The Contours of Color

at the World Social Forum:

Reflections on Racialized Politics, Representation,

and the Global Justice Movement

Porto Alegre WSF 2005

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 University of California, Riverside.  Her research interests include issues of representation and equality in transnational social movements, women’s autonomy and population growth, and world-systems theory. Erika J. Gutierrez is a graduate student of sociology at the University of California, Riverside.  Her research interests include U.S./Mexico border, labor, racial and gender inequality, and the politics of representation and identity. Linda Kim is a graduate student of sociology at the University of California, Riverside. She does research in the areas of inequality, political economy, and media. Her most recent co-authored publications appear in Diversity and Social Justice in College Sports: Sport Management and the Student Athlete (2007, West Virginia  University) and The Essential HBO Reader (University Press of Kentucky, 2008). Christine Petit is a graduate student of sociology at University of California, Riverside. Her research interests include inequality, social movements, and law and legal repression. Ellen Reese is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside.  She is author of Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present (2005, University of California Press) and co-author of The World Social Forums and the Challenges of Global Democracy (2007, Paradigm Publishers). She is currently writing a new book on the contemporary welfare rights movement and doing research on the 2007 World Social Forum and the 2007 US Social Forum.  Álvarez, Guttierrez, Kim, Petit, and Reese also co-authored (with Christopher Chase-Dunn and Mark Herkenrath) “North-South Contradictions and Bridges at the World Social Forum,” in North and South in the World Political Economy (Blackwell, 2008).


This essay critically reflects on our experiences and observations, as a multi-racial research team from the U.S., of the politics of race and racism at the 2005 meeting of the World Social Forum which took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The challenges of discussing issues of race, ethnicity, and racism at the WSF are considerable given (1) the over-representation of whites and the wide variety of racial and ethnic groups participating in the WSF, (2) national differences in race and ethnic relations and the discourses used to discuss such relations, and (3) the political silences about racism that pervade Brazil and many other countries. Overcoming such challenges is crucial to making the WSF and the global justice movement more inclusive of people of color, raising consciousness about racial and ethnic oppression and its role in the current global economy among political activists, building effective transnational coalitions among anti-racist groups, and envisioning a truly just and democratic world.



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 Davos, Switzerland. Since the first meeting in 2001, the WSF has quickly become the largest international gathering of activists seeking social justice. Participants are involved in a variety of social movements that are associated with the movement for global justice, including movements for workers’ rights, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, environmental protection, fair trade, socialism, and human rights. While some participants are not affiliated with any organization, many belong to labor unions, non-governmental organizations, social movement organizations, and political parties. The WSF has met most frequently in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a traditional stronghold of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, which has helped to sponsor these meetings. Although registered participants come from many nations (135 in 2005), the high cost of international travel makes it far easier for residents of the host country to attend and those residents make up most of those attending.

Our research team went to the 2005 WSF meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil to conduct a survey of participants in order to better understand their political and social characteristics and how these are related to their political goals and strategies. While it was not the main purpose of our research to examine the racial dynamics of the WSF, we found that the politics of race and racism were highly salient in terms of our observations of the WSF, our experiences in conducting our survey, and our interactions with people in and around the WSF in Porto Alegre. This essay critically reflects on our experiences and observations, as a multi-racial research team, of the politics of race and racism at the WSF.

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.” Like most U.S. sociologists, we use the term ethnicity to refer to distinct cultural groups that are often related to national origin or religion. The historical development of racial and ethnic categories allow people to make these distinctions among people and to maintain racial and ethnic hierarchies. Race and ethnicity can refer to externally imposed categories, such as official categories used by government agencies for enumerating and studying different population groups, or categories that are used by the wider society, but not necessarily accepted by the racial or ethnic group itself. Racial and ethnic categories can also refer to self-defined categories that are internally generated within the community at hand (Aspinall 2007).

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

             The 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 justice movement. Martinez (2000), for example, reported that only five percent of the participants in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington were people of color. She attributed this underrepresentation to concerns about police brutality; difficulties in actually getting to Seattle because of prohibitive travel costs, child care needs, or an inability to miss work; a lack of knowledge about the WTO made worse by the fact that blacks and Latinos are less likely to have Internet access than their white counterparts; and the fact that no people of color were spokespeople in the media coverage leading up to the protests, which set up the expectation that the protests would be overwhelmingly white. Martinez concludes her article with examples of how WTO policies do in fact have greater consequences for people of color than whites.

             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).

Responding to Martinez and others’ assertions about the overrepresentation of whites within the global justice movement, Starr (2004) offers an analysis of the mismatch that often occurs between anti-racist and anti-imperialist organizing within North America. Among her main conclusions are the following:

·        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 United States and abroad, although their struggles have often been overlooked by white U.S. activists (Smith 2007: 97-112). In fact, the global justice movement, which became visible in North America in 1999, emerged from earlier protests against the World Bank’s and International Monetary Fund’s lending policies in the Global South in the 1970s and 1980s, protests involving many people of color. The revolt of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994 was another pivotal event for the global justice movement, bringing international visibility to both opposition to neoliberal global capitalism and the assertion of indigenous rights (Smith et al. 2007; Rubin 2004). Nevertheless, problems of white privilege and exclusivity within the global justice movement are not isolated to North America, as our study of the 2005 WSF meeting in Brazil reveals.


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 U.S., it is uncommon to ask a white American about their ethnicity given that the assumption is that they are an unhyphenated American. According to Waters (1990), white people in America have the option to identify as American or by their ethnic background if they choose to so, whereas non-whites are not accorded that ability. We observed that light-skinned respondents were more likely to raise concerns about the race/ethnicity question, while those who were darker-skinned did not seem to have as much trouble identifying their race or ethnicity. This pattern is not surprising given that racial privilege often breeds a lack of racial awareness, whereas those who suffer from racial or ethnic discrimination tend to be highly conscious of their racial and ethnic identity. As Lipsitz (1998) suggests, the silence about race and racism consistently favors whites because their white privilege is not questioned, hence, it is sustained.  If there is no discussion of race, then white privilege, as well as, racial/ethnic discrimination and inequality cannot be confronted.

             We 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 Brazil. The racial self-identification question was particularly unpopular among people from South America and Western Europe. Of the 83 whom did not answer the question (or said they belonged to “no race,” or the “human race”) 48% came from Brazil, 24% came from another South American country, and 17% came from Western Europe. Of the 80 attendees who responded in terms of their nationality, 45% were Brazilian, 8% came from another South American country, and 33% were Western European.

These regional patterns in our “non-responses” are not surprising given the long history of silences about race and racism within Brazil, which we discuss more fully below, and in other countries.  Discomfort with discussing “race” is also found in Northwest Europe. There, the collective historical memory of the Jewish holocaust in Germany raised awareness about the dangers associated with racism and racial classifications. As Darder, Torres, and Miles (2004: 32) describe,

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 Northwest Europe, discussing “race,” is seen as reifying processes of exclusion and as reinforcing beliefs that racial categories and differences are objective and natural phenomena. There, inequalities among racial and ethnic minorities are acknowledged, but usually discussed in terms of inequalities among nationalities.

             Those 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 Canada, but not in the U.S. or the United Kingdom. And even commonly used terms, such as “white” or “Asian,” refer to different groups in different countries. For these reasons, Aspinall (2007: 61) warns that, “common cross-national questions on religion and ethnic/racial self-identity cannot be asked as the overarching concepts and groups or collectivities are specific to each country and not transferable.”

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 United States (see Appendix 1). It is important to note, however that, “The risks of separating terminology and context may be a perceived reification of terms and an assumed solidity or concreteness of meaning” (Aspinall 2007: 59). The categories used in this coding scheme would probably violate many respondents’ own self-identifications or have little resonance with them.

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

reporting respondents

(total sample)

% of all reporting respondents

(total sample)

Frequency of all

reporting Brazilian respondents

% of all reporting Brazilian
























2.30 %



Other non-white

(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 Brazil, only a little over 8% of all respondents and 7.7% of Brazilian respondents identified themselves as Latino. Identification as Latino is far more common outside of Latin American than within it since Latinos are more likely to be racialized as such outside of this region. Brazilians are probably less likely than other Latin Americans to identify as Latino because this term is often associated with Spanish-speaking people. About 13.2% of the total sample and 13.5% Brazilian sample identified as another non-white racial group. Among Brazilians, this mainly included those identifying as pardo, moreno, multiracial, or multi-ethnic; for the entire sample, this included those groups as well as others, such as people identifying as Arabic. Indigenous people made up only 2.3% of all respondents and only 0.8% of Brazilian respondents. Some Brazilian respondents that are mostly indigenous may have identified as “pardo” however (Telles 2006: 81). Our findings are very similar to the results of IBASE’s (2005) survey of WSF participants. IBASE only asked Brazilian respondents about their race. These surveyors found that 63.3% of those respondents identified as white, 16% as black, 15.5% as mulatto, 2.2% as indigenous, and 1.2% as Asian.

It is important to note that, although most of the respondents themselves identify as white, those outside of Latin America are likely to identify them as Latino. From the perspective of participants from outside the continent, the 2005 WSF was overwhelmingly dominated by Latin Americans, and Latin Americans are often generally perceived as disadvantaged minorities by white Europeans and North Americans. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that significant racial inequalities exist within Latin America. Our findings about the racial identities of respondents, and those of IBASE’s (2005) survey, indicate that the large majority of WSF participants are racially privileged groups within Brazil and Latin America. In part, the predominance of whites among Latin American participants is related to the location of the WSF within Porto Alegre, Brazil. Porto Alegre has a lower proportion of people of color than other Brazilian cities, while Brazil and its neighboring countries have smaller indigenous populations compared to other Latin American countries.

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.[1]

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 Porto Alegre were not new ones. They triggered memories of growing up in a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles during the late 1970s as the token “Asian” in which she was often called “china” (pronounced “chee-nah”), meaning Chinese girl, by unfamiliar boys and girls in the neighborhood, despite having two best friends who were Mexican and Honduran. Hence, her experience in Brazil paralleled her childhood experiences as a racial minority in the United States. Decades later, in the 1990s, her “Asian” features would now mark her as an “exotic” other by some non-Asian males on “white” dominated college campuses and workplaces. In Porto Alegre, as in her childhood years, it was assumed she was from Japan or China. On the other hand, today in the United States, strangers are often quick to ask her, “Where are you from?” when the answer they truly seek is “Where are your parents from?” In both scenarios, she is perceived as the “perpetual foreigner.” The Chicana member of our research team was frequently asked about her background as well. She found it hard to explain to people that she was both Mexican and American, and instead opted to tell people that she was Mexican. Our Chicana member was also frequently assumed to be Brazilian, whereas no other member of our research team was confused as such. No one questioned white members of our research team's assertions that they were from the U.S. In these cases, people were more likely to want to discuss and/or condemn U.S. policies.


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 Porto Alegre and these patterns could also be found within the WSF as well. Looking around the Forum, for example, it was not uncommon to see panels full of white/light-skinned male presenters. However, the service and cleaning crew was composed of primarily darker-skinned folks.

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 Porto Alegre. In those years, the percentage of all events that focused on these issues (1.5% in 2003 and 1.7% in 2005) made up about half the overall mean share of events for all 26 themes featured at the WSF meetings. When the WSF moved to Mumbai in 2004, meeting organizers made a concerted effort to include the Dalits in India and other racial and ethnic minorities in the program. That year, the share of events focusing on racial and ethnic minorities increased to 2.6%, but was still below the overall mean share for all 26 themes. For all three years, workshops focusing on labor rights, the solidarity economy, agriculture/food/water, the environment, war and peace, democracy and governance, and gender were noticeably more common; the share of thematic events focused on these seven other themes exceeded the overall mean share for all 26 kinds of thematic events. While attention to particular themes varies from year to year, it is striking that in both 2003 and 2005, when the meeting was held in Porto Alegre, the percentage of events focusing on issues involving the indigenous and race and ethnicity made up less than one-third of the share of events focusing on that year’s most common theme.

Table 3. Percentage of all WSF thematic events focusing on race/ethnicity vs. overall mean for all 26 types of themes


Forum Location

% of Events

focusing on


Overall mean %

(for all 26


Most common

theme & % of

events focusing on it


Porto Alegre










War and




Porto Alegre






(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 U.S., such as W.E.B Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes, it continues as a literary, philosophical, and political movement with the goal of decolonizing the African mind. Negritude also carried out a protest on the last day of the forum, demanding greater attention to issues of racism at the WSF. Two of our researchers witnessed the protest, which involved mainly Afro-Brazilians and other dark-skinned people. There appeared to be a balance of males and females as they sat in protest, blocking traffic outside the conference tents.

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 Caracas, Venezuela in 2006. According to Rosa Alvarado, an Ecuadorian indigenous leader  and one of the heads of the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), which is made up of groups from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela, "Only a limited number of indigenous people have taken part so far in the World Social Forum, and their debates have not reached the grassroots level ..." (Cevallos 2006). During the Venezuela forum indigenous activists marched in opposition to President Hugo Chávez's plans to mine coal on their land (Marquez 2006).

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).

Although most 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 United States, expressed the concern that Mexican immigrants were taking jobs away from blacks and that the recent wave of immigration from that country was increasing black unemployment. This comment stimulated a vigorous debate over the purported role of immigrants in shaping native-born workers’ employment opportunities, with some audience members urging greater solidarity among all workers against employers’ “divide and rule” tactics that bred nativism and racism.  This debate echoes Bonacich’s (1972) theory of the split labor market and the antagonism that results from different racial and ethnic groups competing for the same jobs.  Such antagonism between whites and people of color is well-documented within the United States, although it was addressed in this session of the Forum in terms of two racial minority groups pitted by global capitalism against one another.


Historical Background: Racial Politics within Brazil

Given that most WSF participants, and most of our survey respondents, came from Brazil, it is important to put our findings into the context of the history of race relations in that country. Since Portuguese colonization of the country and the importation of African slaves in the 1600s, racism against Afro-descendents, the indigenous, and Japanese-Brazilians played a central role in shaping Brazilian society. Nevertheless, denial of racism has been long-standing within it (Costa Vargas 2004).

Slavery in Brazil was brutal, leading to large numbers of slaves being overworked to death. Because European immigrants were preferred as a cheap labor source, the importation of black slaves diminished over time, especially after the abolition of slavery in 1888 (Marx 1998; Telles 2004: Chapter 2). The peak years of Japanese immigration were between 1928 and 1934. Japanese immigration to Brazil increased after the U.S. passage of the Oriental Exclusion Act in 1924. Caught in a desperate economic position, Japan negotiated responsibility for transportation costs in exchange for the opportunity to allow their people to work in Brazil (Makabe 1981).[2] Japanese-Brazilians, many of whom sought to return to Japan after making money, were treated as unwelcome aliens and they practiced self-exclusion in response (Makabe 1981). 

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 Brazil makes any discussion of race seem tangential and provides evidence of “cordial racism.” Since there was little overt segregation and discrimination, outsiders viewed Brazil as a “racial paradise.” Such discourses obscured the extent of discrimination against darker skinned Brazilians. The idea that Brazil was a “racial democracy” especially flourished between the 1930s and 1980s. Writers, scholars, and politicians pointed to the long history of race-mixing in Brazil as evidence of the lack of racism within the country. But early miscegenation was often the result of white Portuguese men raping indigenous, African, and mixed race women. Race-mixing was also encouraged by the racist ideology that claimed that the Brazilian population would improve through “whitening” (Telles 2004: Chapter 2). The idea that “whiteness” could be achieved through education or social mobility led to a further blurring of racial classifications (Davila 2003).

Images and symbols of Brazil as a “racial democracy” were actively promoted by President Vargas, who came to power in the 1930s with the support of organized blacks.[3] Vargas encouraged African cultural expressions, supported the first national Afro-Brazilian Congress in 1934, signed an anti-discrimination law in 1951, and adopted other policies outlawing racial discrimination.  Despite these reforms, 53% of blacks were illiterate in 1950 as opposed to 26% of whites. Moreover, under Vargas’ leadership, immigration of Afro-descendants was restricted in order to “whiten” the population. The Vargas regime courted native-born workers’ votes by restricting immigrant rights, making life difficult for Japanese-Brazilians. By 1937, the constitution banned the teaching of foreign languages, and in 1941, foreign language publications were banned. During World War II, some Japanese-Brazilians were forcibly moved and their property rights were severely curtailed (Adachi 2004:59-61).

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).[4]

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 democracy” in Brazil helped to decrease solidarity among blacks as did the promise of becoming “white” through miscegenation. Marx (1998) attributes the lack of racially exclusionary policies in the country to the lack of inter-white power struggles. Because of this absence, racism against blacks was not used by the government to unify competing groups of whites as occurred in the United States and South Africa.

Beginning in the 1950s, scholars inside and outside Brazil challenged the widespread denial of racism in Brazil, providing evidence of persistent racial inequalities and discrimination (Costa Vargas 2003; Telles 2004: 42-44; Maio 2001). Black protest did not emerge in the country until the 1970s however. Starting then, the black movement  emphasized the importance of black collective identity, denounced racial democracy as a myth, and pursued a class-based and race-based agenda. Nevertheless, the belief that Brazil was a “racial democracy” remained commonplace throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Telles 2004: 44).

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 Brazil’s history and created a secretariat for Promoting Policies of Racial Inclusion. The black movement has increased public awareness of racism as a national problem over the past decade (Telles 2004). Even so, as our observations above suggest, there are still many lighter-skinned Brazilians that refuse to acknowledge their racial identity, and racism towards Asians persists.



             As we finish this paper, four of us have recently returned from the 2007 World Social Forum, which was held in Nairobi, Kenya. This was the first time the WSF was held in Africa (although Bamako, Mali, was one of three sites for the 2006 polycentric WSF). Obviously, the location of the WSF is incredibly important in terms of who gets to participate and what issues are at the forefront of discussion. While blacks/Africans only comprised 18.3% of our sample that reported their race in 2005, this number will be much higher when we analyze our 2007 data.

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 Africa." He said that while not all groups attending the Forum share the same perspective, "I think we have similar hopes and (sources of) despair. Take for example the 24,000 people who die of hunger every day, globally -- and the 8,200 people who die of AIDS everyday, a large number in South Africa. If we don’t come back to these core issues, with 1.1 billion people having no clean water globally, we’ll be doing humanity an injustice" (cited in Nduru 2007). The website for the 2006 Bamako forum also discussed the significance of holding the WSF in Africa: "the Forum of Bamako 2006 will stand as the first opportunity given to African progressive forces to set up their fights and their alternatives in a global seeking of the construction of a fair world ..." (World Social Forum 2006).

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 Africa – or indeed from the global south," while those from the "white North" were over-represented (Manji 2007). And, as Manji (2007) points out, this is a huge factor in shaping what and how things get discussed.

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 India, Dalit, Indian-Dravidian, Japanese, Chinese, Chinese/Taiwanese, Filipino, Hindu, Indian (or Indio), Korean, Yellow Korean, Vietnamese, sou derundente de japonera


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


Other Non-white: African-American/Native America, Arab (or Arabic),

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


Nationalities or Regions: Armenian, Australian, Belgian, Brazilian (or Brasileira/o  or Brasilero), Canadian (Canadiense or Canadense), Chilena, China (or Chinese). English, French (or Southern French or Francia), German (or Alemao), Greek, Hindu, Holland (or Dutch), Italian (or Italiana/o; descendente de itilianos), Irish, Kenyan, Mexican, Norwegian, Nordeuropea, Paraguoya, Portugues, Russian. Quebec, Somalia, Spanish (or Espanhola), Swedish (or Sweden), Swiss, Swiss/Austrian, Timonese, Uruguay, Meditarranean


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


Don’t know


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 “amarillo,” Dalit, Dravidian, and Bengali. Brazilians were assigned under nationality, not Latina/o. For respondents who identified as “black” and “white,” we assigned them as mixed. For respondents who identified as Native Americans, Indigena, Quechua, they were assigned “indigenous.” Some Brazilians identified as pardo may be mostly indigenous in origin however (Telles 2006: 81).




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[1] Table 2 is reproduced from Table 5 in Chase-Dunn, Ellen Reese, Mark Herkenrath, Rebecca Alvarez, Erika Gutierrez, Linda Kim, and Christine Petit Forthcoming. Details regarding how we categorized countries in terms of their world system position are provided in the appendix for that chapter.

[2] In 1934, there was a government imposed immigration restriction act of 1934.

[3] In 1937, Vargas banned various popular organizations, including Frente Negra which supported his election.

[4] Japanese-Brazilians who return to Japan are often regarded as foreigners, not Japanese.