Brazil: The ideology of "whitening" and the struggle for a black identity

black women Brazil
Vanessa Jesus Souza, college student majoring in Tourism


In a country like Brazil, similar to other countries of Latin America, the ideology of white supremacy has been the dominant value system since the arrival of Europeans from Spain and in the case of Brazil, Portugual. Since the time of colonization, people learned who were the “masters” and who were the “slaves”. Today in Brazil, from a very young age, millions of people of every skin tone are subtly but also blatantly indoctrinated to believe that persons of white skin, light eye colors and straight hair are more intelligent, more beautiful, more desirable and more powerful than persons of darker features. In Brazil, the dictatorship of whiteness can be witnessed everywhere from the magazine stand, to television programs to the federal government, all places where it is rare to see persons of obvious African and/or indigenous ancestry. Many black Brazilian women will tell you that the most black Brazilian men prefer white women for marriage; the process of embranquecimento, or whitening, is common throughout Latin America. Many unassuming black kids are encouraged by their own parents to seek a lighter/white partner in order to lighten the skin of their offspring, or, “improve the race.” 

As evidence of this, one of the most famous paintings in the history of Brazil depicts the process of the lightening of the skin of successive generations through mixture with whiter partners until the “black stain” is completely erased by the third generation. The pursuit of this white ideal affects millions of lighter-skinned persons of mixed-race who may define themselves as white even though their facial features or hair textures denote at least a hint of African or indigenous heritage. Over the years, I have known many light-skinned Brazilians who defined themselves as white although they would never be accepted as such in the US, Europe or even southern Brazil where persons of German and Italian ancestry make up the overwhelming majority of the region. 

In May of 2005, the famous soccer superstar Ronaldo Nazário, or simply Ronaldo (the Phenomenon) made headlines and became a new symbol of the difficulty that many Brazilians of African descent have in accepting a black identity. In an interview, Ronaldo was asked about the problem with racism in European soccer stadiums, to which Ronaldo responded:

“I think that all blacks suffer (with racism). I, that am white, suffer because of so much ignorance.”

Soccer superstar Ronaldo


Members of Brazil’s black community, militants of the Movimento Negro and even Ronaldo’s own father, a darker-skinned black man, sighed, laughed or decried Ronaldo’s statement. Regarding his son’s statement, Ronaldo’s father, Nélio Nazário, said: “He knows quite well that he is black…In truth, at the time I thought it was some type of philosophy, something in this sense….because he knows that he is black.”

Kabengele Munanga, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo and a specialist on the topic of race had this to say:

“Ronaldo’s declaration has to do with the ideal of whitening of black Brazilians. They incorporate the concept of white superiority. Because of this, being of mixed race is not enough. Whoever ascends socially whitens himself.”

José Júnior, who is the coordinator of the musical/cultural group AfroReggae, was irritated by the comments of Ronaldo. He says: 

“It was an unfortunate comment, a completely wrong comment. As a citizen, he can say what he wants to say. But he, as a former of opinion and idol, he cannot say this. He is not white, neither here in Brazil and neither in Europe.”


José Júnior of AfroReggae

In Brazil today, one can never be certain of how a person will define him or herself. But in the past few decades, due at least partially to the tireless work of the Movimento Negro in encouraging more people to identify with their African ancestry, more persons are likely to define themselves as black or at least brown than ever before. Tourism student, Vanessa Jesus Souza (photo at top of page) is no doubt one of those people. With her skin and light-colored eyes, it would be easy to see how Vanessa could define herself as white. But when provoked to discuss the statement of Ronaldo and how she defined herself, she had this to say:

“Skin color does not interfere with your race. I have fair skin, but my maternal and paternal grandparents are black, so I say that I’m black. My family came from the Northeast*, my light eyes maybe a legacy of the Dutch heritage.

Four years ago I recognized myself as black, for my features, curly hair, my nose is not so thin, because I like black culture, because I frequent black places where 99% of the people are black. In the program Netinho [Domingo da Gente]**, in the contest of the most beautiful black girl, I saw light-skinned girls with curly hair. So I said to my mother, “then I’m black, I can position myself as black.” She said to stop because I was white. Many people play with me and call me neguinha (little black girl) but I really assume myself as black.

The person who lives in a predominantly white society ends up feeling white and forgetting their origins. I think Ronaldo sees himself as white because others don’t see him as black.

I would fight for quotas (affirmative action) not only by me but for other blacks with darker skin than mine. Society doesn’t see me as black. I think like this: I am in college, I am privileged, I managed to get there. But I have no doubt that I would fight to give opportunities to others.”

* – The northeastern region of Brazil is composed of primarily persons of African ancestry and this is how most Brazilians throughout the country see the region. 

** – Netinho de Paula gained fame as singer with the musical group Negritude Junior. He would go on to host the popular television variety show Domingo da Gente and is now a politician in the city of São Paulo.

Interview with Vanessa Jesus Souza by Isabel Taranto and Joni Anderson

Source: Black Women of Brazil

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About Marques Travae 3088 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

3 Comments

  1. Very interessing and controversial topic. I think that's why we didn't have the same effect of progress in brazil that we had in the USA. For example if people who are mixed race see themself white, they will never fight for quotas because effectively "they see themself" EVRYWHERE. On TV,on movies, at evry high level of success etc… the ironic or trajic part of this is that we don't see not much mixed race peole either, it is WHITE WHITE AND WHITE.

  2. Minasek, the reason we don’t have the same progress as you put it. It has a historical political explanation. Partly a lot because of the Americanism inflation America.

    During getulio Vargas government we had a very strong black movement in Pelotas. It was destroyed because their discourse of equality was seen as communist.

    Second moment in the 60s we had a dictatorship. Financed and political backed up by USA.

    The Afro movements in São Paulo state were quiet strong. They were all murdered or silenced by the dictatorship.

    In the 80s montoro, the São Paulo state governador. Created the first law were racism was a crime.

    This was the fruit of hard work activist . And it could happen only after the American paranoia about communism had gone.

    It was this law in São Paulo state ( astate who doesn’t have a big concentration of afrodescendants) which would push to became a national law.

    As you see American politics had hold our progress as the Europeans had done.just for their financial security.

    I am sorry ronaldo is not black at all..neither Jose junior….they are pardos.

    Be self identified as black doesnt make e country more aware of racism.

    In fact the more black proud and the more the you have with the white culture more distant we will be of a peace between the same citizens.

    It is not only good to be black proud. USA has lots of racism. We must think how to address our struggle with our legs. Not to be a copy cat.

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