Question of Identity: Self-declared pretos, or blacks, outnumber whites in Bahia
For experts, an increase in the number of self-declared blacks in Bahia has to do with a change of behavior
Bahia will always be a special place for me. When I first got into the “Brazil thing”, Bahia, specifically its capital city of Salvador, was the place I wanted to visit first and it was. Of everything I’d read about Brazil in the nine months between December 24th, 1999 and August 30, 2000, Bahia struck me as the place that I would feel the strongest connection of being an African descendant in the United States and connecting with “cousins” of the African Diaspora in Brazil. That first trip, in which I spent three weeks, was almost magical. I visited the historic Pelourinho district that had been revitalized precisely for tourism purposes. I saw the breathtaking Dique do Tororó orixá statues. I went to the Mercado Modelo, ate acarajé and vatapá nearly every day, heard the sound of the berimbau watching various capoeira performances and checked out the Afro-Brazilian Museum. I saw the bloco afro Ilê Aiyê for the first time.
While on that first trip, I made a number of friends, most of whom, unfortunately, I lost contact with. At that time, the internet had a lot to do with my own knowledge in preparation for that first trip to Bahia, but it was 2000, and very few people I met in Salvador on that first trip had regular access to computers and internet, thus, e-mail communication still wasn’t something that the average baiano (Bahian) used. I’ve only seen two of the guys I met on that first trip, Adilson and Paulo, once since then and that was by sure happenstance of running into one of them on a return trip to Salvador, probably between 2004 and 2006.
My connection with Salvador and its people reminded me much of my family’s many trips to Georgia in the US south. And, in comparison to subsequent trips to São Paulo, I saw a lot more brown and dark-skinned people black people in Salvador, and later, in other cities of Bahia, such as Canavieras. But I knew that the way people saw race in Brazil could be slightly or even drastically different to what I was accustomed to in the US. I wrote a bit about that first experience in Salvador here.
One of the friends I made on that first trip, Marcus Gonçalves, an activist, historian and writer, now known as Marcus Guellwaar Adún Gonçalves, showed me this as we walked the streets of Salvador. I remember him asking random people in the streets what race they identified themselves as and one by one hearing all sorts of responses from people who my American eyes saw as simply black.
Marcus’s own immersion into the history of the African Diaspora played a huge role in the development of own identity as a light-skinned black man. As I explained in that first piece, Marcus, with his long dreadlocks, reminded me of someone who could have easily been in the family of Reggae legend, Bob Marley. Like Marley, Marcus’s father was white but white, but he came to understand that the world would treat him like a black man.
As it turns out, his hair was one of those markers of identity. You see, Marcus’s black mother, perhaps in seeking to lighten her offspring, as is so common among many black Brazilian families, conceived Marcus with that white man. But Marcus, even being light-skinned, would never be considered white, especially with the kinky hair that he would allow to dread. Marcus shared with me his memories of sitting between his mother’s knees while she did his hair as a child, and hearing her curse aloud his kinky mane of hair that she had hoped would have been straighter as she had produced him with a man with straight hair.
I have detailed this whole thing of embranquecimento/whitening over the course of numerous articles on this blog and it is this historic miscegenation along with Brazil’s own potent brand of racism that has created a Bahia that may look very black to the eye, but having a population in which a large percentage of people avoid defining themselves as being black at all costs.
On that first trip, I also spoke of Danielle, a woman with a color similar to that NBA legend Michael Jordan but that had the term ‘parda’, meaning ‘brown’ or ‘mixed race’ listed on her birth certificate under ‘cor de pele’. This is quite normal in not only Bahia, but across Brazil, where people are encouraged to avoid defining themselves as ‘pretos’ or ‘pretas’ (black men/black women). There is a whole history behind this but nowadays, Bahia, like Brazil as a whole, is undergoing a sort of revolution in which hundreds of thousands of ‘morenos’, ‘pardos’, ‘mulatos’ and ‘mestiços’ are proudly re-defining themselves as ‘negros’ or ‘pretos’, both meaning black.
In colonial Brazil, when there was not yet a categorized distinction for the skin tone of every enslaved black, they were differentiated by being more or less ‘obedient’. Those who managed to escape were identified as negros (blacks), and those who dared not – judged as docile – recognized as pretos (also meaning black). In some ways, this difference between negro and preto was similar to the manner that the great Malcolm X broke down in his speech on the ‘house negro’ and the ‘field negro’.
But the trait of slavery alone does not explain everything. For experts, it permeates the understanding of the ’empretecimento’, or ‘blackening’, of a Bahia that, for the third consecutive year, is the state where the most people call themselves preto, according to data released on Wednesday (22) by the National Household Sample Survey (Pnad) of the IBGE.
According to the data, while from 2017 to 2018, 308 thousand more people declared themselves pretos in the land of dendê (palm oil), brancos (whites) and pardos (mixed race/browns) decreased by 124 thousand and 155 thousand, respectively. It is the phenomenon that most likely explains why the official numbers of black, brown and white people may change in ways that birth rates alone also cannot explain.
Last year, the percentage of self-declared pretos in the state was 22.9% of Bahia’s 14.7 million inhabitants. That is, one of every five people who lived in the state did not hesitate to say that they were one more preto from Bahia. Whites were 18.1%. In percentage of pretos, Bahia remains ahead of the states of Rio de Janeiro (13.4%), Tocantins (12.4%), Maranhão (11.9%) and Minas Gerais (11.8%).
Since 2016, in fact, Bahia has been the only state in the country where pessoas pretas (black people) are more representative in the general population than white people. That year, they were already 20%. Although the majority being historically represented by pardos – which in 2018 were 58.1% of the total – the Bahian is increasingly willing to say that he/she is indeed preto.
The importance of this cannot be overemphasized For those familiar with the state of Bahia, you might be wondering, “I thought Bahia was a black majority state.” It is a topic I’ve approached on numerous previous articles, for it is the ‘pardo’ population that is key in understanding just how black Brazil really is or isn’t. The idea that Brazil and Bahia are black majorities is based on the combination of the preto and pardo categories and within this ‘pardo’ population we have all sorts of phenotypes. There are people of mixed or primary indigenous ancestry. There are people of mixed variety in which it is almost impossible to classify them under one racial classification. There are those who look, for all intents and purposes, look white, but they have a slight hint of curl in their hair texture and or a slight tint in their skin tone that isn’t there because of a skin tan. We also have people who may have slight or significant admixture with other races but still look, for the most part, black. And then there are those who most people would probably classify as black but either they or the person in the home who responded to the census question by classifying the person in question as pardo. The possibilities are literally endless.
But in speaking of the term preto nowadays, we must understand that we are not speaking of the ‘preto dócil’ (docile black) of Colonial Brazil, but the one in which has positively given a positive meaning to ‘ser preto’ (being black) and, from a struggle of black militancy, “by political choice”, came to be recognized as such. This is what Marcilene Garcia, sociologist and professor at the Bahia Federal Institute (Ifba), argues.
For her, the figures released by the IBGE give an overview that there is a positive trend in the discourse of black self-affirmation.
Coordinator of one of the self-declaration evaluation boards of the Federal University of Bahia (Ufba), Marcilene states that the process of transformation in self-recognition of the preto began to be transformed in the 1990s, influenced by the Hip Hop movement.
“In E disse o Velho Militante (And the Old Militant Said),’ a very interesting book by Cuti [Luiz Silva, São Paulo writer], there is a premise by José Correia Leite [a black activist who died 30 years ago], that says: The activists will say that we are not the negros of history. We are the negros of history, rebellious and resistant’. That is because negros were angry, when the pretos were docile,” he says.
It is when the idea of understanding yourself as preto is still a taboo, even among the negros retintos (dark-skinned black people), according to the professor, that the Hip Hop movement, influenced by the United States, brings the “valorization” of the term ‘preto’.
“Then people called pretos e pretas (black men and black women) came to be seen positively, due to the influence of the Racional MCs and other groups, especially in São Paulo, where whoever wasn’t a negro ativista (black activist) was seen as a ‘preto’,” Marcilene explains. Today, within Brazil’s black population, there is actually an ongoing question of whether one who has more than a surface level understanding of the racial issue should identify themselves as pretos or as negros.
The transition of some black Brazilians preferring to define themselves as pretos rather than negros is somewhat reminescent of a similar transition black Americans made sometime between the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, with the term black representing the arrival a new identity, one connected to empowerment and self-affirmation in comparison to the term negro that was increasingly associated with subservience. In a previous post, historian Kwame Asafo Nyansafo Atunda, administrator of the black men’s group/social network Homens Pretos (black men). Asked why he named the group Homens Pretos instead of Homens Negros, Atunda responded:
“The term ‘negro’ beyond all the negative and pejorative content is not and never was a classification that Africans gave themselves; Kemet (Antigo Egito/Ancient Egypt) denominated themselves as pretos and also the Anunnakis called themselves cabeças pretas (black heads), that is, we have to self-define ourselves and terms that have no racist, derogatory origins. Because of this we are homens pretos and mulheres pretas (black women).”
Blogger and social influencer also wrote about this in a post on the site of the Brazilian edition of Marie Claire magazine. In the article entitled “Not every negro is a preto”, Ribeiro adresses the issue of black people who don’t represent the interests of the race, such as highly criticized politicians Fernando Holiday and Hélio Lopes, whom many black Brazilians define as capitães do mato, a term used to define blacks who they consider ‘sell-outs’.
On the topic of preto and negro, Ribeiro writes:
“NOT EVERY NEGRO IS PRETO. And being preto in this sentence is not about COLOR, it’s about COLLECTIVE racial consciousness. Deep down I don’t even think that everyone will be, as (Fred) Hampton says, the potential exists and we who are PRETOS, will be fighting so that all NEGROS are actually seen as subjects, in a society that still sees us as a target.”
When black identity politics really began to take off at the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 21st century, within black activist circles, generally, the idea was promoted that conscious blacks define themselves as negros while the term preto was defined as the actual color, in the sense of preto e branco (black and white) television, for example. Today, it is increasingly common to find people who define themselves as pretos, regardless of where their skin tone falls on the continuum of skin color within the black race.
In data released by IBGE, the professor sees more than numbers, but a change in behavior. “The category of pretos has an evaluative weight and a political character of resistance. There is a change of concept, people are being called to reflect: ‘Am I a negro? Negro preto or negro pardo? Does my color, depending on the shade, make me preto?’ In my hetero-classification, some pardos came to identify themselves as pretos, and some pardos that once identified as branco (white) now see themselves as pardos,” she adds.
‘Discovery of oneself’
At the age of 17, while still choosing to straighten her hair, journalist Marlúcia Leal, now 31, was far from the woman she became. In her own words, the process of understanding as a black woman functioned as a “discovery of self.”
“I don’t like to talk about empowerment because the impression is that they gave you a power, but the identity of the povo negro (black people) is tied to strength. I don’t see this growth just as a given, but associated with a period of internal discovery,” she summarizes.
The journalist comments that the Brazilians are “culturally trained on a basis of exclusion”, which also includes the social factor. Marlúcia also argues that the absence of debate on racial issues makes it difficult for black people to even believe that they have never been victims of racism.
“As for me, the debate was something hidden. It’s liberating when you recognize yourself, because you see the world with other eyes. When you are a shunned black woman, and you don’t understand how it is structured, you think it is an organic problem of yours, but it is not,” says Marlúcia.
For student Vinicius Gomes, 21, calling himself preto was a profound change. “I always had a hard time declaring myself negro, preferring to be considered moreno,” he said, referring to one of the most popular color-coded classifications in Brazil as moreno is a catch all term used by and applied to almost anyone, with the exception of blonds, redheads and persons of Asian descent. “From the moment I accepted it, it was a drastic change,” he says. The change came after Vinícius began to study Brazil’s history and themes such as colorism, which made him reflect on himself.
The case of Vinícius can explain how, from 2012 to 2018, according to the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), the number of Bahians who declared themselves pardos fell 3.9%, while those who consider themselves pretos increased 35.5% in the period.
Social worker Fabiana Pontes, 43, believes that the issue of identidade preta (black identity) is more latent: “The negro has seen himself more as a negro. Generally, people consider themselves pardas, morenas, and do not identify themselves as negros. Perhaps, this movement of knowing their history has also changed the way people declare themselves,” he says.
For poet and actor Rilton Júnior, 23, the change of perspective has a strong influence on people’s self-declaration. “In fact, the majority of the population is black, even if they don’t declare themselves (as such). I think social movements, the movimento negro (black movement), art and culture in general, have provided the population with this identification with negritude (blackness). It is a space for a positive positioning about being negro in society, the benefits of being negro and the contribution of the povo negro (black people) within society”, he argues.
Negro preto, negro pardo
For the professor of African Literatures of the Institute of Letters and researcher of the Center for Afro-Oriental Studies (Ceao) of Ufba, Jesiel Oliveira, the data released by IBGE are directly related to the debate of self-affirmation and affirmative actions.
“It’s data that basically reflects that more people who saw themselves as pardos now see themselves as negros. This is very socially representative, it is important. However, it is not something to admire, considering we have the largest população de negros (black population) in the country,” he says.
Racism, for Jesiel structured as a “systematic marrow” in the country, is a central device of oppression that promotes prejudice and discrimination, with distinction between pardos and pretos.
“I don’t see it as a problem if a person once understood himself as pardo and, nowadays, with the process of transformation and presence of African culture, now understands himself as negro. It is part of the process. But people should be aware of their phenotype, because pretos are the ones who will commonly be the target of violence,” he warns.
Jesiel comments, however, that the debate must be positive. “We just need to take a close look. If you are a self-described negro, whether preto or pardo, I think that the greatest way to express this has to be accompanied by attitude, specific experience of the black subject that, in general, is linked to discrimination,” he reiterates.
The possibility that growth in the proportion of self-declared pretos having anything to do with a kind of “convenience,” such as the possibility of benefiting from racial quotas may exist, for Professor Jesiel, but in a timely manner, he believes.
“When it comes to racism, in Brazil, one thing is never just one thing. It’s something very internalized. Racial quotas in universities, in civil service exams, along with the constitutionalization of ethnic-racial education in 2003, are things that have symbolic value,” he explains.
Jesiel argues that a person who came to call himself preto possibly experienced the process of ascendência negra (black ancestry) and acquired a kind of pride, or “synthetic consciousness.”
The UFBA quota self-assessment board intends, for example, according to coordinator Marcilene Garcia, to present to self-declared candidates the possibility of understanding what it really weighs for a person to be considered or not fit for quotas.
“When UFBA makes a measurement to prevent fraud, the debate goes beyond the universe of universities, which have seen a huge number of people classify themselves as pardos in order claim vacancies in college programs through the system of affirmative action. Pretos and pardos are negros and this includes them being very close in considering the social factor. In the IBGE Demographic Census (2010), the difference in salary between pretos and pardos was BRL $45, when the distinction, in comparison to whites, jumped to one monthly minimum salary (BRL $998),” he adds, commenting that the UFBA rejected a considerable number of “irrefutably white” people in the evaluations.
The “negroid” traits, however, are remembered by the professor as agents that give the possibility of negros – self-declared or not – to experience racism.
Black Bahia, White Bahia
Continuous Pnad numbers don’t detail self-declaration by municipality. But according to the last Geographic Census of 2010, six of the ten ‘blackest’ municipalities in Bahia had more than 40% of the population declaring themselves preto.
Among the cities with more people declaring themselves white, two had more than 50% in this situation. See the list:
Ten municipalities with the most self-declared pretos:
– Antônio Cardoso (50.65%)
– São Gonçalo dos Campos (41.96%)
– Conceição da Feira (41.25%)
– Cachoeira (40.65%)
– Salinas da Margarida (40.10%)
– São Francisco do Conde (40.01%)
– Santo Amaro (38.44%)
– Ouriçangas (37.74%)
– Saubara (35.16%)
– Igrapiúna (33.83%)
Ten municipalities with the most self-declared whites:
– Dom Basílio (54.41%)
– Ipupiara (53.19%)
– Rio do Pires (47.90%)
– Lagoa Real (47.85%)
– Rio de Contas (47.75%)
– Rio do Antônio (46.41%)
– Caturama (45.34%)
– Abaira (45.17%)
– Jussiape (45.09%)
– Malhada de Pedras (44.65%)
In the US, negro or black