Conceptual Arroz con Mango: Ethnic Self-Recognition Edition

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Picking through the conceptual rubble that is INE’s Census presentation, we find this fascinating slide:

No fair! How is it that black people get to decide whether they’re “black” or “afrodescendent” but I don’t get to tick off “eurodescendent”!? Reverse discrimination!

Actually, that slide is interesting on a number of counts.

For one, I love how “Morena/Moreno” counts as an “ethnicity” in Venezuela. I suppose an obtuse gringo academic would translate “Moreno” as “Mixed Race”, but you and I know isn’t that at all: Moreno is a skin tone, not an ethnic identity.

(I’ll never forget how confused some of my Venezuelan friends were circa 2000 when gringos started billing Colin Powell as “the first black secretary of state.” “What do they mean ‘black’!? Look at him, the guy’s barely even moreno!”)

It’s also interesting that so many people identify as “white” even though, realistically, the vast majority of us are racially mixed. But I guess it comes down, once again, to the fact that “white” (or, for that matter, “black”) isn’t really an ethnic term in Venezuela – it’s a description of skin tone.

All this conceptual confusion comes from the fact that to most Venezuelans, “ethnic self-recognition” is meaningless gobbledygook. The vast majority of Venezuelans don’t associate their skin color with an ethnic group. Ask them what race they are and they’ll tell you what tone their skin is – after thinking you’re a damn idiot for even having to ask the question, given how, y’know, you’re looking at them!

This cultural tendency is often dumbed down into a blanket statement that “there’s no racism in Venezuela.” I don’t think that’s quite right, either. There’s a marked preference for lighter skin tones and an association of whiteness with money and success, which you see plainly in advertising and in day to day life.

What we don’t do is carve people up into racially defined ethnic categories. Pointing out someone’s skin color in Venezuela has a cultural charge much closer to pointing out someone’s hair color, in North America, than to pointing out their race. That’s one reason why both “negro” and “catire” are terms of endearment parents can use with their children and lovers with one another.

Personally, I find this one of the best preserves of criollo common sense – one chavismo has mercifully failed to undermine. I take special satisfaction from the fact that, apparently, four out of every five black Venezuelans never got the memo about how the new Revolutionarily Correct term.

Véngase mi afrodescendiente just lacks a certain zing, don’t you think?