Mestizaje: theories of racial difference

Posted by: | February 9, 2009 | Comments Off on Mestizaje: theories of racial difference

After this week’s readings, I find myself asking, “what is our definition of race, anyway?”  I’m well aware that as conscientious university students we are not supposed to make judgments about people based on racial difference, but no one can tell me that assumptions about race don’t exist on UBC campus…not when I hear people raving about the success of Obama’s election or joking about having to compete with all the “Asian intellectuals.”  So what is our definition of race? According to many academics, race is a social construct, not a biological truth–so why do we cling to it so fervently?

The first article, “The Cosmic Race” by Jose Vasconcelos was surely shocking for many people.  I personally had a difficult time choking that article down, yet I think that it says a lot of important things about the way that we view race in contemporary times–after all, it was only written roughly 60 years ago.  Throughout Vasconcelo’s many disturbing generalizations about racial identity and biological difference I caught glimpses of underlying trends that I believe permeate our thoughts and  speech today.  One of the initial items that piqued my interest was the author’s assertions that the “red race” or the indigenous people of the Americas have degenerated from the “extraordinary flourishment” of “Atlantean” (whatever that is…) culture to the Aztec, Inca, Maya and, later, contemporary people today and are “totally unworthy of the ancient and superior culture” (9).  Wow, what a comment…But really, this concept of indigenous people persists in the minds of many scholars and laypeople today.  How many times have we heard of the “Maya decline” from the Classic period–deemed so based on the prevalence of writing, painting and other cultural symbols so valued by the West?  Or what about Vasconcelo’s assumptions about the inherent industriousness and “clarity of mind that resembles his skin and his dreams”(22).  Can we not see later vestiges of this in mid-twentieth century development theory which assumes that the economic domination of Europe and the U.S. over states in the Global South is due to a more “developed” or advanced (white) civilization?  While I found Vasconcelos’ article incredibly strange and a little difficult to stomach, I can’t say that his opinions reflect those of a fanatic, nor that they have left no legacy for future generations.

Which brings me to the second article we read by Peter Wade. I found Wade’s analysis of mestizaje very interesting, especially his arguments regarding the difference between academic/ideological mestizaje and the “lived experience” of mestizaje.  While I’m not sure if I totally agree that the discourse of mestizaje has so much potential for social inclusion, I do feel that this is an aspect that has generally been ignored.  And while I appreciate Wade’s use of the “mosaic” metaphor to describe national identities, I feel that this is too often the ideal and not the reality: again I refer back to my own experiences of racial discourses on UBC campus.  I’ve heard the “ethnic mosaic” line used to distinguish Canada’s approach to immigrant assimilation (in contrast to the “melting pot” of the U.S.) and I’m not really sure I buy it.  Anyway, I feel that there’s a lot more to say on this subject that could be included here, but I have a feeling that class discussion on the topic will open up all kinds of different perspectives, so I’ll leave it at that.


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