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