Note from BW of Brazil: The origin of today’s post is actually from June of 2004, although the subject matter was even before that date and also influenced by countless experiences and readings since then. This writer only began to regularly experience the wide world of the internet in 1999 and one of the first websites that dealt with issues of race from the Afro-Brazilian perspective was a site called AFIRMA. As also written on the Samba-Choro website, I don’t have absolute certainty that AFIRMA was the first Brazilian website devoted to Afro-Brazilian issues and news, AFIRMA, along with another site called Portal Afro were the first ones I was aware of (1). I frequently entered these two sites and consistently found material that kept me abreast on things that were of vital importance to mostly middle-class black Brazilians, shared opinions and discussions that circulated in the Afro-Brazilian community and often put into words thoughts that I had myself. In one 2004 piece entitled “Negros de pele clara” (light-skinned blacks), philosopher Sueli Carneiro of the Geledés Black Women’s Institute approached a topic that was and continues to be very important for understanding how the issue of race works in Brazil. Over the years, with the appearance of more Afro-Brazilian-oriented websites and blogs, more and more Brazilians were revealing their shift in identity from “pardos”, “mulatas” and “morenos” to “negros”.
Every time I read a new piece on someone’s transition into blackness I thought back to this piece by Carneiro and thought about translating it and posting here at BW of Brazil. I thought about posting it again back in October or November of 2013 after a series of dialogues with a teenage student that I knew whom I shall call “Rejane”. “Rejane” was 15 years old, fair-skinned and had an almost obsessive addiction to her cell phone, constantly sending messages through the popular phone app WhatsApp seemingly every 15 seconds. “Rejane”, in my mind, was a light-skinned black girl as she had the facial features that generally denote African ancestry. Also, her hair, which is often a key trait to how one is categorized racially in Brazil, was not naturally straight. It was thick and appeared to be straightened (most likely with the infamous chapinha – flattening iron – that so many women speak of on this blog). But, as this is Brazil, one never knows how another person self-identifies in terms of race. Up to that point, the topic of race/color had never really come up during class but as we read more socially-oriented material, ideals and opinions started to come out among the students. T0 be honest, I don’t even remember how a certain dialogue began although I DO remember Rejane referring to herself as “branca” (white).
In truth, her revelation wasn’t shocking but I wanted to know more. During one exercise in class, the material asked everyone to bring in photos of their families to which everyone agreed, except Rejane who crudely rejected the idea. I wondered why. Was this exercise too personal? Was she ashamed of her family? Was it possible that she thought that if people saw her parents, her identity as a “white girl” could be exposed? I had no idea. As the project’s date came closer, she finally relented and brought in photos of herself, her mother and father. As I had expected, both of her parents were of visible African ancestry but both were also light-skinned. As in a previous post from several months ago about the girl I called “Beatriz”, it was also clear in Rejane’s case that either her parents did not have the racial discussion in the home, they too thought of themselves as white people or maybe they indeed referred to her “branquinha”, a term that could be used in a joking manner to say that a person has very fair skin or that the person is in fact, “a little white (girl)”.
During a break in one of the classes, I was curious to know how the only clearly white person (in my view) in the room saw Rejane. “Pedro” had a strong resemblance to American actor Kevin Costner and even wore the same horn-rimmed glasses that the actor wore in the film JFK. “Pedro” also saw Rejane as a black girl, a confused black girl or a black girl in denial, but a black girl nevertheless. As it was not my place to impose my own views onto a topic as personal as racial identity but also thinking of the many people I knew personally who developed black identities well into their 20s and 30s, I did also want to at least introduce the idea to her. There’s no way to be certain of the consequences. Rejane could go her entire life and never have to confront the idea of people seeing her as black. Indeed, if she remained in her same neighborhood which is located in a poor, periphery neighborhood where many light-skinned people most likely also see themselves as white, she may never attain consciousness of this classification. After all, in Brazil, even if no one tells you directly that whiteness is the most desirable classification, this ideal is circulated in countless manners from the mass media to the everyday discourse of Brazilians. White is just better, period; no questions asked.
Soon after the first few conversations about race, Rejane’s opinions on race and color began to expose themselves. For example, one article we read together spoke of entertainers that are generally regarded as attractive. Needless to say, ALL of the entertainers listed with photos were clearly white. I asked the class, a mixture of males and females, to name people they thought were attractive that weren’t already listed. The entire class all named white celebrities. But then I wondered who they thought of as unattractive or even ugly. Although there were a lot of “I don’t know” responses and one person named popular television host Faustão, when the question came to Rejane, she quickly responded without even needing to think about it: actor Lázaro Ramos. Ramos is perhaps the most popular Afro-Brazilian male actor in today’s crop of actors and is married to arguably the most popular Afro-Brazilian female actress, Taís Araújo. What struck me about Rejane’s response is that there are so few black actors who are regularly featured in Brazil’s Eurocentric media (and even fewer who everyday Brazilians know by name as one blogger found). While Ramos is successful as a black actor, he is not considered a top name actor, but even with the lack of black faces on television, Rejane was able to name Ramos as the most unattractive famous person she could think of without giving it much thought.
Rejane’s strong identification with whiteness would reveal itself several other times over the course of months. With the highly anticipated World Cup approaching, the topic of European male tourists coming to Brazil to meet women, sometimes with the promise of marriage and taking them back to Europe, she said, “I wish one would take me back with him.” Clearly at the age of 15, Rejane probably had no idea that a European man would clearly distinguish her from the white women back in his country of origin. She probably also wasn’t aware of how some Brazilian women end up in Europe working as prostitutes, some of whom were promised marriage by “enchanting (white) princes”. And then one day, as we made comparisons between Brazil and other countries, the topic of India came up. Speaking of India’s people, Rejane spoke quite casually of how the skin of Indian people appeared to be “dirty.” After the shock of the other students, Rejane tried to soften her statement by saying that she didn’t mean it that way, that Indian skin color wasn’t like that of negros but that they didn’t look clean. At that point, Pedro, who was seated next to Rejane, turned and told her that her statement sounded very racist. Rejane lowered her head for the rest of the class and played with her cell phone.
A few weeks later, the topic of race would come up again when the photo of a woman who looked very much like American actress Vanessa Williams was featured in an article. Curious, I asked the class if they thought this woman was black or white. Most said white while a few said mulata. Using the woman’s photo as an example, I said that in the United States and for Brazil’s Movimento Negro activists as well as Brazilians of a certain racial consciousness, this woman would be considered black. As Rejane scoffed at the idea, I simply stated that this type of woman could be classified as a “negra de pele clara” (light-skinned black woman). She raised her head with a shocked look on her face and said, “O que” (What)?” At that point, it struck me that she had never heard the term before. Again, as this is a personal matter, I simply stated that she is free to identify herself in any way that she chooses. And in a country in which so many people desire the classification of white, many people in her social circle may even tell her that she is white if the topic should come up as they also have this desire. But also, there are circles in Brazilian society (be they in upper-middle classes or predominantly white areas) in which people will tell you that their ancestry is exclusively or nearly exclusively European, where people know who is and who is not white.
I can only hope that if she is one day faced with this reality, it doesn’t come as a shock her.
In the following piece from 2004, one of the Movimento Negro’s most important leaders and intellectuals, Sueli Carneiro, provides more insight into the question of identity and how Brazilian society makes the adaptation of a black identity a struggle, even more so if one has a lighter tone of skin.
Note: All of the women in the photo at the top have been featured on this blog and all identify themselves as negras or black women
Against the discourse of “moreninha” mediocrity
By Sueli Carneiro
Several media outlets publish with emphasis photos of selected candidates who will compete in placement for blacks at the University of Brasilia (UnB). Outlets that are positioning themselves against this policy they perceive, in the broad color spectrum of these students another opportunity to disqualify the racial criterion that guides (the process).
One of the characteristics of racism is the way it imprisons the other in fixed and stereotyped images while reserving for the racially hegemonic the privilege of being represented in its diversity. Thus, for advertisers, for example, it’s enough to put a black in the middle of a crowd of whites in a commercial to supposedly ensure respect and appreciation of ethnic and racial diversity and get rid of possible accusations of racial exclusion of minorities. A solitary black or Japanese in an ad peopled by whites represents the set of their communities. After all, black and Japanese are all the same, aren’t they?
Whites, no. They are individualities, they are multiple, complex and thus should be represented. This is also in marked in the phenotypic level in which the diversity of branquitude (whiteness) is values: morenos (brunettes) (2) with black or brown hair, blonds, and redheads, are different shades of whiteness that are seamlessly included within white raciality, even when they present a high degree of morenice (brownness), as occurs with some descendants of Spanish, Italian or Portuguese who, not even because of this, cease to be or feel white. The whiteness is thus diverse and multi-chromatic. However, blackness suffers from all sorts of inquiries.
I insist on telling the way in which the black identity of my daughter, Luanda, was secured on her birth certificate. Her father, white, went to the registrar’s office, the clerk filled in the registry and in the field for color, she writes: branca (white). Her father tells the clerk that the color is wrong, because the mother of the child is negra. The registrar, resistant, corrects the error and puts down the new color: parda (brown). The father reacts again and says that his daughter is not parda. Irritated, the clerk asks, “So what’s your daughter’s color?” The father responds, “Negra”. The clerk replies, “But doesn’t she take after you just a little?” (3)
This is how they are lightening people in Brazil and Brazil (itself). This father, a naturalized Brazilian and of the Aryan phenotype, doesn’t have, as he is in fact white, the metaphysical doubts that haunt raciality in Brazil, a country perceived by him and most white foreigners as a black majority. If not for providence and paternal insistence, my daughter would forever pay the price, with her vast kinky hair, of having the registration of white, as happens with the children of a famous black soccer player.
However, regardless of the first degree miscegenation due to interracial marriage, black families have great chromatic variety in its interior, a legacy of past racial mixtures that have historically been used to weaken the racial identity of blacks. This is done by shifting blackness, which offers light-skinned blacks multiple classifications of color that circulate around here and that currently lend themselves to disqualification of the quota policy.
According to this logic, we should establish racial divisions within the majority of black families with all the conflicting implications stemming from this partition of racial belonging. Then we would have, for example, in a strange situation, the Pitanga family, in which Camila Pitanga (a black woman with light skin like her mother), and Rocco Pitanga (one of the actors of the novela Da cor do pecado), although siblings and being children of the same parents, she and her mother would white and he and her father black. It’s not unjustified, therefore, that the racial consciousness of the Pitanga family always made Camila refuse the continuous attempts to dispossess her of her racial identity and black family.
Similarly, important leaders of the Movimento Negro Brasileiro (Brazilian Black Movement), light-skinned blacks, through frank engagement in the racial question, come demarcating the resistance that has historically been undertaken by that segment of our people to the nods of betrayal of blackness, which are always offered to the lightest (skinned).
For almost two decades, a significant portion of young black men entered the Hip Hop Movement politically coined for themselves the self-definition of pretos (blacks) and the slogan PPP (Poder para o Povo Preto or Power for Black People) as opposed to establishing these chromatic classifications within blackness, and these young people, in their majority, light-skinned blacks like one of its main idols and leaders, Mano Brown of (Hip Hop group) Racionais MCs. What these young people know by everyday experience is that the police is never deceived, be they lighter or darker.
However, the redefinitions of racial identity that have been undertaken for the advancement of black consciousness and that are already perceivable in statistical surveys, tend to be awarded only to a supposed or actual opportunism promoted by quota policies, a recent phenomenon that doesn’t explain the entire proceeding.
The flight from blackness has been the extent of awareness of their social rejection and disembarkation from it was always encouraged and seen in a good light by society. Each light-skinned or dark-skinned black who celebrates his mestiçagem (racial mixture) or supposed morenidade (state of brownness) against their black identity has guaranteed acceptance (4). The same happens with whoever says that the problem is only that of class and not race. These are the politically correct discourses of our society. They are discourses that the white Brazilian taught us, likes to hear and that blacks that have sense obeys and repeats. But things are changing…
* Sueli Carneiro is CNPq researcher and director of Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra (Black Women’s Institute)
1. While Afirma has been completely defunct for a number of years, Portal Afro’s archives can still be accessed although the site’s content hasn’t been updated in many years as well.
2. The term moreno (masculine) and morena (feminine) is an important term to understand when speaking of race in Brazil. The term can be used to equally define white persons with dark hair, persons of any type of racial mixture or darker skinned persons of African ancestry. In reality, only blonds and red-heads are excluded from being defined with this term.
3. Several articles on the blog also reveal how Brazilians consistently persuade persons of visible African ancestry to identify themselves as anything except negros/negras. This is also common is also common in official documents and police reports. See here for a few more examples.
4. During the World Cup, a larger percentage of web surfers found this blog in search of more information about futebol superstar Neymar who one could argue is a clear example of what Carneiro is saying here.