Brazil’s Black and Brown People and Their Superfluous Distinctions
Note from BW of Brazil: Very interesting what’s going on in terms of race, racial identity, racism and black social movements in Brazil. These issues are exactly the reason I started this blog more than eight and half years ago. And everyday, something else comes up that throws another log in the fire. Years ago, it was still rather common to come across people who you or I would consider black but that didn’t see themselves as such.
Nowadays, you come across more obvious black people who assume this identity as well as those you wouldn’t think would accept this identity. Juxtapose this with what’s going on the United States, where, years ago, black people accepted fair-skinned people with less kinky hair as black if they had African ancestry. Today, you meet many African-Americans who look at persons of mixed African ancestry and firmly place them in the mixed category.
There are some of mixed race who proudly claim that place in the middle while others fight to “prove” their blackness. As the United States seems to be following a pattern of miscegenation that’s been the norm in Brazil for centuries, these issues are bound to get even more complex.
But going back to Brazil, I’ve watched with much intrigue as black Brazilians who have long tried to convince pardos, meaning brown or mixed race people, that they are in fact black, now scoff and reject them for taking on thi identity. This about face started to become even more striking when less black looking brown and even white people claiming to be brown starting to enter universities through the quota system set up for pretos (blacks), pardos and indigenous people. Watching as thousands of people, fraudulently or not, claimed having a black grandparent or great grandparent gave them the right to get into college through affirmative actions, black students started getting more aggressive in pointing out and calling for the expulsion of those who weren’t “black enough”.
The irony in this is,as I pointed out in a previous article, black Brazilians will still proclaim that Brazil has more 100 million black people even when about 90% of those “black people”, in fact, define themselves as pardos/browns. So then what do you do with people like well-known culinary specialist Bela Gil begins to identify herself as black? Gil is not only known for her culinary skills but she is also one of the many children and grandchildren of famed musician Gilberto Gil.
According to a number of studies, maybe about 25% of people who identify themselves as pardos would probably be seen as black by others. And as more and more pardos come to the realization that they aren’t white and aren’t accepted as such, many go through a transition in identity, some coming to define themselves as black.
So how do people with more salient African features deal with these “new” black people? Will this lead to a sort of unity between pretos and pardos that it seems Brazil has purposely attempted to undermine for centuries? Or will a growing black identity cause the pretos to reject pardos as not really being black even when both sides are in the same boat in terms of socioeconomic profiles, chances of being murdered and overall access to a middle-class lifestyle?
Intriguing dynamic. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how these terms of blackness and a sort of divide between pretos and pardos is being addressed. First, consider the experiences of Bela Gil and then we’ll check the views of another person who doesn’t want any part of any petty divisions between pretos and pardos.
Bela Gil: “I didn’t use to identify myself as a black woman”
By Amanda Serra
Bela Gil has become a meme in social networks on several occasions. In one of them, in 2016, the presenter and culinaryist prepared a barbecued watermelon during a participation in the Globo TV talk show Encontro com Fátima Bernardes and became one of the popular subjects on Twitter. Recently, she analyzed this kind of repercussion beyond satire in an interview with Yahoo.
“Never would a grilled watermelon made by a white man on TV have turned into a meme… What if I were a white woman? Would the things I did and said have been so countered, so questioned if I was a white woman? I don’t think so,” provokes the nutritionist.
What we see here is a light-skinned person of mixed ancestry who, for probably most of her life, never perceived the subtle ways in which people were probably behaving in a racist manner toward her. As with so many mestiços that don’t identify themselves as black, it very common that many don’t see the possibility of being discriminated against. Bela’s experience is one that we often hear from persons of mixed race, some of whom in learning of how the subtleties of racism can play out, start to re-position themselves in terms of identity.
Nevertheless, even being the topic of memes, the host is grateful and credits them with part of the credibility she has gained in recent years. But since she recognized herself as a black woman, she has come to review moments and issues of her life where she recognizes situations of racism.
“After I recognized myself as a black woman, I understood and went searching for issues, facts that occurred in my life that may have been greatly influenced by the color of my skin, my ancestry and being a woman,” she states.
And even recognizing, experiencing and becoming indignant on a regular basis with situations of racism, Bela reveals that the acceptance of herself as a black woman happened late. “Although I am the daughter of a black man, I am also the daughter of a white woman (Flora Gil). I never identified myself as a white woman, that’s a fact. But I also didn’t identify myself as a black woman. It was in a recording of (talk show) Saia-Justa that I came to realize this, including, this is the first time I am talking about it,” reveals Bela.
Note from BW of Brazil: As I have stated previous articles on this topic, I no longer accept that all pardos are black, which leads to the idea that there are more 100 million black people in Brazil. Many pardos would be considered black in many parts of the world, but there are millions more who would probably get the “what are you?” type of question in terms of their racial identity and makeup. As I am perfectly comfortable saying we may never know exactly how many black people there are in Brazil, I am totally in favor of pretos and pardos accepting each other because as long as there is division, the oppressor continues to win.
Sou preto (I’m black) and I don’t dispute crumbs with the pardos (browns)
By Ricardo Corrêa
“Tem cabelo liso, mas olha o nariz da menina” (She has straight hair, but looks at the girl’s nose) – taken from rapper GOG’s song “Carta a Mãe África” (Letter to Mother Africa)
There are many debates among blacks about the modus operandi of racism in the treatment of pretos and pardos (black and brown people), however, the discussions are loaded with sectarianism and always cause resentment among those involved. I don’t disregard the importance of the specificities of each group, I only believe that the debates should occur if the black population – considered the sum of pretos and pardos – were on another level of citizenship. At least with the right to life being respected.
Evoking Colorism¹, pretos argue that pardos are palatable people within the racist structure, because of this, they get the best opportunities when compared to them, who have darker skin. But these criticisms have gaps because they don’t clarify the quality of the opportunities. Is the humanity of lighter-skinned blacks at least respected? I don’t believe that pardo women find it advantageous to be submitted to the looks that hypersexualize them, the same situation of the Mulata de Exportação² (mulata for exportation) in Elisa Lucinda’s poem. Or consider it a privilege to receive racist reminders, especially when they are on their jobs, such as “exotic beauty,” “fine features,” “foot in the senzala” (see note one), among others.
Before writing this article I revisited the work of sociologist Oracy Nogueira (2006) “Preconceito racial de marca e Preconceito racial de origem: sugerir de um quadro de referência para a interpretação do material sobre relações racial no Brasil” that addresses the dynamics of racial prejudice between Brazil and the United States. The conclusions are very relevant, and help to understand the nuances and behaviors of black and white subjects. For the Brazilian context, Nogueira characterized racial prejudice by mark “when the prejudice of race is exercised in relation to appearance, that is, when it takes as a pretext for its manifestations the physical traits of the individual, the physiognomy (…) is said to be of the mark”.
This is very different from what happens in the United States, where the descent of a certain ethnic group is determinant for the individual to suffer prejudice. At this point, a lesson: it’s no use importing American theories to explain Brazilian racism. Oracy Nogueira demonstrated the complexity, difficulty in overcoming, what miscegenation created in Brazil. So much so that there are light-skinned blacks who assume a white identity and are accepted without question. However, we cannot turn exception into rule, even knowing that “the intensity of prejudice varies in direct proportion to black traits.
Moreover, before criticizing the supposed advantages of lighter-skinned blacks, let us remember that social and hierarchical structures are intact: Blacks are not occupying decision-making spaces, they don’t escape police violence, and they continue to be the most economically disadvantaged. These crumbs that cause so much discussion serve structural racism, create conflicts among blacks, and characterize supposed tolerance of racial diversity in white majority spaces. When any discussion arises, it is best to follow the orientation of the intellectual and important name of the black movement, Abdias do Nascimento (1978) “let’s not waste time with superfluous distinctions.”
NASCIMENTO, Abdias. O genocídio do negro brasileiro – Processo de um racismo mascarado. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Paz e Terra. 1978.
NOGUEIRA, Oracy. “Preconceito racial de marca e preconceito racial de origem: sugestão de um quadro de referência para a interpretação do material sobre as relações raciais no Brasil”. Tempo Social Revista de Sociologia da USP, Editora da USP, v. 19, n. 1 p. 287-308. São Paulo, 2006.
¹ The term was used by the writer Alice Walker, in 1982, in the book In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden. In summary, colorism points out that discrimination is based on skin pigmentation. In other words, the darker the person, the greater the exclusion in social interaction.
- Usually the phrase is “pé na cozinha”, meaning ‘a foot in the kitchen’, the term “pé na senzala” (foot in the slave quarters) refers to people who may not be fully black, but that have their physical characteristics that denote African ancestry to the degree that they cannot “pass” for white. The reference to the kitchen and the senzala, or slave quarters, referring to places where black people have always been associated in Brazilian history.