"When I discovered I was black", by Bianca Santana

black Brazilian women

by Bianca Santana

I have been black for less than a year. Before, I was morena. My color was practically a prank of the sun. I was a morena for the Catholic school teachers, classmates – who maybe didn’t get as much sun – and for the family that never liked the subject. “But Grandma is not a descendant of slaves?”, I kept asking. “And of Indian and Portuguese as well,” was the most that they responded on the origins of my black grandmother. I even thought it was beautiful to be so Brazilian. Maybe because of this I would accept the end of the conversation.

In August last year, when I went to do a story on the City Council, I passed by Riachuelo street where I saw the sign Educafro. I had heard about the community college entrance exam preparation but I didn’t know the proposal very well. I went in. The coordinator explained the pedagogical teaching methodology with the complicity of someone who was a close relative. When I offered to teach, his eyes brightened up. I heard that as the majority of teachers were white, I would be a good reference for black students. They would see me, a student at the University of São Paulo and the Cásper Líbero Faculty, that there is space for blacks in good colleges.

I left without quite understanding what I had heard. I went to the City Council building, did the interview, and followed my routine. I began to notice that in the places that I frequented the people also didn’t get much sun. The teacher from Educafro did. Is that why he treated me with such complicity? 

Bianca Santana

I thought for a long and hard time. I hadn’t identified anything African in the customs of my family. I concluded that social mobility had lightened our identity. Obviously we are blacks. If our skin is not so dark, our features and our hair reveal our ethnicity (1). My mother, an economist, an employee of a large company, was whitened like the mulatos, who in the nineteenth century put rice-powder on their faces because the soccer clubs did not accept blacks (2).

I was whitened at home, in school, prep school and college. As the political scientist Francis Weffort affirms in the text Branquemento, “the imaginary expropriation of the glories of blacks whitening erased, especially for the poor, the example of leaders who could suggest to them other ways, besides the daily humiliation.” Still in search of identity I affirm gladly that I have been black for less than a year. And I thank the teacher that for the first time in 21 years, he extended an invitation for the deep reflection of my origins.

Bianca’s transition of identity is very common for Brazilians of African descent who never identified themselves as negros/negras. In some ways, the transition that many Afro-Brazilians make from self-identification as moreno or morena to negro or negra is similar to the African-American transition from colored to negro to blackMorena/moreno is a non-threatening term that is quite common in Brazilian culture. The strength of the term is in its ambiguity. A moreno/morena can be a brunette/dark-haired white person, a white person who is not very pale or tans well, a light or dark-skinned person of African descent, or a person of mixed ancestry that is not easily definable in terms of racial classification. In short, any Brazilian who is not a blond or red-head can be a morena/moreno. As such, the morena/moreno can also be used as means of promoting the Brazilian concept of a racial democracy. After all, if all Brazilians are morenos/morenas, there can’t possibly be a racial problem. Politically speaking, moreno/morena is also a term that is used by many African descendants of various phenotypes in order to avoid calling themselves negro or negra (3).

According to Ricardo Franklin Ferreira, speaking of how the term morena/moreno was used in one black family:

“…the term ‘moreno’ was used to self-refer to ethno-racial characteristics, a common euphemism and that denies phenotypic characteristics. It seems to be ‘politically correct’ to deal with African descendants as ‘morenos’, a word strongly rooted in Brazilian culture. It is an example of a situation that reveals a symbolic strategy of escape from a reality in which discrimination prevails. In this way, people seek elements of identification in the symbols of the group considered socially and economically dominant, in this case, the white-European Brazilian.” (Ferreira)

The acceptance and rejection of the terms moreno/morena and negro/negra and the complexities that come with this acceptance/denial came be noted in the case of Dandara, a woman from São Paulo interviewed by Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg. Dandara is a 28-year feminist activist who identifies and is identified as black in some of her activist circles and self-identifies and is identified as white in other circles. Dandara’s father’s racial background was Spanish and Portuguese while her mother was a black woman. Although Dandara never personally experienced racism as her more visibly black friends, these experiences along with experiences of racism that her mother endured, inclusive from Dandara’s father’s family, as well as other racist incidents experienced by the black side of her family led her to identify herself as negra (black woman). But this was not a simple process.

As a feminist activist, Dandara identifies herself as black, and it follows that she is identified as black by other feminist activists (however, in other social movements this is altered again in the racial specter)…While this may be tracked through her family experiences, this inclusion is fairly recent:

Dandara: “Previously people asked me: ‘Oh, your mother is negra(black)?’ I would say like this: ‘No, my mom is morena.’ (…) Like, it was a defense, right. A form… ‘No, no. Imagine! My mother, she is not negra. She is morena!’ She’s not. She is negra. So today, I can say: ‘My mother is negra….”

In order to self-identify herself in a different way, Dandara had to reformulate the way she saw her family racially. Marked by racial shame, she needed to re-contextualize her family history. This is not just an exercise in identity: just looking in the mirror or an exchange of lens would not alter her view. Her racial vision was ideologically informed. Because of this, she had to overcome internalized racism as a strategy to see race relations in another way; “anti-racist work is not just an act of compassion for others” (cf. Benedict, 2003a: 49). Thus, one could argue that anti-racist work is also an act of compassion for the collective self and therefore, individual: today I’m happy to say, you know, that … I come from a black family (Dandara).

Affirming her black identity, in fact, is an act of empowerment. Saying Yes, My Family is Black, Dandara collectively resists this internalized and historically informed racial shame, and vicariously protests against experiences of her family. These sentiments about her individual and collective personal and vicarious experiences with racism and identity as a negra, however, will not necessarily lead to an ideological guide of “ethical, moral and normative principles” (Oliver & Johnston, 2000:44) that takes into account the complexity of her racial identity formation (Huijg). 


The question of race, racial classification and identity continue to be controversial for some who accuse black Brazilian activists of importing US-influenced racial schemes that don’t apply in Brazil. In reality, in Brazil’s history, there are several examples of how elites labeled all Brazilian non-whites as “negros” and a long list of Brazilian social scientists who also confirm that regardless of how people see themselves, in Brazil, if one is not white, they are essentially defined as black (4). We will cover this topic more in upcoming posts.

Source: Bianca Santana, Ferreira, Ricardo Franklin. “O brasileiro, o racismo silencioso e a emancipação do afro-descendente.” Psicologia & Sociedade; 14 (1): 69-86; jan./jun.2002. Huijg, Dieuwertje Dyi. “Eu não preciso falar que eu sou branca, cara, eu sou Latina!” Ou a complexidade da identificação racial na ideologia de ativistas jovens (não)brancas. Cad. Pagu. 2011, n.36 [cited  2013-02-22], pp. 77-116

1. A common issue among black Brazilians of all phenotypes is the practice of other Brazilians telling them that they are not black or question why they refer to themselves in this way. See actress Camila Pitanga’s statements on this topic here.

2. Although black Brazilian soccer players have long been regarded as some of the best in the world by Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike, there was a time when Brazil’s soccer leagues didn’t accept black players. In 1914, a player named Carlos Alberto switched clubs and began playing for the Fluminense team in Rio de Janeiro.  As the white shirt of the elite club of the south zone contrasted with his mulato skin, Alberto entered the field wearing pó-de-arroz (rice powder) makeup which, throughout the match, began dripping as he began to sweat. The crowd then began to yell “pó-de-arroz”, which later became a nickname for the club’s tricolored fans.

3. A topic we have covered extensively on this blog. More on racial classification and the confusion that racial categories cause for Brazilians here and here.

4. For a short sample of social scientists who speak on the question of who is black in Brazil see here

About Marques Travae 3238 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

8 Comments

  1. Interesting article. But I don't believe that "In some ways, the transition that many Afro-Brazilians make from self-identification as moreno or morena to negro or negra is similar to the African-American transition from colored to negro to black."This is a completely different situation. In the States where the one drop rule applied no matter how light you were you were considered negro, colored, black or African American. All these terms mean the same thing, they were just used at different times in history. As an example my parents remember hearing the words negro and colored, around the 60's the word black began to be used, and in the 70's the word African American appeared. Now the word negro is considered offensive. But black is not. Because the States had segregation it is much easier for black's of all shades to identify as one group. Which, among other things, is probably why they have been so successful in upward mobility compared with Brazil. In short the white majority called us black so we were and still are today.

  2. Yesterday, in a conversation with a light-skinned teenager here in Bahia, Brazil, I used the term "negro" in referring to a Brazilian person of African descent. He told me that the name "negro" shocks his sensibilities and those of Brazilians in general, since the term "negro" has been used as an epithet while the term "moreno" is neutral.This conversation came about because we were talking about two stars in a Denzel Washington movie, one white and one Black. When I asked him how he would indicate which of the stars he was referring to, but without referring to their skin color, he said he would refer to other cues such as "protagonist" and "the one who dies at the end" rather than saying, "the Black one."Many Brazilians believe that avoiding the use of the term "negro" is also a way to avoid being perceived as having made a color-aroused insult. In Brazil, color-aroused insults are illegal under the national constitution and so finding ways to avoid giving offense is more juridically important in Brazil than it is in the United StatesIronically, the same attitude toward the words Black and moreno was expressed to me in Chile 30 years ago.

  3. I always enjoy reading posts on BWofB- thanks for another thought provoking piece.A few times in Rio de Janeiro and in Salvador Bahia I have been called 'morena' as a compliment by Brazilian men. The first time was in Rio when I was walking with an Italian and someone called out "morena" (in a phrase but i couldn't understand the rest of the sentence). Curious to see who out of a wide range of skin shades was being identified as "morena" as I was sure with my dark chocolate complextion it couldn't have been me. But it was indeed!I've been called morena by men as a way of 'sweet talking' and complimenting me. I love a compliment like everybody else but I also appreciate the truth so I'm always quick to respond "estou negra!" with pride.

  4. To anonymous:The comment is appreciated but I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. While the terms colored, negro and black might all actually refer to the same group, historically and politically they are not the same. They all signify various shifts in the ideals of what it meant to be a person African descent living in the United States at various moments in history.When there was a movement to send Americans of African descent back to Africa, this community abandoned the term African and began referring to itself as colored as if to distance themselves from African and the threat of being shipped back. Frederick Douglass would actually use the term negro from time to time when colored was still the term of choice. The transition from colored to negro symbolized pride and affirmation of one’s race and was once considered a term of militancy. It was a shift in which Americans of African descent were increasingly rejecting the term colored and saying “I am a Negro; I am proud of my race.”In the 1920s, WEB DuBois pushed for African descendant Americans to begin using the term negro instead of colored. Negro, in his view, signified a new political and intellectual identity of the people once labeled colored. He later pushed and succeeded in having the term Negro capitalized. While it is true that colored referred specifically to African descendents, as opposed to “people of color” which can be applied to any non-group, the term has no assertiveness. Colored to me sounds like someone took a box of crayons and colored a group of people which is not the case. After negro became the word of choice others began to reject this term. Elijah Muhammad always referred to African descendants as “so-called negros” while some were already beginning to use the term black. There was rejection by many of the term black at the time. Richard Pryor captured this sentiment perfecting imitating this type of person on one of this 70s comedy albums: “Who you callin’ black, I’m a NEGRO!!” Later, negro became synonymous with an African descendent who begs and grovels from whites to get what he wants. Actor Ossie Davis once said this in speaking of Malcolm X. “Negros smile a lot” and have to go to the white man to get the things he needs. Malcolm X, he argued, was a black man because black symbolized doing for one self without the help of whites, “by any means necessary.” This difference between negro and black became even more striking when people were getting more frustrated with the peaceful, “we shall overcome” tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. Stokely Carmichael ushered in a new era with the term “Black Power” which some Civil Rights icons, including MLK, distanced themselves from because of its implied meaning. The term black signified another shift in the overall concept of freedom, militancy, pride and what one was willing to do to get it. Colored, negro and black are thus not simply terms. They all served specific purpose, that signaled a shift in consciousness. In this sense, while Brazil does have differences, essentially, the shift many Brazilians of African descent make in defining themselves as negro instead of moreno or even pardo IS indeed similar politically-speaking. It is the term of choice in Brazil’s Movimento Negro and many black Brazilians have already written on the political significance of “tornar-se negro” or becoming black. Thus, this is a valid comparison. Taking a term that was once, and for many still is, a negative term and adapting it as a term of endearment, pride and sense of identity.

    • I don’t claim to be Brazilian, but the similarity still does not seem similar. Using your explanation African Americans progressed using different words as a way of self-identifying themselves; though I disagree on some accounts this does not seem to be the same for Brazil. Blacks in America were using different names to name essentially the same group of people, from the darkest to those that could pass but refused. In Brazil, in essence it seems like though they couldn’t pass for white, they didn’t want to identify as Black therefore, the use of the term moreno, which has a number of meanings. Blacks in the states do it also, but Black is the base usually(I have some Indian in me or on this side or what not(usually dont though)). Look at a picture of Walter White reporter for the NAACP’s Crisis. Would someone as light as he in Brazil claim Black? I will say now in the states Blacks seem to be running away from that classification if they phenotype is not as destinct.

      • On “moreno”, “pardo” in many cases this is true. But there are also those who used to identify as white realizing that they are not quite white and choosing pardo instead. In Brazil, I would say that Walter White would mos def be white. In reality, from what I understand, Walter White was really a white man “passing” as black. In terms of whiteness in Brazil, status is also a part of the definition. For example: http://wp.me/p1XDuf-3JN

  5. “White” racists/supremacists have the muscle to define and label their victims–period. The issue of “passing” is a leaf on the tree of the global system of racism/white supremacy, and it won’t ever be fixed unless the roots of the tree it grows from are effectively ripped out. This is the focal point that counter-racists should target.

    While the “system’s” leaves and all their nuances are interesting, to solve problems–eliminating the system of racism/white supremacy–a pattern of activity must be “seen”–dots must be connected. To counter racism, all people must be codified in “Right” thought, speech and action that will allow Justice to reign in this world. Being “codified” is knowing what to do and say, at all times, in all situations.

    In this world of perceived scarcity, animals hustle to survive. To help themselves, they form families, tribes, packs and gangs. When it comes to the art of being devious, some groups have proven themselves smarter than others–smart enough to suppress their confused victims for centuries.

    “When people don’t understand white supremacy (which is racism), what it is, and how it works, ever thing else they understand will only confuse them.”–Neely Fuller Jr., author of The United Independent Compensatory Code System. (//producejustice.com)

    Under the global system of racism/white supremacy, which is a crime syndicate run by a gang that collectively calls itself “white,” victims of racism are mistreated and abused on the basis of skin color and features associated with it. Victims are coerced and brainwashed to believe the darker their skin is, the more inferior they are to recessive melanin-deficient people. White supremacy/racism is the global “system” of dominance of the “white” gang over its “non-white” victims in all major areas of human activity: economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, religion, politics, sex and war for the sake of Power–“white” supremacy.

    While a numerical minority, “whites” dominate and run this world–the evident is overwhelming. “Whites” are the functional parents, “non-whites” are the functional children. Children ask parents for the things they want. Parents give children the things they need. Children ask for permission–but they don’t have Power. White supremacists/racists use a cooperative code in thought, speech and action to keep their victims confused about what is happening to them. Racists never say or do anything that does not ultimately support racism/white supremacy. Victims unwittingly conform to the labels, words, symbols and definitions of the “system” of racism/white supremacy. This system of falsehood is highly successful because it dominates and controls victims’ minds, and therefore their values, perceptions, tastes and desires. The system even imbues their servants with self-hatred and futile dreams of merging and being “like” their oppressors.

    Collectively, non-white victims of this mistreatment don’t know how to stop the abuse–they lack functional power. It is also why, under the global system of racism/white supremacy, “non-whites”–shades of black–cannot be racist. There are colorful terms “whites” use to describe the powerless, but in general, people classified as “non-white” are victims, subjects and servants to people who classify themselves as “white” and practice racism/white supremacy. Everyone classified as “white” is not a racist, but should be suspected of being one under the system of global racism/white supremacy, says Fuller.

    The “one-drop” rule of the United States is the unvarnished bottom-line of racists/white supremacists everywhere. It is the world-wide measuring stick, a resource that Adolf Hitler and apartheid South Africa took lessons from. It’s tragic that the African Diaspora in Central and South America don’t generally comprehend this. If victims understand that the shades of their skin ultimately don’t matter to white racists, and how their oppressive “system” actually works, the obsession with hair extensions, skin-lightening creams, feel-good labels and other “me-white-too” props should fall away.

    When people want to solve problems they will be brutally honest with themselves and stop playing “probationary” white status games. The unblinking demonic mentality which produced extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka is still with us because its parents, racism/white supremacy, are its functional roots. No one should be fooled by its guises, promotion of intrigues and false issues to extend its abhorrent life. Like a vampire, it needs to be vitalized by its victim’s time and energy. While violence is crucial to maintain power, the system’s primary tool is being a Master of Deceit. There are no points of compromise.

    The “white” gang’s business is “white supremacy.” At its core, the business model is not ant-black. Take note that “white” racists have no problems having sex with “non-whites” or encouraging its victims accept names and positions on the plantation that make “white” supremacy seem harmless. The “system” maintains the power of symbols, labeling and definitions to rationalize its criminality. Appearing anti-black is a means to an end–“white supremacy.”

    The key is to get their victims to buy into patent nonsense. Victims must take truth for lies and lies for truth. For prime example, people who are melanin-deficient–“white”– are not a “race.” The only reason to be a member of a race is to practice racism. “Non-whites” who buy into the consensus reality of “race” lose–instantly–to white supremacists, and they travel blindly for miles and decades without ever realizing it. And that end result is all that matters to establish, maintain and perpetuate racism/white supremacy forever. At least that’s the madmen’s operational thought process. I have faith in the Physics of the Universe.

    Racism/white supremacy is the actualization of a death wish because it is anti-Hueman, anti-Christ. We have to see this. It is a game where the color “white” is made the poisonous intoxicating symbol of purity, goodness and “God” as a means to take things it does not deserve. It creates despair, pain and disharmony simply to exist. Dirt, badness and devilment is always projected onto “others.” When billions of people are addicted to the racist logic of valuing lighter complexions over darker, the planet will eventually implode under this sickness. It follows that this evil “system” itself must be ended and replaced by a system of justice that guarantees no one is mistreated, and guarantees that the person who needs help the most, gets the most constructive help.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » “When I discovered I was black”, by Bianca Santana

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.