the white/black racial paradigm that has dominated the countries’ discourses on race (cf. Winant 1994: 33, 48-52, 64-67, 78-79, 94-95, 165-66; López 2005: 448-49).

Race in Latin America

While the U.S.-American popular understanding of race has largely focused on the black/white binary, race views in Latin America are more complex. Latin American societies derive from the racial and cultural mixing of (Western) European (mainly Catholic Spain), Amerindian (indio), and African peoples. The amalgamation resulting at the point of contact of the aforementioned peoples is called mestizaje and has come to be celebrated as the expression of quintessential Latin American hybrid identity. Nevertheless, on the one hand, the seemingly all encompassing mestizaje discourse tends to diminish, among others, Asian, Arab, Hindu, Jewish, and non-Western European elements also constitutive of Latin American people’s heritages. On the other hand, the term has been understood as an unambiguous indicator of racial egalitarianism in a happily color-blind region: “Aquí todos somos café con leche; unos más café, otros más leche” (Miller 2004: 45), a popular Latin American proverb goes.

Based on the alleged low levels of race conflict in otherwise politically and socio-economically violent Latin American societies, it has long been assumed that the region has no ‘race problem’ and that race and racism are no relevant concerns in Latin American social, political, and economic contexts. However, empirical research consistently displays that the ideology has actually constructed blackness and indigenous ancestry as analogous to ethnic inferiority while whiteness (blanqueamiento) has been upgraded to the superior ideal to be strived for. Racism has often prevented the economic and social advancement of black and indigenous populations and perpetuated their overrepresentation in the lowest classes of Latin American societies (cf. Warren and Twine 2002: 538-39).

Hoping to counteract European and U.S.-American expansionism and to discredit racial discourses that constructed mixed races as degenerate and culturally inferior to Europe and the United States, modern thinkers in diverse Latin American nations (for example José Martí in Cuba, José Vasconcelos in Mexico) glorified the nationalist ideologies of la Raza and mestizaje as means to advance notions of “constructive miscegenation” (Wade 2003: 188). In their view, while La Raza reaffirmed “a single Spanish-Latin American ‘race’” (Tilley 2005: 60), mestizaje would facilitate backward indigenous and black populations to gradually whiten, purify, civilize, and upgrade themselves by joining the mestizo nation. Thus the urge to recreate a stable and unified Latin America identity in opposition to Anglo and foreign intervention made possible the emergence of paradigms of “racial denial, ethnic violence” (Tilley 2005: 58; cf. Wade 2003: 188) and the marginalization of blacks and indigenous societies. Simultaneously, some Latin American nations encouraged (Northern) European immigration to improve the racial and cultural landscape of the young republics. However, in nations like Argentina, which had successfully cleansed La Pampa of indigenous inhabitants and comprised invisible black communities, the criollo ruling class was reluctant to embrace notions of national mestizaje and preferred to emphasize racial and cultural whiteness to exemplify Argentineness.

The fact that Latin American societies today “promote racial discrimination while simultaneously denying its existence” (Warren and Twine 2002: 544) and that many people claim to be racially mixed makes it difficult to recognize and address racism. The generalized belief that a felicitous racial mixture has been achieved through mestizaje renders “any claim of enduring racism or related group needs [...] as wrong-headed and atavistic” (Tilley 2005: 54). Sharing the same prejudices as whites, non-whites often also support unequal racial relations in Latin America and thus encourage whitening processes, white aesthetics, and the denial of non-white cultural heritage. Research has shown that in Brazil and Colombia some blacks would rather endorse notions of “black cultural and biological inferiority rather than accept the idea that racism exist in their communities” (Warren and Twine 2002: 543). The failure (and lack of desire) to identify racism and its patterns of incidence has also resulted in the difficulty of Afro-Latin Americans “to mobilize people on the basis of racial identity” (542) and become a political force despite their significant presence in some nations of the region. These observations have led Jonathan Warren and France Winddance Twine to suggest that Latin American societies are instances where white hegemony rules – as in the United States and Canada – “by consent” rather than “by rule” (543). Scholarship in Cuba has also dismantled the dogma of racial equality as an elitist construct that has “masked the objective structural subordination of Afro-Cubans in society” (545).

Indigenous groups have been largely ignored in the field of Latin American race studies with the argument that “the study of blacks is one of racism and race relations, while that of Indians is that of ethnicity and ethnic groups” (551). However, the word racism is being more frequently used to explain the disadvantaged position of indigenous communities in the region. At the same time, scholars warn against simplistic uses of the term “race” as an analytical category in the study of indigenous societies in the Andean region where race “can be part of the body and yet also changeable because race accumulates in the body over time” (Wade 2003: 193). Unlike black Latin Americans, indigenous communities are becoming increasingly politicized and forcefully challenge the ideal of whiteness (cf. Warren and Twine 2002).


In the Americas of today, race is an important and – owing to its potential to support emancipatory identity politics – politically viable concept of social distinction and identification. Nevertheless, its use remains problematic. Even social constructionist concepts of race often fail to reflect upon the social construction of the assumedly given biological features that have become racial signifiers and to this day remain powerful tools for discrimination and violence against people ‘of color’ alongside their emancipatory political projects. Moreover, the now prevailing scholarly understanding of race as a socio-cultural rather than a biological category renders it akin to ethnicity and hereby makes it more difficult to clearly distinguish between the two concepts (cf. Wade 2002: 3-5, 8).

In Canada, the notion of “visible minorities” has gained acceptance since the 1960s for all those people considered physiologically different from white society and often discriminated against on this ground (cf. Driedger 1996: 237). Though laudable as a possible alternative to the politically charged idea of race, the concept remains problematic, as it perpetuates the (false) assumption of a natural, immutable biological essence on which distinctions are made. Like race it moreover fails to capture racialized social distinctions, such as the discrimination against people of Arab descent in the context of post-9/11 popular sentiments.

Despite existing mechanisms of racial inclusion and the celebration of ambiguous identities by mestizaje discourse, Latin America, like the United States, and (to a lesser degree) Canada is far away from being a “racial democracy” (Wade 2003: 196; cf. Winant 1994: 52-54, 153-64). Notions of race in Latin American countries are diverse and complex, racism is often “difficult to address and combat” (Wade 2003: 197), and some scholars even suggest that “racist stereotyping and racial inequality” may be “equal to, or even greater, in Latin America than in the United States” (Warren and Twine 2002: 553).

Astrid Haas and Luz Angélica Kirschner

Please cite as:
Haas, Astrid and Luz Angélica Kirschner. 2012. “Race.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


Driedger, Leo. 1996. Multi-Ethnic Canada: Identities and Identifications. Toronto.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1992. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes”. In: Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (Ed.): Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York, p. 43-69.

Hannaford, Ivan. 1996. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Washington, D.C.

López, Paul. 2005. “Race”. In: Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States. New York, p. 445-50.

Miller, Marilyn Grace. 2004. Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race: The Cult of Mestizaje in Latin America. Austin.

Tilley, Virginia Q. 2005. “Mestizaje and the ‘Ethnicization’ of Race in Latin America”. In: Pickard, Paul (Ed.) Race and Nation: Ethnic Systems in the Modern World. New York, p. 53-68.

Wade, Peter. 2002. Race, Nature and Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. London.

Wade, Peter. 2003. “Race in Latin America”. In: Swanson, Philip (Ed.) The Companion to Latin American Studies. New York, p. 185-99.

Warren, Jonathan W.; Twine, France Winddance. 2002. “Critical Race Studies in Latin America: Recent Advances, Recurrent Weaknesses”. In: Goldberg, David Theo; Salomons, John (Eds.) A Companion to Racial Studies. Malden, MA, p. 538-60.

Winant, Howard. 1994. Racial Conditions. Minneapolis.

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