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'Toward a Global Idea of Race' Asks Relevant Questions about the Origins of Racism

As Brazil welcomes the inclusive administration of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and progressive forces in the U.S. hold the Senate and White House, we are tempted to hope two major international powers are finally drifting away from the dangerous waters of racist fascism. Brazilian philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva suggests, however, that recent liberal victories and policies of inclusion are not enough to reverse whole generations of destructive racism. The solution to intrinsic racism must happen at the individual level, among a nation’s people.

Da Silva’s book, “Towards a Global Idea of Race,” challenges the assumption that racially inclusive administrations are the final solution for something as culturally fossilized as racism. Presidential administrations, she says, are fleeting, fickle things. And nothing short of an enlightened people can forestall the return of a racist regime. Da Silva argues that government does not easily change its people—people make their government. We, as individuals, must be willing to recognize the different, subtle versions of racism, and to identify it by its roots. And that only by challenging how we talk about race and racism will we get the lasting society we deserve.

The battle, she says, should begin by “challenging the philosophical construction of self-awareness and its relationship to nation.” Consider the two different—but equally destructive—race-based social systems in the U.S. and Brazil. Both systems are a consequence of modern individual constructs of “the self” moving in destructive tandem with a classification bracket that Da Silva calls “the Others of Europe,” which racializes anybody who is not white European. Da Silva asks if the universal “I” is inherently white European, what kind of world is constructed according to this white universality, and how do we escape racism and race if race defines the world structure?

Brazil and the U.S., for example, challenge the argument that racism is strictly an act of exclusion. In the U.S., whiteness modeled itself after the European “I,” so the “others of Europe” became the opposition to the American ideal self. In the U.S., this resulted in systemic acts of exclusion. Brazil, however, engaged in an alternative form of “service to whiteness” involving racial mixing or miscegenation, which minimized and obscured its own colonization efforts.

As a Black Brazilian woman, Da Silva didn’t feel the traditional use of exclusion in the U.S. neatly applied to how power and race worked in Brazil. Miscegenation in Brazil took a more eventual route to “whiteness,” and demonstrated why racial mixing is less of a solution to racism and exclusion and more a tactic for extermination.

Da Silva points out that, unlike classic apartheid tactics in the U.S., miscegenation wrapped Brazil’s history of violent colonization in an obscuring shroud of “we are all mixed,” while rendering it just as much a subject of the global racial hierarchy as the U.S. This rhetoric succeeded only in giving Brazil a thin veneer of inclusion by benefit of being a mixed-race nation.

“[B]y the end of the nineteenth century, the number of ‘mixed-race’ Brazilians could be used to support the argument that Brazil was ahead on the road to complete whiteness,” da Silva argues, referring to how Brazil’s image as a country in the global stage has always been contingent on how white the country is. The achievement of Brazilian whiteness would signify that Brazil is a modern civilization, and thus the country would be able to claim a position of power in international diplomacy dynamics. “Why was whiteness a necessary condition for the constitution of the Brazilian nation?”

After the divisive policies of former Brazilian president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, President Luis Inácio da Silva has worked to deliver an inclusive government. He appointed Anielle Franco, a Black woman and the sister of murdered activist Marielle Franco, to Minister of Racial Equality, and he named Indigenous activist Sonia Guajajara to Minister of Indigenous Peoples. These moves are not unimportant, but in a world where fascism threatens progress at every election, how durable is an administration’s work without deep introspection within its own people.

What da Silva proposes is that the problem of racism won’t be solved solely by inclusion. The construction of race itself—and fascist attempts to demolish racialized people—doesn’t simply go away after inclusion. As Brazilians and Americans have seen with the presidencies of Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, policies of inclusion can always be reverted, and exclusion can always be made worse.


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