Is race mixture an antidote to racism?

Mónica Moreno Figueroa and Peter Wade

There is  a tendency for commentators situated towards the political right to claim that we are living in a “post-racial” age. They point to the fact that since the Second World War, the institutional racism of the US South and of South African apartheid has been dismantled, that scientists now agree that all humans are genetically almost identical, that many societies have officially adopted multiculturalist policies, recognising and respecting the cultural differences that characterise racially diverse societies, and that rates of inter-racial marriage are rising fast as societies become more integrated.

Within this “post-racial” view, the presence of racism is not necessarily denied, but it is minimised and seen in a certain way. Overtly racist people are deplored as far-right fanatics who are not representative of the main trends in society. Those who protest against racism are accused of being over-sensitive “snow-flakes” who “can’t take a joke”, of unfairly demanding special treatment, or creating counter-productive divisiveness and discord in society.

In this scenario, post-raciality and racism are seen as being in an either/or relationship, a zero-sum game in which the more post-racial a society is, the less racism it must have. However, Latin American societies can teach us, both in historical and contemporary experiences, that this scenario is misleading. The region shows us that post-raciality and racism can co-exist, with both aspects forming simultaneous dimensions of the same context. What is more, it is not that post-raciality is a mask behind which the workings of racism lurk: they are both deeply-rooted aspects of society.

This is the reality being explored by a current research group called Latin American Antiracism in a “Post-Racial” Age (LAPORA).[1] Undertaken by researchers based in the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester in the UK, in collaboration with academics in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico, the project turns the spotlight on the anti-racist discourses and practices of organisations and initiatives in these four Latin American countries.

Latin America has long been a terrain on which claims and counter-claims about the presence and absence of racism have been made. Between 1500 and 1800, some 2.5 million Europeans and 6.5 million enslaved Africans went to Latin America, where they mixed with the Indigenous peoples who by 1650 numbered about 6 million, having been severely depleted since the start of European colonisation.[2] This mixture gave rise to societies with large numbers of so-called mestizos. From the mid-nineteenth century, Latin America absorbed more than 15 million European immigrants – of which 12 million went to Argentina and Brazil – alongside much smaller numbers of people from China, Japan and the Middle East, who have often mixed with existing populations. In the vast majority of the region’s nearly twenty nations, mestizos form a majority or a substantial proportion of the population and this has traditionally, and still is, used to make claims that racism is not an issue. The “post-racial” claim is that, if everyone is racially mixed, how can some people racially discriminate against others?

It is true that most Latin American countries are mixed, including Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico, and that as a result racial identities are often not very clear cut, and that racial segregation is also not very marked in comparison to, say, the United States. But it is also true that, since the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement and trafficking of Africans, these societies have had very marked racial hierarchies. Governments have historically preferred Christian white people, encouraging European immigration, while Black, Asian and Jewish immigrants were restricted, often covertly but sometimes overtly. As a result, White and lighter-skinned people are more often privileged, earning higher incomes, living longer, having better health, and being more educated than Black, Indigenous and darker-skinned people. In Colombia, infant mortality for Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people is about 2 to 3 times the rate for the rest of the population. In Mexico, an Indigenous person with a college degree will earn 30% less than his or her non-Indigenous counterpart, and people with lighter skin tend to have two to three more years of schooling than their dark-skinned fellow citizens.

In Brazil, where our research group worked with an organisation of mothers whose sons had been killed by the police, statistics show that Black people in Rio, between 2010 and 2013, were 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.[3] In Mexico, we followed the case of María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, Marichuy, an Indigenous woman leader, spokesperson of the National Indigenous Council, who campaigned to be a presidential candidate: she was the target of overt and virulent racist abuse on social media. Both cases show that direct racism against Black and Indigenous people can exist together with large mestizo populations and high levels of inter-racial unions in the society at large.

Furthermore, LAPORA has observed that even amongst racially mixed people, lighter skin is usually seen to be better, whilst darker skin is more stigmatised. For example, we worked in Brazil and Colombia with groups of Black women who are challenging the dominance of Eurocentric ideas about beauty that dismiss African hair as unattractive. These groups rejected hair-straightening and promoted “natural” African looks. At the same time, we observed that a new look has become fashionable, based on ringlet curls – neither very tightly coiled nor very straight – which critics have labelled the “dictatorship of the ringlet”.[4] Therefore, even in these societies, colourism exists; meaning the darkest, most “African” looks are still lower down in racialised hierarchies.

So mixture is no guarantee that racism does not exist. The point is that both mixture and racism are realities in these four Latin American countries: they exist together and they are both deeply rooted in society. Racism is not just about direct violence and stigmatization: it is also ingrained in the social structure of societies in which being Black, Indigenous or simply dark-skinned is also associated with low status, poor education and poverty. However, post-raciality is also deeply embedded in the whole region. In the past and still today, claims that Latin America is a racially tolerant region can be hype or distortion, but they are also more than this because they draw their power from Latin America’s reality of mixture and low levels of racial segregation.

These aspects can provide footholds for building an anti-racism which nevertheless has to struggle to make headway. Historically, for example, mixture between Black and Indigenous people was disparaged by colonial authorities and this divide-and-rule policy has proved effective in constituting political discord between Black and Indigenous people today. But these mixtures did take place, and continue, and today we see instances of Black-Indigenous collaboration in struggles for land and rights, and in the fight against racism. LAPORA’s research suggests that, while Latin American mixture can itself be an expression of racism, it also provides lessons about the power of alliances across racial differences.


Peter Wade is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. His latest work includes Degrees of Mixture, Degrees of Freedom. Genomics, Multiculturalism and Race in Latin America (Durham University Press, 2017).

Mónica Moreno Figueroa is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow in Social Sciences at Downing College, Cambridge.

[1]  See

[2] See Sánchez-Albornoz, Nicolás. 1984. The population of colonial Spanish America. In The Cambridge History of Latin America, Volume 2: Colonial Latin America, edited by Leslie Bethell, 1-35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Marcílio, Maria Luiza. 1984. The population of colonial Brazil. In The Cambridge History of Latin America: Volume 2: Colonial Latin America, edited by Leslie Bethell, 37-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; FitzGerald, David Scott, and David Cook-Martín. 2014. Culling the masses: the democratic origins of racist immigration policy in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Amnesty International,  “You killed my son”: homicides by military police in the city of Rio de Janeiro (London: Amnesty International, 2015).

[4] See for example the blog post by Mariana Assis, “O ditadura dos cachos comportados”, 18 August 2014 (