Note from BW of Brazil: If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may wonder why we consistently post personal stories that approach the question and development of identity. Well, if you haven’t already realized, the nature of Brazilian culture is the destruction of all things black that remind the country of its slave origins. From the time the nation exploited the labor of 4 million African slaves that entered the country between 1538 and 1888, to the burning of records to destroy documentation of Africans and their descendants, to the mass importation of about 4-5 million European immigrants between 1870 and 1940 to the promotion of miscegenation and distancing from black identity, the goal has been and continues to be the destruction of the black race from the nation’s borders. Many people of visible African ancestry are also familiar with other methods of erasing blackness such as omitting the terms “preta” or “negra” (both meaning black) from official forms or police record categories, to birth certificates that classify light or dark brown skin as “pardo”.
The stigmatization of blackness has led millions of “would be” negros and negras to identify themselves with all sorts of “more acceptable”, “more positive” terms such as “moreno”, “mulata” and “pardo”, all signifying racial mixture or a “brown-ness” that positions them closer to the highly desired classification of “branca”, or white. As any of these terms signifying “less black” is often considered a compliment and “negra”/”preta” a term to be avoided, it may never be possible to know for sure how many black people there really are in Brazil and if an “accurate” percentage were accepted, by whose standards would this be true?
To understand just how powerful the preference for whitening, whiteness or a lighter category, consider this. In a survey, when individuals who identify themselves as mulatos/pardos were asked to choose only from the negro (black) or branco (white) categories, 44% opted for the white category. In the same test, one-third of the mulatos/pardos that re-classified themselves as brancos had medium and dark skin tones. (1)
Will all of this mind, one could consider the acceptance of a black identity in the face of overwhelming tactics of persuasion to whiten one’s self as a victory of consciousness. The whitening of darker elements of the population is not unique to Brazil, but rather a goal/practice that can be noted throughout Latin America. The process of “coming out” as black was a similar process for Elaine Vilorio, a young woman originally from the Dominican Republic living in the United States. Below is another story of a Brazilian woman’s journey into blackness.
“When I became black”
by Livia Lima
It’s been one year that I’ve been black. This did not happen by chance, nor from one day to another, but it’s possible to define that one year ago I assumed this identity.
I was born branca (white). Almost blonde, some said. My hair was thin and light colored, pale skin, with accordance to my name “lívido, pálido” (livid, pale). Relatives and visitors always complimented me when they came to meet me. “What a beautiful girl, branquinha (a little white girl).”
I was a racist child. When I was very small, I would say that I didn’t like my mother’s color, according to her. I would say that my sister, darker than I at the time, must be the daughter of the mulher negra (black woman) who lived on the street. I don’t remember.
At school I thought I was ugly. I hated my hair. I cried in the attempts to untangle it, I suffered when I got lice. I wondered: “Why didn’t God give me a straight hair?”
Since six or seven years (of age), I went through all kinds of chemical treatments to “tame it”. In adolescence, I kept it tied down all the time. I suffered from jokes of bad taste. At about 16, after using a certain product, it fell out in a clump right in front of my head.
I declared myself parda (brown) in the inscriptions of the vestibular (college entrance exam). In the journalism course, of the 70 students in the class, the only six afrodescendentes (African descendants), of which I was part, were cotistas (affirmative action students). The distinction became clearer. The inequalities also.
Five years or so ago I started to ask the hairdresser for a less aggressive treatment, a relaxation that maintained the curls. A couple of years back, I began to accept the volume, the “cabelo armado” (similar to a blow out). For one year I didn’t do any kind of chemical treatment.
This is my natural hair. I’m pretty like this. This totally changed my relationship with my hair and my color. I assume my blackness in the body and in the cause. I have an interest in redeeming our history and our culture. Previously I thought that calling me morena was a compliment, an affectionate nickname. Today, whoever is at my side calls me preta (black). I’m happier that way.
1. Bailey, Stanley R. 2008. “Unmixing for Race Making in Brazil.” American Journal of Sociology
Source: Nós, mulheres da periferia, Bailey, Stanley R. 2008. “Unmixing for Race Making in Brazil.” American Journal of Sociology