THE central problem in the study of race is that it doesn’t exist. This is a dilemma that all scholars in the social sciences both recognise, yet must ignore. Race is ascribed, a label, albeit one with momentous power in society that results in a very real sense in racism.
Much the same can be said of ethnicity, a category of context determined as much by circumstances and social forces as superficial physiognomy or even shared cultural patterns of behaviour.
Given the elusive definitions of race and ethnicity and the hierarchies that they are employed to determine, such as caste, scholars resort when studying the composition of society and the groups that compete within it to the mechanisms of labelling and identification that are applied for whatever nefarious purpose by structures of power.
It is for this reason that self-identification has become so important, deferring decisions about belonging and identity to the subject itself in a way that offers the social scientist a form of absolution from the sin of ascription, but also allows them ultimately to evade the issue itself.
Joanne Rappaport’s refreshing and pioneering study, The Disappearing Mestizo, is an honest approach to the dilemma of what she calls “classifying the unclassifiable”. While applied to colonial society in what is now Colombia, her book contains important lessons for the entire study of socioracial hierarchies in the Americas. That is because it concentrates overwhelmingly on her subjects’ own experiences and how they classified themselves at key moments in their lives.
By constructing detailed ethnographic “vignettes” of a small number of people, Rappaport is able, in her own words, to balance the multiple ways in which they negotiated their identities, instead of focusing exclusively on socioracial categories; “in other words, through ethnography I have been able to document processes of identification in place of concentrating on the labels – which are situational, temporary …” There is something very refreshing about this approach.
She writes: “The people who populate my ethnographic vignettes are not easily classifiable. They move between identities in myriad ways. Sometimes these individuals are identified as mestizos; at other times they project an unmarked identity that slips imperceptibly into the Spanish slot. Some of them are described physically as mulattos but classified as Indians; others are said to ‘look like’ mestizos, whereas they demand recognition of Indian status; and still others do not appear to conform physiognomically to a single category. At times they opt for identification according to occupation instead of calidad. Their indeterminacy is precisely what makes them mestizos.” [p 229]
Her choice of region is also significant, stepping outside the core colonial centres of power, Peru and Mexico, from where a more rigid understanding of mestizaje has been forged, often for ulterior ideological motives.
The author places centre stage what she calls a “neither-nor” persona of the mestizo, instead of the apparently more stable identities of Indian, Spaniard and African at the heart of most studies of race in Spanish America. She points out that if mestizo is such a volatile label, we may also be in error when we speak of the categories of Spaniard, African and Indian. Everything is up for grabs.
The Disappearing Mestizo is a work of note for challenging the models by which scholars of colonial Latin America have proceeded and for highlighting how these fail to capture the lived experience of real people. It is important, because it puts under real scrutiny received ideas about the fixity of racial and ethnic labels by which this period in history has been studied.
But it is more than that: Rappaport’s book taps into a broader contemporary Zeitgeist by which racial and ethnic categories are being revisited, reconstructed and reclaimed, from recent violence in the US over the mistreatment of blacks by police to the political turmoil over nationalism and immigration in the UK that has as its sub-text white, and in particular English, confusion about race and ethnicity deriving from tectonic political and cultural change.
As the commentator Myriam Francois-Cerrah recently wrote in the New Statesman, “We need a conversation about race – let’s start with the problem of ‘whiteness’.”