In Brazil, is being black a choice? Two women illustrate why it is so difficult to know exactly how black Brazilians there really are

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Note from BW of Brazil: This type of article really gets to the crux of understanding the complexities that come into play if the discussion is race in Brazil. I’ve posted a number of short pieces in which Brazilians discuss their struggles with coming to a racial/black identity and the journey to getting there. The stories are always intriguing…Intriguing because it’s not something I’ve ever had to deal with personally. As an African-American male, I’ve known from the time I knew that there were differences between black people and white people that I was black. And when there was a moment of confusion when I thought my light-skinned mother might have been white, she immediately straightened me out.

In a country like Brazil, where people are often taught from very early on which racial group they should aspire to be, emulate or at least seek to pass such racial characteristics on to their children, this conversation often doesn’t happen. In fact, people are often conditioned to ignore certain physical traits that may signal that they aren’t white, and thus provoke a certain confusion that people may come to have about their racial belonging. 

I’ve seen this too many times than I can count in dealing with Brazil. Recently, I was having a discussion with a colleague of mine with whom I’ve worked with for about a year and half here in São Paulo. The guy, who I shall call “Emilio” is very intelligent, mild mannered and speaks pretty decent English. Last year, catching the subway together, we had a number of good conversations about Brazil’s position on the world stage, the economy and world history. Always good dialogue. Those topics aside, I always wonder how he classified himself in terms of race. Emilio is average height, very fair-skinned and hair that is, for the most part straight, but has a definite wave pattern to it.

As the topic of race had never come up in our conversations, there was never a situation in which I thought there was a window of opportunity to bring up the topic. That is, until three weeks ago. On one particular day, there was a term in Portuguese that I was having trouble translating for an article, so I asked Emilio. The article discussed everyday violence in Rio de Janeiro and the recent murder of a 51-year musician whose car was shot up 80 times by the Brazilian Army. Emilio read a few lines of the article and commented that “negros (black people) were always being killed in Rio.”

After a brief exchange on the topic, I felt the window of opportunity had opened up, so I told him how I was always intrigued by how Brazilians saw the issue of race and, as such, I was curious as to how he saw himself in terms of race. Emilio didn’t hesitate and immediately responded, “Oh, I’m white.” On the one hand, I was a bit surprised because, besides having a wave pattern in his hair, Emilio’s facial features just didn’t convey whiteness. Quite honestly, in his face, I would not have been surprised if I were to meet one of his parents and one them were either brown-skinned or lighter-skinned with clearly African features. On the other hand, this is Brazil I’m speaking of…

I could have even agreed had Emilio said he was a “moreno”, “pardo” or “mestiço”, but white (branco)? He couldn’t be serious, I thought. But he was dead serious. When I asked him if he had any people in his family, now or in the past, who were about my complexion he responded “no”. I always liken my own complexion to that of actor Denzel Washington. In a discussion with an American colleague in that same week, she said that, where she’s from (the mountain region in the US West), Emilio would be classified as “Mexican” or perhaps “Hispanic”, but definitely not white. 

I would never get into a debate about the topic with anyone I have this discussion with because it is a personal thing and Brazil is the sort of place where, in terms of race, people can be whatever they think they are…well, unless they are conscious enough to recognize having experienced what many African-Americans call a “nigga moment”. 

In another conversation from back in about 2014, I still remember having a conversation with another man here in SP. This guy, who I will call “Carlos”, is about my complexion and clearly identifies himself as black. But as he’s a friend on Facebook, I had seen photos of his wife who is very fair-skinned with shoulder length, wavy brown hair. His wife’s hair was not even curly, but had a silky type of texture with a slight wave to it. When the subject of Carlos’s wife’s identity came up, he provided a thought-provoking response. 

His wife grew up poor but her mother was a maid in the home of a rich, (clearly) white family in the upper crust neighborhood of Pinheiros. Having visited the Pinheiros neighborhood numerous times due to her mother’s job, Carlos’s wife had had enough experiences with what she called “real white people” in that area. Those experiences of hearing certain comments, and observing and experiencing certain behavior and treatment taught her that, although she was fair-skinned, she was not white. And for this reason Carlos’s wife identified herself as a black woman. 

After hearing so many stories like this, the piece below was all too familiar to me. But as I have recently changed my views on how I see the race issue in Brazil, I can say that the stories and the conclusion represent where I was on race up until a few years ago but it is definitely worth the read for anyone trying to understand the dilemma of racial identity/classification in Brazil

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In Brazil, is being black a choice?

But, in the end, can a pardo (brown/mixed) or mestiço (person of mixed race) be considered negro (black)? In the land of miscegenation, embranquecimento (whitening), and colonization, the answer to this question is more important than one imagines

By Catharina Rocha

Gicelle Alves Souza Macedo, 36, owns a beauty salon in the south of São Paulo. Born in the city of Mascote, Bahia, she has lived in São Paulo for about 10 years and is the mother of three children.

Racial questions have never been an issue in her life. Gicelle knows she has black children, Gicelle knows she’s not a pessoa branca (white person), but when we ask her, “What are you?” The answer was straightforward: “Actually, I don’t know what to say. I look in the mirror and I don’t fit. I don’t see myself as white, I don’t see myself as black … Morena? Well, maybe that doesn’t exist…And I feel like this, something sort of undefined.”

In childhood, the most common nickname “sarará” due to the fact that her skin was brown with a reddish touch, combined with curly, light brown, almost red  hair. “I hated it. The boys in my town made me the laughing stock. And I didn’t understand, nor did I know what it was to be ‘sarará’, ‘fire hair’. I wanted to die!” she says.

It was at fifteen that Gicelle began to straighten her hair and dye it in black. “I thought if I dyed my hair like that, people would at least start calling me morena. Which for me is better than sarará, even though it is still not a defined thing. I most wanted to get away from this strange thing, of not fitting in with anyone,” she says.

The case of Gicelle still raises another point: in Brazil, racial classification, according to the perspective of others, changes geographically.

For historical reasons, the South of the country has, predominantly, a larger white population. The city of Cunhataí, in the state of Santa Catarina, for example, according to the IBGE, is the only municipality in the country that did not register blacks in its population in the last Census.

In the Northeast, the black predominance is sharply accentuated in the case of the city of Antônio Cardoso, in Bahia, because it is the Brazilian city most aware of its blackness. It is the only municipality in the country where more than half of the inhabitants declared themselves preto (black) in the 2010 Census (if you add the pardos, the percentage jumps from 50.6% to 87%).

Gicelle Alves Souza Macedo, de 36 anos
Gicelle Alves Souza Macedo, 36 years old. Photo: personal archive

As Gicelle grew up in the state that has the largest concentration of black people, Bahia, but came, like many Brazilians, to live in the southeast region, she found that the perception of others in relation to her and her characteristics became greater.

“In São Paulo, I’m more different. People talk more about the color of my skin, about how exotic I am and how I have the cor do ‘pecado’ (color of ‘sin’),” she says.

Gicelle’s miscegenation is questioned on a very common point, with other Brazilians: that of lack of knowledge.

Her maternal great grandmother was indigenous and was part of a tribe in the state of Ceará and there she gave birth to Gicelle’s grandmother. The family’s estrangement from the tribe and indigenous culture took place in a forced manner. Gicelle says that her grandmother was taken away from the tribe while still very young, by a Bahian family that “adopted” her. And this information of indigenous origin was revealed only recently.

As for the paternal side, Gicelle doesn’t know for sure, she’s sure of one thing: that her father was a homem negro, de pele escura (dark-skinned black man).

Since the micro-entrepreneur lost her mother as a newborn and her father, at the same time, abandoned the family, Gicelle was raised by her grandmother, without her knowing the origin of half of her family tree. “I only saw him by photo and had no contact with his family… When I am asked about my family tree, the most I can say is about my grandmother being Indian, but I don’t know what kind of indigenous people, nor if I have any more mixture in my blood (which I probably do),” she says.

Gicelle’s case is just one of the results of Brazilian diversity, which does not have a perfectly homogeneous culture, but rather a mosaic of different cultural and ethnic aspects.

It would, in fact, be much simpler only to accept that our ethnicity is really indefinable, subjective, and that concrete answers are nonexistent in a discussion that is very much based on the individual perspective of each.

The problem is that it is part of human need that sense of belonging and it is in people like Gicelle that the difficulty presents itself, because the classification not only depends on the way you see yourself, but on how society sees you.

​”I really would like to know how to define what is right. To know what I am. Even if there is no right answer, but having at least an idea, a standard.”

We can also see that even if Gicelle knew how to identify herself, there would still be people who would disagree with her view of herself.

Amanda Ferreira Leite, de 24 anos
Amanda Ferreira Leite, 24 years old. Photo: personal archive

This is what happens with Amanda Ferreira Leite, 24 years old, with a degree in editorial production. Amanda, in comparison to Gicelle, has a lighter skin tone and is the daughter of a black mother and a white father. Unlike Gicelle, Amanda has maintained her hair natural, curly, since very young. For this reason, the perception of other people in relation to her becomes a little more concrete, because the negroide phenotype, with Afro hair, works as a kind of self-assertion of her classification.

Despite this, Amanda continues to be constantly questioned about her declaration. She tells of a situation in which she had to renew her  Registro Geral (RG or ID), and that, as part of the procedure, she had to declare her race. As she always does in these types of situations, she indicated the option “preta”, but when she got the form back, they had changed her classification to “parda”.

“I didn’t say anything, because there really was no need. After all, this information doesn’t even appear on my RG, but it was an extremely uncomfortable situation,” she says. “The clerk asked me, I declared myself, and she altered it because she wanted to. Because she looked at me, she stopped and thought, ‘I don’t think so, I see you as parda and so that’s how it’s gonna be’ (see note one), so what is the sense of self-declaration?”

Inside her house, the situation is no different: her mother strongly believes that Amanda is indeed a black woman and has always encouraged her to think this way; her father believes that because her color is lighter and her miscegenation comes from a close generation, she is what is called a “morena.”

In Amanda’s case, the parda classification becomes a problem because her hair and her biotype are part of what is judged as a black person, by common sense. In advertisements, on television, in the movies, when they portray a black woman, it is exactly types like Amanda’s that appear.

However, using the parda classification for people like Amanda, is to include them within what is considered “negro” in Brazil.

For Amanda, her classification as preta is an act of resistance against several moments of veiled prejudice that she’s gone through.

“If I suffer discrimination on the street, because people think of me as black, why the hell would not I classify myself that way? I live as a black person, I socialize as a black person and I am seen as a black person.”

Amanda lives in the southern region of São Paulo, and because she is a middle-class girl, she often frequents places with a predominance of people with higher purchasing power and white. She reveals that she constantly gets crooked looks, hostile treatments and is often ignored and believes that this is due to being “a person of color.”

“Once I was in the food court of the Pátio Paulista Shopping mall, holding a tray of food that I had just bought, and a woman came and tried to put her tray on mine because she believed that I worked as a cleaning lady there,” she reports.

With her family on her father’s side, she said she had already experienced situations in which they made clear a difference in treatment because she was not white and the same happens at different times in her life because, according to her, prejudice “is your day-to-day”. The problem is that when Amanda says that she is black to the same people who, consciously or not, practiced racial prejudice with her, the come back is that she is not negra, but “at most, parda”.

“When someone tells me that I am not black, that I am brown, that I am not so dark, it does not mean that this person genuinely thinks I am not black, it means that person feels more comfortable believing that I’m like this… No one wants to say that he dates a preta, that he works with a preta, who lives with a preta … And worse, a preta who studied, who knows how to speak well and who knows how to defend herself with concise arguments,” she complains.

Professor Carlos Machado classifies this type of situation as a consequence of the historical process that began to see miscegenation as something necessary, to deny blackness in the country. “The concept of being black really doesn’t fit into a single stereotype because it changes with interracial relationships. So when you are black and you’re not in what is considered the ‘standard’ of black, people tend to say that you’re not black … But if your nose is thinner, if your skin is a bit lighter or your hair is straight, are not you black? You are, but then comes the question of colorism and embranquecimento (whitening),” he explains.

Colorism and the nuances of black

Colorism is a term created in 1982 by Alice Walker and basically says that a black person with lighter skin has more advantages compared to a black person with darker skin, because the first person can “transit” and mix in some contexts as a white person.

That is, the more pigmented the skin of a person, the more exclusion and discrimination they will suffer – and the lighter the color of a black person, the more advantages he or she will possess (but they will never be accepted as a white person, in fact).

The doctor in Social History and consultant at the Center for Studies of Labor Relations and Inequalities (CEERT) in the areas of Gender and Education, Giselle Cristina dos Santos Santos, classifies colorism as an issue that has been brought up since our colonizing past.

“Our constitution was based on a discourse and social practices that tended to consider the practice of miscegenation as a misconception, which put the mestiços at a lower level than the white man, but at the same time put them in places and gave opportunities that negros retintos (dark-skinned blacks) were denied,” she says.

For Giselle, to see the practice of miscegenation as a positive reference of Brazilian identity, is in fact masking a process of violence and subordination of black bodies, especially black women. “Miscegenation was and still is a process historically linked to practices of power relations and violence,” she points out.

Precisely because of this history in which, in some way, the non-white population with lighter skin could have some social advantages and was intentionally encouraged, the number of mestiços is significant in our population censuses.

Giselle points out that it is important to point out that these people, although they are not dark-skinned blacks and are not at the heart of the consequences of racial discrimination, still do not have the privileged position of white people. “Most of the time, those who are not white, but who are not dark, can reach a higher social level, but are never effectively included, are never totally in a condition that we can call privileged,” she says.

Giselle exemplifies colorism as follows: “Imagine a party in which black people with dark-skinned are barred at the door; however, black people with lighter skin, or pardos, manage to enter. Yet, these people will never have access to the VIP area of this party.”

Still on the debate about colorism, within the Brazilian context, which starts from the logic of miscegenation and is based on the discourse of national identity, Giselle points it out as a very recent discussion that needs a deeper view of society as a whole.

In her perspective, which is shared by many movements in favor of being black that have already been building an argument on the subject, Giselle believes that the most appropriate term for what is called “colorism” is that of “pigmentocracy”.

“Pigmentocracy also talks about this process of structuring society and how we tend to favor lighter skin tones in place of those who are more pigmented,” she explains.

The historian emphasizes that the term carries a stronger, more important political, historical and sociological sense than that of colorism. “Although the nomenclature ‘colorism’ is very important and valid, mainly because it has recently gained more space in social networks, in this scenario of militancy that’s a little younger, the concept of ‘pigmentocracy’ brings in its own definition and etymology what is central: the aspect of the power relationship that is guided and that defines what favors or disfavors those who have more or less pigmentation,” she emphasizes.

We talked about the theme of colorism with Antônio Carlos Malachias, a researcher at the Nucleus of Support for Research and Interdisciplinary Studies of the Black Brazilian – NEINB/USP and consultant of the MEC/SECAD for the coordination and elaboration of the National Plan of Implementation of the National Curricular Guidelines for Education of Ethnic-Racial Relations and for the Teaching of Afro-Brazilian and African History and Culture. According to him, “it is important to realize that although it is a term imported from the USA, colorism presents itself in the country in a different way.”

According to him, the way in which the term has been transposed to the country can generate a misunderstanding of meaning in our scenario.

“The bases for building an ethnic-racial identity in Brazil are constructed differently. In the USA, it’s the white who determines to the black, that this is not his place, that he is segregated within society. The American model of domination differs from our construction, from the process of colonization itself, which, here, implies relations between the ethnic groups that occurred in a forced manner”, he details.

The researcher goes back to the questions of eugenics and the history regarding miscegenation, which was valued within a process of whitening in Brazil and relates them directly to colorism or pigmentocracy. “If we understand colorism as a science or a pigmentocratic behavior, in which the darker ones are more passed over, we hurt what is in the essence of the Brazilian soul, which is the belief of a homogenous society”, or for Antônio Carlos, this form of miscegenation is what most hinders our understanding of race relations and the identification of our people.

“To think of colorism in Brazil, with such a particular racial model, makes people with black ancestry or  ascendency obliged to claim their status as black, whereas in the USA, for example, it is not necessary to make such a claim. Having it in your blood, you are black, period. “

Antônio Carlos concludes that this definition, because it is more “easy” in the US, and being seen, not only from the point of view of the individual himself, but also from the legal point of view, “it is possible to organize society to structure itself against racism and segregation, much more effectively.”

For him, because we look at miscegenation in a more amicable way and ignore, much of the time, the process of cruelty against the black and the mestiço himself, we create the false idea that here in our territory we have the so-called “racial democracy.”

“In Brazil, since its colonization, racial prejudice against the black and the Indian has always existed and presented itself in an extremely violent way, but from historical constructions such as the whitening laws, we came to have the mestiço or pardo as a symbol of decrease in the population of this race considered ‘inferior’,” says the expert.

That is, since then, a scenario has been constructed in which racism is veiled. Mestiça and parda people, who in any part of the world are considered as black, don’t see themselves from this perspective. According to Antônio Carlos, they have in a more amenable way “the retaliation of black peoples in relation to the group of the dominator (the homem branco or white man) and makes us have this less objective understanding of who we are.”

For the philosopher Clodoaldo Arruda, “there is no color shade to define who is and who is not and what exists in Brazil is an effort not to recognize this and this issue is directly linked to structural racism.

In his view, “treating blackness as if it were something optional is wrong.”

Source: Alma Preta

Note

  1. This is a common experience in Brazil. Although official census takers are trained to record the color person being interviewed declares, there are numerous other scenarios in which an employee or agent takes it upon themselves to label a person according to their own opinion, as another post with another woman’s experience illustrates.
About Marques Travae 3110 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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