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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Americanizing the History of Race and Modernity?

A Query on Quijano’s Americanization of the History of Race and Modernity

Chambi Chachage

This is the first time I am reading Anibal Quijano’s (2000) article on ‘Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America’. What he is writing on is an area that I have been engaging with. However, his text – at least so far – is turning upside down my reading of the history of race and modernity that has been particularly influenced by Emmanuel C. Eze’s (1997) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. In this reading the encounter between Euro-America and Africa is the basis of the origins of the racial ordering of the world. This encounter primarily led to this ordering as an enlightenment project that preoccupied the Euro-American theorists in Eze’s reader. It is in this regard I find it difficult to agree with Quijano when he locates America as the “first space/time of a new model of power of global vocation” and thus “the first location of modernity” (p. 533). This centering of America leads him to claim that it is the “population of America” that was first classified within this new model and then, “later”, that “of the world” (Ibid.)

In this regard Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors in Latin America are presented as pioneers of modern racial classification. If this is so how came major racial classifiers during the dawn of western modernity – Hegel, Hume, Linnaeus, Kant and Cuvier – were based in Europe? For sure the “idea of race, in its modern meaning, does not have a known history before the colonization of America” (p. 534). But this modern construct was primarily constructed in relation to Africans and Africa. Quijano agrees with the centrality of the former in that construction but his Americanization thus dislocates the latter:

As time went by, the colonizers codified the phenotypic trait of the colonized as color, and they assumed it as the emblematic characteristic of racial category. That category was probably initially established in the area of Anglo-America. There so-called blacks were not only the most important exploited group, since the principal part of the economy rested on their labor; they were, above all, the most important colonized race, since Indians [sic] were not part of that colonial society. Why the dominant group calls itself “white” is a story related to racial classification (Ibid.)

Quijano’s otherwise compelling critique of the “Eurocentric version” of modernity and global capitalism thus ends privileging the history of the Atlantic at the expense of that of the Indian and Mediterranean. Consequently what primarily started in Africa is presented as having started in America. What Edward W. Said (1978), notwithstanding his overemphasis of the East, aptly referred to as Orientalism, in reference to the Eurocentric project of constructing non-western societies as the other, is thus shifted back to West.

But were the conquistadors not exploring Africa in search of a route to India in Asia prior to the discovery of America and, in the process, displacing and/or enslaving Africans who thus came to be constructed as their ultimate other in the modern construction of race? 

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