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Making Race Skin Deep
Racial attitudes in the United States need an overhaul. Latinos can show the way.
I’m not sure which one’s harder, trying to explain Latin American racial attitudes to Anglos or Anglos’ racial attitudes to Latin Americans. Having split my life about evenly between Venezuela and North America, I’ve had to do both many times over. It seldom goes well, because race plays such a different role in each society. All of which perhaps makes the paragraphs below foolhardy—but, just imaginably, useful to some of the people reading.
How to even characterize this chasm? I always think back to one moment in 2001. George W. Bush had just chosen Colin Powell to serve as his Secretary of State, and the news wires were full of discussion about the then-historic event: the first Black Secretary of State. The journalists in the Caracas newsroom where I worked at the time found this simply bizarre.
“What the hell are they talking about, that guy’s not black,” my colleague Ligia said. “He’s barely café-con-leche,” she continued, using the Venezuelanism for variably-brown mixed race people.
I was left to try to explain the “one-drop rule” as best I could to a uniformly baffled roomful of journalists. “Well, see,” I attempted, “his family is Afro-Caribbean, so according to the way Americans think about this sort of thing, that makes him black.”
“No no, hang on,” another colleague interjected, “that doesn’t make sense. Look at the guy, his skin is not black! In what possible world is he supposed to be black if his skin isn’t black?”
This baffled sense that Americans don’t know the plain chromatic meaning of the words “black” and “white” permeates Venezuelans’ confusion about how race works in the United States. Because, in Venezuelan culture, words like black and white (“negro” and “blanco”) don’t refer to groups of people; they refer to skin tones. Which is why calling Colin Powell “black” made as much sense to my colleagues as saying a brown-eyed person was actually blue-eyed, because their grandparents once had blue eyes: plainly ridiculous.
Venezuelan culture reduces race to skin color, but it doesn’t stop there. It then drains skin color of anything beyond a descriptive significance. As a result, Venezuelans see zero reason to hold back on commenting about it. Loudly.
Not for us the panicky gringo mania for walking on racial egg shells.
In North America, race is usually presented in either/or terms, whereas Venezuelans think of it much more as a spectrum, a chromatic scale that people fall along relative to each other. This is why racial labels are often context-dependent and relative: “catire” (roughly “blondie”) is simply what you call the fairest skinned person in a given setting, while “negro” is what you call whomever is darkest skinned. There’s even a popular saying in Venezuela that translates literally as “blond just means the least black in the village.”
If you find these racial attitudes confusing, trust me: Venezuelans find your racial attitudes ten times weirder. Try to explain to a Venezuelan that in many cases an American picking up the phone can tell instantly whether the person on the other end of the line is Black, and you’ll get an uncomprehending stare back.
“Wait, what? Does their skin somehow change their voice?! How?!”
To most Venezuelans, the claim itself seems racist. Where skin tone alone doesn’t map onto a clear group identity, the very idea of a racial accent seems ludicrous. No Venezuelan can tell the tone of the other person’s skin on the phone.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple: any Venezuelan can pick up the phone and instantly place the other party by class. And yes, due to the long overhang of colonial history, pale-skin and high class certainly do overlap.
But for the broad majority of working-class Venezuelans, people of all different skin tones share the same accents, with regional variations clearly noticeable but race entirely inaudible. Black working-class Venezuelans eat the same kinds of foods that white working-class Venezuelans eat, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, and certainly sound the same on the phone. And while it’s true that some kinds of music and dance are coded as “Black” in Venezuela, people from across the racial spectrum take part. If you press them to identify in ethnic terms, the vast bulk of Venezuelans will call themselves “mixed”—and not wrongly so.
It’s little wonder, then, that Latinos in the United States are often baffled by the racial categories in the U.S. census. Trying to pigeonhole us into a racial category is like forcing a cappuccino to declare itself entirely coffee or entirely milk—a senseless, almost perverse consequence of America’s racialized ethnic divide.
U.S. racial categories are beyond meaningless in Caracas, where there’s nothing unusual about carrying the nickname “el negro” even if your skin tone is quite clearly pale, simply because you’re a little bit darker than your siblings. And plenty of Venezuelans that Americans would instantly code as Black carry the nickname “el catire” or “la catira,” because their skin is a couple of tones lighter than that of the other people in their community.
Of course, Venezuela is just one country. My sense, though, is that Venezuelan-style racial attitudes are pretty widespread in the region—or more so than in North America, for sure. Back in 2021, Uruguayan soccer star Edinson Cavani caused a multinational firestorm by Instagraming “gracias, negrito” to a personal friend, who had just congratulated him for a stunning goal against Southampton in the Premier League. Confusingly, Cavani’s friend, the recipient of the gratitude, was unmistakably white—though presumably darker-hued than his peer group. Coming at the height of the post-2020 racial reckoning, Cavani’s innocent tweet nearly got him canceled in England. He was banned for three matches and fined 100,000 pounds by his English club, Manchester United, and his country’s soccer federation had to step in to try to explain the dynamics I’ve just explained to an enraged social media mob. (Good luck with that!)
Racial attitudes like Cavani’s turn the old American canard on its head. Where so many well-intentioned Americans claimed they “don’t see race,” many Latin Americans go around merrily only seeing race: that is, seeing skin color as just that, a physical attribute that has little meaning beyond the realm of appearance.
Meditating on this over the years, I can’t help but feel that Latin Americans like Cavani have a much saner take on race than Americans. But then, we are only able to reduce race to skin tone because our racial history is vastly different.
Racial apartheid broke down in much of Latin America literally hundreds of years earlier than it did in the United States, as did the taboos against interracial marriage. Venezuela is an excellent example. Already in the 1790s, royal officials sent from Madrid to report on the state of the Captaincy General of Venezuela were alarmed by the scale of race-mixing in the colony, and the German philosopher-explorer Alexander von Humboldt, in his widely read letters from South America, estimated about half the population was mixed before the turn of the 19th century.
Over the next 200 years, Venezuelans continued merrily making babies across racial lines, creating a population that was overwhelmingly mestiza (mixed). By the 1960s, café con leche had become Venezuela’s official racial ideology: Venezuelans in general were presumed to be a little bit white, a little bit black and a little bit indigenous. The proportions might change, giving rise to some people being a little darker and others a little lighter-skinned, but nothing in that spectrum separates people, because everyone accepts it for what it is: a continuum that lacks sharp category boundaries.
It’s not so much that Venezuelans have better racial attitudes than Americans. The issue is more that race, as Americans understand it, isn’t really about race at all. It’s about ethnic conflict.
This is why, in a U.S. context, Black is now routinely capitalized. As a skin tone, black is just a color; but as a descriptor of ethnic-identity, Black fully deserves its capitalization. It explains why people like Colin Powell are “Black” even though they’re not black while others, like one-time NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal, manage to pass as Black for years despite plainly being white. The ethnic divide maps only imperfectly onto skin tone because in the United States, Black and White aren’t races, they’re ethnic identities.
America’s racial logic is digital—on/off, yes/no, 0/1. Venezuelans’ healthier racial logic is analogue: it’s both-and, not either-or. We think of ourselves as black and white and indigenous.
Is there a lesson here that Americans might consider learning from? I think there is, but it isn’t one anyone wants to hear. The real, long-term solution to America’s racialized ethnic divide is a slow, generation-by-generation erasure of that divide, possible only through enthusiastic race mixing.
Could such a shift occur in the United States? Could the ideology of mestizaje replace the old categories of the one-drop rule? One day, yes. But demographic processes take time. I suspect there are critical thresholds in play: Have enough babies with mixed ancestry in your population, and mixity becomes the default. Racial polarization can hardly remain the norm where a large enough portion of the population understands itself as both-and, rather than either-or.
Where exactly is that threshold? Are we talking 30% of babies? 50%? Can we imagine a future where 30 or 50% of Americans think of themselves as mixed? Those numbers are perhaps not as far out of reach as it may sound: the share of mixed-race children nearly tripled from 5.6% to 15.1% between 2010 and 2020. There’s still so much room for that number to grow.
The day mestizo is thought of as normal and single-race becomes anomalous is the day America will be well on its way to overcoming its polarized racial deadlock. Because, as every Venezuelan knows in their bones, once everyone is thought of as mixed, race resolves down to skin color.
And skin color is only skin deep.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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