Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

Racial classification and terminology in Brazil


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In Brazil, there five racial classifications on the official census: pardo, loosely meaning brown or mixed race, preto (black), branco (white), amarelo (Asian) and indio (Indian/Native). The term pardo can have several meanings including brown, mulatto, mestizo, or any combination of mixed race. The term includes a wide variety of phenotypes and any combination of racial admixture. Activists of the Movimento Negro (black Brazilian civil rights organizations) have long argued that the terms preto and pardo should be combined and recognized as Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian population. This argument is based upon numerous socioeconomic studies and quality of life statistics that show that the profiles of pretos and pardos are nearly identical while these same stats show that Brazil’s white (branco) population is much better off than those identified as preto or pardo.
The pardo classification can get to be quite complicated. There are those who argue that not all of Brazil’s pardos are black. For example, a person of a mixed European/Indian background with no or negligible amounts of African ancestry would not be seen as black. There are also people, who recognize that their skin color, features and racial background would classify them as pardos but that identify themselves as black or negra/negro. These types of persons may also define themselves as branca or white. There are two terms which mean black in Brazil: preto and negro. Activists of the Movimento Negro have distinguished the two in this way: preto is generally a generic term that refers to the actual color, as found in photos or documentaries for example. In this case, the terms preto and branco refer to the actual colors in the color spectrum. The term negro or negra, on the other hand, refers to one’s ethnic identity or a term signifying persons who accept that their ancestry is mostly or partially African. The term preta is still used on the Brazilian census and citizens still use the term. In general, a person defined as preta/preto is a person that either has very dark brown skin, very tightly curled hair and other facial features that are stereotypically associated with persons of West Africa. When discussing persons of African descent, the difference between a preto and a pardo is not always clear. For some, if a person’s skin is not “jet black” although their physical appearance clearly denotes African ancestry, this person can also be classified as pardo/parda (an African descendant of the color parda).
Other popular terms denoting race or color in Brazil include morena/moreno and mulata/mulato. Today, the term moreno is clearly the most popular although this term does not appear on Brazilian census forms. A moreno can have almost any physical appearance with the exception of extremely pale persons of mostly European descent or appearance and persons with blond or red hair. A morena can be a white person with a tan and/or dark hair. A morena can be a person of any combination of mixed race who is difficult to define as simply black, white or Indian. A morena can be a person of obvious African ancestry (light or dark skin, straight, curly, wavy or kinky hair) who prefers not to referred to as black (preto/a or negro/a). There has long been a debate in Brazil about removing the terms preta and parda from the census and including only the term negra. But many argue that this could push some persons of mixed ancestry to choose the term branca (white). In reality, many persons who define themselves as branca in the Brazilian census would not be accepted as white in European countries or the United States. The addition of the term morena to the Brazilian census has also been considered. The problem in this case would is that this could also give a confusing portrayal of the country’s racial reality as both persons of primarily European ancestry and appearance (tanned or with dark hair) could use this term as could persons of mostly or partial African ancestry and any other combination of racial admixture.
In studies of racial terminology in Brazil, many scholars have made reference to the 1976 census in which 136 different terms were emplyed by Brazilians when asked to describe their race or color. Even scholar Henry Louis Gates made reference to this report in the Brazilian portion of his 2011 PBS documentary Black in Latin America. Although it sounds confusing, in reality, there are not 136 different races in Brazil and when one analyzes these terms, racial terminology is not as complex as it appears. Although it is true that people used more than 100 color or racial terms, when you add up the variations of certain popular terms and group them together, this number drops drastically. For example, many people used derivatives or versions of the same words. For example, branca became branquinha (meaning a ‘little white’). Morena became morena-clara (‘light morena’), morena-escura (‘dark morena’) or moreninha (‘little morena’) and so on while the term preto/a morphed into pretinha (‘little black girl’), and negro/a became negrinha (‘little black girl’), neguinho (‘little black’), negão (‘big black man’) etc. All told, when all of the root terms were combined with the derivative terms, in reality, 97% of all of the responses used only 7 terms and the 10 most commonly used terms made up 99% of all responses.
In 2010, the Brazilian census reported that the combination of percentages of persons defining themselves as either preta or parda surpassed the total of those identifying themselves as branca for the first time since the 1890 census. Here are the percentages for each category according to the 2010 census:

Brancos   – 47,3%
Pardos     –  43,1%
Pretos      –   7,6%
Amarelos –   2,1%
Indígenas –   0,3%

As with anything pertaining to race in Brazil, this data can be interpreted in numerous ways. Taken as individual groups, one could say that brancos (47.3%) are still the majority in Brazil. If one considers the criteria of the Movimento Negro and combines the totals of pardos (43.1%) and pretos (7.6%), one could say that these two groups of color make up 50.7% of Brazil’s population and thus represent a slight majority. If we include the numbers of people identifying themselves as amarelo (literally, yellow, or Asian descent) and Indígenas (indigenous, Indian or Native), the majority status is even larger at 53.1%. All in all, these numbers are only relative. The Brazilian census is dependant upon self-identification meaning that people define their color themselves which has led to even more debate about the country’s racial breakdown. In various studies, research has shown that the way Brazilians classify themselves often times doesn’t match up with the opinion of the person recording the data. A person may see him or herself as a pardo or parda, but the person recording the response may see the person as preto or preta. Similarly, a person saying that they are branca could be a parda in the opinion of the person recording the data. And so on and so on….
One good example of this would be the actress Camila Pitanga (in photo). Pitanga is a light-skinned actress who defines herself as negra. The Movimento Negro also defines Pitanga as negra. But due negative connotations associated with blackness in Brazil, Pitanga is often classified in the press as a morena and reports being constantly asked why she insists on defining herself as negra.
Since the 2000 census, the numbers of people defining themselves as pardos in 2010 increased from 38.4% to 43.1% in 2010. In this 10-year period, people defining themselves as pretos also increased from 6.2% to 7.6%, while those defining themselves as brancos decreased from 53.7% to 47.3%. So what is the reason for this slight change in group classification percentages? There are simply too many factors to consider in order to come to a conclusive response.
1)       The increase in pretos and pardos could be due to an ongoing self-esteem and black identity campaign by the Movimento Negro that encourages people to assume African ancestry, which for many years was a source of shame for persons who could not pass for branca. This could have the affect of having people who formerly defined themselves as branca, re-define themselves as parda or even preta, as well as people formerly defining themselves as pardas re-classifying themselves as pretas.
2)      Interracial marriage and relationships make up a signficant proportion of Brazilian unions. It is possible that more children of these unions are being classified as parda or preta by their parents. Throughout the history of Brazil, millions of parents have wished for their children to have a more European physical appearance and often times these parents will define their children in categories denoting a lighter skin color. This author can attest to many very dark-skinned Brazilians being classified as pardas on their birth certificates for example.
3)      Although whiteness continues to be the most valued racial classification in Brazil, some people who have thought of themselves as white may not see themselves as so white when they compare themselves to the whiteness of actors on Brazilian television or the globalized images of whiteness coming from the United States or Europe.
There are many other possible factors and considering all of these factors, there may never be a precise measure of the racial composition of Brazil. But it remains a spirited discussion that continues to provoke many heated debates and opinions.


Source: Black Women of Brazil

6 comments on “Racial classification and terminology in Brazil

  1. MINASEK
    March 31, 2012

    KEEP ON YOUR GOOD WORK MOVIMENTO NEGRO. GOD BLESS.

  2. Pingback: Research shows that the way Brazilians see the color of celebrities reveals “racial” criteria in Brazil | Black Women of Brazil

  3. Valarie
    June 9, 2014

    Many thanks for sharing with us, I think this website really stands out.

  4. nisha
    January 4, 2015

    Very nice article good job!

  5. Ljs
    August 17, 2016

    Good article I have one statement to people here, dont believe in Brazilian Census, I was the one who have dark/medium skin and I am afro descendant with my father and mother being black as well, when I went off to take my new ID card the person asked what “race” am I, of course i answered “I am black” but the shitheaded woman said “But black people are too dark, are the only ones very, very darkskinned, I cannot classify you as being black” I will classify you as being ‘Pardo”, I said no way, I got up from the chair and left off the enviroment, very upset asking myself , I dont feel pride of being brazilian, I wish I was born in another place

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