Race and Sex in Latin America

Race and Sex in Latin America

by Peter Wade


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745329499
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 10/15/2009
Series: Anthropology, Culture and Society Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Peter Wade is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Race and Sex in Latin America (Pluto, 2009) and Race, Nature and Culture (Pluto, 2002).

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After working on 'race' in Brazil and France in the 1950s, the French sociologist Roger Bastide wrote an article in which he posed the question of why, during his research, 'the question race always provoked the answer sex' (Bastide 1961). The French sociologist Etienne Balibar put it a little differently when he stated that 'racism always presupposes sexism' (1991: 49), while the US sociologist Joane Nagel thinks that 'sex is the whispered subtext in spoken racial discourse', and more generally that 'ethnic boundaries are also sexual boundaries' (2003: 2, 1). In his study of British colonialism, the historian Ronald Hyam concluded that 'sex is at the very heart of racism' (1990: 203), while the Martinican psychiatrist and revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon, writing from the point of view of the colonised, said: 'If one wants to understand the racial situation psychoanalytically ... considerable importance must be given to sexual phenomena. In the case of the Jew, one thinks of money and its cognates. In the case of the Negro, one thinks of sex' (1986 [1952]: 160). And just in case one might conclude that the racist image of 'the Jew' plays only on the theme of money, Gilman shows that sexual imaginings and theories were key to the nineteenth-century racial category of 'Jew' and played an important role in the way Freud constructed his theories of femininity (1993: ch. 1).

From a variety of perspectives and over a long period, analysts have noted that situations that involve 'race' also often involve 'sex'. The opposite may not necessarily be the case; that is, it is less often averred that when people think about sex they automatically think about race or that racism is 'at the very heart' of sexism,but various scholars do argue that sexual and gender categories have been historically formed in relation to racial ones. Bederman (1995), for example, contends that notions of (white, 'civilised') manliness in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States were shaped in relation to the image of ('uncivilised') black and native American men; and McClintock (1995) argues that notions about gender and sex in imperial Britain were inextricably linked to ideas about race and empire – women might be seen as 'primitives', for example, and analogous to the 'primitives races' in the colonies.

In this book, I explore why these two domains are so closely related. I look at how they 'intersect', as the current terminology often has it, or, to put it in a slightly different way, how they 'mutually constitute' each other; that is, how they come into being in relation to and through each other, thus avoiding the assumption that each domain already exists fully formed and then 'intersects' with the other (not to mention 'intersections' with other domains or vectors, such as class and age). I am also interested in why racially hierarchical social orders, which are rooted in the control and exploitation of (racially identified) peoples and places, including associated lands and resources, also generate complex dynamics of hate and love, fear and fascination, contempt and admiration – in a word, ambivalence, an ambivalence that seems to have a specifically sexual dimension.

My focus in all this is principally on Latin America, mainly because this region's history offers a particular social order in which race and sex relate to each other in interesting ways. Many areas in Latin America experienced intensive processes of 'race mixture' – sexual and cultural interactions between Europeans, indigenous peoples and Africans. Not only was this mixture arguably more pervasive and frequent than in most other areas colonised by Europeans, but from the nineteenth century it also became – albeit unevenly – a symbol for national identities in the region in the shape of a recognition and sometimes a glorification of mestizaje (Spanish) or mestiçagem (Portuguese), both words deriving from the colonial terms mestizo (and mestiço), meaning a person born to parents of, for example, European and African or European and indigenous American origins. Countries such as Brazil and Mexico vaunted their mixed origins as the distinctive feature of their national populations and cultures; other countries might recognise their mixed roots without necessarily glorifying them; yet others might play down their African and indigenous roots in favour of a more European image (Appelbaum et al. 2003; Graham 1990; Miller 2004; Wade 1997). In this way, sexual relations between people perceived as being of a different racial origin became a 'foundational fiction' for nations in much of the region (Sommer 1991). Recognising and even glorifying mixture, often located in the past, did not by any means translate into respecting or valuing current indigenous and black peoples: racism could easily coexist with mestizaje (Hale 1996; Telles 2004; Wade 1993a, 1997). From the 1960s, indigenous and black rights movements burgeoned and, in the 1990s, many countries enacted constitutional reforms and legal measures designed to create or recognise multicultural nations: this created a changed context for thinking about mestizaje: do race and sex relate in new ways in an officially multicultural nation? Despite this fascinating history and contemporary conjuncture, the question of race and sex in Latin America remains relatively understudied, although there is a growing literature on the theme.


Given that the terms race, sex and gender are, in the context of current social theory, contested and not clear-cut, it makes sense to give a brief outline of how I understand and use them in this book, which does not mean to say I shall give neat and watertight definitions of each concept.


'Race' is a difficult concept, the definition of which I have written on at some length elsewhere (Wade 1993b, 1997: 6–15; 2002b: 1–16). The key problem centres on balancing change and continuity. The element of change derives from the fact that theterm emerged in European languages between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries to refer to different lineages of people and human diversity (Stolcke 1994: 276). It underwent successive transformations until it reached what many regard as its apogee in the mid-nineteenth century, when the concept became central to thinking about human and social diversity within the framework of social theory and the natural and medical sciences; 'race' was, then, a natural human fact which explained a huge amount about why and how human diversity existed and legitimated a hierarchy in which white Europeans dominated. Then, from the early to mid-twentieth century, the concept declined in importance as a perceived physical 'fact' and became mainly, but not exclusively, understood as an idea, a 'social construct', with no basis in biology, but which has enduring social power in its ability to generate racism, a set of practices and attitudes which discriminate against certain categories of people, not necessarily now defined in terms of their physical natures, but often in terms of their cultures: hence the term 'cultural racism'. With all this historical variation, there is inevitably debate about when 'race' properly speaking emerged: some people date it from the sixteenth century (or even earlier), others prefer to focus on the seventeenth, eighteenth or even nineteenth century as being the true era for the origins of 'race'.

The element of continuity perceived to exist in 'race' derives from the fact that, through all these changes – or perhaps only through some of them – we are faced with varied phenomena that, if not the same, at least seem to bear a 'family resemblance', to use Wittgenstein's term. Race always seems to refer to human difference understood as 'natural' (bearing in mind that concepts of nature have also been historically very varied) and as often related in one way or another to certain aspects of physical appearance, to traits that are transmitted, albeit unevenly and often unpredictably, from one generation to another by sexual reproduction and the transmission of a substance or essence, often glossed as 'blood'. Because of this, the concept of race is often defined in terms of a combination of references to biology, physical appearance (skin colour, etc.), nature, heredity or an internal natural essence of some kind. In this respect, a distinction is often made between race and 'ethnicity', with the latter understood in the social sciences as referring to culture, history and origins of a non-biological, non-natural kind.

A different basis for continuity or common ground is the fact that racial distinctions are often said to emerge with the European discovery and domination through colonialism of other areas of the world. Racial distinctions emerge from the attempt by Europeans to classify and control non-Europeans, albeit these distinctions built on some of those developed by the ancient Greeks and current in Europe before colonialism. 'Race' is thus tied to a specific history of the world, rather than simply being specified by the type of naturalising discourse it uses. The key racial categories have somehow remained remarkably similar, albeit with changing terminologies, subcategories and overlaps: black (originating in Africa), white (originating in Europe), 'Indian' (i.e. native American), Asian/Oriental and Aboriginal Australasian. People from Oceania (roughly Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia) are sometimes fitted into the Asian category and other times the Australasian one. Perhaps not surprisingly, these categories correspond roughly to the classificatory system for the continents of the world – Africa, Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia (and Antarctica) – a system also developed by Europeans.

I prefer an historically inclusive approach that recognises the historical continuities that underlie the variations. It seems to me vital to recognise the role of European domination that operated through classifications which, although they varied greatly in their character and theoretical underpinnings, consistently targeted the same categories of people and used similar types of rationales, and invoked some notion of 'nature' (itself a varying concept) that could be deployed to explain internal, invisible traits (e.g. moral qualities, intelligence, behaviour) and link them to external, visible traits (e.g. skin colour, skull form). I agree, broadly speaking, with the idea that race is a naturalising discourse, but I think it is essential to emphasise that 'naturalisation' is a practice, the effects of which vary according to the way 'nature' is understood. I also think it is important to understand that 'race' does not stand in a relation of opposition to 'ethnicity' (often seen as analogous to the supposedly clearcut opposition of 'biology' to 'culture'): race works by linking human nature, which may be thought of during specific historical periods as 'biology', to culture. Ethnicity may also carry strongly naturalising connotations, in relation not only to heritage and genealogy, but also to how land, territory and landscape shape people and their cultures (Alonso 1994; Stolcke 1993; Wade 2007a).

Race, as I use it in this book, then, refers to all the practices and ideas that surround racial classifications and distinctions, as outlined above. I shall also employ the widely used term racialisation to refer to the way social phenomena and processes take on racial meanings and functions.

Sex, Sexuality and Gender

If one starts with dictionary definitions of these terms, 'sex' is simply the quality of being male or female. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the focus on genital anatomy to create this bipartite division is 'recent', although Fausto-Sterling (2000) and Laqueur (1990) both suggest that, in the West, it was from the eighteenth century that anatomy became the vital domain in which to attempt the division of human beings into two mutually exclusive and exhaustive classes. 'Sex' can also mean the act of sexual intercourse (a twentieth-century meaning, as in 'to have sex'). 'Sexual', in the OED, means anything relating to sex, as defined above, or anything related to sex 'as concerned in generation [i.e. sexual reproduction] or in the processes connected with this'; it is also anything 'relative to the physical intercourse between the sexes or the gratification of sexual appetites'. 'Sexuality' dates, according to the OED, from the early eighteenth century as an isolated technical, scientific term referring to the simple presence of sexual reproduction in a species; by the later eighteenth century it comes to mean more broadly the quality of being sexual (as defined above) or having sexual feelings. In the twentieth century – mainly the latter half – it also comes to mean sexual identity based on the object of a person's sexual attractions or desires. Thus emerges the plural 'sexualities', recognising that heterosexual desires are only one set in a very varied range of sexual desires. 'Gender', for the OED, is 'a euphemism' for sex, but it is acknowledged that in twentieth-century feminist usage, it refers to cultural distinctions between the sexes.

The dictionary gives us the basis for a very open definition of 'sex' as anything pertaining to the fact of being sexed or having a sex and anything pertaining to the relationships between the sexes. Of course, the OED simply summarises Western usage and conceptions and tends to reproduce Western assumptions, so one would need to reject the definition of sex as being only either male or female, in order to cope with the phenomena of intersexuality (a term encompassing various ways of being biologically both male and female, without human intervention), transsexuality (which can be used to mean physically both male and female as a result of human intervention) and transgenderism (a more open term, which refers to a person who is not unambiguously assignable to either the male or the female gender). One would also have to be careful to avoid the OED's blatantly heteronormative implication that 'sexual' things only occur between men and women, as this would exclude homosexuality or relegate it to a deviation from 'normal' heterosexual behaviour, a normative standard that gay, lesbian and queer theorists and activists have been struggling against for some decades. One can be 'sexual' without doing things directly related to sexual reproduction; indeed, it may well be the case that most sexual activity is not, and is not even intended to be, reproductive.

An openness of definition is, in one sense, useful. One might be tempted to go with a more hierarchical set of definitions (e.g. Karras 2005: 6), in which sex means biological (mainly but not only anatomical) difference; sexuality means emotions, feelings and especially erotic desires that emanate from the fact of having a sex and engaging in acts of sexual intercourse (in the broadest sense); and gender means the various cultural roles, attitudes, practices and meanings associated with a given biological sex. However, such a neat hierarchy will not work. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s worked hard to emphasise the sex/gender distinction, in which sex was simply the biological differences between men and women. The point was to minimise the role of biology and highlight the role of society and culture in shaping 'men' and 'women', so showing how the same basic biological infrastructure of sex could give rise to very varied cultural super-structures of gender – 'men' and 'women' were very different things in different cultures, not to mention the existence of 'third' sexes and genders, which were not easily placed as either male/man or female/woman (Herdt 1994). But from the mid-1980s, feminists began to question this distinction and point out how 'sex' itself is also shaped by culture and history: the very idea of the biological differences between men and women is wrapped up in the historical developments of medicine and science; the Western notion of a species divided into two opposed, exhaustive and mutually exclusive categories called males and females is not universal and is an historical notion even in the West (Butler 1990, 1993; Fausto-Sterling 1985, 2000; Laqueur 1990; Moore 1994). If sex itself is a cultural construct, then all the more so would be sexual emotions and desires, which cannot be seen as arising automatically from the mere fact of being female or male – as being determined by sex hormones, for example. The rise of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/sexual) activism in the 1980s and the emergence of queer theory in the 1990s added to this sense of sexuality as open, flexible and indeterminate.


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Copyright © 2009 Peter Wade.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: defining race and sex
2. Explaining the articulation of race and sex
3. Race and sex in colonial Latin America
4. Making nations through race and sex
5. The political economy of race and sex in contemporary Latin America
6. Race, sex and the politics of identity and citizenship
7. Conclusion

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