Note from BBT: Although I’m quite accustomed to this topic, at a certain point, it gets to be a little tiresome. This coming from a person who once accepted that every pardo (the term used in the Brazilian census to define brown or mixed race people) was simply a black person in a state of denial. I’ve covered this topic up and down, side to side and diagonally over the years on this blog and several years before and still the issue is not settled. For decades, black leaders of the Movimento Negro (black movement) have argued that, as the statistics on pretos (clearly black people) and pardos are nearly identical in nearly every area of socioeconomic importance, pardos clearly fall into and should be considered a part of the black (negro) category.
To their credit, the Movimento Negro has been able to convince most agencies and organizations in Brazilian society to accept this calculation: pretos + pardos = negros. In order words, the combination of people who self-identify themselves as blacks and browns represent the overall população negra (black population) in Brazil. For years, I accepted that, even as starting some time between 2005 and 2007, activists of the “movimento pardo” (brown movement) and various scholars were insisting that this was not the case.
Their proof was that of the more than 50% of Brazilians that define themselves as preto or pardo, at the time, pardos represented 43% of the population while pretos were just 7%. Granted, in the past decade, we’ve seen a growing number of people who formerly identified themselves as pardos move into the preto category after going through a period of identity discovery and a raising of consciousness. Clearly, there will be more pardos moving into the preto category in the coming years, but just how many is hard to say.
After having visited and lived in Brazil for a number of years, my view on this began to change a few years ago. As I saw more and more pardos that I simply could not classify as being black and then seeing how some pardos were being rejected from the system of affirmative action because clearly black people were beginning to judge them as not being “black/brown enough”. For me, this simply showed that not even black Brazilians were willing to accept all pardos as being black.
It seemed that after all of the consciousness-raising to convince pardos that they were actually black, a number of black people themselves began to reject this ideology. My thing was, don’t claim pardos as being black and proclaim Brazil as having the second largest black population in the world after Nigeria and then reject them when there are benefits to attain.
This disagreement over who is and who is not black came up about a month ago on an episode of the 21st season of the Globo TV reality show, Big Brother Brasil (BBB 21). In a conversation between a few of the black participants on the program, people debated about the racial identity of another participant, Gilberto, who defined himself as black. Here’s how the discussion about colorism went, on Friday, February 5th, episode. Comedian Nego Di and rapper Karol Conká began to joke about the way Gilberto saw his own skin color. The comedian said that Gil had stated at the Festa Herança Africana (African heritage party) that he was black, of which he disagreed.
“I felt like getting up and leaving,” commented Nego Di, about the statement. “I didn’t even want to argue, because I had better things to do, to have fun,” he said to the rapper. Also present in the conversation were participants Lumena, Carla Diaz, Thaís and Pocah.
“He [Gilberto] said that someone at the ‘Africa party’ said that he is white. I told him, ‘my son, for whoever is white, you are black; for whoever is black, you are white. Everyone has their own opinions, but know that they will see you as white,” said Karol.
The discussion continued:
Karol: “I told him he was just like (participant/rapper) Projota.”
Nego Di: “No, he’s lighter.”
Karol: “He has a black arch.”
Nego Di: “No no, you can say he’s Muslim. Not black.”
Karol: “Yeah. Muslim. I think black really is Fiuk.” (Everyone laughed as Fiuk is clearly white)
Nego Di: “He has straight hair and I was looking at this on the test and said ‘who told him that? There was someone who once said to him, ‘Dude, you’re black’ and he believed it. Because man, it’s not possible to have the courage to say what he said.
As they continued the conversation, Nego Di then stated:
“He’s a little bit dirty, if he scrubs himself well. If he scrubs himself with a sponge, with those sponges that we shower with, if he scrubs himself well, if he does a finishing on his hair, if he rubs gel in his hair..”.
Karol: “But what about the archway? What about the forward arch?”.
Note from BBT: As we can see, black Brazilians can’t even agree on the topic. In some circles, you will find black Brazilians who look at certain pardos and, comparing them to more obvious looking black people, not accept them as black. After all, what is the criteria? Should we include persons who for all intents and purposes look white but because we can gauge a certain racial admixture in their look, consider them black? What about those people who are clearly not white but still not obviously black?
I don’t buy that.
In my view, while there are some pardos who look black, there are many others who look nearly white or simply impossible to categorize. When the issue is quotas, I see that many black Brazilians agree with my assessment. Of course, we are talking about Brazil, but I also know that in the US today, among a certain percentage of African-Americans, a person isn’t black unless they have two black parents.
What is the dominant view? Well, whereas in the past, mixed African ancestry was still considered black in the US, these days, more people are simply defining persons of mixed race as just that. In Brazil, the categorization seems to be headed in the opposite direction. The piece below touches on this issue. What’s your take on this issue?
Almost white, almost black: After a long historical discussion, pardos gain a new identity: light-skinned blacks
By Nathália Geraldo
To start this conversation, it is necessary to pay attention to a number beforehand: of the 212 million Brazilians, 46.8% are pardos, meaning brown or mixed. To make it even more explicit: almost half of the country’s population is made up of people who are too white to be black and too black to be white.
Despite containing a portion of indigenous descendants, pardos came to be recognized as representatives of the black Brazilian population after a long commitment by social movements in the 1970s and 1980s. The objective was to consolidate an identity, the black, and, from that, join forces in the fight against social inequality.
Pardos in addition to pretos (blacks) make up the black population (56%), the majority in Brazil. But the pardo’s place is on the borderline. Historically, they are also the result of miscegenation. For those who are pardo, hearing the phrase “You are not that black” is part of everyday life. But what is it like to be in a racial category “in the middle”?
For some people, reflecting on how they see themselves and how they are seen by society results in a process of discovering themselves as black. It’s when assuming who you are, accepting the features of the “black parcel” that constitutes you, transform a past of attempts at whitening into pride in being black. And this is the movement that we see today – and that tends to grow. A projection by the consultancy Tink Etnus says that 70% of Brazilians will declare themselves black in the next three years.
After a historical discussion about miscegenation, passing through the stereotype of “degenerate” and the exaltation of the mulatto, culminating in the myth of racial democracy, the pardo gains the possibility of another identity: a light-skinned black with no middle ground. This blackness, as columnist Bianca Santana says, will not be negotiated.
As there is no color chart to say who is black, and biological or genetic determinism has, at bottom, a racist nature, pardo is also the result of a social construction, and it changes over time.
With individual, collective experiences and from a sociological and historical perspective, eight interviewees then construct analyzes of the racial issue in Brazil and tell what miscegenation and attempts at whitening have done to us. With that, Universa wants to stimulate a transformative discussion, in which we can all hear each other.
When we discovered we were black
Until the age of 20, the writer and doctor in information science Bianca Santana wasn’t black. I knew I wasn’t white, but I couldn’t formulate a racial identity. At the university, she heard the coordinator of the Educafro course, for which she volunteered, celebrate the fact that a “young black woman” would be a teacher there. She was frightened. She tells the story in the book Quando me descobri negra (when I discovered I was black) and tells Universa: “It was the first time I heard that I was black, and further, in a positive sense. It was as if the course coordinator had organized in those few words a racial identity that I didn’t have. Until then, I had lived a non-place experience. I grew up at Cohab Fernão Dias and went to study at a private school. I came to be seen as the rich girl. At the school, I was the poor girl. So, before I realized I was black, I understood class inequality. Today, I remember some hints about my racial identity. People should be aware of how they are recognized in society. Because the “I feel black, no matter how people see me” thing doesn’t make sense. Today I see that in the family I had elements of what we call “the house of black”: my grandmother was a dark-skinned black woman, my aunt was of the Umbanda (religion), I didn’t have a father at home. My life was very similar to that of black people.”
Ceasing to straighten her hair became the key to entrepreneur Natalia Bovolenta, a partner at Wilifa. She said she was parda. Today, negra de pele clara (a light-skinned black woman). Daughter adopted by a white family, she sought aspects of her blackness and created a virtual conversation circle to share information and listen to reports. “My identification as a light-skinned black woman started three years ago, at 30. I stopped straightening my hair and my ex-boyfriend said: ‘You’re taking root’. This verb meant a lot. From there, I saw [YouTuber] Nataly Neri’s video on colorism. She said that she wouldn’t be anyone’s “negrometer”, that there is no point in asking a follower whether they are black or not. And I was outraged, it was exactly what I wanted. Today, I understand. Straightening my hair, I didn’t see myself, I had never stopped to think about racial identity. I was pretty alienated, even though they called me a monkey at school or said I had exotic beauty. I saw videos of black women on the internet that said: ‘You can’t say that you are negra, you have to say that you are parda’, reducing our pain. So I said I was parda. Identifying myself as a light-skinned black woman was an acceptance process. Assuming myself as parda didn’t satisfy me. When I place myself as a black woman with fair skin, I know that I suffer less racism than those who have pele retinta (dark skin). But the proposal is to fight together. The pain of the non-place exists. But, we are discovering ourselves.
Chavoso of USP
It was when he grew his hair out that Thiago Torres, @chavosodausp, discovered he was black. “I am the son of a light-skinned black man, who considers himself pardo, and a mãe branca (white mother). I was born and raised in Brasilândia, one of the blackest neighborhoods in SP. My parents considered me white. But sometimes there were episodes that I later understood as racism, about the size and shape of my nose, the texture of my hair. They called me filthy, dirty white. My hair didn’t grow down. Then, I straightened it, flat ironed it, lots of cream. When I was 16, I compared the color of my hand to that of a friend, very white. I said: ‘Wow, my hand is black’. And she said, ‘What do you mean? You are black’. I started to do a hair transition and I found that it is curly, 3C. Stopping straightening had everything to do with learning about social struggles. But I went into limbo: some thought I was black, others white. On the internet, a dark-skinned black woman said that pardos claiming to be black disrespected negros de pele escura (dark-skinned blacks). Only that I didn’t want to take anyone’s place. I said I was pardo. I thought: I am not white, because whites don’t suffer racism. But I was afraid to say that I was black. When I entered USP (University of São Paulo), the black collective invited me to be part of it. That made me kind of like that. In class, I understood what it really is to be black, racial hierarchies and how Brazil handled it. Then, there was no way to say that I was pardo.
Where does the term pardo come from?
“Pardo. A color between branco (white) and negro (black). From the pardal (sparrow), from which it seems to get its name. See Mulato.” The definition is in the dictionary Vocabulario portuguez e latino, from the 18th century. Since that period, pardo is “among” colors, which brings the condition of non-racial belonging. In fact, little has changed. In the current Houaiss, among the definitions, we have: “dark in color, between white and black” and “with dark or very dark epidermis”.
“The term brown already had an ambiguity. It both distanced the person from slavery, because it placed them as the fruit of a miscegenation process, and brought them closer, because it denoted that you had a black ancestor, who could also be African,” explains Juliana Barreto Farias, assistant professor at the International University for the Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusophony (Unilab).
Over the centuries, the pardo – however close to the white he was – has always been linked to negative stereotypes, such as that “he would be less prone to work”, and to the condition of “mixing” between the male colonizer and the enslaved, systematically violated black woman. Conditions that nobody wants to be associated with.
“The pardo/mulatto was seen as the mule, generated from two different species. The racial hierarchy was also in a sense of ‘blood purity'” – Juliana Barreto, historian
But in the slavery system, those with lighter skin accumulated some “privileges”. According to professor Dennis de Oliveira, from the University of São Paulo (USP) and a member of the Quilombação Anti-Racist Network, one of them was working in the casa grande (big house).
“The idea was created that people with slightly lighter skin end up having a different opportunity than those with darker skin. But, see, they were the result of a rape [of the black woman by the white man]. So, it is complicated to say that they were privileged, although they have a better social condition.” – Dennis de Oliveira, professor at USP
Racial theories, imported from Europe, tried, at the beginning of the 20th century, to give a new meaning to this division. The brown became a transitional identity until everyone became white.
In 1911, at the 1st International Congress of the Races, held in London, the Brazilian anthropologist João Baptista de Lacerda presented the thesis that, by 2011, the mestiça (mixed) and black population of Brazil would be extinct, due to the “racial crossing” that would take place in the country. An eugenicist and racist ideal, which clearly did not work. “It was a policy of encouraging miscegenation as a way to erase the black presence,” says Oliveira.
With a struggle by social movements for the recognition of being black in Brazil, comes the configuration that we know today, of pretos e pardos (blacks and browns) defining the black population. Understanding this strategy, comments Oliveira, goes through the fact that racism is structural. In other words, it goes through the experiences of black families over the generations and can be very painful for those who experience a “racial limbo”.
“A person with a slightly lighter skin may feel that they are exempt from suffering the consequences of racism. Only it is not just behavioral. If the ancestors, the parents, the grandparents had a darker skin, a situation of difficulty is already assigned for that person to assume a social ascension. So, it is necessary to see the pardo as black not only in the behavioral dimension, but from the social place that he/she occupies because of belonging to this black family,” says Oliveira.
Pardo, negro de cor clara (Brown, light-skinned black)
To try to account for the different experiences that black people with light and dark skin have, it is common to find the expression colorism. The theory created by American writer and activist Alice Walker in the 1980s establishes that the lighter the person’s skin, the more social advantages he/she has over dark-skinned people.
Philosopher and writer Sueli Carneiro is one of the Brazilian experts who opposes the idea. For her, debating colorism in the face of racial dynamics in Brazil is “a shot in the foot”. “It bothers me a lot. I think it’s a shot in the foot, because I belong to the generation that had to work hard to build this extraordinary political capital constituting the black category as a result of the sum of pretos and pardos,” she said during an event in June.
“Sueli Carneiro says that when we think of whites, we don’t think of a single group. There are whites with dark hair, red hair, morena (light brown) skin. But, when you think about the black, it seems that you cannot think that they are also different, that they have dark, light skin, curly, kinky hair. This is one of the ways of attaching us to certain characteristics in order to refer us to the same place” – Juliana Barreto, historian
For professor Dennis de Oliveira, it doesn’t make sense only for the black population to have this subdivision in the official criteria of self-identification. “Brazil is a black country. And unfortunately there is a constant attempt to erase the black race. So, the pardo recognizing himself as black denotes racial consciousness and that the country is a non-white place,” he says.
As the accounts of the three characters at the beginning of this report show, recognizing oneself as a light-skinned black person lifts the self-defined pardo Brazilian from the plunge of the identity frontier. “There was no way I could say I was me pardo if I was experiencing the discrimination and the crooked looks that dark-skinned people were experiencing there in college. We were black, and we had to fight together,” says Thiago Torres, from USP’s Chavoso profile, about how he started to call himself a light-skinned black man.
This is an intimate and individual process, but which, leveraged by decades of struggle and self-affirming blackness policies, is gaining strength to transform a country.
Who are you in the IBGE queue?
In 1976, the IBGE decided to consult the Brazilian about self-definition of color without predetermined answers.
That year’s survey registered 136 color definitions, including “acastanhada” (brownish), “café com leite” (coffee with milk), “bronze”, “castanha” (chestnut), “jambo”, “pouco clara” (a little light), “pouca morena” (a little brown), “puxa para branca” (pushing toward to white) , “miscegenation”. At least 17 words carried the term “morena”. “Morena-parda”, “morena morena”, “morena cinnamon”, and so on.
It was about this that the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo did a story, in 1995, saying that “Brazil wants to be called moreno and only 39% define themselves as white”.
In 1998, the IBGE, the number jumped to 143 “denominated colors”. Among them, “canela” (cinnamon), “clarinha” (a little light), “meio-termo” (middle ground), “misturada” (mixed), “pardinha” (a little brown). In comparison with 1976, the body showed an increase in the number of people who fit into the general branco and pardo categories, and a “sensitive” reduction in those who said they were morenos, pretos or escuros (dark).
Sorting is simplifying
Defining what is pardo or questioning people about their own color or race now is not the same as trying to explain what racial categories were in the past. The classification itself is a simplification of reality.
“The meanings and uses of racial categories are not fixed,” explains historian Juliana Barreto Faria. “They are constructed not only by skin color nor just phenotype.” Also taken into account, for example, the person’s ancestry, origin and skin tone.
But before the state’s interest in its citizens’ free self-definition of color, options were limited. In 1872, before the abolition of slavery, therefore, the categories were branco, preto, pardo and caboclo. In 1890, already in the Republic, the pardo is replaced by mestiço to name the result of the union of pretos and brancos. In the 1900 and 1920 censuses, IBGE did not collect data on color.
In 1940, a curious categorization: in addition to whites, blacks and yellows – due to the Japanese immigration process in the country – the fourth category became a dash in the filling in: 20% of the population ended up in this dash, and the pardo category returned to the 1950 census. Thirty years later, the question about race and color was left out.
Today, the respondent, by self-declaration, chooses: branco (white), pardo (brown), preto (black), amarelo (yellow) and indígena (indigenous).
Pardo x moreno
In analyzing the 1998 results, IBGE made a comparison about the level of consistency of self-identification. While almost all whites and yellows identified themselves in the same way in the open and closed questions, only 34% of pardos saw themselves in the same way in both approaches. Here, the term “moreno” appears again as a way out: 77% of those who chose the term in the open question had to choose the parda color in the closed question.
Membership in the parda or preta identity also varies by location. “I am from Rio and I live in Salvador. Defining myself as parda in Bahia is different from doing hist in Rio,” exemplifies Juliana, who identifies herself as a light-skinned black woman.
“The black movement, historically, has always worked with the idea that the condition of the black is beyond miscegenation. His place has always been one of social exclusion. That is why the term negro is an umbrella that encompasses all people descended from enslaved Africans” – Dennis de Oliveira, professor at USP and member of the Quilombação Anti-Racist Network
Each in its process
Without seeing themselves in a racialized way, light-skinned black women and men can spend their entire lives without racial belonging. If in the collective imagination the person with white skin, thin nose, straight hair and “standard” body is ideal, there are those who try to adapt to it with tools that eliminate the traces of blackness: straightened hair, makeup to narrow the nose or lightening the skin are part of this construction, because we live in a racist country that crosses identities with standards of beauty. The action is also legitimate.
“Not becoming black is also a defense mechanism. The person may think: if I have a chance to go to the white side, why am I going to be black?” – Marleide Soares, psychologist
“People don’t have a full sense of belonging alongside darker-skinned people, because the closer they are to white, the more they are pushed towards an understanding of how they are white. But it’s an ‘as if’. White people will not see her as white either,” says Marleide.
The therapist points out that, for those who seek to go through this process of racial consciousness, it is essential to be beside those who have the same experiences. “The safest place is to be with people who go through similar situations, black women with light skin. Later on, the person will be safer for being in the group of all blacks and affirm themselves as such.”
Valuation via affirmative action
In a country where whiteness is seen as ideal, influenced by a Eurocentric view of identity, blackening processes are strained by the implementation of affirmative actions, for example, racial quotas, as explained by sociologist Luiz Augusto Campos, from the Instituto de Social and Political Studies at Uerj (State University of Rio de Janeiro), where he coordinates the Multidisciplinary Study Group on Affirmative Action.
“You start to have some benefit in relation to blackness. Which puts the racial definition in the middle of a controversy. And the pardo, instead of becoming that person who thinks of himself as white, starts to be seen as a possible beneficiary of public policy.”
For Juliana Barreto Farias, however, the self-declaration by those who discover themselves as black is not limited to this issue. “Although we can see these tensions within the black movement itself, due to colorism, there is a risk of talking only about limit issues, such as quotas and people who commit fraude.”
Should the pardo be kept in the census?
Dennis de Oliveira: “The term brown doesn’t make sense. I defend the categories branco, negro, amarelo, indígena. It doesn’t make sense only for the black population to have this subdivision. Unfortunately there is a constant attempt to erase the black race. So, the pardo recognizing himself as black denotes racial consciousness and that the country is a non-white place.”
Juliana B. Farias: “I don’t know if we are prepared to change, because in the degree of Brazilian racial awareness and discussion, if we remove the pardo category, we can have a Brazil of whites. The fact of defining oneself as pardo is already a way of not defining oneself as white and assuming some blackness, and in a while, to discover oneself as black.”
Luiz A. Campos: “The pardo must continue. If we take it out, it will reduce the self-declared black population. If you place pardo as moreno, that term defines anyone who is not blonde. We have to think about this category, because, in fact, it is a problem: can pardos be considered negros? Or is only a part of them black? It’s a border issue.”
Marleide Soares: “It’s the pardos that make more than half of Brazil black. If suppressed, there will be a loss in targeting public policies for this portion, which will affect everyone. I think that in two Censuses [20 years] we will have security to remove the pardo, but we still don’t have the maturity for that as a society.”
Who constructed this report
Nathália Geraldo, the author of this report
“This agenda emerged from a personal experience. I also discovered myself as black. Not without pain, internal and external questions and a lot of approval from darker-skinned people. I always felt uncomfortable: the wide nose and the big mouth, in addition to my hair that is not straight, prevented me from being part of the white world. Those were the first clues that I was not white. But it was still possible to “whiten” myself: I straightened my hair at 12 until the hair transition at 26. The self-declaration was gradually based. In my circle of friends, we discussed racism and the experience of the non-place. I was parda for a while. In making this text, I often heard the word “process”. It is perhaps less painful if we embrace it. My psychologist, also a light-skinned black woman, helps me see the power of discovering myself black at each session. Now, I also have a deep, political and collective and struggle identity. And I can already see her in the mirror.”
Jess Vieira, the author of the illustrations
“Expressing racial identity in my work is like printing a part of me and what I believe. I grew up being put in the place of “morena” or “mulatinha”, because my hair is not crespo (kinky/curly). I always knew that I was not white and society read me as a non-white person; although I don’t like the term non-white, because white is not a parameter. I came to understand myself as a black girl already as an adult, living alone, in a city that was not mine, going to places where I was the only black girl. So, I saw that I was black, but I didn’t know what it was to be black in society. I understand that we cannot ignore the historical erasure of our original and ancestral African peoples, and how much it influences our identity. For this reason, I am in favor of the view that we are amefricanos (Amerfricans), as Lélia Gonzalez proposed. Today I am happy because more and more black women are looking at themselves with their own beauty, which generates self-confidence, self-love and respect for our bodies, which is the house we inhabit.”