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To better understand how race is constructed around the world, consider how the United States, Brazil, and Japan define racial categories. In the United States, race has traditionally been rigidly constructed, and Americans have long perceived racial categories as discrete and mutually exclusive: a person who had one “black” parent and one “white” parent was seen simply as “black.” The institution of slavery played a major role in defining how the United States has classified people by race through the one-drop rule, which required that any trace of known or recorded non-European (“non-white”) ancestry was used to automatically exclude a person from being classified as “white.” Someone with one “black” grandparent and three “white” grandparents or one “black” great-grandparent and seven “white” great-grandparents was classified under the one-drop rule simply as “black.” The original purpose of the one-drop rule was to ensure that children born from sexual unions (some consensual but many forced) between slave-owner fathers and enslaved women would be born into slave status.20

Consider President Barack Obama. Obama is of biracial heritage; his mother was “white” of Euro-American descent and his father was a “black” man from Kenya. The media often refer to Obama simply as “black” or “African American,” such as when he is referred to as the nation’s “first black President,” and never refer to him as “white.”21 Whiteness in the United States has long been understood and legally defined as implying “racial purity” despite the biological absurdity of the notion, and to be considered “white,” one could have no known ancestors of black, American Indian, Asian, or other “non-white” backgrounds. Cultural anthropologists also refer to the one-drop rule as hypodescent, a term coined by anthropologist Marvin Harris in the 1960s to refer to a socially constructed racial classification system in which a person of mixed racial heritage is automatically categorized as a member of the less (or least) privileged group.22

Another example is birth certificates issued by U.S. hospitals, which, until relatively recently, used a precise formula to determine the appropriate racial classification for a newborn. If one parent was “white” and the other was “non-white,” the child was classified as the race of the “non-white” parent; if neither parent was “white,” the child was classified as the race of the father.

Not until very recently have the United States government, the media, and pop culture begun to officially acknowledge and embrace biracial and multiracial individuals. The 2000 census was the first to allow respondents to identify as more than one race. Currently, a grassroots movement that is expanding across the United States, led by organizations such as Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) and Swirl, seeks to raise public awareness of biracial and multiracial people who sometimes still experience social prejudice for being of mixed race and/or resentment from peers who disapprove of their decision to identify with all of their backgrounds instead of just one. Prominent biracial and multiracial celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé Knowles, Bruno Mars, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the election of Barack Obama have also prompted people in the United States to reconsider the problematic nature of rigid, discrete racial categories.

In 1977, the U.S. government established five official racial categories under Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Directive 15 that provided a basis for recordkeeping and compiling of statistical information to facilitate collection of demographic information by the Census Bureau and to ensure compliance with federal civil rights legislation and work-place anti-discrimination policies. Those categories and their definitions, which are still used today, are (a) “White: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East;” (b) “Black or African American: a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa;” (c) “American Indian or Alaskan Native: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment;” (d) “Asian: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent;” and (e) “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or the Pacific Islands.” In addition, OMB Directive 15 established Hispanic or Latino as a separate ethnic (not racial) category; on official documents, individuals are asked to identify their racial background and whether they are of Hispanic/Latino ethnic heritage. The official definition of Hispanic or Latino is “a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.”

OMB Directive 15’s terminology and definitions have generated considerable criticism and controversy. The complex fundamental question is whether such categories are practical and actually reflect how individuals choose to self-identify. Terms such as “non-Hispanic white” and “Black Hispanic,” both a result of the directive, are baffling to many people in the United States who perceive Hispanics/Latinos as a separate group from whites and blacks. Others oppose any governmental attempt to classify people by race, on both liberal and conservative political grounds. In 1997, the American Anthropological Association unsuccessfully advocated for a cessation of federal efforts to coercively classify Americans by race, arguing instead that individuals should be given the opportunity to identify their ethnic and/or national heritages (such as their country or countries of ancestry).

Brazil’s concept of race is much more fluid, flexible, and multifaceted. The differences between Brazil and the United States are particularly striking because the countries have similar histories. Both nations were born of European colonialism in the New World, established major plantation economies that relied on large numbers of African slaves, and subsequently experienced large waves of immigration from around the world (particularly Europe) following the abolition of slavery. Despite those similarities, significant contrasts in how race is perceived in these two societies persist, which is sometimes summarized in the expression “The United States has a color line, while Brazil has a color continuum.”23 In Brazil, races are typically viewed as points on a continuum in which one gradually blends into another; “white” and “black” are opposite ends of a continuum that incorporates many intermediate color-based racial labels that have no equivalent in the United States.

The Brazilian term for these categories, which correspond to the concept of race in the United States, is tipos, which directly translates into Portuguese as “types.”24 Rather than describing what is believed to be a person’s biological or genetic ancestry, tipos describe slight but noticeable differences in physical appearance. Examples include loura, a person with a very fair complexion, straight blonde hair, and blue or green eyes; sarará, a light-complexioned person with tightly curled blondish or reddish hair, blue or green eyes, a wide nose, and thick lips; and cabo verde, an individual with dark skin, brown eyes, straight black hair, a narrow nose, and thin lips. Sociologists and anthropologists have identified more than 125 tipos in Brazil, and small villages of only 500 people may feature 40 or more depending on how residents describe one another. Some of the labels vary from region to region, reflecting local cultural differences.

Since Brazilians perceive race based on phenotypes or outward physical appearance rather than as an extension of geographically based biological and genetic descent, individual members of a family can be seen as different tipos. This may seem bewildering to those who think of race as a fixed identity inherited from one’s parents even though it is generally acknowledged that family members often have different physical features, such as sisters who have strikingly different eye colors, hair colors, and/or complexions. In Brazil, those differences are frequently viewed as significant enough to assign different tipos. Cultural anthropologist Conrad Phillip Kottak, who conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Brazil, noted that something as minor as a suntan or sunburn could lead to a person temporarily being described as a different tipo until the effects of the tanning or burning wore off.25

Another major difference in the construction of race in the United States and Brazil is the more fluid and flexible nature of race in Brazil, which is reflected in a popular Brazilian saying: “Money whitens.” As darker-complexioned individuals increase their social class status (by, for example, graduating from college and obtaining high-salaried, professional positions), they generally come to be seen as a somewhat lighter tipo and light-complexioned individuals who become poorer may be viewed as a slightly darker tipo. In the United States, social class has no bearing on one’s racial designation; a non-white person who achieves upward social mobility and accrues greater education and wealth may be seen by some as more “socially desirable” because of social class but does not change racial classification.

Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics established five official racial categories in 1940 to facilitate collection of demographic information that are still in use today: branco (white), prêto (black), pardo (brown), amarelo (yellow), and indígena (indigenous). These racial categories are similar to the ones established in the United States under OMB Directive 15 and to Linnaeus’ proposed taxonomy in the 18th century. Pardo is unique to Brazil and denotes a person of both branco and prêto heritage. Many Brazilians object to these government categories and prefer tipos.

The more fluid construction of race in Brazil is accompanied by generally less hostile, more benign social interactions between people of different colors and complexions, which has contributed to Brazil being seen as a “racial paradise” and a “racial democracy” rainbow nation free of the harsh prejudices and societal discrimination that has characterized other multiracial nations such as the United States and South Africa.26 The “racial democracy” image has long been embraced by the government and elites in Brazil as a way to provide the country with a distinct identity in the international community. However, scholars in Brazil and the United States have questioned the extent to which racial equality exists in Brazil despite the appearance of interracial congeniality on the surface. Many light-complexioned Brazilians reject the idea that racial discrimination and inequalities persist and regard such claims as divisive while Afro-Brazilians have drawn attention to these inequalities in recent years.

Though Afro-Brazilians comprise approximately half of the country’s population, they have historically accounted for less than 2 percent of all university students, and severe economic disparities between tipos remain prominent in Brazil to this day.27 The majority of the country’s Afro-Brazilians lives in the less-affluent northern region, site of the original sugar cane plantations while the majority of Brazilians of European descent live in the industrial and considerably wealthier southern region.28 The favelas (slums) located on the edge of major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, which often lack electricity or running water, are inhabited largely by Afro-Brazilians, who are half as likely to have a working toilet in their homes as the overall Brazilian population.

There are significant economic differences between Brazilians according to their official racial designation. According to government statistics, prêtos have higher unemployment and poverty rates than other groups in Brazil and brancos earn 57 percent more than prêtos for the same occupation. Furthermore, the vast majority of Brazilians in leadership positions in politics, the military, the media, and education are branco or pardo. Inter-racial marriage occurs more frequently in Brazil than in the United States, but most of the marriages are between prêtos and pardos and not between brancos and either prêtos or pardos. Another significant area of concern centers on brutality and mistreatment of darker-complexioned Brazilians. As a result, some scholars of race and racism describe Brazil as a prominent example of a pigmentocracy: a society characterized by a strong correlation between a person’s skin color and their social class.

Afro-Brazilian activism has grown substantially since the 1980s, inspired in part by the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the United States and by actions taken by the Brazilian government since the early 2000s. One of the Brazilian government’s strategies has been to implement U.S.-style affirmative action policies in education and employment to increase the number of Afro-Brazilians in the nation’s professional ranks and decrease the degree of economic disparity. Those efforts sparked an intense backlash among lighter-complexioned Brazilians and created a complex social and political dilemma: who, exactly, should be considered “dark/black enough” for inclusion in affirmative action, who makes that decision, and on what grounds will the decision be based? Many Brazilian families include relatives whose complexions are quite different and the country has clear racial categories only in terms of its demographic statistics. Nevertheless, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president from 2003 through 2011, made promotion of greater racial equality a prominent objective of his administration. In addition to supporting affirmative action policies, Lula appointed four Afro-Brazilians to his cabinet, appointed the first Afro-Brazilian justice to the nation’s supreme court, and established a government office for promotion of racial equality. These recent developments have led many in Brazil and elsewhere to reconsider the accuracy of Brazil’s designation as a racial democracy, which has been as a central component of its national identity for decades.

Scholars mostly agree that race relations are more relaxed and genteel in Brazil than in the United States. They tend to disagree about why that is the case. Some have suggested that the differences in racial constructions stem from important colonial-era distinctions that set the tone for years to come. A common expression describing the situation is: “the United States had two British parents while Brazil had a Portuguese father and an African mother.” British settlers who colonized North America thoroughly subjugated their slaves, intermarriage was rare, and African cultural influences on mainstream U.S. society were marginalized compared to British cultural traditions and customs. In Brazil, on the other hand, sexual and marital unions between the Portuguese settlers, who were overwhelmingly male, and female Africans were common, creating individuals who exhibit a wide range of physical appearances. Sexual unions certainly occurred in the United States between male European slave masters and female African slaves, but the one-drop rule ensured that any children born of such unions would be classified as “black” and as slaves. In Brazil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the government and the Roman Catholic Church strongly encouraged European descended men to marry the African and indigenous women they impregnated in order to “whiten” the nation.29 The United States government did not advocate for interracial families and most states had anti-miscegenation laws. The United States also implemented an official, government-sanctioned system of Jim Crow racial segregation laws in that had no equivalent in Brazil.

Japan represents an example of a third way of constructing race that is not associated with Western society or African slavery. Japanese society is more diverse than many people realize; the number of Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian immigrants began to increase in the 1980s, and the number of children who had one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent has increased substantially since the 1950s, driven in part by children fathered by American military men stationed in Japan. Yet, one segment of Japan’s population known as the burakumin (formerly called the eta, a word meaning “pure

filth”) vividly illustrates the arbitrary nature of racial categories. Though physically and genetically indistinguishable from other Japanese people, the burakumin are a socially stigmatized and outcast group. They are descendants of people who worked dirty, low-prestige jobs that involved handling dead and slaughtered animals during the feudal era of Japan in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. In feudal times, they were forced to live in communities separated from the rest of society, had to wear a patch of leather on their clothing to symbolize their burakumin status, and were not permitted to marry non-burakumins.30

Japan no longer legally prohibits marriage between burakumin and non-burakumin (today, approximately 75 percent of burakumins are married to non-burakumins), but prejudices and discrimination persist, particularly among older generations, and the marriages remain socially stigmatized. Employment for the burakumin remains concentrated in low-paying occupations involving physical labor despite the relative affluence and advanced education in Japanese society overall. Burakumin earn only about 60 percent of the national average household income.31 Stereotypes of the burakumin as unintelligent, lazy, and violent still exist, but burakumin men account for a significant portion of Japan’s professional athletes in popular sports such as baseball and sumo wrestling, an interesting pattern that reflects events in the United States, where racially stigmatized groups have long found relatively abundant opportunities for upward mobility in professional sports.