Over the years I have been working on this book, some of the cir-
cumstances that prompted its writing have shifted. There is now not quite
such a dearth of transnational history or work on U.S. empire, for example.
Yet other pieces of its prompting conditions remain intractably in place.
One of the most recalcitrant is the comparative mindset people bring to
the contemplation of race in the United States and Brazil. Even when I
feel I have cleanly explained my objections to comparing race in national
contexts, some of my interlocutors, academic and non-academic alike,
will have failed to hear them. It is as if comparison were so essential to
long-distance contemplation that no other lens were possible. Isn’t it true,
people offer, that U.S. and Brazilian racial systems are really different?
Isn’t Brazil a much more racially mixed society than the United States?
In terms of racism, isn’t Brazil/the United States better/worse? I wish my
work would shift the frame of analysis so that such questions become not
just unanswerable, but also unaskable.
My objections to these questions can be briefly and simply put.1 Com-
parisons require generalizations about U.S. and Brazilian national racial
identities that cannot be right because they cannot be national, for truly,
nothing is. No single social trait characterizes a whole nation and nothing
but the nation, and no single ideological framework pertains evenly across
an entire national space. Most of these comparisons also biologize race by
implying that mixture occurred in one of the two nations earlier or later
than the other, measuring against an ostensible purity or positing a mo-
ment of purity at some previous point.2 Notions of national racial ideolo-
gies of the United States and Brazil get nation wrong and race wrong, and