Dynamics of Culture and Race Identification

By Domingo Turey Hernandez

Writing about “race” can be a very sensitive topic and while on many people's mind, very few will speak on it. What is interesting is that many persons are under the mistaken perception that “race” is a scientific fact.[i]  Race and “concepts of race” are social constructs, and therefore, some argue that “races” are created to protect the interest of the group in power. Racial definitions are impacted by religious and social mores. In short, concepts of race are shaped in large by the powerful defenders of the dominant culture. Across many of the World's cultures, identification of race is linked to the social construct of  “hyperdescent.”

Hyperdescent is the practice of classifying a child of “mixed race” heritage as belonging to the race that is the more socially dominant of the parent's races.[ii] In early colonial era Latin America, for example, the Spanish would classify their children with indigenous women as Spanish. These children would not be counted as “Indians” in any census. Another example would be when these children of mix heritage would be classified as something all together different, something always socially above the conquered or dominated race or group. Examples of “racial classifications” under the early Spanish, Portuguese, and French include Mulattos, Ladinos, Mestizos, Zambos, Lobos, etc. More often then not, these persons were given better opportunities to own land get an education and eventually marry into an ever “Whiter” level of Society. Australia, for instance, practiced this form of hyperdescent up to the 20th century. Under the Aborigines Act, children of mixed “blood” were taken away from their Aboriginal families and put into White foster homes in an effort re-educate them into the White Race.[iii] Those promoting this system claimed this strategy would better prepare them for jobs under White employers and lead them to eventual marriage to Whites.

Today, in most if not all of Latin America, classifying race via hyperdescent continues to be the social norm. This is the opposite of “hypodescent” where a mixed race person would be seen as belonging to the least socially powerful group of the parent's race.[iv] An example of this social classification is the "One drop rule" with regard to “Black” ancestry. In essence, this U.S. born social classification promot the view that any person with "one drop of Negro blood" was considered black.[v] The "One drop rule" was a legal norm in parts of the 20th century United States.[vi] Before that time there were many examples in the U.S. of Blacks being accepted as Whites if they were less than 1/8th or 1/16th Black.

Today, many of the people who criticize Taino affirmation do so because they come from an education that embraces the concept of hypodescent. To these folks it doesn't matter how much European or Indigenous ancestry we may have, if we have any African ancestry then we are Black by default. Any effort to identify according to our family culture or even by the rules of hyperdescent is seen as an attack on “Blackness.” This view disregards the basic human right of self-determination. From a Taino perspective, self-determination is linked to self-identity.

Self-determination is about recognizing that many communities identify “race or ethnicity” using older and more traditional ways. These views need to be respected by the more dominant society.

Hyperdescent and hypodescent both exist despite their flaws. Both views are designed to dominate an oppressed group. One is designed to push the oppressed group into extinction. The other keeps the oppressed group always visible but always the "other" - never really equal. Both systems seek to control.

The traditional Taino Jibaro way was and is the acceptance of another as relative by the Family leader. This ideal made one family and family were those related by blood, marriage, and relation to our extended family members. Taino is not just blood, it is also culture and world view. It is traditions that refuse to die even to this day.
Domingo Turey Hernandez is a Taino Jibaro elder from Borikén (Puerto Rico). He is a member of the Caney Indigenous Spiritual Circle, the United Confederation of Taino People, and iukaieke Guainia.


[i] Conrad P. Kottak, "FAQ", Human Diversity and "Race", Cultural Anthropology, Online Learning, McGraw Hill, accessed 30 Sept 2012.

[ii] Eviatar Zerubavel, “Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community,” Oxford University Press, 2012

[iv] See Conrad P. Kottak’s "FAQ"

[v] James Davis "Who is Black? One Nation's Definition," Frontline, WGBH,  accessed 30 Sept 2012.

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