While all three refer to persons of African descent, what is the difference between the terms preto, pardo and negro?

Left to right: Actor Lázaro Ramos, actress Aparecida Petrowky, sociologist Édson Santos, actress Taís Araújo, volleyball player Wallace Leandro de Souza
Left to right: Actor Lázaro Ramos, actress Aparecida Petrowky, sociologist Édson Santos, actress Taís Araújo, volleyball player Wallace Leandro de Souza

BW of Brazil: The question of race has long been a source of confusion in Brazil. On the one hand, the country has promoted itself as a huge melting pot where everyone is racially mixed to some degree (which is true) and where harmonious racial relations (not always true) have lead to a “racial democracy” (definitely not true). Add all this to the fact that Brazilians use an assortment of color/characteristic terms* to define themselves and the question of sorting out who is who or what is what becomes even more confusing. Some would argue that these terms shouldn’t be broken down as this would be a means of dividing Brazil’s fluid racial scheme into the racially polarizing model associated with the United States. Well, as it turns out, once the numbers and studies are analyzed, one comes to the realization that Brazil is already polarized in ways that have noting to do with the US. The report belows delves into the question of the terms pardo, preto and negro and their differences. Although the term pardo is generally thought to mean a person of any sort of “mixed race”, activists of the Movimento Negro (black rights organizations) see this as a term used by persons who are more or less negros (blacks) or at least partially black. The terms preto and negro both mean black but activists define preto as the actual color while they define negro as a race encompassing a wide range of persons of African descent. This topic has been covered previously on this blog (for example, here, here and here) but the topic always has space for fresh interpretations. Read on….

The classification “pretos” taken by the IBGE raised controversy over the correct way to refer to this group of people

The disclosure by the Fundação Universitária para o Vestibular (University Foundation for the College Entrance Examination or Fuvest) of the news about the absence of preto (black) people in the most competitive courses at the University of São Paulo (USP) fueled a controversy over the more correct way of classifying people by color or race. With the banner of “politically correct” raised, some have argued that it would be better to use the term negros (also meaning blacks) or afrodesendentes (African descendants). But it is wrong to call someone preto?

The debate started because Fuvest, responsible for selecting students of USP, adopted the standard classification of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE or Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística), which divides the population of the country into five groups: preto (black), pardo (brown), branco (white), amarelo (yellow or Asian) and indígena (indigenous).

The claim is historical: the first census in Brazil was done in 1872 and asked Brazilians in which of the four groups (at the time) they fell into: preto, pardo, branco or caboclo. Throughout 140 years, there have been some changes in the nomenclature, but there is no consensus on how to classify the population.

“This is a very controversial topic. Some argue that we should use the classification negro, but negro is a social identity. It takes into account a political vision, the identity of a people much more than skin color” – José Luiz Petruccelli, IBGE researcher

José Luiz Petruccelli, who has researched racial diversity for over 20 years in the IBGE, recognizes that the classification can be improved, but argues that the model follows an historical series and changes could affect the comparison of the data. “This is a very controversial topic. Some argue that we should use the classification negro, but negro is a social identity. It takes into account political vision, the identity of a people much more than skin color,” he argues.

The specialist says it’s not correct, for the purpose of research, to put pardos and pretos together into a single group of negros. He said discrimination against pretos is much higher than that seen among people who declare themselves pardos, and this difference must be present in demographic surveys. “Is there a difference in social behavior between pretos and pardos: the darker one is, the more one is discriminated against,” he says (1).

Even União de Negros pela Igualdade (Unegro or the Union of Blacks for Equality or UNEGRO), an organization of social movements created in Bahia and present in 24 states, argues that it is more appropriate to use the term negro, while accepting the rules of the IBGE. “As there is no scientific criterion for this classification, it was agreed to use the nomenclature of the IBGE for research that would be the most feasible,” said Alexandre Braga, communication director for the entity.

José Luiz Petruccelli of the IBGE and Alexandre Braga of UNEGRO
José Luiz Petruccelli of the IBGE and Alexandre Braga of UNEGRO

While agreeing that the darker the skin color the greater the discrimination, UNEGRO believes the IBGE can likely come to use only the classification negro in the future.

“People identify more as negros than as pretas or pardas,” says Alexander.

Preto and pardo

Qual a diferença entre preto, pardo e negro-Q

In census research done by the IBGE, is presented a relationship with the five classifications employed and people needed to indicate to which color they belonged. According Petruccelli, each person has the freedom to say their classification. He explains that pretos are usually the people who see themselves as a darker color. But in relation to pardos there is no consensus. “They are usually people who classify themselves as morenas or mulatas but it depends on the region,” he says.

The researcher says that in the South and Southeast regions, the people who declare themselves pardo are usually of African origin. However, in the North, many pardos are actually descendants of Indians. He also tells a curious story about the situation in the Federal District. “The local population, as white as their skin might be, classifies itself as parda because it sees brancos (whites) as public officials who have come from the outside.”

According to the researcher of the IBGE, the presence of pretos is lower in Brazil, so there is a tendency of putting pardos and pretos together into a group of negros. He says that only for research the term does not apply, but that the social familiarity is valid in grouping the two nomenclatures. For the representative of UNEGRO, resistance also occurs in accepting the color preto and many prefer to be listed as pardos, that would be an intermediary term. “The identity of the negro is much bigger, so we advocate the use of that term,” he says.

And afrodescendente?

According to the director of UNEGRO, the term afrodescendente (African descendant), or Afro-Brazilian, is out of usage. “I believe today it’s much more appropriate to call someone negro than afrodescendente. This is much more a political nomenclature, an action of social movements in the fight against discrimination than for designating color,” he explains.

Preto, pardo or negro: How should African descendants in Brazil be classified?
Preto, pardo or negro: How should African descendants in Brazil be classified?

Note from BW of Brazil: This debate over how to classify black people or persons of African descent has raged for many years and is complicated by the tendency of Brazilians in general to avoid classifying themselves as black. As discussed in a previous post, persons of visible African descent can identify themselves in any number of ways and this is how their color will be recorded on the census regardless of whether the data collector agrees or disagrees. Thus, if a person defines him or herself as branco or branca, meaning white, and the data collector sees that person as pardo or preto, the data collector must check the box for branco/branca. The term preto/preta can also be challenging as it generally refers to very dark-skinned persons of African descent but how one classifies what is dark-skinned is strictly up to opinion. What may be brown-skinned for one person may be considered dark-skinned  for another person, for example. 

In respect to researcher José Luiz Petruccelli’s assertion that it would be wrong to join the preto and pardo categories into one negro category, in purists terms he is correct because they are two of the five officially recognized color categories offered by the official census. But in terms of social exclusion, discrimination and disadvantages, there is a whole different way to analyze this. For one thing, according to the IBGE itself: 

“the best way to analyze inequalities in education and income of Brazil’s preto and pardo populations in Brazil is to join the two portions of the population into one. The reason, says the institute, is that the socioeconomic characteristics of the two groups are very similar. Another point, according to the institute, is a statistical issue: the group of pretos is very small (8.2% of the population in 2011) and, therefore, the data may be distorted if this population is analyzed separately.” (2)

It is also true that activists of the Movimento Negro have long argued for the joining of the two groups as a means of constructing a collective black identity among pretos and pardos. According to a study entitled Seminário O Negro no Ensino Superior (Seminar Blacks in Higher Education) that studied quality of life and socioeconomic statistics according to color: 

“…one can draw in Brazil, from these aggregate data, a sharp line separating brancos from pretos and pardos, and that means that the Movimento Negro (black rights movement) is entirely correct to speak of negros (blacks) as the sum of pardos and pretos.”

The study continued:

“If we aggregate data from the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE or Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) in 1972 at anytime, up to today, there is a clear-cut cleavage between brancos and pardos, and there are no major differences between pardos and pretos, such that it is possible to draw a clear line of color in terms of social position, educational opportunities, income distribution, health care or any social indicator that one wants to utilize.

“Configuring monthly household incomes ranging up to R$1,800.00 (about US$900) the percentage is 45.3 percent for whites, 72.4% for pretos and 65% for pardos. More than half of pretos and pardos are concentrated in low-income groups. Moreover, even though the percentages relating to family income above R$9,000 (about US$4,500) are also low for whites, inequality between whites and pretos and pardos is visible. There are 5.1 percent of whites who earn this monthly income, while only 1.1% of pretos and 1.6% pardos do.”

Sociologist Carlos Hasenbalg has studied the connection between racial discrimination and socioeconomic inequality for more than 30 years. His 1979 book Discriminação e desigualdades raciais no Brasil (Discrimination and Racial Inequalities in Brazil) was groundbreaking in drawing a link between skin color and social inequality. In a 2006 interview, Hasenbalg had this to say about racial inequality:

“In all the themes studied for more than twenty years, non-whites end up at a disadvantage. Research on education indicate that non-white children complete fewer years of education than whites, even when considering children of similar social background or family income.

“Summarizing and simplifying, these studies indicate that pretos and pardos are exposed to various discriminatory practices in the labor market. Besides entering the job market with less formal education than whites, non-whites are exposed to occupational discrimination, for which the evaluation of non-productive attributes such as the color of the people, result in exclusion or limited access to positions valued in the labor market. Add to this wage discrimination, evidenced in lower rates of return according to education and experience obtained by non-whites, and the difference in the rate of return increases in higher educational levels.

“The most relevant results point not only to lower rates of upward mobility to middle and upper strata experienced by non-whites, but also to the greater difficulties encountered by non-white middle class families to convey to attained social positions to their children.

“It is worth adding that when we study these inequalities, opposing white/non-white (preto and pardo), we referred strictly to the processes of socioeconomic stratification. When we examined other dimensions of social life involving sociability (i.e. marriage and friendship), this standard does not apply and the pardos differentiate themselves (from pretos) and are closer to brancos (whites).

“I insist, pretos and pardos are exposed to disadvantages at all stages of the life cycle. Demographers have found that preto and pardo women have higher intrauterine mortality rates than white women, that the rates of infantile mortality and mortality of children under five are substantially higher among non-whites, and pretos and pardos live on average five or six years less than whites. The educational trajectories of children and young non-whites are shorter than those of their white peers. Income inequality among groups of color reflect different patterns of insertion in the labor market and discriminatory practices in this market, but are also due to accumulated disadvantages in formative stages, prior to entry into the labor market.”

Over the past few decades literally hundreds of independent studies, dissertations and research have confirmed the socioeconomic division of Brazil into negros (blacks, summing the total of pretos and pardos) on one side and brancos (whites) on the other. In another example from 2012, Bárbara Sepúlveda and Sarah Jane Therese Alves Durães reported the following in their report Raça e Stratificação no Brasil (Race and Stratification in Brazil):

“Data of the PNAD from 2009 posited that blacks (pretos and pardos together) in Brazil, during the research, received on average 57.4% of the hourly income of a branco (white). Separating the color categories, which conventionally would compose the black population, pretos and pardos, but still including the income relationship and years of education, we see that they received when at four years of study, respectively, 78.7% and 72,1% of whites with the same education level; from 5-8 years of education, the figure was 78.4% and 72.1%, 72.6% and 75.8% for 9-11 years and 69.8 % and 73.8% when the years of education exceeded 12 years.

“Blacks (pretos and pardos), according to the same survey, were the majority of unregistered employees; 17.4% of pretos and 18.9% of pardos, while among whites the figure was 13.8%.

“In addressing education we see that, according to the PNAD 2009 study, the illiteracy rate for persons aged 15 years or more for the black population (pretos and pardos) was 13.3% for pretos and 13.4% for pardos, while among whites it was 5.9%.

“In this sense among the population aged 25 years or more with a college education, the proportion of pretos was 4.7% and 5.3% for pardos, in contrast to 15% of whites.”

Thus, the bottom line here is that, being preto or pardo in Brazil, which includes a plethora of skin tones, facial features and hair textures, puts one at a huge disadvantage in comparison to being considered branco. In other words, in reference to the original question of the difference between the terms preto, pardo and negro,  the answer would be not much. Because in a country (and world) where one is at an advantage or disadvantage depending on proximity to a European aesthetic, in the words of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro  professor Muniz Sodré,  “there is only white and the others.” (3)

Source: Terra Notícias, Guimarães, Antonio Sérgio Alfredo. “Entrevista com Carlos Hasenbalg”. Revistas USP. Volume 18, Number 2, 2006. http://www.revistas.usp.br/ts/article/view/12524/14301. Sepúlveda, Bárbara and Sarah Jane Therese Alves Durães. Raça e Stratificação no Brasil. Congresso Internacional Interdisciplinar em Sociais e Humanidades. Niterói RJ: ANINTER-SH/ PPGSD-UFF, September 3-6, 2012, ISSN 2316-266X. http://www.aninter.com.br/ANAIS%20I%20CONITER/GT04%20Rela%E7%F5es%20%E9tnicorraciais/RA%C7A%20E%20ESTRATIFICA%C7%C3O%20NO%20BRASIL%20-%20trabalho%20completo.pdf. Durham, Eunice R. and BORI, Carolina M. (orgs.) Seminário O negro no Ensino Superior. NUPES, Núcleo de Pesquisas sobre Ensino Superior. São Paulo, Universidade de São Paulo, December 2002.


* – It has been cited in countless reports that in the 1976 census, Brazilians used 136 different terms to define their skin color. Later studies would reveal that the the pool of responses were not as wide as once believed. For example, For example, Nelson Valle Silva found that of these 136 terms, 95% of these responses were concentrated into variations of only seven different terms. A second study (Petrucelli 2002) gave similar results with 97% of 143 skin color denominations breaking down into only seven categories. See Hasenbalg, Carlos; Valle Silva, Nelson do. Estrutura social, mobilidade e raça. Rio de Janeiro: IUPERJ/Vértice, 1988. Petrucelli, José Luiz. A Cor denominada: estudos sobre a classificação étnico-racial. Rio de Janeiro: LPP/DP&A, 2007.

1. While the idea that the darker the skin and the closer to an African phenotype, the more the possibility of discrimination is generally true in many multi-racial societies, it is not true say that persons who are classified or classify themselves as pardos or mulatos don’t also experience discrimination. As experiences of people like Deise Nunes, the first and only black Miss Brasil winner (1986), volleyball player Wallace Leandro de Souza, the daughter of a state governor, Ana Flávia Peçanha de Azeredo, Claudiane Malachi Nogueira, from the northeastern state of Maranhão, 1960s beauty queen Vera Lúcia Couto dos Santos and many others show, one doesn’t have to be of the darkest complexion or of the most African features to experience discrimination. In terms of placing pretos and pardos into one category as representative of Brazil’s black population, Movimento Negro activists have long argued that in terms of socioeconomic data that measure quality of life (income, education, health care, etc), the differences between pretos and pardos in nearly every area studied are nearly identical while both experience disadvantages in relation to Brazilians who consider themselves to be brancos or whites. 

2. Taken from the December 23, 2012 article “Instituto junta pretos e pardos em só um grupo para evitar distorções”. Accessed December 23, 2012. http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/educacao/1205716-instituto-junta-pretos-e-pardos-em-so-um-grupo-para-evitar-distorcoes.shtml

3. Sodré, Muniz. Claros e Escuros: Identidade, povo e mídia no Brasil. Editora Vozes. Editora Vozes. Petrópolis. 1999

About Marques Travae 3023 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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