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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

The Racial Politics of Culture and Silent Racism in Peru (Draft)

In this paper, the author develops a historical analysis of the changing meanings of race, and its articulation with class, gender, geography and ethnicity in Peru. At the turn of the twentieth century, dominant Peruvian nation-builders produced a modern notion of race that explicitly rejected biological determinism, while accepting the allegedly irrefutable powers of morality and reason to determine social hierarchies. Morality and reason, they argued, were imprinted in historically transmitted culture, which intellectuals imagined as the soul of a people, their race. The author of the paper explains how this process eventually yielded a culturalist definition of race, which could include - though not necessarily - some phenotypical features, randomly subordinated to the superior spiritual powers of morality. In this definition, education had a significant technical role as the eugenic device that would 'improve the Peruvian soul'. Through education, and dissolving into essentialized images of culture, this non-biological definition of race continues to thrive, and even sustains what the author calls silent racism.

The paper makes two contributions. First, it offers the notion of 'race as culture' to help understand the seeming contradiction between the profound endurance of racism and the historical tendency to downplay the importance of race in Peru-and in Latin America in general. The centrality assigned to culture in articulating discriminatory ideas and practices may seem analogous to what Europeanist scholars have called 'racism without race' or 'new racism' to refer to current forms of cultural discrimination, no longer rooted in biologically defined race. Yet in Peru exclusionary practices legitimized by 'culture' are neither 'new', nor are they 'without race'. Instead, they belong to a particular historical matrix in which pre-modern Christian notions of 'purity of blood', combined with colonial norms of honor, eventually converged with a modern and nationalist notion of race conceived as the embodiment of 'culture' and 'morality' by socially differentiated groups.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jan 2001
    From: UNRISD