“And me, am I not Brazilian?” Native of São Paulo responds to Brazilians who don’t believe she’s Brazilian because she is dark-skinned

Image: Nayara Khaly Silva Sanfo
E eu, não sou brasileira
Image: Nayara Khaly Silva Sanfo

Note from BW of Brazil: So much to say about today’s post, but before I weigh in on it, please take a few minutes and read piece below. My comments will appear at the end of the article. 

And me, am I not Brazilian?

“Brazilian? Are you sure? But, were you born in Brazil, or did you just grow up here?”

by Nayara Khaly Silva Sanfo

“Paulista (native of São Paulo), really? No way, I swore you were from Salvador (Bahia)..”

I’ll tell you a secret: incredible as it may seem, there are negros retintos (dark-skinned blacks) in Brazil. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? And crazier than that, they are present all over Brazil.

Obviously, the state of Bahia has the largest concentration of blacks in the country – with about 80% of its self-declared African descendant population – but this does not exempt you from ignoring all the plurality of black experiences present in our territory.

If you have ever attended a Brazilian History class – which has been minimally coherent in dealing with our ethnic-racial formation – you know that the original population, of what came to be called Brazil, is indigenous.

The existence of brasileiros pretos, brancos, de origem asiática ou mestiços (black, white Brazilians of Asian origin or mixed) is the result of several migratory processes: some voluntary and invasive (such as the arrival of the Portuguese in our territory) and other involuntary and enslaved ones (such as the enslavement and dehumanization of African blacks).

In this context, if the Brazilian native population was not white, black or Asian, why is it so surprising to pessoas negras retintas (dark-skinned black people) scattered throughout Brazil, and not so surprising to find whites? Understand that this questioning is not accusatory but reflective.

In various moments of my trajectory as a woman, a black woman and a traveler, I could perceive the discomfort of my Brazilian citizens (I could have used “compatriots” but I don’t like this word) to discover that I was Brazilian.

This initial discomfort became a mutual discomfort from the moment people began to try to justify the initial disbelief that I might have been born in Brazil: “It’s that we don’t see morenos with that skin tone there” (where am I morena, my love?)

“Wow, but you’re a negra (black woman)… negra mesma (a real black woman) …how beautiful … rsrsrs” (what’s a real black woman?), “Oh, it’s because of your accent, it seems like your gringa (foreigner).. rsrsr (laughs)” (what?), “It is that you know how to speak very well, it is difficult to see blacks like that around here” (dears, what we have the most is black people that know how to express themselves, by word, by music or by corporality.)

In general, although it sounds harmless, these comments are extremely damaging to those who hear them and our society as a whole.

By doubting and questioning the nationality and identity of minority groups you are contributing to the sense of non-belonging of these people to the collectivity they are part of since birth.

In addition to reiterating the social political invisibility of these groups, which implies, for example, reinforcement of the media wipeout and also the non-formulation of public policies on issues concerning these populations

The violent process of miscegenation and whitening in Brazil is an important factor for the analysis of the construction of a social imaginary that does not see the black phenotype as being a relevant presence in the political, social, intellectual and leisure spaces of ordinary Brazilians.

However, it is not a justification for the erasure and consequent silencing of black experiences in our country.

Could it be that you don’t you see the black identity as a component of national identity because they are a minority population or because there is an intermittent political project that marginalized and marginalizes blacks spatially, politically and culturally?

The construction of the national identity of a state is based on multiple exclusions of groups – political, ethnic and social – historically marginalized.

In Brazil, this identity was formed from a white ethnic pattern, geographically western and Europeanized.

Thus, all our compositional diversity is sometimes completely erased and sometimes used as a mechanism of political projection (at the national or international level).

Many people don’t realize this erasure, and naturalize the fact that indigenous and black culture are taken into account only in cultural festivals or symbolic dates, such as Carnival and Indian day in schools (which, by the way, is a disservice to the indigenous cause).

But if you believe that we are a country that lives in racial democracy, just because there are several black women sambando in Sapucaí, once a year, and your son “dresses up” as an Indian to – ignorantly – trivialize the culture of native Brazilian populations, it’s time to review your concepts.

Forget the myth of miscegenation as a solution to racism; to begin to reverse the historical erasure of so-called minorities we must begin to hear and see them.

And a nice way to do this is to begin to recognize that 54% of the Brazilian population is black and that these people are diverse: we possess the most varied phenotypes and occupy spaces of resistance, from the periphery to positions of power.

Although nationalism is an outdated thing, more and more, I see the need to affirm and self affirm my narrative: Sou NEGRA, sim! (I am BLACK, yes!) AND BRAZILIAN!

Note from BW of Brazil: I think the post above is very telling, not just for the things the author wrote, but also due to the things her piece suggests. I see it this way. Black Brazilian activists have long promoted the idea that Brazil has “the largest black population outside of Africa”, an idea that I believed for many years. But some people question this idea. You see, the idea of Brazil having the “largest black population outside of Africa” can only be true if we include ALL people who define themselves as “pardos”, meaning brown or mixed race, into the category of “negro”. Officially, according to statistics, Brancos, meaning whites, make up: 43.6 % of Brazil’s 210 million people, while Pretos, meaning blacks, make up 8.6% with Pardos making up 46.8%. The remaining 1% is a mixture of Asian people and Native Brazilian Indians. 

Now, if you add the totals of pretos and pardos, you come to a total of 55.4%, which is the basis for why many people claim Brazil is a majority black population. If we accept the idea that 55.4% of Brazilians are black, it would mean that there are more than 116 million blacks in Brazil, which would place the country behind only Nigeria in terms of the largest black population in the world. And as I said, for many years, I accepted that as true. Back in 2000 when I first got into studying race in Brazil, the percentage was said to be about 45%. Again, according to the standards of the Movimento Negro (MN or black movement), pardos are simply black people who are in denial about their race and, as proof, the movement backs up its position by showing that in nearly in every socio-economic category, pretos and pardos were in nearly the same disadvantage vis-a-vis the white population. For the MN, pardos were simply a group of black people who were lighter-skinned than the darker-skinned pretos. But is it simple as that? Perhaps not. Let’s continue…

In the piece above, what I see in the comments that Nayara Khaly Silva Sanfo reported that she’s heard from other Brazilians is a discourse that’s existed for many years: the idea that Brazilians are mostly a white and light-skinned population. As I’ve repeatedly mentioned in various articles, since the late 19th century, Brazilian elites have always desired that the immense black population, courtesy of the nearly 5 million Africans brought to Brazil due the slave trade, would eventually disappear through successive generations of racial mixture with white or light-skinned people. These elites were so sure of the eventual demise of the black population that they predicted that within 100 years, the black population in Brazil will have completely disappeared with the mestiço (mixed race) population dwindling down to only 3%. In other words, by the year 2012, all vestiges of blackness will have, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the midst of Brazil.

Well, 2012 came and went but black people still remain, but just how many black people there are in Brazil is hard to calculate. For some, the 55.4% stat should answer the question, but it’s more complicated than just lumping all pretos and pardos into the same group and calling them all black. And for several reasons. In a state like Ceará, for example, there are many more so-called “pardos” who have indigenous ancestry than African. There are other states where this argument could also be made. Simply put, a “pardo” in Bahia, the country’s blackest state due to a large population that descends from slavery, is different from a “pardo” in the state of Amazonas, for example, another state with a large indigenous population. 

I also question how black a state such as São Paulo really is. Statistics report that pretos and pardos make up about 32% of São Paulo state’s population. In simple terms, that would mean that about one out of every three persons living in the state are “black”. After years of experience in the state capital of São Paulo city, I gotta be honest and say that’s not exactly what I see. I see it this way. While I would never say that only dark brown skinned people should be considered black, on a regular basis when I take a head count wherever I am in São Paulo, for every darker-skinned black person I see, I see maybe 25 to possibly 50 white and light-skinned pardos or mestiços. Using what I would call a “plain brown” standard, which I define as something like the skin color of actor Denzel Washington, what I see on a daily basis is that “plain brown” and darker skin complexions are massively outnumbered by white and light skin.  

So, when Nayara speaks of people making comments to her questioning her “Brazilian-ness”, in some ways I can understand this type of thinking. Number one because Brazilians clearly have a preference for fair skin, which is reflected in almost every area of society, as well as by the fact that it is black skin that the country’s elites wanted to see disappear and not light or white skin. I can also understand this train of thought because of the fact that, on a regular basis, when I see very dark-skinned black people in São Paulo, I often find myself assuming that the person is in fact an African immigrant rather a Brazilian of African descent. As the idea of embranquecimento (whitening) is so deeply ingrained in population of African descent, it’s very difficult to even see large numbers of dark-skinned people at one time in the city. In my experiences in São Paulo, the only times when I will see lots of brown and dark-skinned people black people in one area is 1) when there is a specifically black event such as Feira Preta, 2) an organized event such as the social network organized all-black viewing of the Black Panther film, 3) black dances, 4) some other sort of pre-planned event targeting black people, 5) at the Federal Police station where there are always African and Haitian immigrants taking care of document issues or 6) certain areas of the city where black immigrants congregate.

In my six years in São Paulo, I can attest to the fact that in many outings with my black girlfriend and three clearly black children, we are often the only clearly black people in a particular setting. When we go to the various SESC recreation centers around the city, my kids are usually the only clearly black looking children among a sea of white and light-skinned mestiço children. When the van picks my children up in the morning and takes them to the daycare center, again, they are surrounded by white and light-skinned mixed children. I also note that, when I catch a bus in the city, when it is crowded to capacity with up to or more than 90 people, I am normally one of only 3-4 people with “plain brown” or darker skin.

What I observe in SP and in Brazil in general is that, with a large percentage of white Brazilians not having the pale white skin one notes within the white American and European populations, and a large percentage of non-whites having fair skin, in any public setting, the difference between whiteness and non-whiteness is often times very vague as the population increasingly takes on one uniform, standard skin color. As such, dark brown and black skin do sometimes come across as a foreign element in a sea of beige. 

So, while I will say that dark-skinned black people should be recognized as being as Brazilian as any other citizen, at the same time, the belief and acceptance of the idea of producing lighter-skinned children has clearly had an effect on the overall skin color of the average Paulista (São Paulo native). Professor Petrônio José Domingues’s study on the whitening ideology within the post-abolition black population of the city showed that what I note has been in the planning stages for decades when he writes: “The central argument is that this ideology (whitening) – despite its racist character – has been legitimized or assimilated, daily by sectors of the black population.” (see note one). But even though the groundwork for this disappearance of dark skin in Brazil’s most populous city was laid decades ago, I often wonder, do black people notice this or is it so normal that they don’t even think about it? 

end of dark skin (edit)
Mario: “Miscegenation is self-genocide and will impose the end of dark skin”     Andréa:The end of dark skin where? People really like drama, aff”  

I remember back in 2012, after a few months in São Paulo, on a trip to the city of Campinas, about an hour from the capital, I said to my friend Jacqueline, “black people are disappearing from São Paulo.” From what I’ve seen, São Paulo’s native brown and dark-skinned population is sort of like an upside down hour-glass with the sand on the top part of the glass slowly disappearing into the increasingly larger bottom. I remember Jacqueline not responding to my observation.

The slow physical absorption of dark skin was also noted/predicted by a member of São Paulo’s elite back in 1928. In his classic work, Retrato do Brasil, lawyer/businessman Paulo Prado discussed the progressive Aryanization of Brazil when he wrote: 

“What one calls Aryanization of the inhabitant of Brazil is a fact of daily observation….And thus at the crossroads of our life, since the colonial era, the black gradually disappears, dissolving himself into a false appearance of pure Aryan.” (Prado, 1944)

In my interpretation, people questioning Nayara’s Brazilian-ness is Brazil’s asking its dark-skinned citizens, “You still exist? How come you haven’t blended in yet?” Nayara feeling the need to confirm that, yes, dark-skinned people still exist in São Paulo and Brazil begs another question.

At what point does one realize that generation after generation of adhering to the idea that “love has no color”, which has led to a large mestiço population, will eventually lead to a population that will confuse even the most radical believer in the “one-drop rule”? In past articles, I’ve spoken of my evolving view of race in Brazil, particularly in a city such as São Paulo. I can no longer support the idea that all “pardos” should be categorized as black and with this, I must also reject the idea that Brazil has “the largest black population outside of Africa.” I’ve met only a few black Brazilians who are willing to admit this, as among those who are fully or somewhat connected to the black issue, the vast majority fully support the idea that Brazil is a 55%, black majority country. But there have been some cracks in the armor that reveal the contradiction in this thought.

rapper Emicida e a mulher, Marina Santa Helena
Rapper Emicida with girlfriend

For example, a few years back, many people who identify themselves as “black and conscious” took issue with popular rapper Emicida when he was seen with his girlfriend, who many saw as white. But when one takes a good look at the woman, you would have to acknowledge that this woman is not purely European. She is a light-skinned mestiço, or a parda and as pardos/pardas are considered “black” according Movimento Negro ideology, one could argue that Emicida’s girl was black also. Back in 2016, in elections in Salvador, Bahia, a city promoted as being 80% black (preto+pardo), some people took issue with a woman like Congresswoman Alice Portugal defining herself as “parda” with her fair skin, straight hair and, for the most part, European features. I mean, if Alice Portugal were to be crowned “most beautiful black woman” in a contest, I would say that such a selection would probably cause an uproar in the black community. Along these same lines, are we really to assume that Brazil now has a “black” First Lady, as Michelle Bolsonaro is the wife of the current president?

Alice Portugal
Congresswoman Alice Portugal of Bahia

In closing, I must acknowledge that I sympathize with Nayara’s sentiments. It has to be discouraging to be questioned about your nationality in the very country in which you were born. But this is a consequence of Brazil’s black population clearly choosing a direct path to self-annihilation through generational interracial unions and in some ways, supporting the idea that Brazil is 55% black is a sort of contradicting denial. For as dark skin continues to disappear by choices that pretos and pardos make at night, the light of day exposes the massive whitening/skin lightening process that is full effect in São Paulo and many cities throughout Brazil today. 

Source: Geledés

Notes

  1. Domingues, Petrônio José Domingues. “Negros de Almas Brancas? A Ideologia do Branqueamento no Interior da Comunidade Negra em São Paulo, 1915-1930”. Rio de Janeiro. Estudos Afro-Asiáticos. Volume 24, Number 3, 2002. Available at http://www.scielo.br/pdf/eaa/v24n3/a06v24n3.pdf. Accessed April 2, 2019.
About Marques Travae 3023 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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