Note from BW of Brazil: Question. Whenever the concept of race comes up, how do you define it? Is it simply a biological concept? Is it simply a social construct as many scholars have erroneously argued? Is it a matter of culture or political ideology? Is it a combination of a few of these things? Now consider the concept in a country such as Brazil is which it is said that almost everyone has at least a drop of African blood. This debate becomes infinitely more complex when we consider the possibility of defining oneself as a certain race because there are benefits that allow members of such race to claim a privilege that had for centuries been the sole possession of another race.
In Brazil, the system of affirmative action made the country’s citizens debate the topic of race with a vehemence that had never before existed in the nation’s history. Besides many believing that affirmative action policies unfairly benefit one group to the exclusion of others, millions of people asked an obvious question. In a place that has mixed its races since its beginnings, how does one define who is black? Are black people only those of the darkest hue of skin tone? If that were the case, perhaps only about 17 million Brazilians would be considered black. Should those who have African ancestry but also European and/or Native Brazilian ancestry be considered black too, as activists have long argued that Brazil treats them almost in the same manner as those with the darkest skin. Should persons who have only distant African ancestry be considered black? Or how about those who, though having a black parent, look as if they are purely descendants of Europeans? What about those who look mostly white but that have certain features that reveal at least a little African ancestry?
All legitimate questions that show that race can be very a confusing if not contradictory concept. For those who believe that fair-skinned persons of African ancestry that possess nearly straight hair should be considered black as well, this could possibly lead to problems. For example, what happens if television producers decide to address the extreme under-representation of black actors and actresses on television by hiring all light-skinned, wavy haired African descendants to increase the percentage of blacks? If all of the new black actresses looked like actress Débora Nascimento or singer Diogo Nogueira (photo above), for example. Through this practice of colorism, such a situation could completely undermine black progress through a pigmentocracy that rewards proximity to a more European appearance.
What about in a situation in which a lighter-skinned person of African ancestry that never defined him or herself as black does so just to get into a good university? This person takes advantage of the system established to benefit blacks but, lacking in political consciousness, has no plan to stand in solidarity with other black people and as soon as said person earns his or her degree, goes back to identifying as white. These are difficult situations to deal with for sure. But they are very real situations that can and in fact have happened in the Brazilian experiment with affirmative action. Keep this in mind as you read the piece below…
On whites, “mestiços” and those who are African descendants when it’s convenient
By Leopoldo Duarte
Before last week they reported that in order to avoid abuse, the evaluating commissions can eliminate from the quota system candidates who don’t appear to be negros (blacks) – pretos (blacks) or pardos (browns) (afrodescendentes or persons of African descent). But the news that the evaluation of applicants for affirmative action will be performed by phenotype and not by genetic ancestry generated controversy. Many considered the initiative discriminatory and even racist against lighter-skinned of afrodescendentes, while others celebrated the implementation of this measure made with the intent of ensuring access of black people in spaces that historically marginalized them. On both sides the same question: what does it mean to be black in Brazil?
From brancos (whites)
Before attempting to define tupiniquim (1) blackness it’s necessary to bear in mind that being white in Brazil has always meant something very different from what is conceptualized in South Africa, the United States and Europe. The branquitude (whiteness) of the Portuguese does not present itself in the same way as the Dutch and British. Not only because of the long Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula, but mainly because race is a culturally constructed concept, thus open to multiple interpretations – see American racialization of white Latinos and our of the northeastern whites.
Once establishing that the Portuguese are not as “pure” as Hitler would approve, it is important to recognize the impossibility of adopting the same criteria of northern Europe to establish whiteness in brasilis land. After all, the physical traits we associate with white people of the Iberian Peninsula are not the same as what we imagine a Swede, a Frenchman, a German or an Irishman. That’s because we are exposed to a wide spectrum of white people – blondes, brunettes, redheads, straight, curly hair, with hooked nose, upturned nose, freckles, black, blue and even violet eyes – which allows us to differentiate whites of the Mediterranean from whites of the Alps, for example. Now when we think of African and Asians…The (racist) tendency is to find that they are all very similar. Although it is known that there are diverse ethnicities among the two groups.
Because of these irregularities of the conception of whiteness it is very difficult to compare racismo à brasileira (Brazilian-styled racism) racism with that of other former colonies mentioned. In Brazil, genetic “purity” has never been a strong parameter. What always mattered was the perception of the white/powerful. Including cases of people who just discovered that they are not white when traveling abroad that are quite common. Even around here, it’s not impossible that someone socially read as white in Salvador doesn’t receive the same reading in Blumenau (in the state of Santa Catarina) (2). Branquitude, as all markings of identity, depends on the references of each. And while one still repeats that “no Brasil todo mundo tem sangue negro” (in Brazil everyone has black blood), no one doubts that Gisele Bündchen, no matter how tanned she may be, is white nor that Pelé is black, but many people have difficulty recognizing the Camila Pitanga as black – even if she declares herself as such. Because in Brazil self-declaration never served for much.
Of the mestiços, persons of mixed race
The “mestiços” never had an official place in the formation of our society. Despite always being perceived as better than their non-white parents, they were never considered equal to white people. Proof of this are the different names given to them, mulato (coming from mule), pardo (or off-white), crioulo (3), etc. All these names mean they were identified as “illegitimate” whites. Which meant that their fate depended on the goodwill of their white parents who both could treat them as either offspring of the manpower or they could treat them as bastards worthy of assistance.
Thus, it can be said that the first Brazilian politics of insertion of afrodescendentes in society was miscegenation, that is, the non-legal impediment of interracial unions was the first opportunity of blacks and Indians give a less worse future to their descendants. The embranquecimento (whitening) of spouses and consequently black and indigenous offspring, then, can be seen as the first “affirmative” action taken by the white elite who dreamed of doing what only Argentina managed: erasing the black population from the territory. This in parallel to the marginalization of former slaves and the replacement by European immigrants in the workplace.
So the next time you praise our mestiçagem (racial mixture) remember that the first “mestiços” were the result of the rape of indigenous and African captives and that this enthusiasm of yours hides the desire to lighten the Brazilian population. To fine-tune your features and dilute your skin tone.
In a society that privileges whiteness over the rest of the ethnic groups, it is no wonder that so many people still have difficulty recognizing their não-branquitude (non-whiteness). Nor is it surprising that so many people reject blackness itself and declare their color in terms that serve as code for quase-brancos (near-whites) or nem-tão-negros (not-so-black) such as “moreno”, “cor de jambo”(4), “cor de burro quando foge” (the color of a donkey when it flees), caboclo (5), etc. In a culture where one still associates blackness to slavery and servitude, it is understandable that whoever can go pass for white doesn’t hesitate to do so. Because in a society still colonized by European ideals, priding oneself in not resembling the colonizer is as revolutionary as disgraceful.
From the blacks
For those who are still confused “negro” is a census term that unites pretos e pardos (blacks and browns) (afrodescedentes). As I already said here about my problem with “afrodescedentes”, today I would just remind you that as humanity originated in Africa, the phenotypes of homo sapiens emerged from Africans. And different from what we are taught, there are black people with naturally straight hair, blond, redhead, with blue eyes, africanos de pele clara (fair-skinned Africans) and other multitudes of attributes and combinations. Blackness is much more diverse than one sees in National Geographic.
Personally, I prefer to think of the term “negro” as a socio-cultural identity and, above all political, of those people oppressed by the racist system of eurodescendente (European descendant) white supremacy. In Brazil, more specifically, it would be the Indians and descendants of Africans that have their non-whiteness as justification for contempt. Not always do I include Asians because, unlike Aso-Yankees and Aso-Europeans, ours still haven’t politically deserved social inclusion nor are subject to the same historical persecution and extermination.
Of the afroconvenientes
Since the implementation of affirmative action, the number of Brazilians who have gone on to declare themselves black has only increased. Possibly because it was the first time in our history in that being of color conceded opportunities and not only exclusion – emotional, sexual, economic, social, political, aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, …
And as it couldn’t cease from being the country of the jeitinho, people who always made a question of omitting the “pé na cozinha” (foot in the kitchen) (6) started to mention their black heritage – a long time ago eclipsed by European ancestors – mainly in application forms in public competitions. This type is called the afroconveniente.
Afrodecandentes (Afro-decadents)- as one friend calls them – usually being pardo people (afrodescendentes) who enjoy the white “passability” and even whites – in the brazuca (Brazilian) conception – who enjoy all the benefits inherent in whiteness, but that have the apathy to appropriate themselves of black identity and culture for mere convenience. These people tend to corroborate the fallacious fantasy of “racial democracy” invented to exempt the white elite of responsibilities.
Interestingly this kind of “profiteer” is that they cling to the American concept of “one drop of blood” to justify the use of quotas, but they forget that in the US the great-great grandson of a black person, will never be white. They import the advantages, but evade the burdens. As with the white skinned, green-eyed doctor and resident of Rio’s south zone that was highlighted in the media for demanding quotas in competition for the Foreign Ministry and that doesn’t consider himself black, but afrodescendente. As if in Brazil racism required a copy of the family tree to identify who should be hurt, humiliated and exterminated.
Since the controversy about Rachel Dolezal – a white mitômana (compulsive liar) that did a cosplay as a black woman for 10 years – the distrust of black activists with their brothers of high passability has only increased. These non-white-not-so-blacks, in turn, have intensified the debate on colorism often ignoring the fact that the term was coined by black American feminists to debate the privileges of barely black people in a white supremacist system. In short, they are translating a concept thought for a segregated society for ours that still believes in the communion of the races.
My problem with colorism is that, if here the possibility of someone like Mariah Carey having been enslaved refers to the fictional novela (soap opera) A Escrava Isaura (The Slave Isaura) (7), in the US there would be no drama at all. Because racism in Brazil is a pigmentocrático (pigmentocratic), and the more Negroid features one has, the more negatively exposed to racism one will be. What in fact makes light-skinned blacks have more privileges, but often the racism they face comes from relatives – usually from the white part of the family that rejects the not-so-white. What in turn reveals other issues and consequences of racism, but in a mild way compared to the violence directed at the pretas retintas (very dark-skinned black people), with cabelo bombril (steel wool hair) and rustic features. This is not a competition just a realization that racist discrimination is less subtle to blackening of the skin.
In for pardos and pretos that have passability self-declaring themselves negro is often part of a trajectory of resistance. As for pardos and pretos without passability…the political position occupied in this racist society is (hetero) declared from birth. So nothing is fairer than the rights of those that could never disguise their blackness being ensured. Not least because the quotas were created to empretecer (blacken) the spaces of power, something that bad or good has never been fully ruled out for negros-quase-brancos (almost-white-blacks) – Nilo Peçanha came to preside over our Republic. So, if the major conflict of your blackness is being perceived as such, remember that not everyone has that privilege.
Source: Revista Forum
- The tupiniquins, also called the tupinaquis, topinaquis and tupinanquins, are a group of indigenous Brazilians belonging to the Tupi nation.
- One of three states that make up the southern region of Brazil. The three states, which also include Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, make up the whitest region in the country as about 80% of citizens of these three states classify themselves as white. As this part of the country received a huge portion of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, the region is sometimes thought of as an extension of Europe in Latin America. As whiteness is often a flexible concept in Brazil and includes many people who also have African and/or indigenous ancestry, the southern region is where one finds many Brazilians who are ‘really white’ and would be considered such even in the American or European context of whiteness.
- A term used during the slavery era referring to Brazilian born Africans. In today’s context it is sometimes used as an insult in reference to a black Brazilian.
- Meaning ‘color of jambo’. Jambo is a fruit that comes in three varieties: jambo-rosa (pink), jambo-branco (white) and jambo-vermelho (red). In reference to skin color, morena jambo or morena de cor jambo (morena of the color jambo) refers to a person who appears to have a year round tanned color.
- The terms caboclo, caboco, mameluco, caiçara, cariboca or curiboca all refer to a person of mixed European/indigenous ancestry.
- A well-known phrase that is used to remind a Brazilian that he or she has at least a few drops of African blood.
- Based on an 1875 novel, A Escrava Isaura would go on to become a popular Brazilian television novela (soap opera), first in 1976 and then again in 2004. The story revolves around the misadventures of Isaura, a white and educated slave of noble character, who was the victim of a debauched master. The author of the novel, Bernardo Guimarães, went to great lengths to emphasize the pure white beauty of Isaura who didn’t denounce her status as a slave because she didn’t present any African traits, was educated and there was nothing in her that would “denounce the abjection of slavery.” Source