Seeing Like Citizens: Unofficial Understandings of Official Racial Categories in a Brazilian University

Seeing Like Citizens: Unofficial Understandings of Official Racial Categories in a Brazilian University

Journal of Latin American Studies
Number 41 (2009)
pages 221–250
DOI: 10.1017/S0022216X09005550

Luisa Farah Schwartzman, Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Toronto

This paper investigates how students at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), one of the first Brazilian universities to adopt race-based quotas for admissions, interpret racial categories used as eligibility criteria. Considering the perspectives of students is important to understand the workings of affirmative action policies because UERJ’s quotas require applicants to classify themselves. Students’ interpretations of those categories often diverge from the interpretations intended by people who shaped the policy. Students’ perspectives are formed by everyday experiences with categorisation and by their self-assessment as legitimate beneficiaries of quotas. In contrast, the policies were designed according to a new racial project, where black consciousness-raising and statistics played an important role.

Brazil has a long history of discrimination based on skin colour and a well documented association between people’s racial category and their access toresources, patterns of socialisation and family formation. At the same time, recently implemented affirmative action policies, designed to address these social injustices, have generated a heated debate over whether it is possible (or appropriate) for such policies to rely on racial classification. Some commentators claim that accurate categorisation is impossible in Brazil because Brazilians are a mixed-race people with no clear racial boundaries. Others suggest that classification is difficult due to ‘fraud’: people can dishonestly declare their racial category in order to benefit from the policy. This paper argues that indeed potential policy beneficiaries often classify themselves differently from how policymakers and advocates would expect them to, but not simply for the above-mentioned reasons. More importantly, there is mismatch between the worldviews and knowledge that policy beneficiaries (those who are able to define whether official categories apply to themselves) and policy designers (who have determined or influenced the shaping of the policies) bring with them when considering the appropriate rules for classifying people for affirmative action purposes…

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