The Contours of Color
at the World Social Forum:
Reflections on Racialized Politics, Representation,
and the Global Justice Movement
Rebecca Álvarez, Erika Gutierrez, Linda Kim, Christine Petit, and Ellen Reese*
IROWS Working Paper #36
UCR Institute for Research on World-Systems
University of California-Riverside
* Rebecca Álvarez is a graduate student of
sociology at the
This essay critically reflects on our
experiences and observations, as a multi-racial research team from the
The World Social Forum
(WSF) was created as a counter-event to the World Economic Forum, a gathering
of global elites to develop policy ideas that takes place annually in
Our research team went
to the 2005 WSF meeting in
Following Omi and Winant
(1994: 55), we refer to race as “a concept which signifies and symbolizes
social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.”
The meaning of racial and ethnic categorizations and concepts are often complicated, subtle, contested, and context-dependent. They vary by country, region, and locality, and are shaped by particular histories of nation-building, inter-group conflict and power, and colonialization (Aspinall 2007). Even so, racism and ethnocentrism are global issues, affecting the structure of world inequality and shaping world politics.
In this paper, we explore the various challenges in terms of discussing issues of race, ethnicity, and racism at the WSF. We argue that issues of race and racism must be addressed directly at the WSF in order to make the forum and the global justice movement more inclusive of people of color, raise consciousness about racial and ethnic oppression and its role in the current global economy among political activists, build effective transnational coalitions among anti-racist groups, and envision a truly just and democratic world.
Racism and the Global Justice Movement
racial composition and dynamics of the World Social Forum needs to be
understood within the context of the global justice movement. Many scholars and
activists have critiqued the overrepresentation of whites, within the global
Inspired by this essay, some U.S. activists formed Anti-Racism for Global Justice in 2000, an organization dedicated to educating global justice activists about the ways in which racism affects their organizing, and how to overcome this (Anti-Racism for Global Justice 2000). Chris Crass, one of the founders of this organization, suggests that part of the key to overcoming racism in the global justice movement is to address white privilege within it. Crass also calls for white organizers to recognize and follow the lead of people of color within the global justice movement (Crass 2002).
· The anti-globalization emphasis on correct anti-imperialist analysis as the key to anti-racist campaigns is totally inadequate from the anti-racist perspective, which sees anti-racism as a specific kind of process of local organizing.
· The movements have, at times, severe differences in what they understand to be “empowering” for strangers (and how differential empowerment is racialized). These differences are rooted in whether proto-activists are conceptualized as isolated individuals or people embedded in oppressed communities.
· The anti-globalization movement assumes (perhaps incorrectly) that diversity of tactics successfully provides space for ideological and tactical expressions of anti-racism (and any other liberatory politics) while the most important aspect of anti-racist organizing is safe, dignified, non-white-dominated organizing culture (Starr 2004: 149).
Similarly, in Webs of Power, another U.S.-based activist, Starhawk (2002) acknowledges that there is a lack of diversity within the global justice movement and offers several approaches towards building a diverse movement. Among these approaches are: framing the issues in a way that it inspires most people to act; doing introspective work with regards to one’s own racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.; and making the political culture welcoming to all (Starhawk 2002). For Starhawk (2002), the most important thing to remember is that there are “interlocking systems of oppression” and everyone is affected and experiences oppression differently. These differences should not be a source of conflict, but rather an opportunity to find commonality in their oppression and to build solidarity.
Of course, people of color have
long organized for global justice both within the
Race and Ethnicity of WSF Participants: Survey Findings
To examine the racial composition of WSF participants, we included an open-ended question asking survey respondents to self-identify their race or ethnicity as part of our six-page survey. Our respondents thus could identify their race or ethnicity as they chose to do so. We decided that this was preferable to a check list given the differences in racial and ethnic categories employed in different countries. This question about racial and ethnic identity was just one question among many, but it proved to be one of the most challenging questions in terms of getting people to respond and later coding the responses in a way that was consistent and meaningful.
Many respondents (most of whom appeared white or light-skinned) refused to answer the question, claiming that they were “human” or had no race or ethnicity. Some of these respondents found the question offensive. Those from some European countries, for example, associated questions of one's race with Nazism. Others, favoring a "colorblind" approach, simply rejected the question as divisive.
Other respondents were
merely confused by the question. At least one respondent asked a researcher,
"What am I?" This is perhaps because in many countries discussions of
race and ethnicity are mainly expressed in terms of nationality or religion, or
understood in terms of particular dimensions, such as language use, country of
origin, or citizenship. Perhaps as in the
found that only 438 of our 639 respondents answered the question in a way that
we could classify. The remaining 201, representing almost one-third of the
sample, gave no answer or answered by naming their religion or nationality.
Those who responded in terms of their nationality or failed to answer the
question mainly came from Western Europe and South America, namely
These regional patterns
in our “non-responses” are not surprising given the long history of silences
about race and racism within
Suppressing the idea of ‘race’ at least in the official and formal arenas of public life, became a political imperative… the idea of ‘race’ itself became highly sensitive politically. Its very use as a descriptor is more likely to be interpreted as evidence of racist beliefs. As a result, the idea is rarely employed in everyday political and academic discussions, at least not in connection with domestic social relations.
In countries in
who identified their race did so in a variety of ways (see Appendix 1). Due to
the differences in language and racial and ethnic classification systems across
countries, categorizing these responses proved to be quite complicated.
Aspinall (2007) highlights the difficulties in creating a standard
international racial and ethnic classification system given the wide variation
in how these concepts and categories are employed across countries and local
regions. Whereas in the U.S. race and ethnicity generally refer to a unified
concept representing self-identity, in continental Europe ethnicity is
generally seen in terms of multiple dimensions, such as “citizenship, country
of birth, language, religious denomination, migrant status, and nationality”
(Aspinall 2007: 60). Terms employed in some countries have little resonance in
other countries. For example, the term “West Asian,” is common in
Our own attempt to
create a coding scheme for the responses we received to our question about
respondents’ race/ethnicity largely drew on racial and ethnic categories that
are common within the
Table 1 shows the results we obtained for respondents who identified their race or ethnicity in ways that we could categorize in terms of our racial classification scheme. We first report the percentage in each category for all respondents and then report it for all Brazilian respondents, who made up 54% of the total sample.
Table 1. Racial composition of respondents reporting their race/ethnicity
Frequency of all
% of all reporting respondents
Frequency of all
reporting Brazilian respondents
% of all reporting Brazilian
(includes pardo or mixed)
We found that whites
were overwhelmingly over-represented at the Forum. While the vast majority of
the world’s people are Asian, African, and indigenous, the majority of WSF
respondents whom reported their race was white.
The proportion of Brazilian respondents reporting their race as white
(54.8%) is close to the proportion for the total Brazilian population that
identified as white in 2000 (about 53.7%), according to the national Census
(Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica 2002). However, our figures in Table 1 probably
underestimate the share of WSF participants that was white; surveyors observed
that a large portion of the 21.9% of Brazilian respondents and 31.2% of
non-Brazilian respondents who did not answer the question or provided their
nationality also appeared to be white. Only a little over 18% of all
respondents and 22.4% of Brazilian respondents chose to identify themselves as
black or of African descent. Of note is
also the fact that only 7.5% of all respondents and 0.8% of Brazilian respondents
identified themselves as Asian. Given
the relatively high cost of travel from Asian nations to Brazil, and the
relatively small Asian diaspora in Brazil (making up less than 0.5% of the
total Brazilian population), the low proportion is somewhat expected (Instituto
Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica 2002).
Although the Forum was held in a South American country, and drew
participants mainly from
It is important to note
that, although most of the respondents themselves identify as white, those
Table 2 shows the breakdown of the racial identification of respondents reporting their race and ethnicity by world system position. In this table, we coded respondents’ answers in terms of being “white” or “non-white.” The core-periphery hierarchy is based on multiple relations of power and dependence based on unequal access to military, political, economic, and cultural resources. Core nations refer to the most powerful, wealthy, and highly industrialized nations. Economic and political elites in the core dominate and exploit resources within the periphery. Countries in the semi-periphery are more powerful and wealthier than those in the periphery, but are also exploited and dominated by elites in the core.
Table 2. World-system position breakdown by racial identification
Chi Square = 28.040 sig. = .000
As Table 2 shows, global racial stratification is reflected in the attendees at the World Social Forum. Seventy percent of those reporting their race from the core were self-identified as white, while only 51% of those from the semiperiphery and 15% of those from the periphery that reported their race were self-identified as white. The differences shown in Table 2 are statistically significant. Racial stratification, closely intertwined with the history of colonization by Europeans and European descendents, is closely associated with world system position; those who are the most racially oppressed are concentrated in the most exploited and oppressed nations.
Racialization also shaped the experience of
conducting this survey. The Korean-American and Chicana members of our research
team found themselves racialized by others and having to explain their
background to the people that they surveyed. Brazilians on the street were also
quick to identify our Korean-American researcher as a “Japones” (perhaps
because of the relatively large number of Japanese who immigrated to the
country). Whereas our white survey respondents often remained silent about
their own race, many Brazilian respondents were fascinated by our
Korean-American member’s "Asian" features (despite her western
apparel and mannerisms). In general, medium to darker-skinned Brazilian males
seemed the most likely to make this comment, although she was exposed to glares
by males and females alike. In the beginning, the research assistant attempted
to correct these individuals by informing them that she was “American,” which
is how she self-identifies. Finding it to be a futile attempt, especially with
the frequency of comments she would hear often on an hourly basis, she
basically ignored their comments and realized she was a “racialized” other in
this country. At one specific occasion, while at the opening march, a young
Brazilian boy, perhaps in his preteens, raised his fingers to his eyes and used
it to slant them while mocking her. The contradictions of solidarity stared at
her straight in the face at that precise moment. However, her experiences in
Race, Participation, and WSF Events
Although it was common for Brazilians to say
that everyone is of mixed race, it was clear that those with lighter-skin were
higher in terms of social class and status and those with darker-skin were
lower in this class/status hierarchy in the city of
The predominance of
white people at the WSF probably also contributes to the lack of attention
given to issues of racism within these meetings. Research provides evidence
that WSF workshops and panels have failed to give much attention to issues of
racism and ethnic inequality. Glasius and Timms (2006) conducted a content
analysis of 26 types of themes featured in WSF thematic events in 2003, 2004,
and 2005. They found that events involving indigenous rights and race and
ethnicity made up a small portion of all thematic events. Relevant portions of
their analysis are summarized in Table 3. As the results in this table show,
the portion of all events focusing on the rights of racial and ethnic
minorities is fairly small, particularly in the years that the WSF was held in
Table 3. Percentage of all WSF thematic events focusing on race/ethnicity vs. overall mean for all 26 types of themes
% of Events
Overall mean %
(for all 26
theme & % of
events focusing on it
(6.2%) & Human Rights
Source: Table 6.4 in Glasius and Timms (2006: 212)
Although not many WSF events focused on racism,
groups representing people of color have used these meetings to bring attention
to issues of racism and ethnocentricism. For example, Negritude--a movement for
racial equality with roots in resistance to French colonial racism--presented a
talk under "Economic, Social, Cultural and Informational Rights,"
titled "Negritude and the Bible." Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance,
including important Black figures in the
Negritude is not alone
in expressing its desire that the WSF be more inclusive. Indigenous groups
raised similar concerns at the Polycentric WSF held in
While issues of racism may not be central themes in most of the WSF events, many of the issues discussed in the panels, such as poverty or the privatization of social services, are issues of great concern to people of color who are disproportionately affected by them. In our observations of workshops at the WSF, we found that the racial dimensions of issues were not usually discussed very much however. Connections between racism and the larger political economy were made, but usually only through brief comments by one of the panelists or audience members. Occasionally, participants also expressed frustration with the content of workshops, and challenged WSF participants to think more about the ways in which issues of race, gender, and sexuality were linked to the topics at hand. As Karides (2006) suggests, the inclusion of more women-centered organizations, particularly those that are both gender and race identified, and the development of transversal themes focusing on diversity and patriarchy, has helped to overcome the white male bias within WSF events that was particularly evident in its earliest years. Even so, many WSF participants still privilege class as the main site of oppression. They thus overlook the significant ways in which gender and racial inequality operate simultaneously, and the intersections between multiple forms of oppression still remain marginalized themes within most WSF events (Karides 2006).
participants at the WSF consider themselves to be politically progressive or
left-of-center, we also found that not all participants at the WSF seem
committed to anti-racism or liberating all oppressed racial or ethnic
minorities. This was even true among participants who were racial and ethnic
minorities within their own countries. For example, at a workshop on the “right
to work,” anti-immigrant sentiments were expressed by an audience member. One
of the panelists at this workshop suggested that immigrants could play a
particularly important role in building international solidarity and
understanding among activists involved in campaigns to improve employment
opportunities for workers. A member from the audience, an African-American
activist representing unemployed workers from the
Racial Politics within
Given that most WSF participants, and most of our survey
respondents, came from
Brian Owensby (2005) and
Peter Fry (1996) both note that Brazilians arrange their social lives and
understand race as a “modo múltiplo;” a “multiple mode of color gradation.”
Some observers claim that the lack of fixed racial categories in
Images and symbols of
Instead of calling attention to government racial discrimination, many young Japanese-Brazilians felt ashamed of their Japanese identity after World War II. Many hid their knowledge of the Japanese language, applied heavy makeup to their faces, and wore glasses to hide their slanted eyes (Maeyama 1997:56, cited in Adachi 2004:61). Even today, Japanese-Brazilians confront a glass ceiling (Adachi 2004:49). Although the term “japones” literally means Japanese, it is primarily used by Brazilians as a form of racial categorization that applies liberally to all Asians (Adachi: 2004:62).
During the military governments that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985, “racial democracy” dogma was at its height. In this period, “the mere mention of race or racism was met with social sanctions, which would often result in one being labeled a racist for bringing up the issue” (Telles 2004: 41). In 1970, the national Census excluded questions about race on the grounds that it was unnecessary because racism was non-existent. Nor was this the first such omission. Before 1940, the Brazilian government failed to collect any information about race in the national Census for a period of fifty years (Telles 2004: Chapter 2).
Telles (2004) argues
that the promotion of the ideology of “racial democracy” and symbols of
multiracial harmony was a “well-engineered” strategy for preventing dissent by
racial minorities, particularly Afro-Brazilians. The illusion of “racial
Beginning in the 1950s,
scholars inside and outside
The Brazilian government
only began to officially recognize racism and adopt reforms to minimize it in
the 1990s, after the country returned to democratic rule and in response to
pressure from Afro-Brazilians. Organized blacks pursued racial justice through
law suits and the development of affirmative action programs. They used
international human rights conferences to increase pressure on the government
to adopt racial reforms. Racial reforms were also encouraged by the election of
President Lula De Silva, representing the Workers’ Party, who emphasized the
importance of racial equality and black culture. In 2002, a national program
for affirmative action was adopted. Lula also appointed black and mixed race
officials to lead national ministries for the first time in
we finish this paper, four of us have recently returned from the 2007 World
Social Forum, which was held in
An interview with Hassen
Lorgat, campaigns and communications department manager for the South African
NGO Coalition highlights the significance of holding the forum in Africa, where
the concerns of the poor blacks are difficult to ignore: "This (WSF 2007)
presents for us time to reflect and rededicate ourselves to fighting the
immense poverty that’s gripping
Still, location will
only get you so far. At the 2007 forum, the entrance fee was too expensive for
the average Kenyan, many of whom were excluded from participating until they
demanded entrance through protest. In his article, "World Social Forum:
Just Another NGO Fair?," Firoze Manji Fahamu, director of an
English/African social-justice non-profit, wrote, "the Forum was marked by
the under-representation of social activists from
The WSF's Charter of Principles identifies the Forum as an open meeting place for "groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism" (World Social Forum 2007). In so far as discussions about, and strategies to combat, the latest incarnation of global capitalism emphasize economic disparities both between and within nation states, the ways in which white supremacy, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression are linked to global capitalism are often overlooked. Such linkages must be attended to and incorporated into strategies for global justice, a perspective that is shared by various participants of the 2007 WSF meeting. For example, at the "Assembly on Labour and Globalization," an Indian trade unionist asserted that divisions of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and caste have been used and permeated into capitalist structures. He argued that discrimination was the primary factor in shaping class inequality, and that global justice activists need to recognize that this discrimination exists and relate it to economic issues. Similarly, panelists at a talk on "Women and Work" argued that the marginalization of women is overlooked in development programs, and that all development programs must take gender into consideration.
Theories about colonialism and internal colonialism, critical race perspectives, and intersectional theories of race, class, and gender, can help us better understand what Collins (1991) refers to as a “matrix of domination,” and how it maps onto global capitalism. Modern racism grew up with European capitalism/imperialism in its many manifestations (i.e., expansion through war, colonialism, and slavery). In the struggle for global justice, it is important to recognize how systems of oppression continue to overlap in their current configuration.
In the context of the WSF, it is of utmost
importance to ensure that a diversity of people and anti-racist perspectives
are represented, especially those from the most marginalized sectors of
society. The relatively large number of events found by Timms and Glassius
(2006) to focus on gender issues by 2003 was an outcome of concerted struggle
and organizing by feminist activists both within and outside of the WSF’s
International Council (Eschle and Maiguashca forthcoming). Similar kinds of
struggles for inclusion waged by anti-racist activists need to be supported.
Álvarez and Gutierrez (2006) suggest wise strategies for making the WSF more
inclusive, such as rotating the location of the WSF within the global south (a
practice that is somewhat in place already), and providing travel funds for
participants of grassroots movements (rather than well-funded NGOs) from less
affluent and underrepresented countries. In addition, we believe it is
imperative that a variety of people of color are well-represented on the panel
discussions taking place at the WSF. Including the perspectives of racially and
ethnically oppressed groups, especially those active in anti-racist struggles,
would help to build greater cross-cultural understanding among participants
about how historically-specific racisms shape the concrete practices and
consequences of imperialism and global capitalism within particular countries;
it would also draw attention to the importance of anti-racist activism for the
struggle for global justice.
Appendix: Codes for Racial/Ethnic Identities
Asian: Bengali, Amarilla,
Asian American, Asiatica, Brazilian-Japanese, Community in
Black: Afrodescendente, Afro-Carribbean, Afro-nationality, African-nationality, Black American, Desendente of Negros, Negra/o, Negra-Afro, Afro-Carribbean
Indigenous: American Indian, Cobrizo-Tallan, etnia wayuu, Guarani, Indigene, indigena, Raza Indigena, Quechua, Wayuu-Uriana
Latina/o: Chicana/ Mexicana Americana, Hispanic, Hispano, Latin, Latino Americano, Latinoamericana, Latino Descendiente, Latina/o
White: Anglo, Anglo Saxon, Aryan, Branca/o, Blanca/o, Blanqueado, Caucasian, Caucasiano, European
Branca-afrodescendente, branca-indigena, criollo, criollo-indigena, Halfafro, indio-portugues-italiano, Indio/Branco, Ibero-amerindio, Japanese-Irish, Latina Mestiza, metica, mexcla, miscigenacao de razas, Mestica/o, Mestiso, Mestizo, Morena/o, Mulata, multi-ethnic, multi-ethnico, multiracial, Latina Mestiza, parda/o, Somalian and Norweigan
or Regions: Armenian, Australian, Belgian, Brazilian (or
Brasileira/o or Brasilero), Canadian
(Canadiense or Canadense),
Human/None: A specie humane nao tene raca; Cidada do planeta terra; Humana/o, Human (I renounce this question); Soy de la raza humana!, None, Ninguna; Soy Persona; Esta pregunta esta mal formulada para mi; Dada la diversidad; humana no hay razas
Religions: Christian, Hindu, Islamico, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Judaica
Unclear answer (difficult to categorize): blanqueado, Breton, cladestino, con-de-rosa, gay, Galego, Sindhi, Tamul, trigueno claro/ethnia: vira-lata, Zranca, Polones, Amiscigenasao de pagas, Cobrizo-Tallan, Raza: Trigueno claro/ Etnia: Erdollo, Guane/Colombiul, Guarani, Laikipia Maasai, Roloreso
Notes about racial codes: When “whites” or
“blacks” identified as such in addition to their nationality, we ignored their
nationality and assigned them as “white” or “black.” If respondents only
identified with nationality, we assigned them under their nationality (e.g.
Swiss is nationality, not white). Asians were the exception. They were coded as
“Asian.” Others who fell into Asian categories
were “yellows” and “
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 In 1934, there was a government imposed immigration restriction act of 1934.
 In 1937, Vargas banned various popular organizations, including Frente Negra which supported his election.
who return to