20 mayo 2015

Cultural diversity and color: persistent pigmentocracies

The world celebrates the International Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development on May 21st in many different ways, but with a common goal of deepening our understanding of the values of cultural diversity through dialogue and efforts to combat polarization and stereotypes.

My way of contributing to this dialogue is recommending a reading and the photographic project Humanae. Both have something in common, they help us better understand how race is lived through a very simple concept – a skin color palette.

The analysis of data from the census and household surveys demonstrates significant development gaps between indigenous peoples, African descendants and the population as a whole in key areas of health, education, access to labor markets and economic opportunities. In the region 14 of 18 countries ask a racial or ethnic self-identification question in the household survey, and 13 do so in the census. These questions are increasingly providing us with additional information on how race and ethnicity impact development outcomes in the region through self-identification.

However, self-identification may not always address how individuals are perceived and experience discrimination by others. Several pioneering researchers are using methodologies for analyzing human development opportunities by skin color, which can be highly controversial, however may be useful for the design of anti-discrimination policies.

This is the case of Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America, where a color palette is used to categorize individuals by skin tone based on results from the Americas Barometer/LAPOP opinion survey. Although the authors do not advocate for the application of this palette by government statistics agencies for broad data collection exercises, an analysis by color combined with race and ethnicity provides interesting and at times surprising results for sub-groups.

The case of Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru

In the case of Colombia for example, there is an extensive analysis of gender and race, specifically how being female may lighten outsider perceptions of some darker skin women. The Brazil chapter moves beyond color, and explores other physical features which may be used to make racial distinctions, while recognizing that these distinctions may have a negligible impact on opportunities.

The Mexico chapter analyses the cultural dominance of the notion of mestizaje, while exploring the role of color in determining opportunities for indigenous peoples. The analysis by color shows that indigenous peoples with lighter skin tone have greater opportunities; however, they face greater awareness and recognition of their potential limitations in society due to their ethnicity and ancestry and are more likely to experience discrimination. In Peru, data demonstrates a high perception of racial and ethnic discrimination which is consistent with several other studies.

Despite several strengths, this color-based analysis has some distinct limitations, for example it is inadequate when analyzing traditional rural indigenous peoples who define their identity based on their relationship to land, world view (cosmovisión), tradition or culture, but not color. Nevertheless, this rigorous combined analysis of indigenous peoples and African descendants through the lens of skin color is valuable for understanding how access to opportunities due to color, ethnic and racial categories shape contemporary ethno-racial gaps.

There are few books on race and ethnicity in Latin America that are accessible to academics and practitioners from such a wide range of fields. Simply put, this book provides a good introduction to the field and provides the tools to begin to design better policies to narrow ethno-racial gaps. It is a worthwhile addition to any reading list on inclusion in Latin America.

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