Colorism: a sad reality makes dark-skinned blacks less accepted while light-skinned blacks have “less difficulty” being able to blend into white environments

Revista Ókótó volorismo triste realidade faz negros de pele
Revista Ókótó volorismo triste realidade faz negros de pele
Revista Ókótó - volorismo-triste-realidade-faz-negros-de-pele
Image that shows a wide range of shades of our skin / Photo courtesy of Ókótó Magazine

Note from BW of Brazil: After years of living in the United States in a large black community as well as having the opportunity to visit other cities with large black populations, I became aware very early on of the variety of phenotypes among African-Americans. I could see this diversity in my very own family. But even with range of looks in the US black population, this experience still did not prepare for an even greater diversity of looks within the Brazilian black population. With this in mind, you can imagine that if there are issues among African-Americans in terms of colorism, the situation in Brazil is infinitely more complex. And these complexities have made me start to challenge my previously held views that calculating Brazil’s black population is as easy as simply adding the preto (black) and pardo (brown/mixed) groups together and concluding that Brazil has “the largest black population in the world after Nigeria.”

Colorism in Brazil, as in the US, is not simply about the shade of one’s skin within the established black community, but also considers other qualifying physical features, such as hair texture, size and shape of the lips, mouth and nose. Nowadays, although I still believe black people comes in all sorts of physical combinations, I am also coming to the conclusion that not all persons of mixed race in Brazil should automatically be classified as black simply because they are not exactly white. Then you add colorism into the mix and we start to see the black community itself contradicting itself over who is and who is not exactly black. Even so, it is an issue that must be dealt with. 

Negra de pele clara, Thais Ferreira da Silva, 24
A light-skinned black woman, Thais Ferreira da Silva, 24, can move more easily through mostly white environments / Image: Personal Archive

Colorism: a sad reality makes dark-skinned blacks less accepted 

By Natália Eiras

Student Thais Ferreira da Silva, 24, from Campo Grande, the capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, is a mulher negra de pele clara (light-skinned black woman). Despite of having experienced prejudice, she knows that she has “less difficulty” and is able to blend in much more in white environments, such as the college where she is studying fashion, than people with darker skin. This is because there is colorism. “It’s a hierarchy of skin tone and black features,” explains anthropologist Helio Menezes, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Social Markers of Difference at USP (University of São Paulo). “The lighter the skin, the closer the white ideal of beauty the person will be and the more access to certain sectors of society she will have.”

The term colorism emerged in the 1980s and has gained strength in the Brazilian racial debate about ten years ago, since most of the country’s inhabitants declare themselves as brown. According to a survey conducted in 2016 by the IBGE, 44.2% of the 205.5 million Brazilians consider themselves pardos, an umbrella term that can mean mixed or brown. Pretos, meaning blacks account for 8.2% of the population. Thus, negros (the sum of pretos and pardos) correspond to 52.4% of the inhabitants of Brazil – the Research Institute includes preto and pardo people in the category of negros.

“In the logic of colorism and embranquecedora (whitener), the closer to the white person’s expectation, the less the person will suffer difficulties compared to people with darker skin,” says Menezes. “Black people with lighter skin have, in general, higher marital rates, greater possibility of coming out on magazine covers?”, exemplifies the anthropologist. Camila Pitanga is quoted by the specialist as one of the black artists who end up benefiting from this logic.

This, however, does not exclude the possibility that this part of the population, including Camila, may suffer discrimination. Although considered a “morena” by many people, Thais grew up hearing from her mother that she should not mess with her purse inside stores so as not to think she is stealing something. “If the police had to stop a woman suspected of assault, she would not stop a branca (white woman) if she saw me first,” she says.

“The pardos also make up the statistics of less access to schools, a higher incidence of police violence. The racism suffered by pessoas negras de pele clara (light-skinned black people) differs from that suffered by the individual with pele retinta (dark skin) in intensity, not quality,” says Helio Menezes.

Pardos são negros? (Are pardos black?)

Another issue that often appears allied to colorism is the attempted whitening of the population. Light-skinned black people are commonly called “morena” or “jambo-colored.” These are terms used to avoid calling an individual in preto and denying his or her blackness.

“As this population is marked by situations like violence and racism, calling someone in black has become offensive, pejorative,” explains Alexandro Silva de Jesus, a doctorate in sociology and professor of the museology course at the Federal University of Pernambuco. “I myself am a black man with dark skin and I have heard that I am ‘moreno.’ When they call me that, they want to take me to a place of comfort.”

According to Alexandro, this part of the population may even be well-intentioned, but it is, in a sense, racist. “Racism is structural and can be reproduced by people without any bad intent.”

But with the debate about racial identity in academic settings and policies of inclusion, people who once considered themselves white because they have less melanin in their skin and/or finer features are declaring themselves black. Between 2012 and 2016, the National Research for Continuous Household Sample Survey (PNAD) of the Research Institute reported that the number of self-declared pretos increased by 14.9%.

Thais was one of the people who “changed teams”. In 2014, the young woman traveled to Salvador, Bahia, where the population is mostly black, and felt much more welcomed. “It was an identification thing, it’s like being at home,” she says. That’s when she started declaring herself black.

Imagine just living your life between one thing and another. Not knowing exactly which team is yours. It can be pretty lonely, right? Thais felt more or less like this until she found a welcome in the Movimento Negro (black movement). “They understand me in a way that no white person would understand me,” she says.

Helio says dividing the population between negros and “morenos” would be a way to get the pardos to unite and create a network of identification. Even though they have certain privileges. “You play the guy in this ‘almost there’ in this etcetera,” explains Helio Menezes. “He doesn’t see himself as a complete being with a culture, but as a hybrid without identity. It’s a tremendous symbolic violence.”

Source: UOL Universa

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Is this racism or an assumption of poverty? As in the United States Dark Skin Blacks tend to be the most poor and the majority of the poor in the US among the Black Community. Sure there is some structural racism as I have understood is the case in Brazil.

    Here’s the thing though. Societies cannot guarantee outcomes but can if it wants can guarantee access.

    What needs to happen is the Left in Brazil needs to be more organized and coherent with it’s message. There is no logical way Bolsonaro would be president if the RIght didn’t cheat as it does in the US. So they did cheat, fine but then you weaken the other candidates by focusing on De Silva instead and then scare monger more moderate voters into voting for a person they barely knew.

  2. There is no rigorous study of colorism in Brazil. People normally uses anecdotical evidences when it comes to colorism here, like the one in the text about Camila Pitanga. One could use the singer Iza as an anecdotical evidence to argue the opposite. I’m not saying that there is no colorism here, but it is not well studied yet. There are many numbers that suggest that it does not exist or that it is a way different than the colorism in USA, e.g., 2% of USP professors are negroes, but 20% of these negroes professors are black, while only 15% of the negro Brazillian population are back. I could come with many numbers like that and many number where browns have some “privilege”, but the difference is always really small (lesse then 5%). Does this implie that there is no colorism here? No! We lack a serious statistical study that analises the number historically here to understand if the black and brown curves are the same and if they aren’t, how close they are, and what that means in our society. I find it really disturbing that we haven’t answered these questions yet.

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