Note from BW of Brazil: The topic of this post is a subject that has been debated in Brazil nearly as passionately as the question of quotas and affirmative action policies. Here’s the background. For many years, millions of afrodescendentes (African descendants) in Brazil have avoided defining themselves as “negros”, which is the term adopted by the Movimento Negro Unificado, a collective of black-oriented racial equality organizations, to unite all Brazilians of visible African ancestry under one term. The term is not actually on the Brazilian census as preto (black), pardo (brown), branco (white), indio (Indian/indigenous) and amarelo (yellow or Asian) are the only five terms listed. According to the last census, pretos/blacks made up only 7% of the population while pardos/browns made up more than 43%. Combined, the two groups make up more than 100 million of Brazil’s 200 million citizens.
Movimento Negro activists have long pointed out that that persons defining themselves as pretos or pardos are, for all intents and purposes, treated the same way if measured according to socioeconomic statistics in comparison to those who define themselves as brancos or amarelos. Many Brazilian social scientists and historians have also shared opinions and provided documentation that show that in Brazil, regardless of how persons define themselves, pardos (or mulatos) are a part of the black population. In their view, pretos are simply darker than pardos. On the other hand, others argue that pardos and pretos are completely different groups in Brazil although the overwhelming majority are of African ancestry.
In the decade of the 1990s, a very popular t-shirt was seen in the streets of Brazil which proclaimed that the person wearing the shirt was “100% negro”. Although one could argue that, with Brazil’s long history of racial mixing, no Brazilian of African descent is in fact 100% black, the t-shirt was worn as a means of persons assuming a black identity regardless of whether their phenotypes denoted primarily African ancestry or a more racially mixed background. It was, in a way, black Brazil’s own way of saying “I’m black and I’m proud”, as the famous anthem of African-American Soul singer James Brown proclaimed in the late1960s. The popularity of the “100% Negro” t-shirt also sparked a reaction by white Brazilians, some of whom were offended by the shirt and some of whom deemed it racist and in turn asked what would happen if they were to wear t-shirts proclaiming themselves “100% branco” or 100% white.*
The debate has raged on in social networks such as Orkut and Facebook as well as through thousands of online comments in much the same way as the US debate of American whites asking why they cannot use the controversial “nigga/nigger” word when so many black Americans in general and specifically black American rappers use the term so freely. The similarity is that white Brazilians, Americans and whites on a global scale don’t seem to recognize the fact that they continue to speak from a position of privilege where their humanity has never been questioned, made invisible or negatively stereotyped when the issue is of a racial nature.
To have an idea of the comments and questions being asked on this topic, here are a few random questions and comments (of literally thousands) posted online over the past seven years or so that can still be found online. The comments have all been translated into English from the original Portuguese with the original comments included at the bottom of this article.
100% negro t-shirt “versus” 100% branco? (December 27, 2007)
I would like judicial support for this fact…why if a black man wears a t-shirt with 100% negro written on it, it’s commendable…and if a white man wears a 100% branco (white) (t-shirt) it’s racism? I’m not prejudiced…But I have pride of my color (branco) and I feel offended when I see a t-shirt like this…or I hear someone call me lemão (Alemão or German)…Why can I not even call someone negão? I cut my hair off and I’m called skinhead…if I wear my hair long I am called playboy…I am labeled as much as negros…why am I treated in a different way? I don’t discriminate against anyone….I am a good person and good citizen…but why does the law treat me in a common way? I also want to have quotas in college…I also want to sue for prejudice.
‘Why is it that the ‘100% negro’ t-shirt is accepted, while the ‘100% branco’ is considered racism?’
If someone wears a t-shirt with the inscription ‘100% branco’, it is certain they will be sued? (August 10, 2007)
A negro can wear a t-shirt with ‘100% negro’ written on it and a branco can’t wear a t-shirt with ‘100% branco’ written on it? (July 27, 2006)
This is a form of prejudice that we see in the streets and in every place even here on the internet and an absurdity to make one aware in respect to prejudice that should be banned from human being and from the planet….
Why does the society think it’s “beautiful” for a black to wear a t-shirt with the words “100 black” and (what) if a white wears a ‘100% white’? (March 29, 2008)
I am white. I am not racist. Why is it that if I as a white man wears a ‘100% white’ t-shirt, ‘branco with much pride’, it’s racism? They speak so much of racial segregation…equal rights. There above I cited “os negros (the blacks)” as pretos (blacks), some people can even think it’s “racism” but tell me one thing…what is the contrary of branco??? PRETO. So if we are called whites…I think that it’s too much to call beings of the darkest color pretos. And another thing to be brought up…persons that are morenas…they say be negras…People for the love of god and our ancestors….the Indians??? Where are they?????? I thank you if you respond.
Note from BW of Brazil: In the piece below, blogger Mayara Nicolau breaks it down for those who still don’t understand why “100% Negro” and “100% Branco” are not equal, are not the same thing and do not have the same context.
100% black and the supposed reverse racism – or let me try to explain it to you (original title: 100% negro e o suposto racismo ao contrário – ou deixa eu tentar te explicar)
by Mayara Nicolau
After attending endless conversations, debates, almost fights on this topic, I came to some conclusions. After all, for the least that I agree, the opinions of others should not be totally ignored. And it was thinking of those opinions that this text came about.
Do you know why I can wear a 100% Negro t-shirt and you can’t wear a 100% Branco (white) t-shirt? Because this statement is not about you! You that are proud of being 100% Branco need not assume this in front of society, because it is 100% Branco and straight. When I use the 100% (shirt), I’m giving a face to this society that beats me, and when I say beat it is not figuratively. We’ve heard countless cases of blacks who are snatched up and suffer other types of street violence simply for being there and being black and poor and beggars.
The 100% Negro should not bother you at all, since in your view, this kind of prejudice doesn’t exist in the world. Blacks and whites are treated exactly the same way in all places and by all people. So, since it is so, why would you wear a 100% Branco shirt? Aren’t we all equal? Don’t you want to affirm this? Because I wish to say that I’m 100% Negra and I will not straighten my hair, I will no longer flat iron my hair only for special occasions (because, right…hair for a fancy party has to be straight, only that it’s not). I’m saying I’m 100% Negra because I will no longer try one thousand and one tricks to narrow my nose with makeup and I will not stop using red lipstick because I think my lips are too thick for that. I will no longer be afraid to go into chic shops and being evaluated by sales people.
In case any of them resolves to make me crazy and ask me, by chance, to open my purse and search my stuff (yes, this happened in São Paulo this month with two black women who went through this embarrassment without having stolen ANYTHING) , I’ll scream until the police arrive. If I hear any kind of joke or comment that I deem evil I’m going to scream again. Because this is not normal, it’s not a joke, it’s no exaggeration on my part. The one exaggerating is you who wants to wear a 100% Branco shirt while you’re there living your life and no one has ever found your blue eyes ugly, compared your straight hair smooth to Bombril (1), looked at your fine European features and judged you as ugly simply for being so and not being similar to the standard without even knowing what you’re thinking is ugly…
Your argument that 100% Negro is racism to the contrary shows your lack of empathy for others and confirms your position of privilege or superiority, since it must be much more difficult to recognize a bias and differentiate it from a bad joke when you have never experienced it. From the top of your whiteness, you can’t see who is underneath, trying and exhausting much effort to climb up. From this place that you are it must be very difficult to wonder why we have so few black political representatives, black actors in Brazilian novelas (soap operas) and films, margarine advertisements etc…
When you were born on top, it’s easy to be against the quotas, against the rights of maids, against gay marriage, against the Maria da Penha Law (2) (because, right… where is the law that protects the man?). Do you know why it’s easy? Because there at the top everything is easier…go to college, get a job (without having to straighten your hair), be represented politically and artistically (without people doing blackface on the runways).
The only thing that seems difficult in this position is to acknowledge that only you are there, all the rest: women, fat, black, gay and transgender etc…are having to waste time and energy; not because they want privileges, all they want is to get there and STAND there at your side! They want things like: be able to marry someone I understand well, that’s not too much, right? You always can marry the woman that you would understand well, she would only be white and submissive (sexist) because this is, supposedly, your taste, it wouldn’t be because you have an enormous racial prejudice that takes account of your way of seeing the world.
Anyway, that’s why I can wear a 100% Negra t-shirt without being misinterpreted and without any weight making an apology for racism. I’m not directing myself at you, I’m just affirming positions that it took me years and years to take. I’m just celebrating the black men and black women that with a lot of struggle get close to where you, 100% Branco, was already born. Get it? It’s only because of this and a lot more things that I must have forgotten to mention that I and black men and black women in Brazil, not only can we, how we should and need to wear that t-shirt, this hair, this religion and all that marks our origin. I need to be proud of being black, because pride is the opposite of shame…a thing that you probably never felt because of the simple fact of being born with that skin there, 100% Branca.
Now as a final exercise: try to imagine a situation in which you would feel ashamed or embarrassed only because of being white, without taking anything else into account, only the color of your skin…
Source: Blogueiras Negras
* – Interestingly, in a recent controversy in which a young white man proclaimed himself to be an afrodescendente in order to take advantage of the system of affirmative action, the applicant posted a photo of a “100% Negro” t-shirt on his Facebook wall.
1. Bombril is a steel wool scouring pad used to clean dishes and other things in Brazil. For many years the natural hair of black women has been pejoratively compared to this cleaning products. See examples and references to the bombril here.
2. Brazil’s Federal Law 11340, also called Lei Maria da Penha (Maria da Penha Law) was put in place with the intent of reducing domestic violence. It was sanctioned on August 7, 2006 by the President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2006-2010). Among the changes initiated by the law was an increase in punishment for those who practice domestic violence towards women. The law was put into practice on September 22, 2006; the first offender was arrested in Rio de Janeiro the next day, after trying to strangle his ex-wife. The name of the law is a tribute to Maria da Penha Maia, a woman whose ex-husband attempted to murder her twice, causing her to become paraplegic. Today she is a notable figure in the movement for women’s rights in Brazil. Source
Note from BW of Brazil: Below are the original questions and comments taken from the internet and previously translated above in this article.