February is famously Black history month, but that is not why I am writing about race or racial classification. I am writing about it because of the boundless interest in—negative or positive—and the confusion concerning miscegenation in this country. There are three major things that influence my point of view and expertise: my own large extended family (which includes the above categories); study of linguistics, genetics, and anthropology; and what the country of Brazil decided to do a few years back: reclassify everyone based on phenotype (appearance).
Let’s start with Brazil. It is that large country in South America that President George Bush was so unfamiliar with that Condoleezza Rice had to tell him privately: “Brazil is a black country.” In fact it is the blackest country outside of Africa.
Here's how one online encyclopedia explains it:
The Brazilian system of racial classification is far more complex [than the one-drop rule]. In Brazil, people are assigned to racial groups based on what they look like—their skin color, hair type, and facial features—regardless of their ancestry. As such, individuals may be assigned to different racial groups than their parents, siblings or other relatives. Moreover, how individuals are classified racially does not depend solely on their physical appearance. Social class, education, and manner of dress all come into play in assigning someone to a racial category. As Brazilians put it, “money whitens,” so the higher the social class, the lighter the racial category to which an individual belongs.
I first learned about Brazil’s re-classification efforts from a documentary. It means that siblings can be classified as white, black, or mulatto based on the “tests” that were in place. Unfortunately these tests included such things as illiteracy or abject poverty. So if one was fortunate enough to look white but was born poor and illiterate then one could still not be classified as “white.” Black became the default race in Brazil for anyone who did not have all the markings of a “white.” In countries such as Brazil, illiteracy is a big deal because public education is not available in extremely rural areas or in the huge, poor black ghettos.
Why are things so simple in this country? We might gain some insight into it by looking at Brazil’s buzzword: “money whitens.” That is a sword that cuts both ways because it confers on those with the proper phenotype the ability to earn more over their lifetime than their blacker brothers and sisters.