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Could Class Ever TrumP Race in America?

05/25/2011 02:25 pm ET

During a recent trip to Chile, I had an interesting conversation with a Brazilian traveler about--of course--ethnicity and class. When we landed on the topic of race, he could not understand why Americans use race as a prefix for our nationality--for example, Black American, Asian American, etc. He asked me, "Why are Americans so simplistic about race but so complicated about nationality?"

With his blue eyes twinkling at me and brushing aside his blond hair, he told me that he would have a difficult time choosing a race. His father was part African, indigenous Brazilian and Portuguese; his mother was of German descent. It was just easier to call himself Brazilian.

Yet, while he accepted and embraced his ancestors of color, he dramatically distanced himself from his fellow Brazilians who dressed poorly, did not own cars, and basically came from a lower economic status. I found that the Chileans I met also shared this social structure of the world.

I was warned about the obsession with class and social status by a Chilean friend before my trip. He explained that since most Chileans are of a lighter complexion and accept that they are mixed with Native American blood, there really isn't any racism toward their indigenous people. Rather, economic status is what separates people. For instance, if there was an incident on a public bus and the police asked the bus riders for a description of what occurred, they would describe everyone else based on how well or how poorly they were dressed.

While I do not condone any form of discrimination, as a darker-skinned person I could not help but flirt with the idea of living in a country where class and nationality trumped race. Would there ever be a day when I would stop calling myself a Black American and just call myself an American? What would it be like to have societal respect and acceptance by merely wearing the right clothes, driving the right car, and having the right job?

I know that there are some who argue that America is already moving in the direction where being poor is a greater hindrance than race. For over 40 years, America has had laws that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race and color in employment and public accommodations. As of yet, being poor is not a protected class.

Ethnic-based sororities and fraternities have long been criticized for separating the more educated and affluent from the more impoverished members of their races.

However, as rosy as my Brazilian companion made Brazil sound, I'm sure that race and color will always matter. With a straight face, he proceeded to explain why racial mixtures are a beautiful thing--what would be better than a white girl with a black woman's body or a black woman with green eyes. He probably missed school when his class discussed the history of discrimination underlying the eroticism of the Black body.

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