The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent
“The mixture of race is facilitated by the prevalence of the superior element. Therefore, sooner or later, it will eliminate the black race here. Obviously, this is beginning to occur.” – Cited from an 1899 article by José Veríssimo, writer, educator, journalist, literary critic, and founding member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
“The main ideal is the disappearance of the black question by the disappearance of the black himself, gradually absorbed by the white race.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 1917, during a trip to the state of Mato Grosso
Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s piece is a common topic here on the blog and brings to mind numerous conversations I’ve had with Afro-Brazilians over the years. In open dialogue, normally with men, I often venture into the topic of their children. I know a number of black men married to white women and their children, as can be expected, run the gamut of phenotypes. Some are light-skinned or light-brown with features that denote African ancestry. Some have curly hair, some wavy, and some completely straight. During these conversations, we often discuss the topic of race and their ideas of how race and racism works in Brazil. Many of the men I talk to insist on defining their children as “negros” (blacks) regardless of their racial mixture. These conversations often lead me to talking about the ideology and promotion of the ideology of embranquecimento, or whitening, that Brazilian elites initiated back in the 19th century as abolition of slavery came ever so much closer and they had to deal with the issues of having a huge population of pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns), that together are defined as representatives of black population. The goal of embranquecimento is the slowly evolve toward the disappearance of the black race through the process of intermarriage/interracial relationships.
The 1895 painting known as “A Redenção de Cam”, or the redemption of Ham, is a perfect representation of this ideology, but surprisingly, I have never met an Afro-Brazilian that has even heard of the painting. The painting has been featured on this blog a number of times and represents the thankful black grandmother raising her hands in thanks for her mulata daughter having a white child and removing the dreaded “black stain” from her family. I remember telling one friend, “Jair”, about the painting. Jair, who is probably the same skin color of actors Denzel Washington and Flávio Bauraqui , is also married to a white woman. When I told Jair about elite plan to make the black population disappear, he didn’t believe it. When I showed him the painting he replied that this is not what the painting meant. It was only when I showed him a few articles on the internet including the Wikipedia page about “A Redenção de Cam” and the process of embranquecimento that Jair collapsed his head into his hands as the reality set in. Another friend, “Alexandre”, who has dreadlocks, a skin color equal to Reggae legend Bob Marley amd clear African features, showed me his completely white children. Alexandre explained his near shock with the whiteness of his children. “I’m a black man and I thought for sure my kids would come out at least a little black,” he revealed. Alexandre had also never heard of the painting.
The reasons that brought the couples together are varied. In the case of Jair, he remembers that it was his wife that pursued him in the beginning. Jair works in Finances and has a Master’s Degree. He also remembers that the majority of his girlfriends in his life had been white. Jair’s brother, “Amilton”, ended up marrying a light-skinned black woman, but this happened only after his relationship with a white woman hadn’t worked out. In Alexandre’s case, he remembers his appreciation for arts and education broadening his horizons in life. Like many other black men, he grew up poor, listening to Samba before discovering the sounds of American Soul that he absolutely adored. Education and introductions to other sorts of people outside of his poor, largely black neighborhood, brought him into contact with Rock music as well as recreational drug use. By contrast, his white wife LOVED the Samba and “casas de Samba” (clubs with Samba bands) that Alexandre had long abandoned.
Although Alexandre affirmed his relationship was a result of his change in taste and things he and his wife had in common, Jair’s comments and the faces he would make during one of our dialogues gave me the impression that his wife was more interested in he than vice versa. Between the lines, Jair seemed to hint that he wouldn’t have chosen his wife given a second choice, but when pregnancy with the couple’s first child came, he was basically locked in. Though it is not clear how ideals of white supremacy and white standards of beauty possibly having an underlying influence on their choices, in other cases the evidence is there. For example, I also recall a conversation with a 18-year old, light-skinned mulato with green eyes, Douglas. Douglas and I would discuss all sorts of topics whenever we met. One day when I asked Douglas what type of girls he liked he responded, “Oh, I like the branquinhas (white girls),” as he showed me a photo of his current girlfriend. As the conversation continued, I asked him why he preferred white girls. After having so much to say during this particular conversation, Doug’s face froze and he remained silent for at least five seconds. After thinking for a few moments, he admitted that he didn’t know why he preferred branquinhas.
No one can deny that people DO fall in love with whoever they fall in love with, but if we debate this honestly, we also must conclude that there are any number of reasons and factors that influence these choices as well. In Brazil, the standard of beauty is and has always been whiteness: naturally straight hair, light-colored eyes and fair skin. In any dialogue with Brazilians, black (including mixed), white, male or female, it is relatively common to hear in commentaries how a premium is placed on proximity to whiteness. Numerous studies also confirm this. Consider Elizabeth Hordge Freeman’s fieldwork in Salvador, Bahia, entitled “Home is Where the Hurt Is: Racial Socialization, Stigma, and Well Being in Afro-Brazilian Families”. Freeman’s work unveiled numerous instances of a desire for whiteness within Afro-Brazilian families. Here we present a section from the study.
“Aw, yes! In a family, people are happy to have children. They have the dark one first …but when the white one comes everything changes! The white one is treated really well and the dark one is forgotten. The black one is punished because it is said to have the “face of a slave”… (Ana, college student) – With a hushed voice, Ana a dark-skinned woman, who identifies as negra, whispered this statement to me in an interview about the relationship between race, color, and socialization in Afro-Brazilian families.
For Regane (self-classified as morena and hesitantly as negra), a precocious 9-year old girl, hearing her mother’s dreams of having a white baby with straight hair leads to a series of behavioral changes. Regane begins to neglect her hygiene, refusing to comb or wash her hair at all. Her mother punishes her by roughly combing her hair outside on the porch while loudly exclaiming, “I hope the baby’s hair isn’t like this!” For Regane who is already teased by neighborhood kids for having nappy hair, she is deeply embarrassed. Regane’s mother’s constant comments about the hair of the white women who appear on television makes Regane even more self-conscious about her hair and this exacerbates her negative feelings. Regane’s interview clarifies that her concerns are rooted in a specific issue:
Elizabeth: “What happened yesterday? How does it feel to have a sister?
Regane: (pause, looks down) … “I ran in the house and cried all day.”
Elizabeth: Why did you cry?
Regane: Because I am afraid of losing the love of my parents. (whimpers)
Elizabeth: Why do you think this will happen?
Regane: (looks at me incredulously) Because of the baby! You saw her didn’t you?! She was born limpinha [clean] and with straight hair. I’m afraid they will love her more … her hair won’t give them as much trouble… Everybody is saying it. She will get everything and I’ll have nothing.” (She then covers her face with her hands and sobs)
Even as a young girl, Regane understands the value of racialized features and how readings of her skin color and hair texture may lead to differential affective treatment in her family. Her reference to the baby’s light skin as “limpinha,” or clean illustrates that she has also internalized the conflation of whiteness with cleanliness. Her fears that she will be compared to the baby are substantiated when she hears her mother agree with a family friend that, “at least the baby’s hair didn’t turn out like hers.”
Note from BW of Brazil: The allegiance to a belief in the superiority of a European physical appearance is quite clear in the above comments, right down to the description of a light-skinned/white/whiter child being described as “clean”. Aside from love, one must ponder how these ideals subconsciously play a role in the thoughts of black Brazilians. Analyzing some of the search terms that people use to find material on this blog, regular search terms include phrases in reference to Brazil’s top futebol star such as “Neymar’s son”, “why is Neymar’s son white?”, “why does Neymar’s son have blond hair?” or “Is Neymar’s son adopted?” The star’s son is very fair-skinned indeed and in a world that continues to be divided into white and non-white, people outside of Brazil’s borders have a clear fascination with what appears to be Neymar’s contribution to the whitening process. Did the star choose his son’s mother based on her whiteness or the possibility of whitening his offspring? Only Neymar knows for sure but, as in Doug’s case, is it also possible that even he didn’t realize the possible root of his choice?
What we can say is that it is very common to see this whitening process in the offspring of both famous and everyday Brazilians, even if their children don’t necessarily look absolutely white. Freeman’s work provides undeniable evidence of the silent hegemony of white supremacy in black Brazilian families, but my objective was to come across a black Brazilian who had previous knowledge of the process of embranquecimento as well as the “A Redenção de Cam” painting and how this ideology figured into relationships, choices and Brazil’s objective of a whiter future. The author of the piece below, Suzane Jardim, a light-skinned black woman of mixed race is familiar with both and also gave birth to a white child. Jardim’s piece doesn’t delve into her selection of her child’s father and the factors that may have influenced her choice, but her reflections are very revealing, in particular her mother’s perspective of having a white grandchild.
We don’t bring redemption in our bellies: Maternity and Whitening
by Suzane Jardim
Originally posted in Blogueiras Negras
Some time ago, Aline Djokic graced us with the text A Mulher negra, o cristianismo e o mito da redenção (The black woman, Christianity and the myth of redemption) where she vehemently denied the label of redemptive of the black race, cursed by Christian tradition – inferior by scientific tradition, for giving birth to a son with a predominantly white phenotype.
I became a mother less than a month after completing my 18 years in 2009, far from the golden age of eugenics theories, of the covert policies of embranquecimento (whitening) based on fully accepted scientific racism and still a longer time from when an Biblical interpretation could be used as clear and irrefutable justification to enslave and make us blacks inferior. Even so, it is painful to note day after day mental marks that these constructions left until today.
My son is white – no one doubts this at first sight.
He will not have to grow up doubting his identity as his mother did. He will not discover that he is black only in adulthood when he leaves the periphery/public school cycle and notices that he doesn’t look like the people around him. He will never be called a macaco (monkey) on the street as what happened to his mother. No one will ever not have a relationship with him because of his color as what has happened with his grandmother and his aunt. He didn’t inherit my color, my nose and my cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair). He looks like someone totally distant from his maternal grandmother and great aunts as much as well as their features.
During nearly six years of motherhood, I noticed a constant phenomenon that always hurt me very much, it killed me little by little but I still raised my head and kept on. The lack of my features and my mother’s features in my son only causes estrangement to white people who are surprised and discredit that a kid with that a boy with that hair, nose and skin could be my son or, what causes even more surprise, the my mother’s grandson, however it was never an estrangement factor within my family, instead of this, a factor of pride born, a reason to celebrate.
My mother, negra de pele escura (a dark-skinned black woman) and that had all her daughters with a white European, from the first birthday of my son has been proud to present him to family and friends. She always takes from the corner where I am to show off the boy to people, including black people like her, using the phrase “look, they’re dying of envy, my grandson is white with straight hair!” followed by broad smiles and euphoric laughter. It has become a tradition, a registered trademark. The same comment for 6 long years, the same smiles of contemplation, the same reproduction of a veiled racist joke, the same impotence on my part to take a stand and respond at the moment with “And what if he wasn’t? What would be the problem?!”
In these six years, I’ve had to deal with my mother putting my son upon a pedestal I’ve never been on and they never put me on as a child. I saw her run her fingers through his straight hair give thanks, exalting its beauty in endless ways and manners. I saw her give an argument so that white people lose their fear of speaking their opinions at hearing such exaltation and come commenting with a smile about my “luck”, about how I “hot the mark”, about how my son “took after the good blood”. During those six years I wish I had the strength to sit and talk to my mother. Ask her if she does not realize that her daughters are not what her grandson is and that placing the lack of similarity he has with her as an advantage and reason for celebration is to reduce all that I am and she is too. Each time it happens, I seek the strength not to lose my mind and not aggressively question what treatment that my son would receive if he were black with cabelo crespo like his mother or grandmother – Would he then have taken after “bad blood”? Would I have “erred” and had “bad luck”?
I can see my mother playing the role of humble grandmother who raises her hands to heaven in gratitude for the gift of having a grandson seen as white in A Redenção de Cam (Redemption of Ham) painting by Modesto Bronco. I see my whole family embedded in this framework, the same picture that was presented at the First International Congress of Races in 1911 in London, a eugenics congress whose resolution of João Batista Lacerda, doctor and scientist supporter of the ideal of embranquecimento summarized racism, deletion, genocide, the end of the self-esteem that that whole ideology preached – “the mestiço (mixed race) Brasil of today has in embranquecimento within a century its perspective, escape and solution.”
Mulheres negras mestiças (mixed-race black women), like me, should relate to and give white grandchildren to black Brazilian women so as to give the country what it needed to get out of stagnation, to reach modernity and develop or, in other words, to bring the Brazilian people the closest possible to the European standard seen as genetically superior. This was an old elite project, a discussion that surrounded the academies and major centers of learning, but that had as its greatest partners and collaborators families that the painting in the Congress (of Races) presented – a people, black women from poor backgrounds, black men and women of the periphery.
Curiously, all my mother’s sisters and brothers ended up marrying white men and women and their children, negros e negras de pele clara (light-skinned black men and women) like mine but that will never be seen as white mostly followed the compulsory order of things as the theory wanted it to be.
This text is not intended to be an ode to Afro-centered love, because I don’t believe in putting the blame of the racist system on women and men that don’t relate exclusively to black people is a solution. Just as I don’t think black women’s have the mission or obligation the task of generating and creating empowered black children – maternity has to be choice and never an imposition. Not every black woman relates to men and not all black women want to be mothers. All love me or action that imposes itself on me is also at the same time disposable.
The point is the fact that many whites have come to me trying to point to my family as the ultimate example of the fallacy of the racist blacks, blacks who hate blacks more than any white, blacks who do not want their daughters dating blacks, that make fun of themselves, that diminish themselves and reproduce discourses of inferiority in their comments. They commit such violence without understanding the blame there is in this whole reproduction of racism, this blame that comes from years, from centuries of oppression and inferiorization, centuries and centuries where the plans of the white elite have appropriated all our spaces of struggle, our public spaces, our mental concepts and managed to make a black child not recognize himself as being worthy of celebrations and compliments, growing up and not wanting their children and grandchildren to experience the same pain and the same infringement in any field.
At the same time that I imagine what my son would suffer if he were black, I can well imagine what each of my aunts and uncles and my own mother experienced in a childhood where their very existence was considered ugly and inferior – for as much as nothing would be said in their faces, as much as they were treated as equal, the standards, magazines, television, dirty looks, the stories about the winners told in school, children’s stories, various elements of any childhood where black children don’t recognize themselves and that throw in our face all the time how the existence of these children was not desirable and commendable were there.
I recognize the immense privileges that my child will have in life first for being a man and then being seen as white, I recognize these privileges just as I recognize my own privilege of being a negra de pele clara (light-skinned black woman), that feels racism in another form, with a subtlety that hurts the soul but cannot be compared to the oppression that a dark-skinned black woman suffers. I know these points and my role as a militant mother is to make my son grow up well aware of these privileges, but that as much as society throws in his face all the time, he has no right to judge himself above any being.
My dialogue this text is with all the black women who have any great relation of great affection with a child – be they mother/grandmother/aunt/godmother/neighbor, it does not matter. It’s a hard task to position oneself politically when it involves our beloved children: however much it may seem flattering for a mother to see a child being over valued and celebrated for whatever reason it is important to pay attention to the racial issues that a simple compliment can carry.
Black children grow up experiencing this discrepancy in treatment, lack of praise, with the lack of affection and representation and become adults who, consciously or not, prefer not to perpetuate the suffering in their children. Black children have to be celebrated to the maximum because they are fruits of our disobedience to what was imposed on us, they are signs that the systematic and institutional measures of embranquecer (whitening) Brazil failed, they are symbols of resistance and have to grow up knowing that, seeing how much beauty there in their skin, their features, their hair, their ancestry and wishing that their children know the value and be proud of this too.
We will not let them throw the blame of racism on our black compadres! If today a black grandmother rejoices and is joyful and thankful for her white grandchild it is due to psychological whitening that was thrown her down our throats since childhood, it’s an attempt to protect their offspring from an oppressive and violent system caused by the WHITE MAN!
We need to leave more and more clear, and be strong if necessary, we are not here to fulfill the goals of a eugenics policy of the last century, we are not here at the service of an elite that has wanted for 5 centuries to whiten us by all means nor are here to bring redemption of a race that was always judged as cursed and inferior. We don’t bring redemption in our wombs because there is nothing to redeem!
My white son never erase all of my fight, he will never erase my blackness and will grow up knowing how much we, black women, are fighting since before he was born, since before all these theories were forged, to conquer our spaces and win back the self-esteem that years of erasing took from us and that today he manages with no effort because of being recognized as equal by the oppressor.
BW of Brazil: So what’s really going here? In finger-pointing at the United States as the “most racist country n the world”, Brazilians don’t even take note that their own potent, denigrating style of racism may play a strong factor in some black Brazilians hoping not to pass a black phenotype, and possibly a life of misery and humiliation, onto their children. In a sense, active self-genocide. Again, we know that people fall in love for whatever reason. But we also know black women in Brazil are more likely to be single, take longer to marry and are more likely to spend their upper years alone. In my discussions with various black Brazilian women over the years, in social networks (where the topic comes up occasionally), as well as in the comments made by famous Afro-Brazilian women such as journalist Glória Maria and former Olympic basketball star, Marta de Souza Sobral, some black women marry white men at least partially because black men simply don’t give them the time of day. And lest we think that this only applies to dark-skinned black women, in social networks, various light-skinned black women of mixed race also confirm that having lighter skin and features closer to whiteness are no longer enough in this day and age if a woman wants to date and marry a black man. From Bahia, I cite the following example that I know very well.
In a black family of five that I’ve known for a number of years, the father is a dark-skinned black man and the wife, who identifies herself as negra, is a clear mixture of black, white and Indian with straight, (straightened) black hair. The children range from light to dark brown skin. The mother revealed that her husband’s family initially rejected her because she was not white and blond and attempted to persuade him to not marry her. Again, even having a very light-copper skin tone and mixed features, this was initially not enough in the family’s pursuit of whiteness. But in following the process of whitening, both the son and one of the daughter’s married white people, with the brown-skinned son’s daughter having straight blond hair and nearly no physical hints of her African ancestry. Again, no one doubts that love exists in any of these cases, but given Brazil’s history it would be naive to believe that it is only love involved in these unions. Even if people don’t realize or acknowledge it.
Source: Blogueiras Negras. Freeman, Elizabeth Hordge. Home is Where the Hurt Is: Racial Socialization, Stigma, and Well Being in Afro-Brazilian Families. Duke University, 2012.