Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

“But you’re not black; you’re morena!” – How the denial of identity is symptomatic of structural racism in Brazilian society

Bárbara Paes

Bárbara Paes

Note from BW of Brazil: I must admit, the discussion over this topic is quite intriguing. In a recent post in which we featured Camila Pitanga, we received comments of the opinion that the actress wasn’t black (1) as well as others that declared that among truly white people, she would be black. In past posts on this topic of racial identity/classification, people have opined that if one identifies as something, that is what said person is. Others believe that persons of mixed appearance/ancestry are not black at all while still others categorize according to treatment in situations of racial discrimination. 

In a place like Brazil, where persons of whatever degree of African descent have long been taught to flee from such identity/classification, the paradigm is shifting as many persons who would have defined themselves as “pardas”, “mulatas” and “morenas” just a few decades ago are openly declaring themselves as “negras”. This is not to say that this is the rule. In a country like Brazil where whitening oneself by any means necessary sometimes borders on the obsessive, the vast majority of persons of African ancestry continue to self-identify themselves as “pardas”, loosely meaning brown or any combination of racial mixture. Thus, when white people refer to most of these people with terms such as “morena”, most will not object as most in fact don’t want to be classified as “negra”. But what happens when they do? 

But you aren’t black

by Bárbara Paes

Every time someone calls me “morena” or “mulata” I want to die a little. While I imagine a lot of people do it out of habit, not knowing the violence that they’re committing, I carry the certainty  of that many people measure the words well before verbalizing. When we correct these people, and I request that they call me negra (black), I almost always get an embarrassed smile. But from time to time, some of these people think it’s cool to try to convince me that, in fact, I can only be mulata.

These days I was with my mother (who is negra, like me) in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, when we started talking with a (branca, white) woman. The conversation came, the conversation went, and suddenly we were talking about how Brazilian universities have few black students. When I mention that I’m the only black student in my class, the woman looks at me almost terrified and says, “but you’re not negra, you’re morena! When someone is really black, we have a way to realize it.”

The difficulty that some whites have to point to me as black is very symptomatic of how racism is structural in our society. For this woman (and many others like her) it is inconceivable that a black person can be in the same office as she, studying at a public university. For this type of person it’s scary assume that a black can have access to the same services, put their children in the same schools, frequent the same malls and buy the same brands. Assuming all of this represents a huge loss of status for people who rely so much on the relative position of whites in relation to blacks in our society.

So, a lot of white people choose to use terms like “morena” or “mulata” unbelievers of the possibility of a “really black” person that shares the same purchasing power. An association is made, almost automatic, of middle and upper classes with the white population and poverty with the black population. This immediate association, combined with disgust that our society has of  poor people and black people, contributes to the existence of a huge resistance in calling someone negra, as if being negra was a shame. In this case, the labels of “mulata” or “morena” become attempts to embranquecer (whiten), to avoid recognizing that black men and women can have, or even aspire to the same standard of living.

The discomfort that some feel in seeing the increasing emergence of a black middle and university class occupy the places that have been historically denied is increasingly latent. Be it the white girl at the bookstore that tried to stop me from buying a book because she didn’t believe I could read English, or this lady in the doctor’s office: it’s worth recognizing from afar people who feel uncomfortable at seeing a black woman doing “typically white” things. This is one of the reasons I make a point of always declare myself negra, especially when I’m in academic or professional settings that have always been primarily reserved for whites.

The income of a black woman is 38.5% of the salary of a white man with the same education and function. We also know that the Brazilian university has few black students (Dossiê Mulheres Negras, IPEA, 2013). We know the violent results of institutional racism to which all of us black women are subjected daily. In this sense, assuming oneself as negra occupying a professional or academic position usually reserved for whites becomes a super important decision. It is through the assertion of our identity that we have the strength to claim our space in the university, that we denounce the violence that we suffer, that we demand more equality. It is through the assertion of our identity that we show that occupying professional or academic positions we long for is our right.

We are few black women in the university, we are few black women with fair wages. But the struggle in order that all black women share in these rights and have decent lives, nos recusamos a ser embranquecidas (we refuse to be whitened).

Source: Blogueiras Negras


1. A topic that the actress herself has often dealt with.

4 comments on ““But you’re not black; you’re morena!” – How the denial of identity is symptomatic of structural racism in Brazilian society

  1. Kari
    April 24, 2015

    What is the surprise here? Everyone seems to be strangely OK with the fact that white people decide who is or who isn’t black (I am white, and disagree completely). For Americans for example, anyone with visible African ancestry is black, that is, blackness is defined in terms of any distance from whiteness. It creates situations where someone who is, say, 88% white, to be black. Many Black Americans are in fact very OK with this status quo, as far as I know.

    In Brazil, blackness is also defined by whites, but not the same way. For Brazilians, any degree of European blood must be acknowledged, no matter how small. The words “morena, “mulatta”, etc in this respect are, to me, not different words for “negro/negra”, but different words for mixed-race people where the closeness with white is being drawn attention to. The effect of this is to create an artificial white majority in Brazil (something Americans do not need).

    It is not true that someone who looks like Camila Pitanga would be considered black among whites everywhere. Not at all in Scandinavia, and you can hardly be whiter than that. The racial definition, as a social construct for us is different. I am married to a black woman, have mixed-raced children and know exactly how this works.

    I am sorry for this person. It would be indeed much more human that people would simply respect her decision to be black, since in general when people talk about race they are not referring to DNA admixtures, but to an already vague social construct. In this respect, however, it would be also good if black people would not try to impose blackness on those who do not want to identify themselves as black, as it happens for example in the US and even by a few Brazilians. For example, the player Ronaldo, who has likely about 70-80% white, declared himself white and one should respect that too.

    All in all, we will always have our own internal ideas about blackness/whiteness, but we should keep them to ourselves, as we do with the vast majority sensitive issues . We should respect people’s decisions whether a self-declared white person looks “not-white” or a self-declared black person looks “not-black” to us. In a globalized world, we should also restrain ourselves from the “you wouldn’t be considered white/black in my country” speech, which also does not help anyone.

    • Books
      April 24, 2015

      The problem is that in Brazil, you cannot simply declare yourself black. For example, for affirmative action purposes, even if you consider yourself black, you may not pass as black by a committee composed of blacks. In fact, it is quite possible this woman would, depending on who is judging, not pass as black. In this respect, she can easily be rejected as black not only by whites but also by blacks.

  2. bamabrasileira
    April 24, 2015

    This is very interesting indeed! I – clearly a woman of African decent – have had this “morena/mulatta” experience on numerous occasions since coming to Brazil. I am still trying to understand all of the implications of the color that society gives you here. My observations are as such:

    1. If you are in a community of self-identified Black folks who also partake in some
    aspect of Black culture (like the Candomble/Umbanda/Kimbanda communities)
    there is pride in declaring onesself “Black” and referring to other members
    as Black.

    2. The rest of the society will fight tooth-and-nail to try to convince you that you are
    somehow ‘wrong” in your assertion that you are, infact, “Black” (rather than
    some form of “mixed”).

    3. The rest of the society clearly feels that being Black is one of the worst things a
    person can be, and if they like you, they will simply not see you as Black in
    their own minds (this one is QUITE fascinating, and I think it accounts for a lot
    of the mixed marriages).

    4. Where I live, “Negra” seems to mean “Dark-skinned AND poor AND Brazilian”.
    If you do not meet all three categories, then you are not “Negra”. You are
    things like “Baihana/Morena/Negona/Mulatta” and occaissionally “Macumbera”-
    but NEVER simply “Negra” or “Preta”.
    * All of the names are racist, but it seems that people here only consider “Negra” or “Preta” to be the only really bad things you can call a person of African decent.

    I am still trying to figure out the nuances of color and class perception here. Great article!

  3. qolspony
    July 25, 2016

    Your eyes (of a black woman) are really very beautiful. Considering yourself black could be denying your full makeup to please noticeable blacks who suffer real racism. It could be denying a noticeable black the opportunity to take advantage of the affirmative action program. This is not to criticize you, it is just another way to look at it. Even in America, it would be difficult to recognize you as black. The identification I see is latino, which you would be regardless of race. Yes. In America, Brazilians will be considered Latinos and have a different classification from blacks Americans, Caribbeans, Africans and Black Canadians. And it is especially true if one doesn’t appear either black or white.

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2015 by in racial identity and tagged , , , , , , .
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