Note from BBT: I came across the piece below some time last week and instantly identified with the subject matter. The short article is written by an African-American university professor and details her understanding and experiences of being black but not Brazilian in Brazil. The perceptions of Professor Harrington analyze a phenomenon that I think many black people experience when visiting other countries where there are sizable black populations but in which the white citizens are considered the dominant society.
Harrington’s memories of the way she was sort of placed on a pedestal by white Brazilians because she was an American and not one of the native black people in the country reminds me of a story a Brazilian friend of mine shared with me probably back in about 2002. This friend, who I shall call ‘’Kamila’’, is originally from Rio de Janeiro and was taking courses at the University of Georgia, in Athens, Georgia, which just happens to be my city of birth.
I was in Athens for an event that focused on Portuguese-speaking countries, which include countries such as Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Angola and the Cape Verdean islands. In one memorable conversation, Kamila told me how she was received by her university advisors. Kamila is a dark-skinned, clearly black woman and she knew this. So, she never adapted the idea that she was a ”morena”, which is, as I’ve discussed at length in numerous previous articles, a term which can be used to define almost anyone in Brazil who isn’t a blond or a redhead.
Whether any shade of color encapsulating the black race, a white person with dark hair or a person of mixed race, almost anyone can be a morena or moreno. For decades, this term was used in order to avoid calling black people preto or negro, both meaning black, which was considered an insult. After all, for many years, nobody, ok, very few people, wanted to be defined as black. In a Brazil dominated by a belief in white superiority, it was like acknowledging one’s racial inferiority.
Kamila explained how, upon getting to know her, her university advisor made an effort to convince her that she wasn’t ‘’one of those blacks’’, in reference to African-Americans. No, no, Kamila was ‘’different’’, or ‘’special’’. In some ways, I think I have experienced this in various parts of Brazil, but particularly in São Paulo, where I’ve spent the most time.
Physically, wherever I go in the world, I would be considered a black man and this is how I am seen in Brazil. Walking down the street, people would probably not immediately know that I am not Brazilian, and if they do, it could be due to my height. It’s simply not as common to see men that stand 6’4’’ in Brazil as it is in the US. Some people have claimed that they suspect that I am not from Brazil because of the way that I walk.
That may or may not be true, but given the way police kill black folks in Brazil, I don’t think whatever subtle difference people might note would save me from a police interrogation. But then again, that may not be true. Having lived in São Paulo for nearly nine years, I can say I’ve never had any run ins with police and I can’t honestly say that I’ve been victimized by any overtly racist situation.
On the other hand, a friend of mine from New Jersey, who also lives in São Paulo, has shared how often he’s been approached by police and the uncomfortable looks he gets when he enters middle class apartment buildings to teach an English class. Little differences between he and myself could be the reason for our different experiences. ‘’Jonathan’’ wears dreadlocks and Hip-Hop attire wherever he goes whereas I wear a short fade and casual attire.
In my own experiences, I feel that I’ve long received a certain pass. Where I live, people know I’m the ‘’American guy’’ and when I first started living in São Paulo, I noted how many people seemed to want to know me simply because of that fact.
Some years ago, the owner of one of the English schools where I taught English programmed a message into the school’s digital billboard advertising that there was a teacher who is a native speaker of English at the school. There were moments when I felt like a rock star or something because of the fuss that was made over the ‘American guy’. This has happened in both São Paulo and Bahia.
There have been embarrassing situations over the years.
Visiting a school in Ilhéus, Bahia, in 2001, I was taken a local elementary school because I wanted to observe the day-to-day of everyday school kids. From the moment I arrived, it seemed as if Michael Jackson had arrived. Everywhere I went on the school’s premises, kids would come out of their classrooms to see the ’American guy’.
After having spent a few hours at that school, one of the teachers invited me to his classroom where he picked up an acoustic guitar and strummed the chords of the famous Jorge Ben song ‘’País Tropical’’ while about twenty of his young students sang the lyrics to me.
At the school where I taught in São Paulo, during a class break, the director asked me to come over to where he was standing. He then signaled a young boy, who I think was probably about six or seven years old, to come over to where we were. As I towered over the kid, the director said to him, ‘’’Ele é Americano’’, meaning ‘he’s American’ as the kid looked up at me with a sort of astonished look on his face. Later, I had to pull the director aside and tell him to stop doing that. ‘’No, no, he loves the United States and has always wanted to meet an American,’’ he said.
Several of these types of situations have shown me that, in certain moments, my Americanness may outweigh my blackness. But I would argue that that is only when people perceive that I am American after having interacted with me. Of course, there’s really no way to be able to prove that foreign black people get better treatment both outside of their home country as well as in comparison to the native black population of a particular country.
I remember some years ago, another African-American living in São Paulo told me of a situation in which he had a run in with a Military Police officer. After having been approached in the street and seeing the officer’s partner walking up to provide backup, he instantly played his foreign ‘’card’’ and started speaking to the cops in English. He noted how the officer’s behavior seemed to change instantly and he was soon released to go on about his business.
In all of my time in visiting and living in Brazil, no one has ever referred to me as a ‘’moreno’’ to my face, although I’ve had students tell me that others persons have referred to me as ‘’moreno’’ when describing me. When dealing with students in the various classes I’ve had, whenever the subject of color or race has come up, I’ve made it clear that I don’t have any problem with the term ‘’preto’’. This has also changed among black Brazilians in the past few decades.
From everything I’ve read and what people have told me, as recently as the 90s and the early 2000s, it was still very common for people to refer to clearly black people as morenos and morenas as well as those same black people preferring to define themselves as such. But by the late 90s and early 2000s, a transition was well underway.
In Ricardo Franklin Ferreira’s 2000 book, Afro-descendente: identidade em construção (African Descendant: Identity in Construction), the author describes a scenario that would become emblematic in this shift in identity. The author describes witnessing an exchange in which a white man referred to a black girl as a morena. Another woman corrected him saying, ‘’Ela é negra. Pode chamar ela de negra’’, meaning ‘she’s black, you can call her black’. The man responds by explaining that he didn’t want to offend the young woman. Today, as we’ve seen in numerous previous posts, there are hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of black Brazilians making these same corrections every day.
Similar to when referring to a black woman as mulata, a term which many black Brazilian women also vehemently reject, calling someone a morena can mean a number of things. It could be a white person’s way of referring to a black person in a manner that they think is affectionate. It could be a manner of addressing a black person that is considered attractive, as, for many Brazilians still today, one cannot be attractive and be defined as black.
The question would be, why can’t they just say negra/negro or preto/preta? Perhaps they still consider the terms preto/preta or negro/negra as something to avoid. But nowadays, more people demand being described by these two terms that mean black.
With this in mind, I repeat a phrase that started to become very common some time in the first decade of the 2000s. ‘’Moreno? No. Sou Negro’’
“As a black woman, the title ‘morena’ intentionally dilutes my visible racial identity.”
By Jaira J. Harrington
While some expressions of Brazilian anti-Black racism are impossible to hide, these overt assaults were familiar to me as a Black American woman living abroad. My most confusing experiences with everyday racism in Brazil were terribly subtle. While intended to refer amicably to me as an individual, such statements and actions reinforce oppressive racist, classist, sexist, and imperialist structures that negatively impact the Black community globally.
While living in Brazil, I chose to reside in metropolitan areas, including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Brasilia. What can I say? I love living in the city and each place has its own characteristics and distinction. Avenida Paulista in SP, Botafogo in RJ, Rio Vermelho in Bahia and other touristy neighborhoods that usually receive foreigners were the places where new acquaintances invited me to hang out.
Due to my foreign status and origin from the United States, it was assumed that I would feel more comfortable in these territories, although these places tended to be wealthy and white. The air in these places was uncomfortably thick with racist elitism. Despite the atmosphere, occasionally someone would strike up a conversation with me while I was sitting in a café, dining in a restaurant, or browsing works in a bookstore.
Upon revealing my nationality, new acquaintances would always give me a nickname to signal closeness, as many Brazilians do. The most common name was “morena”. My relationship with race in Brazil was complicated due to my status as a foreigner from the US. As a black woman, the title “morena” intentionally dilutes my visible racial identity. The term is used as a buffer away from blackness so as not to offend me.
In contrast, my black Brazilian friends affectionately referred to me as “nega” and this felt like a complete embrace. The “morena” distinction is seemingly innocuous in its intent. In my case, it assumes an upper-class orientation and high status. The implied message is this: I can clearly see that you are black, but as an educated and chic black American, you are different and better than these other depraved black people. You see, this is a reference to the same black Brazilian community that took me in. No matter how benign or charming it may superficially seem, this is anti-Black racism.
At the intersection of racial and gender contempt and the advantages of US nationality and perceived class status, my experience with Brazilian anti-Black racism took on a very specific form. The tentative acceptance I experienced in white Brazilian spaces was a special privilege not granted to most black Brazilians. For some black outsiders, this conditional approval may be tempting, but I have a deep empathy for the plight of black Brazilian people, which I witnessed on a daily basis.
I also understand very well the fragility of the privileges granted by whiteness. Regardless of the passport I hold and the certain closeness that whiteness offers me, I knew that this could be revoked at any moment. I was only one step away from an unfavorable comment or disagreement to be relegated to my rightful inferior place.
I see myself as a member of the Black community and my kinship is strongly aligned with that diasporic, transnational identity. Any invitation to flattery that obliquely oppresses other black people, I reject. I do not want a seat at that table.
The campaign “13 de Maio: Comemorar o quê?”, meaning “May 13: Celebrate what?” (of which this text is a part) is a collaborative initiative between the US Network for Democracy in Brazil, Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra, and the Afro-Brazilian Alliance (ABA) and aims to reaffirm the date of the abolition of slavery in Brazil as National Day of Struggle against Racism, as demarcated by the black movement, since the Golden Law did not guarantee full access to rights and equality for the black population – which has been facing profound inequalities ever since.
Jaira J. Harrington holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago and is Assistant Professor of Black Studies at the University of Illinois. Her research on domestic work in Brazil gives centrality to the political impact of organizing marginalized black women to fight for their rights in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties.