Note from BW of Brazil: Sometime back in 2017, an African-American journalist and I were having a conversation on a topic we never tire of discussing: how Afro-Brazilians see, interpret and deal with race. Inevitably, as it Always does, the conversation ended up falling into the never worn issue of why so many black Brazilians, particularly those of some sort of prominence never seem to settle down with another black person. Comparing some of the information we had both been compiling in our years of studying the racial situation in Brazil, Luana Génot’s organization happened to come up.
The founder and diretor of the non-profit Instituto Identidades do Brasil (ID_BR), meaning Identities of Brazil Institute, I had known about Luana for many years. In the first few months of this blog, I posted a story about Luana and the diffuiculties of black Brazilian models being featured in Brazil’s biggest fashion shows such as São Paulo Fashion Week and Rio Fashion. The number of black models on Brazilian runways being so scarce, there was talk of implementing a system of quotas to put some more color in these events. Looking back, it hasn’t really changed much.
Becoming aware of Luana, I was immediately curious about her last name. It wasn’t the typical Portuguese surname like da Silva, Santos, Ferreira, Pereira, Gonçalves or the like. Génot? If I were to guess, I’d be willing to bet the nme was probably of French origin. How did Luana end up with a French surname, that is, if the name was actually French. Of course, there’s a few possibilites. I remember discovering the intriguing story of veteran African-American actor Sidney Poitier’s surname. which is French. The Bahamas, where Poitier’s family was from, is an English-speaking nation.
As it turns out, na Englishman with the Poitier surname migated to Cat Island, a district in the Bahamas, where Charles Leonard Poitier’s wife had na estate with around 90 slaves. The slaves kept the name. So there you have it. In Luana’s case, my journalist friend informed me that Luana’s husband was white. So there you have it.
Anyway, recently, Luana addressed the issue of interracial relationships as well as the questioning of such relationships that is so common in the Afro-Brazilian community these days. Below is what she had to say. Throughout, I will interject with my own comments.
Luana Génot: Being in an interracial relationship is not synonymous with racism being over
We have been putting the discussion of structural racism on our tables and trying to break various taboos every day
By Luana Génot
“The future is mestiço (mixed race),” shouted one gentleman when he saw me walking hand in hand with Louis years ago. That man was not all wrong. Louis, the white man, and I, the black woman, got married and had Alice, who is parda (brown). We have been putting the discussion of structural racism on our tables and trying to break various taboos every day. Easy, it is not.
In terms of the future being mixed, back in late 80s and 90s, I actually didn’t see a problem with this. Perhaps mixing of the race WOULD solve the race problem I thought, with my own naive mind. But after learning about how race mixing has been used as a system of domination around the world as well as a mechanism for attaining power and disappearing “undesirables”, I became more critical of the reasons that bring couples together. This isn’t to say that love cannot exist between peoples of different races, I am simply saying that we need to also acknowledge other reasons and interests that bring couples together. People don’t marry for simply love. If that were the case, you’d see a lot more well-to-do, beautiful white women marrying average, uneducated, poor black men. I don’t see that very often. Do you?
It’s not uncommon for Louis to be asked if Alice is adopted or to attract prying eyes when the three of us go to a restaurant. And this is not just our story. Many interracial couples have been through similar situations. We cannot normalize this strangeness and differential treatment.
As she said, this is common. But it seems more common that the black partner is usually the one asked this question as, with the whitening process, the children of these mixtures often come out much lighter than the black parent.
Could it be that we are all together and really mixed? It would be impossible to explain the complex logic of interracial relationships in Brazil in a few lines, from a single perspective and, moreover, taking into account a history of almost four centuries of slavery added to the subjectivities that focus on the construction of social relations and romantic relationships.
I understand that you cannot romanticize the history of the mixture of races in Brazil. It is also a matter of something linked to a strategy of the embranquecimento (whitening) of the population, which had as ideal a “racial improvement” of the country, from the gradual whitening of the skin, associated to a mistaken logic of intellectual improvement. This story is often not told.
I had read about this often before I actually started traveling to Brazil regularly and seeing the whitening process in action in so many black families.
Today, interracial relationships are even measured by the IBGE. Research on nuptiality studies the union profiles of people, their sexes, races and ages, among other issues, for data production and analysis of information about social dynamics. Does love really see no color?
Realistically, I think people should stop saying this. It’s the same as people saying they don’t see color. It is na escape from reality. Simply because one wants to suggest that they consider themselves non-racist because they claim not to see color, pretending to not see color is yet another way of not being able to deal with the reality of race and the very real existence of racial inequalities, privileges and penalties that affect groups of people everyday. Simply because one places their hands over their eyes and thus can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Ideally, people are more than the colors of their skins. And love (ah, love) brings individuals closer regardless of race or social condition. But that’s not all that happens: 70% of whites are in relationships with people of the same color. This same logic also tends to be reproduced in application “crushes”. It is not uncommon to hear from white friends, “Miga (friend), I caught a Deus grego (Greek god) yesterday,” who is always a white man. Why is that?
Deifying beleza branca (white beauty) is no accident. Friends and scholars note that because of racism and the established Eurocentric matrix, white men would be the preferred standard of beauty and in relationships. Others argue that affection among blacks becomes stronger as racial literacy increases. “Pretos e pretas estão se amando” (black men and women are loving each other),” said rapper Rincon Sapiência.
As we have seen, it’s not just white men who are deified in this way. With the ongoing debate over the question of palmitagem, both black men and women must acknowledge that they have BOTH been manipulated into the adoration of whiteness.
I also believe that, based on the comments and conversations I’ve had with people, it is possible that affection among blacks will grow stronger as racial literacy increases. I know of one particular case in which a black man in São Paulo was married and had three children with a white woman. Somewhere along the way, I started noticing that he was beginning to attain a different understanding of race, racism and race relations. Like most black Brazilians, he was taught that race didn’t matter, that Brazilians were all “equal”, but once he pulled off the “blindfold”, he saw a different reality.
One day, he posted a long message on his social network profile in which he explianed his transition in racial identity. He explained that his understanding of the mythology on race that Brazil had long taught its black population was in fact changing. After explaining his journey, he wrote that, had he had the knowledge of the race issue at the time that he met his white wife that he has now, he probably wouldn’t have married her. I thought to myself, ‘This brotha won’t be with this white woman for much longer’. A year later, he was divorced and ended up meeting and falling in love with a black woman who was married to a white man and going through the same transition in identity.
Some point out that black women are passed over, even by black men, as a consequence of slave-like logic. They therefore argue that interracial relationships for black women would not necessarily be a matter of preference for whites, but also an alternative to loneliness. It’s not two plus two.
Yes, since about 2013 or so, after countless black women had begun were calling out black men who seemed to make it clear that they preferred white women and thus contributed to the high rates of non-married black women, the argument was that “black women don’t palmita”, but rather that they were exploring options for companionship. But the fact was/is, black women are just as affected by the conscious and subconscious belief in white superiority and, increasingly, black men began to point out how they too were being passed over. One clear sign of the validity of this argument was the number of black women who, after declaring themselves lesbians, were choosing white female partners. As one writer pointed out, the validation of self-value that many black Brazilians usually want is white and this applies to both sides.
There are even terms that have gained popularity in this discussion. If the black man has a white woman, he may commonly be called a “palmiteiro”. The expression would therefore be attributed to those who prefer the “fruto branco” (white fruit), the palmito (hearts of palm) (see note one). Some argue for extensive use of the term for black women in interracial relationships, but it is not unanimous.
One time a girl said she would stop following me on social networks because she found out I was in an interracial relationship. Show some respect. I get many more stories from people who, when they discover our family composition, share their stories. I also respect. Anyway, I believe that when we judge people based only on their relationships, we limit ourselves a lot and lose the game against racism.
As black Brazilians slowly come to terms with Brazil’s objective for promoting interracial unions as a means of eventually making the black phenotype disappear, naturally, those who come to recognize this will express anger in seeing domination and the whitening process continue. Of course, it may not be fun to be the object of this anger when it is impossible to know the set of circumstances that led to any particular couple coming together. But it is still a conversation that is very necessary if black Brazilians are serious about their demands for equality, respect and improvement of the community as a whole.
I learned from this journey that an interracial couple is not synonymous that racism is over nor that anti-racism has won. Discourses and attitudes are constructed daily. Is there a fight against racist jokes in family groups, for example, or do people just let them go? More than love, it is possible to get out of passivity and into activity. To love can go beyond the intransitive verb.
The fact is, more than a few people have pointed out the fact that, in Brazil, the existence of so many interracial unions is actually a glaring symptom of racism. With a deeper understanding of how racism functions and how many interracial unions actually prove that white supremacy continues to be perpetuated within mixed families, many people have started to share their stories of how racist jokes and the obvious preference for whiteness comes out in these unions where one would think they would exist.
What we’ve seen from the Brazilian example is, rather than interracial unions diminishing racism, they often simply re-enforce the dominance of the belief in white superiority. How many millions of persons of mixed race must suffer from racist comments and jokes before we understand that, in a country that openly promoted eugenics, mixing is seen as simply a necessary step to whiteness. In other words, mixing is not the actual objective. The objective is the elimination of blackness altogether. And while this belief in white superiority continues to exist, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that interracial unions will somehow magically end this.
The Luana Génot article was originally posted on the O Globo website
- When the discussion of the preference of black men for white women became popular 6-7 years ago, the term “palmiteiro” was coined which preferred to these type of men. In turn, white people came to be referred to as “palmitos” in reference to the crunchy, white vegetable know as “hearts of palm”.