When speaking of racial classification or identity in Brazil, things can get quite complex. On the one hand, various reports have proclaimed Brazil to have the largest black or African descendant largest population outside of Africa but according to official census reports, only 7% of Brazilians define themselves as black, or preto. If you’re not familiar with the debate, please read our articles on racial classification and the increase of Brazilians defining themselves as preto or black. This article will delve even further into this question of classification, identity and terminology.
In the past decade or so, another term to define Brazilians of African descent has been thrown into the ring: the term afrodescendente, which means African descendant. Although the term is more en vogue in academia, it is another that is being considered to define Brazil’s non-white population that is of primary or partial African ancestry. Although activists of the Movimento Negro, including the late, great Abdias do Nascimento (1) have long considered the combination of pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) to make up the Afro-Brazilian population, others say that combining the two groups artificially inflates the number of Afro or black Brazilians. In real terms, the pardo group makes up more than 43% of the population and when combined with the 7% of Brazilians calling themselves pretos, this figure comes to a little more than 50% of about 195 million Brazilians and is the basis for the declaration that non-whites are the majority.
But this is where it begins to get a little complicated. In terms of socioeconomic statistics that measure quality of life in Brazil (health, education, income, etc.), figures for pardos andpretos are consistently identical in a number areas and at a disadvantage vis-à-vis those who declare themselves branco or white. This is the basis of the argument of black activists who believe pretos and pardos make up part of the same group. Others argue that interracial admixture between racial groups and self-identity make them two completely separate groups.
For years, activists of the Movimento Negro have wrestled with ways and terms that would form a cohesive bond between the two groups but there are a few problems. For instance, some have suggested replacing the two terms preto and pardo with one all-encompassing term meaning black: negro. But for activists of the Movimento Negro, the problem with using the term negro is that some pardos that don’t see themselves as black could possibly opt to define themselves as brancos or whites. The other solution suggested was that the popular term moreno be added to the census. But the problem with adding this term is that anyone with the exception of blonds and redheads could use the term moreno which could include dark-haired persons of European appearance/ancestry, would-be black people of any skin tone or anyone that is not clearly one race or another, thus defeating the purpose of trying to clearly define the Afro-Brazilian population.
Now comes the term afrodescendente. A term meant to apply to persons who recognize primary of partial African ancestry, but also linking the person to historical and cultural references of African origin. Would the usage of this term bridge the gap between pretos andpardos and help build a collective black identity that the Movimento Negro seeks or will it simply add to the confusion? First consider this. 1) There are some pardos who are not of primary or significant African ancestry as the term can encompass any racial mixture. 2) According to a 2004 estimate, as much as 86% of Brazilians carry at least 10% African DNA (2) which includes a large proportion of self-identified white Brazilians who could also define themselves as afrodescendentes.
With all of this in mind, three well known Brazilian public figures weighed in on the question. Glória Maria is a long-time television journalist, Preta Gil is a singer, TV host and actress and Toni Garrido is a singer/actor most known for his years as the lead singer of the popular band Cidade Negra.
The discussion about replacing the term negro with afrodescendente (African descendant)’ – with the justification that it refers not only to skin color, but to historical and cultural references of African origin – has already generated much controversy. Famed TV host/journalist Glória Maria, for example, does not like the new vocabulary. The journalist says proudly, that she is negra (black, feminine form) and likes the affectionate nickname neguinha (which can be loosely translated as ‘little black woman’), that she earned from her friends. “Sorry, but I think it’s idiotic. We are negros (blacks), period. When I got on TV, everyone called me neguinhaand I was very happy! Does calling someone branquinha (little white woman/girl) offend anyone? I think the offense is not in neguinha, but in the way you said it, in the tone you say it. Sometimes you can offend with a look, with the gesture. Even today my friends call me neguinha. Until 15 years ago, at Globo (TV), everybody called me neguinha and I felt very proud and I feel proud today.”
BWofBrazil note: Brazilians often speak in augmentatives and diminutives. Adding the suffix “inho” or “inha” to a word makes it a smaller version of the root word, while adding the suffix “ão” makes the root word bigger. Also, in Portuguese, both the terms preto/preta and negro/negra mean black. Activists of the Movimento Negro distinguish the two terms as preto/preta is the actual color black while the terms negro/negra have a more political meaning used by persons of a wide range of phenotypes who define themselves as belonging to a collective race of persons who trace their ancestry to the African continent.
Glória Maria’s reference to the manner in which a term like neguinha is used is similar in the manner in which the terms black and nigga/nigger are used by black or non-black people in the US. The terms of usage amongst African-Americans, the term black can signify a person’s race or a very dark-skinned person. Many African-Americans use the term nigga as a term of affection towards other African-Americans while nigga or nigger is usually seen as insulting/racist when said by a non-black person. Similarly, in Brazil, many people accept terms such as neguinha/neguinho, crioulo/crioula as terms of affection (by any person or race) while others are increasingly seeing the terms as racially pejorative or insulting regardless of the tone or social situation in which it is used.
Preta Gil criticizes the term afrodescendente
The singer says that often-times people play around with her name (Preta, meaning black) changing it to ‘Afrodescendente Gil’.
Some people think Preta Gil is a nickname. Born as Preta Maria Gadelha Gil Moreira, she is very proud of the name given to her by her father, popular singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, and says she has had people playing around with her name after the creation of the term afrodescendente.
“I often hear people calling me ‘Afrodescendant Gil’, making jokes …You can call Preta preta (black)! I’m afrodescendente yes, I’m mixed with a white mother and a black father, a typical Brazilian mulata, but my name is Preta! I am very proud of my name,” she said.
The term afrodescendente, replacing negro or preto, has been established in Brazil but the singer does not think anything has changed since this law came into force.
“Imagine this! What has changed? What will a term change in the lives of human beings? Much to the contrary, it is a term that only helps create even more prejudice. Everything that is labeled is very annoying. You’re black, fat, bisexual …”, she rebels.
She adds that these classifications only serve to confuse more people and bring more labels and barriers, and that what matters is character and not what one wears or likes.
“Why do I have to look at the skin of another? Let’s unlabel! Where is your character? Just because a guy wears a jacket like this or like that I’ll call him a nerd or her a patricinha (3). I am what I wish (to be) and the essence will not change! In the world we live labels.”
Singer Toni Garrido says he prefers to use the word afrodescendente; the singer thinks terms like negão or crioulo can have pejorative connotations
Although the term afrodescendente is not yet popular, Toni Garrido insists on using it. The singer says this because it is much better to than other terms that he judges to be pejorative.
“I use afrodescendente because it’s a cooler word than negão, crioulo (or) neguinho. To avoid any word more aggressive or entertaining – that often times people don’t know how to differentiate one from the other – so I say this. There’s so many terms that fall in the middle that may be not so cool… Afrodescendente doesn’t harm anyone and it’s beautiful,” he explains and affirms that he uses this word to generalize in a positive way.
1) See Nascimento, Abdias do, and Elisa Larkin Nascimento. 2001. “Dance of Deception: A Reading of Race Relations in Brazil.” Pp. 105–56 in Beyond Racism: Race and Inequality in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States, edited by Charles Hamilton et al. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
2) See Pena, Sérgio D.J. and Bortolini, Maria Cátira. “Pode a genética definir quem deve se beneficiar das cotas universitárias e demais ações afirmativas?” Estud. av. [online]. 2004, vol.18, n.50, pp. 31-50
3) According to the online Dictionary of Informal Portuguese, a patricinha is loosely defined as a woman who always feel like a little girl and loves to dress according to fashion trends and likes to be protected by her parents. She is sweet, a little stuck up, think of herself as beautiful and likes to be popular in her social realm area (school, family…)