You are on page 1of 13

“Passing” Ethnicities and Identities

Text written within the framework of the collective action art project “María de Salazar”1
Susana Martínez Restrepo, PhD2 January, 2013

I first realized I was white at 18. This first experience “passing” ethnicities or identities occurred when I moved to France and people thought I was Spanish or Italian. During my first winter far from the tropics, my newly acquired “European Mediterranean” identity matched my whiter skin and straight hair. Although this was a revealing experience because I always thought I was of a mixed race, mestiza, I must admit I was happy “passing” as European. After all, I do have Spanish blood; and isn‟t Martínez a last name that originated in Spain? When I was 23, I lived with an indigenous community (YINE) in the Peruvian Amazon for a summer. The admiration for the indigenous women I might have descended from, created this romantic ideal in my head that I was partly like them. But YINE children would scream “Gringa” everyday when they saw how white my skin was compared to theirs during my morning swim at the Madre de Dios River. A few years later I moved to Singapore and I officially became White-Caucasian. I mean officially because in France racial categories are not allowed and because this was the first time I had to register my race in official documents. For Singaporean purposes, White-Caucasians are Westerners with big eyes and big noses. Culturally, I felt so distant from ethnic Chinese or Malays that I embraced my new identity and shared it with my fellow Australians, Americans and British.

Collective action art project “Maria de Salazar”, by Jorge Restrepo, 2012 Susana Martínez Restrepo is an associate researcher in the areas of Poverty, the Millennium Development Goals, and Human Development of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, with headquarters in New York City. Her doctoral dissertation was entitled, “The economics of adolescents‟ time allocation: Evidence of the impact of the Young Agent Project in Brazil,” Economics of Education program at Columbia University in New York. During her doctoral studies, she worked on several research projects at NCREST (National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching, Teacher‟s College) and The Earth Institute, both at Columbia U.; as well as Harlem Children‟s Zone (an NGO). She also worked as an associate researcher for the Centre for Governance and Leadership of the Prime Minister‟s office, Singapore. She has a Master‟s degree in Comparative Politics and an undergraduate degree in Pol itical Science and Latin American Studies from the Institute of Political Studies, Sciences-Po Paris. Her research interests include educational policies and employment for young people and women in vulnerable situations and risk behavior in adolescents.
1 2


African and Spanish. it remained the same. I also loved to be a counter stereotype of ignorant generalizations about Hispanics in New York. During colonization. Hispanic or Latino is a person of Mexican. has been a slow process made in several stages in my home country. Colombia. local stereotypes are often of people with dark skin. regardless of race. 4 See as well http://www. slaves and „free of all colors”. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and more recently Mexicans account for most of the Hispanic or Latino Population. but I was seen as darker for the sole reason that I am a part of the largest minority. stereotypes (that vary according to States) are of people of a certain ethnicity. Polish. at least for some. I finally embraced my new identity and I rapidly discovered the advantages of being a Hispanic/Latina in New York: from free sodas and extra chicken on my sandwich. Due to traditional immigration flows in New York from Puerto Rico. The paradox is that during colonial times. Cuban. or the creation of racial categories and the construction of citizenship. Puerto Rican. Free of all colors Miscegenation. loud. which explores our whitening process. the Dominican Republic and more recently Mexico. or other European ancestors that has almost disappeared from our physical features. lineage. lazy. This essay is part of an art family project. Russians and Germans considered to be mainstream white-Americans. Spanish men raped. “passing” ethnicities and identities and what is the role of colonial and post-colonial history in shaping of our racial (racist) definitions and identities. procreated and/or married indigenous women and black slaves creating a vast population of whites. the Spanish created In the United States.huffingtonpost. with oversized families. by visually darkening our skin colors: That darker skin of the mixture between indigenous. I will explore why it can be so easy. From my new adopted (or imposed) identity.html 3 2 . My skin did not change. South or Central American. living under help of welfare and mostly undocumented (Haslip-Viera & Baver. lived with. My eyes were still It gets a darker tone in summer and becomes lighter in winter. one that is on average darker than the descendants of British.When I moved to New York City.4 In this essay. limited education. The same goes for my black hair: it gets curly and messy in summer and straight in winter. or country of birth of the person or the person‟s ancestors before their arrival in the United States. to affirmative action or diversity oriented policies giving priorities to Latino women for scholarships and even certain jobs. After initial resistance to being compared with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. I automatically became darker just by being considered Hispanic/Latina3 locally. In New York for example. The origin can be viewed as the heritage. nationality group. or other Spanish culture or origin. Irish. 1997). Because of previous migration trends .

2000). 2001). the indigenous population and slaves during colonial times. all factors contribute to explaining the great process of mixing that occurred between the Spanish. all Colombians. blacks and whites (Wade. indigenous peoples (pueblos indios) and slaves (Herrera. through cultural syncretism. 1994). where more than 90 percent of the population descends from an indigenous/Amerindian woman (Carvajal-Carmona et al. and politically. in terms of damaging “European purity” and racial hierarchy. The fact that this process occurred has been proven not only through the appearance of people. student. Racial categories during colonial times (Virreinato de la Nueva Granada) included whites. either whites or criollos. indigenous. This categorization changed after independence and during the 19th century. the lack of Spanish women during the first centuries. the free of all colors (non-white free population). Whether desire. or necessity of establishing control over the newly colonized territory through the creation of a mixed population. or the mixing of race as perceived as a permanent threat in several ways: biological. zambos or 3 . due to the high number and growing unrest among the mestizos of the colonies (Cunin. but also by historians and through genetic studies about Antioquia.legislation to separate indigenous. mestizaje. Jorge Andrés. 2012) Throughout the colonial era. participant of the “Maria de Salazar” collective action art project (by Jorge Restrepo. which constitutes the most obvious proof. 2004). as a threat against the mainstream Catholic tradition from Spain. There are many historiographical debates about this point.

all racial categories disappeared from national discourse. there was also the political will to take over the collective land property of indigenous peoples under the Spanish colony and the Catholic Church.85). a concept that defended the superiority of the hybrid race. Some authors have called this (mostly referring to the case of Brazil) a racial democracy. racial categories disappeared. The interesting part of the mestizo myth. 1990. As Manuel Gamio once wrote about the role of the mestizo in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution: “On the giant anvil of the Andes. 5 The “Mestizo Myth” and racism without races The “Mestizo Myth” became politically necessary for the new imaginary and the construction of the new nation. The cult of the mestizo included what José Vasconcelos once called “The Cosmic Race” (or la Raza Cósmica). 6 Democracia Racial or Racial Democracy was first advanced by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his work Casa-Grande & Senzala published in 1933. Zambos refers to the mix of black and indigenous and mulattoes refers to the mix of white and black. virile races of Bronze and iron have struggled for centuries. and a history of friendly relations between masters and slaves (Marx. giving way to “the ideology of the mixedness” (Wade. (and after the abolition of slaves the categorization came to include blacks) became automatically mixed citizens. the National race.mulattoes. 1998). the carrier of the national culture of the Future ” (Knight. from this struggle came the mestizo. promoted after independence. 1998). The cases of Colombia and Brazil were different since racism was characteristic of countries with specific laws prohibiting mixed race marriages. 1994).6 referring to the lack of racism and racial discrimination that took place due to the mixing of races. Unlike the United States and South Africa where racist ideology segregated racial groups by law and prohibited interracial marriage. p. “Criollos” was the term for Spanish descendants born in the colonies. the absence of legal discrimination. in Colombia or Brazil mixing was accepted. perhaps excluding the traditional elite. Until the new constitution of 1991. After independence took place in 1821 and throughout the 19th century. but has been widely used for scholars during the 20 th century. mixed race schools and even mixed race neighborhoods. was that in addition to creating an anticolonialSpanish discourse. people‟s imaginary and public policies or interventions. where racial riots like South Africa‟s Apartheid and the Jim Crow Laws in the United States took place (Marx. 5 4 .

The truth is that the “Mestizo Myth” and the absence of racial categories or legal discrimination in Colombia or in Brazil did not lead to less racial discrimination or increasing equality for minorities. whitening was a planned racial mixing policy with the purpose of minimizing the non-white part of the population or to whiten the mixed one. Instead. graphically illustrates the whitening idea. Basque country or Asturias. 5 . Generation after generation. created in 1895 by Modesto Brocco. Argentinean and Brazilian governments had established aggressive European migration policies in which newcomers were given incentives to migrate by being granted free land or work. 1960). this lead to what Cunin (2004) called “racism without races”. There cannot be racial discrimination in a country where everybody is mixed. instead. negative color-based stereotypes. 2000). By the end of the 19th century. In countries like Colombia the process was not through incentives granted by the government. it fails to enforce laws to counter racial discrimination. Brazilian scholar Florestan Fernandes (1964) referred to this phenomenon as the “prejudice of having no prejudices”. In countries such as Brazil. 1974). As an example. although statistically and legally invisible. The whitened mestizo The ideology of white superiority that was inherited from the era of the Spanish colonization and imported more recently by the western colonial experience in Africa during the 19th century. the painting “Ham's Redemption” (Redenção de Cam). Because the State assumes the absence of racial prejudice. where more than 80 percent of inhabitants were of European descent (Carvajal-Carmona et al. Racist ideologies such as this one considered necessary the whitening of the race through the correct “breeding” of races to solve the “negro” problem (Skidmore. a family is becoming "whiter". through increased immigration from the Spanish regions of Galicia. Mexican. gave rise to the “whitening ideology”. This is specially the case of Antioquia. popular wisdom based on the appearance of people in Antioquia created the myth that this area was a white region. where. where most of my family is originally from. many people started getting whiter after several generations (Gonzalez Ochoa. racial labels and signaling remained ingrained in the imaginary of the population. In addition to the commonality of Basque last names. as it believes that such efforts are unnecessary.

The older black woman is praising God for the fact that her grandson is white. The painting shows a black grandmother.“Redenção de Cam”. Modesto Brocco (1895). Currently at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. Rio De Janeiro (Oil on canvas). The title refers to an episode of the Bible in the book 6 . a mulatto mother and a white baby.

Genesis where Ham dishonors Noah. notably black skin (Sanders. I still face strong racial stereotypes that I constantly challenge. Palenquero refers to people and a creole language spoken by escaped slaves Maroons. (Former athletes Maria Isabel Urrutia and Welington Ortiz) defended their mixedness of denied the need to introduce multiculturalism and affirmative action in higher education in Colombia (Cunin. It was widely used by Europeans to legitimize slavery in the Americans and later in Africa as the latter was a result of “the divine punishment” imposed on the descendants of Ham (Cam in Portuguese) (Sanders. Palenquero. If we return to the discussion on the painting and we consider the “Hamitic Hypothesis”. a stereotype of success and social mobility suggesting that successful AfroColombians are either musicians or athletes (and also whites or mixed) and their own self-identification as mixed. The ideology of the “mixedness” in Colombia has been successful because it has become part of our national ideology. The curse was regularly interpreted as having created visible racial characteristics in Ham's offspring. 1969). 8 Roma refers to people of gypsy descent. was seen as a form of redemption. it is possible to interpret that blacks were punished to be slaves. 1969). but I look white (so I pass for a European or White-Caucasian) and despite my awareness of “mixedness”. Raizal8 and “none of the above”. Raizal refers to people afro-descents from Caribbean Islands of San Andres and Providencia. Roma and several subgroups of African-Colombians such as Negro. Becoming “None of the Above” This is the part where many pieces of the puzzle of my identity come together. An illustrating example is the case of the first African-Colombian politicians elected for Congress in 2002 under negritudes/blackness racial affirmative action quotas. In Colombia. It is not uncommon today to hear phrases such “we are improving the race” when someone of dark skin marries someone with lighter skin. I‟m a mixed race. whitening still equal improving. 7 7 . his father. The latter represents the category where all white and mixed This contradiction could be the result of both. the constitution of 1991 included and for the first time recognized (some) ethnic categories: Indigenous. In our imaginary. During the 19th century this was known as the “Hamitic Hypothesis”. stating that Ham‟s descendants and that of his son Canaan will be "servants of servants". 2003)7. Moreno (Dark). therefore becoming white (or passing). Noah pronounces a curse.

2004). A study about multiculturalism in the Caribbean coast of Colombia revealed that ethnically black African descendants identified themselves as mixed. The map below shows my Mitochondrial DNA test and the Migration Routes taken by my ancestors out of Africa 150. 2003). and White-Caucasian (or what other people perceive about physical features). “none of the above”. my ancestors (and all of our ancestors) were black. I am not only mixed. which is on the Pacific Coast. 2006).races. I was identified under “none of the above”. estimations revealed that this population was in fact as high as 25 to 30 percent (Estupiñán. According to this constitution of 1991. and suggested that blacks were only located in Palenques/Maroons. to local climate changes 9 Human mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup. The Map also shows the different genetic mutations.9 Even more powerful evidence came from results that indicated the route of migration of my ancestors: they left East Africa. This basically means that we descended from common ancestors in Asia that separated when mine crossed the Bearing Strait into Alaska and then migrated further south along the continent. within the territory known today as Ethiopia and Kenya. We are all from East Africa Passing so easily across identities and ethnicities made me wonder about my genetic heritage. as a result of adaptation.000 years ago. It has already taken 20 years for African-Colombian movements to convince this group to identify themselves (during the Census and other surveys) as AfroColombians. For some reason our conversation landed on the topic of Mitochondrial DNA and we realized that we both belonged to genetic Haplogroup A (Sykes. ethnic or physical affiliation could be grouped. Thanks to an anonymous saliva sample sent to the Genographic Project from National Geographic I finally had scientific evidence of my maternal indigenous lineage. also came multicultural laws giving special rights to minorities in terms of education. collective land ownership and affirmative action in government and education (Cunin. Along with the new ethnic categories. as well as ethnic groups without any psychological. While the census for 2005 revealed that only 10 percent of the Colombian population identified themselves as any of the African Colombian categories. which means that at some point in time. I met a person from China on a flight from New York to Brazil. see Sykes (2003) 8 . I am also the result of thousands of years of migration and evolution. starting. Some years ago.

Eskimo. Eskimos. Although it seems that “passing” is my thing. or Native American. L3.(from L1. 2003). Studies suggest that genetic mutations such as lighter skin. 9 . Nevertheless. N and then A Haplogroups). most of my family and I. softer and lighter hair could have taken about 20.000 years to develop. National Geographic Note: Genoma Project Mitocondrial DNA Test – Susana Martinez Restrepo taken in 2010 My Haplogroup A is believed to have started in East Siberia as a result of a genetic mutation and today it constitutes the most common group in East Asia. eight percent of Japanese and most ethnic groups of Central and South America. I definitely do not look Chinese. Mitochondrial DNA Test. in an imaginary world ruled by geneticists‟ and with only DNA categories. to L2. Genographic Project. particularly as a result to the exposure of the last glaciations period (Sykes. Chinese and Native Americans and Colombian Indigenous would have to mark “X” under the same survey box. among Eskimos.

Even Irish and Italian immigrants in the United States were once considered 10 . 2011). our family has a long genealogy of showing a long process of mixing. Dana. In addition to my Amerindian Mitochondrial DNA. Texas and New Mexico were defined during the 19 th century first as white. identity and ethnicity also change according to locations. or mestizaje. not only with indigenous but also with Sephardic Jews and Non-Spanish Europeans. today they are considered white both in Europe and in the United States. I n Israel. when only 60 years ago they were the masters of their own land. educator. as well as the social (colonial) construction of history had deeply affected how I perceive myself and how others perceive me. even during the different seasons of the year. For people like me or for most members of my family.Conclusion The mixedness. passing is easy because we got whiter. 2013). While during the construction of nations-states in 19th century Europe. once inhabitants of today‟s California. “Passing” across ethnicities and identities is easy simply because ethnic categories are social and historical constructions often used to classify the “other”. and in my case. Arabs are currently the “other and the enemy”. then as Chicanos for finally becoming Hispanics/Latinos for ethnic classification purposes of the United States. Mexicans. However. the different and the unknown. participant of the “Maria de Salazar” collective action art project (by Jorge Restrepo. Jews were once considered the “other” (Sand.

P (2006). Dominus Editora e editora da USP. 11 . Fernandes. discrimination and hierarchies created by racial categories established during the Belgium colonial times (Mandani. Lo ‟negro‟ entre apariencias y pertenencias: mestizaje y categorías raciales en Cartagena (Colombia). became what today is known as Amerindian/Indigenous. et al. E. The Hutus and Tutsis killed each othe r during Rwanda‟s genocide in 1994 in part as a result of hatred. got mixed with Spanish and lighter on a (most likely) racist effort to whiten up10. CANDANE N 1. Bogotá – Colombia. L. perception and stereotypes.a separate (and discriminated) minority. in your country. F. Bogotá: IFEA-ICANH-Uniandes-Observatorio del Caribe Colombiano. printemps. Afro Colombianos y el Censo de 2005: Elementos preliminares para el análisis del proceso censal con la población afro Colombiana. Strong Amerind/White Sex Bias and a Possible Sephardic Contribution among the Founders of a Population in Northwest Colombia. based on your own social (colonial) construction of history. (2000). Estupiñán. 2001).000 years ago.G. 2003. n° 48. (2004). (2003). 10 Note by Jorge Restrepo: Susana Martinez is a descendant of Maria de Salazar. The genetic truth is that we all left (and stayed in) Africa about 50. (1964) A integração do negro na sociedade de classes: estudo das relações raciais no Brasil. La Revista del Centro Andino de Altos Estudios. Regards sur les élections de mars 2002 en Colombie". J. Sao Paulo. the reality is that we all come from Africa! And for you. Cunin E. My ancestors travelled out of Africa. Identidades a flor de piel. whom do I pass for? References Carvajal-Carmona. Problèmes d‟Amérique Latine. La politique ethnique entre altérité et stéréotype. But let‟s not fool ourselves. Cunin.

New York. Latinos in New York: Communities in Transition. 12 . University Notre Dame Press. In the Idea of Race in Latin America. B (2003). Sand. S. 10 (1969). (1933) Casa Grande & Senzala: formação da família brasileira sob o regime de economia patriarcal. 1960). The Human Genome. G. G.Freyre. In El pueblo Antioqueño. The Hamitic Hypothesis: Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective. 521-532. Rio de Janeiro: Maia & Schmidt. Retrieved 5 February 2012.). (1997). Cambridge University Press. T. Making the Race and the Nation: a Comparison of the United States. Princeton. Champs Essais. M. Medellín. R (ed. Universidad de Antioquia. 70-113. R. Black Into White Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. S. E. González Ochoa. M. Wellcome Trust. Mitochondrial DNA and human history. Graham." Journal of African History. Marx. Sanders. (1969). A. revolution and indigenismo: Mexico 1910-1940. Las divisiones político-administrativas del virreinato de la Nueva Granada a finales del período colonial. Racism. Haslip-Viera. (2001) When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism. Nativism. South Africa and Brazil. 1970-1940. (1990). A (1998). Historia Crítica N 22. 2001 Knight. La Raza Antioqueña. Comment le people juif fut inventé. Austin: University of Texas Press. & Baver. and Genocide in Rwanda. (2001). (1974). (2010). Herrera Avila. Oxford University Press. L Eds. Mamdani. Sykes. Skidmore.

P (1994). IN Social Construction of the Past: representation as power.Wade. Representation and power of Black Colombians. Ed George Bond and Angela Gilliam. 13 .