Note from BW of Brazil: Anyone who has studied the topic of race has come across the classification morena (moreno for men). Morena/moreno has to be the most versatile term of the many that exist in Brazilian culture. It’s versatility and widespread usage is due to the fact that it can define such a wide range of phenotypes. As explained in one of our first posts on this topic, morena/moreno can define a white woman with dark hair, it can define a person of mixed race, it can define persons who are difficult to define racially, and can also define both light-skinned and even brown-skinned Afro-Brazilians. In recent years, politically-conscious Afro-Brazilians have been increasingly rejecting the term when used by persons of visible African ancestry as it is seen as an attempt to avoid defining oneself as negro (black).
Morena/moreno is the perfect representation of the racial situation in a country that prides itself on its ambiguity as “everyone is mixed” and avoids any real discussions on the existence of a racial hierarchy also due to the “shades of gray” argument. It has long been believed that “mulatas” or “morenas” have clear advantages over their more indisputably black brothers and sisters in a society dominated by Eurocentrism. In a racist society in which lighter skin and less curly hair clearly does offer certain advantages, what type of ‘advantages’ are they and do they always apply?
As we have discussed in numerous posts, the ‘mulata’ may be seen as more physically attractive (per her proximity to the European standard of beauty) than the darker-skinned negra or preta who is thought to only be good enough for hard labor, but the ‘advantage’ of the mulata is often connected to her perceived hyper-sexuality. Even if the ‘mulata’ is considered more attractive than the negra, she is also often thought to be only worth a quick sexual encounter and as such doesn’t warrant the same respect of the branca (white woman).
And what of the morena? Does she do any better in the hierarchy? Check out one woman’s analysis below.
“Exotic morenas”: A debate on colorism, blackness and feminine archetypes of the ideology of racial mixture
By Bianca Gonçalves, courtesy of the Mina Explosiva blog
Throughout our experiences, we are accustomed to believing that Brazilian society was constituted by the harmonious blend of races, our ancestors – European, indigenous, African – a complied ethnic and cultural mixture, which led to the mestiço (person of mixed race), or still, to Brazilian identity. Thus undermining the recognition of differences, the myth of racial democracy was founded. Strategic, this perspective that naturalizes and maintains racist discourses that permeates the construction of our identities, and therefore whitens, as mandated by the hegemony, much of the heritage and discourses of historically oppressed peoples.
In Rediscutindo a mestiçagem (revisiting miscegenation), Kabengele Munanga shows that the positivated discourse of mestiço identity (ie, miscegenation as an element that “lifts” a nation, and not vice versa, as occurred in the US during racial segregation) took place through a long path until reaching the pinnacle with the racist Gilberto Freyre, who gave theoretical form to this myth.
Freyre would find in the “mulata” of colonial Brazil the subject par excellence of the myth of racial democracy: at the same time in that he evokes a less alien otherness, synthesis of the “I” and the “other”, it will also correspond to the sexualized condition of the enslaved available to the white master of the plantation, which contributes to the domestic confinement of the white woman, producing thus the stereotype of the ultra-sexualized, overtly sensual black woman.
As we know, the ideology of miscegenation, like all ideologies, falls into contradictions, since it does not give account of explaining the maintenance of racism. Such aspect of this data makes itself, precisely, for trying to hide the oppression of race and lead to some very particular racist ideas. One of the practices perpetuated by Brazilian racism was to elect certain features as “pure black” and certain others as “pure white”. This is how, for example, that white hegemony affirms things like, “You’re a fine-featured black”, “He’s very light for being black,” “she has thick features but not the point of being black”, etc.
We come, therefore, to the discussion concerning colorism, characterized by the hierarchy of skin tones, a determining factor in the level of discrimination that a black person can suffer. As Neusa Santos stated in Tornar-se negro (becoming black), it is through this color continuum – in which white and black are located on each end of this unbroken line – that ascribe themselves “several meanings according to the criteria of the greater the whiteness, the greater the possibilities of success and acceptance.”
The myth of racial democracy then gains colorism as an ally, making itself an agent of branquitude (whiteness). Joined to this we have intermediary classifications, racist deceptions that promote embraquecimento (whitening) of those who are conditioned to declaring themselves “pardos” (browns), “mestiços” “ (mixed), “morenos” (brown/light brown skinned/mixed).
Here I will dedicate myself to the classification “moreno” or better, “morena”, as I understand that reading inter-sectionalized race with the reading of gender provides us more effective data so that we can go through the process of self-recognition of an oppression that affect us. It interests me in focusing on this classification because it was, for a long time, a spectrum that haunted the affirmation of my blackness, and that, often times distressed me for not knowing for sure what spaces the white hegemony conceded to me (1).
“Morena” is an ambiguous definition: at the same time in which it is used for white people with dark hair (Xuxa doesn’t become “morena”?) (2), it’s also commonly used to classify mulheres negras de tom de pele mais claro (black women of lighter skin tone). This ambiguity is not by chance: it’s another gesture of embraquecimento (whitening) promoted by the racist ideology of miscegenation, conceiving a false link between negritude (blackness) and branquitude (whiteness).
Almost always marked by a sensualizing endeavor, women considered as “morenas” are also affected by the mark of “exotic”, just as the white hegemony usually classifies those escaping Eurocentric standards of beauty (and here it is also fitting to reflect on what it means to have an “exotic beauty” in a country where half the population is black). A quick Google search shows that “morena”, and also, added to the terrible “exotic”, is a heavily used expression in pornography and hyper-sexualization of black women’s bodies.
Still, having consciousness of the peculiarities of colorism in Brazil, in which less pigmented black men and women are tolerated in the spaces of whiteness – but never accepted, since, therefore, it would be necessary to acknowledge the existence of racism – we can examine how white hegemony describes and tolerates the presence of these women.
When author Glória Perez decided to elect actress Nanda Costa, a woman “with a face of the favela (slum)”, as the protagonist of the novela Salve Jorge – who has a love story with a policeman, very suitable plot for the propagandistic Globo moment of the operation of the UPP (Pacifying Police Unit) in Rio de Janeiro – she claims to have dealt with prejudices precisely because she doesn’t fit within the standards of the novela’s “little girl”. We remember that Nanda Costa, who once starred in Sonhos Roubados (with its theme the story of three girls in a favela) is considered by the media as an “exotic morena”. Not by chance the name of her protagonist was Morena.
There is no denying the fact that black women labeled as “morenas” or “pardas” carry privileges in relation to more pigmented mulheres negras (black women), but we must recognize that these spaces are limited, interdicted by whiteness, that spares no efforts to confine them to the space of archetypes, often ultra-sexualized and whitened.
Contrary to what white hegemony affirms, the tones of black are a thousand. Black men and women are a heterogeneous group. Just look, for example, at the various African ethnic groups and note that they are plural: phenotypic diversity is a hallmark of the black people. And also of us, daughters of the diáspora negra (black diaspora). May no gesture whiten us!
Source: Mina Explosiva
1. An issue that has affected countless Brazilians. Many posts on the blog touch on the topic of the development or denial of racial identity. See here.
2. The ever-popular blond, very white children’s television host, Xuxa Meneghel, who temporarily dyed her hair brunette thus, according to hair color, could also have been defined as a morena.