Note from BW of Brazil: In today’s report, we seek to further a conversation that has been growing within Afro-Brazilian oriented social networks and activist circles. It is a topic that we have explored in the past and today’s piece will lay the groundwork for a clearer understanding of the conversations that are happening among various groups, both within members of groups connected to social movements as well as persons who simply wish to share their opinions on the topic.
With the rise and expansion of Afro-Brazilian identity, events, productions and entrepreneurialism, more people are questioning the phenomenon and motives for a simultaneous rise in interracial mingling. For some, interracial unions should be seen as absolutely contrary to any sort of social advancement within the Afro-Brazilian population as a whole. For others, people who take this position are “radical extremists” whose ideas are more compatible with that of the Third Reich. In the minds of those who see no problem with the ongoing mixture of races, the process is simply a continuation of a facet of Brazilian history that has always existed. A common question among this crowd is, “how can you think in such a way when Brazilians as a people are mixed?”
Within debates on the theme, it is very common that people express opinions that accuse “radicals” of being “reverse racists” who have a problem with seeing their unions with other persons thought to belong to another racial group, often under the famous banner of “love has no color”. What this writer often notes among this crowd is an unwillingness to delve deeper into the debate and the origins of miscegenation in Brazil. Could it be as simple as people “just happen to fall in love with” whoever they fall in love with or is there something deeper going on that people simply don’t want to acknowledge, are unconscious of or are they living in a state of denial?
Before we introduce today’s piece, consider this quote taken from Thomas Skidmore’s classic 1974 book, Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. It describes American President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Brazil and a subsequent 1914 article he wrote about that trip. According to Roosevelt, he was told the following by one observer:
“Of course the presence of the Negro is the real problem, and a very serious problem, both in your country, the United States, and in mine, Brazil. Slavery was an intolerable method of solving the problem, and had to be abolished. But the problem itself remained, in the presence of the Negro…Now comes the necessity to devise some method of dealing with it. You of the United States are keeping the blacks as an entirely separate element and you are not treating them in way that fosters their self-respect. They will remain a menacing element in your civilization, permanent, and perhaps even after a while a growing element. With us the question tends to disappear, because the blacks themselves tend to disappear and become absorbed…” (Skidmore, 1974)
With this in mind, I will leave the reader with a thought to contemplate. In the two multi-racial societies of which Brazil is most often compared, the United States and South Africa, in the past there were strict laws designed to keep blacks and whites segregated so that the blood of whites would not be “contaminated” with that of the “inferior” race. A clearly racist policy. At the same time, Brazil promoted an ideology of racial mixture with the expressed goal of the eventual disappearance of the black race. Also clearly racist. When speaking in comparisons between the three countries, Brazilians often like to see their country in a favorable light even with clear examples of institutional racism.
Today, even with the end of Jim Crow and Apartheid laws of legal segregation in both the US and South Africa, those countries remain continue to be, for the most part, segregated nations. As such, would it be perhaps a little naive to believe that only love is at the heart of interracial relationships when the country’s historical legacy is the convincing of black Brazilians to whiten themselves through such unions? Below we consider another facet of this ideology.
The whitening of Brazilian society
By Lívia Teodoro
It’s amazing the amount of events within the black movement in relation to what is or what should not be considered black in our country. I am seeking to understand this that I’m dedicating myself to reading about the “the policy of embranquecimento (whitening)” adopted in Brazil after the abolition of slavery in 1888.
After freed, there was tiny quantity of literate blacks or with conditions to remain economically stable. In contrast to the white race, they continued to seek to self-affirm themselves under the imposition of their customs and the result was a crazy quest to embranquecer (whiten) the Brazilian population.
In São Paulo in the 1930s the clubs of “Sociedade Negra” (Black Society) they were excluding from their memberships all and anyone who insisted on keeping “um pé na senzala” (a foot in the slave quarters). Several black activists of the time considered that, to evolve, improve and be accepted blacks should be as close as possible in behavior and aesthetics to whites. As such, that black who insisted on attending rodas de samba (samba circles), cults of Afro-Brazilian religions, wearing turbans or guias (1) were automatically deemed unworthy to be part of this society.
The text below was written by an influential black inside the MN (Movimento Negro/black movement) at the time:
“Follow whites in your fortunate achievements and initiatives […] it will be the starting point of the second redemption of blacks […]. We emphasize that your freedom wasn’t they [blacks] that achieved (it). Attempts that they undertook were disrupted disastrously. And from the hand of the white that they hated they received the freedom of their dreams! (Folha da Manhã, São Paulo, 1/12/1930).”
This was the discourse employed by blacks in an attempt to counteract the culture of our people and look more each day like the oppressors.
Hence the custom of teaching that black people had no heroes capable of fighting for their causes and that all that the black achieved positive came from the hand of a white. Various black icons were annulled and gradually erased and white personalities were put in their places so that the black people believed that they were the exemplary race to follow. This behavior served to reinforce the (illusory) sense of superiority of whites and the (painful) sensation inferiority of blacks.
The whitening of society in Brazil can be grouped into three criteria:
The biological, social and aesthetic
“Branqueamento Biológico” (biological whitening) is nothing more than literally “lightening the families”. Interracial relationships were extremely encouraged in order to “melhorar a população brasileira” (improve the Brazilian population) leading it increasingly toward branquitude (whiteness). The dream of every black was that their sons and daughters would marry with an individual of lighter skin and success was achieved when the children of this union were born with lighter skin than their parents. Because of this negros de pele clara (light-skinned blacks), have no “guilt” and can’t even live in limbo, because they were born that way.
Around the same time, many experts and advocates of embranquecimento also argued that the best way to topple racism was to instill this in the minds of black people, so that we would play the role of disseminating it by means of internal wars we would self-eliminate ourselves without whites needing to be accused of this.
“Social embranquecimento” did what we experience even today. The goal was to remove blacks from their roots and everything else that could make any reference to their African origin. This process would serve so that blacks would absorb all the supposed white culture and their customs, religion, speech and what they called “social Puritanism”. The greater the “brancura da sua alma” (whiteness of his soul), the greater the chances of his being accepted and embraced by society. And always making sure to remind blacks of Brazil that they were not Africans and therefore should not cling to anything that refers to that land.
Last but not less disgusting was “Branqueamento Estético” (aesthetic whitening), this of which we know by heart. Also after the abolition there was a huge growth in sales of products that promised to straighten hair and whiten black skin. The closer you were to the white aesthetic, the more likely you were to be embraced by society. Black women were encouraged to wear pó de arroz branco (white rice powder) to attend social circles where there were whites. Around 1930 several brands of “cremes branqueadores” (whitening creams) promising to lighten the skin and make blacks more “presentable” arrived in Brazil, with several blacks dying attempting to use bleach and caustic soda to whiten their skin. It was believed that absurd things such as eating clay, drinking lots of milk or taking in little or no sun would gradually lighten the skin.
Another important measure that needs to be mentioned, adopted by supporters of embranquecimento theory of Brazil was preventing black Brazilians from having contact with black Americans (2). According to supporters of embranquecimento it was too risky for the process to let blacks with pride of their race get too close, it was feared that black Brazilians would close themselves up into clans and neighborhoods preventing embranquecimento from moving forward.
This text published in 1930 highlights and illustrates clearly the difference of Brazilian racism and that in the US, perhaps there being the explanation of this empty discourse of that we cannot compare racism between Brazil and the United States:
“We Brazilians usually take pride in our goodness of heart, our compassion and generous sentimentalism. We strongly affirm ourselves in higher doses than other people. Wishing to be more human than Americans, we don’t lynch blacks, but we did completely extinguish the black race, abandoning it to ignorance, degradation, illiteracy, promiscuity, cachaça (Brazilian rum), syphilis and idleness. What is preferable – is it Brazilian sentimentality or American brutality? Is our sentimentality not homicide? In thirty or fifty years the black race will be extinct in Brazil thanks to our sentimentality. The Americans lynch fifty blacks per year. We killed the entire black race in Brazil. (O Clarim D’Alvorada, São Paulo, 09/28/1929)
My intention with this post is to darken some important points and try to understand where this difficulty of avoiding whitening relationships (emotional, social and historical) as well as the difficulty of a strand of the Movimento Negro in accepting lighter blacks.
Below I’ll leave all my reading sources that I used to go deeper and make this text, for those who want to know more and read more because this post is really just the tip of the iceberg!
A black hug to everyone!
In the 1920s, Robert Abbott, editor of the black newspaper Chicago Defender, sought to lead groups of black Americans to Brazil to settle and cultivate lands in the state of Mato Grosso. Impressed with what he saw during a visit, he enticed other black Americans to relocate. But it was not to be. After learning that the prospective immigrants to the country were Black, the government of Mato Grosso immediately rejected visa requests.
In the ’40s, President Getulio Vargas would issue Decree #7967 that would establish conditions to be met by immigrants wishing to come to Brazil. This decree declared the necessity of restricting immigration to the country to those who had more “desirable” characteristics of the white race. As a result of Brazil’s interest in whitening its population, approximately 4 million European immigrants would enter the country between the 1870s and the 1940s.