Note from BW of Brazil: This is always an intriguing debate/discussion and I’ll say it again: I don’t think there will ever be complete consensus on the topic. The topic, again? Who is black in Brazil? But not only that, which forces win out when defining who is black? I mean, what is the criteria? Do we go by self-identification? In that case, in Brazil, between people who define themselves as either preto (black) or pardo (brown/mixed race), about 90% of people in the combined total of these two groups define themselves as pardos or pardas, the catch all term for persons of any degree and any type of racial mixture. According to activists of Brazil’s black social movements, pardos are simply black people who have some degree of racial mixture in their DNA, while for others, including a very vocal pardo movement, pardos are just persons of mixed race…period.
But the subject isn’t quite that simple. If we were to measure race by the way people are treated in the racial hierarchy in Brazil, pardos would clearly be closer to black than white. Nearly all of the socio-economic measures of quality of life statistics confirm this. But even I, who for most of my time studying Brazil, have had to change my view on this, at least to a degree. Yes, I agree that there are millions of pardos in Brazil who, for all intents and purposes, are black. But on the other hand, there are also, perhaps many more millions more, who are simply so mixed that it would be impossible to define them as simply one race.
Years ago, this wouldn’t have even been an issue. As most pardos were happy to define themselves and be defined as non-black, there wasn’t even reason to really debate the issue. In fact, many of these pardos continue to believe that being pardo lifts them into a superior category, maybe not white, but at least not black. But with the close of the 20th century and clearly by the end of the first decade of the 21st, an evolution was fully underway in Brazil.
With access to college education and the rise of black racial politics via the internet and specifically social networks, millions of pardos were discovering the complex way in which Brazil deceptively programmed Brazilians to believe that they were all just Brazilians and that everyone was equal, learning how pardos were basically treated like pretos but also denied a black identity. It was and is still common to hear people tell people with physical features that denote African ancestry, “Well, you’re not really black.” Besides that, a discourse that says that if a person is physically attractive, they cannot be black.
Today, many pardos that just a generation ago would have just accepted racially ambiguous terms such as pardo, moreno and mestiço are now proudly standing up and saying, “Sou negro e tenho orgulho nisso”, or ‘I’m black and I’m proud’. The author of the post below, for example, came to see herself as black only at the age of 18.
It’s funny. Conservative Brazil has long accused Brazilians who lump pretos and pardos into one black category of imitating the infamous “one drop rule” ideology of the United States and implementing it in a Latin American country where it simply doesn’t apply. At the same time, in the United States, there is a growing number of African-Americans who also reject automatically defining anyone with any trace of African ancestry as black. I regularly get messages via my social network accounts from people who will look at the photo of some Brazilian featured in a new post and say, “He/she ain’t black; he/she is mixed!” Still others go further saying that, by accepting persons of mixed race into the black category, we are diminishing “true” blackness and opening the door to more confusion within the black race by allowing “confused mixed people” into the group.
Who’s right? There’s no clear answer here. Miscegenation and politics have made it this way. Even if were to consider just the issue in the United States, we would be breaking up a whole lot of families if we decided to implement the idea that only dark-skinned people with very kinky hair should be counted as black. This would affect my own family in which I had learn as a child that blackness comes in numerous shades.
At least once a month, I have a discussion about this topic with a friend I’ve known for three decades now. A man whose very dark-skinned father openly admitted that he married and procreated with his extremely light-skinned mother so that his children wouldn’t have skin as dark as his. This friend, who is several shades lighter than myself, but wouldn’t be seen as anything but black in most places in the world, has five children by white women. Several of his children have a certain “what are you?” type of look. Living in the southwest of the United States, many people assume his kids are Mexican/Hispanic.
This friend, who I’ll call “D”, regularly warns his children that, being fair-skinned with curly, wavy, or nearly straight hair, they will have to fight to earn the trust of the black community because, often times in our history, mulattoes and person of mixed race haven’t always committed themselves fully to “team black”.
In Brazil today, many pardos are beginning to define themselves as either negros or pretos, both meaning black, committing themselves to “the struggle”, and this evolution of identity is actually being seen in a shift in the census reports that deal with race. It’s also leading to increasingly heated debates over who should be qualified to be recipients of racial quota policies. Just a few decades ago, black activists were trying to convince other Brazilians that all pardos were just black people in denial, but since the early 2000s, seeing many pardos who they see as “not being black enough” entering the universities and “stealing” the place of “true black people”, the debate has shifted yet again.
How do you see this? Below Larissa Carvalho shares an experience that is pretty common for black Brazilians, at least those who claim a black identity in a Brazil that has long undermined the acceptance of a black identity.
“I’m not a parda!”
By Larissa Carvalho
I decided to get a new identity card (given the situation of the old document). I went to Antônio Bezerra’s Vapt Vupt (see note one). The process was done at the Forensic Office of the State of Ceará (Pefoce). It took a whole day for this process. Done. I did it and went home. The document was scheduled to be delivered on December 27. A prediction. On the same day that I made the document, I commented to a good black friend who told me that in this new ID, they would fill in the information for “color/race”. My friend speculated that they could have called me “parda”. And I started to think about this too. And, I confess, I got irritated, because the attendant didn’t ask me this information at the time of the attendance. And it wasn’t fair because I have the right to define myself! I have the right to say who I am because it was my document!
Then, on December 27th, I went to get the document that was ready. I asked the girl to check in the system what they wrote about me. And without my permission, it was said and done. I had been called “parda”. That was when I got really angry. But I didn’t make a fuss. I took a breath to change what was on it. I then asked the girl if it was possible to change the information, even without it appearing printed on the identity card. I justified that I was negra (black) and not parda! She looked at me from head to toe like someone looking for my blackness or measuring its degree or measuring my melanin. She looked at me like she was looking for the darkest black possible. Then, she said that it would not be possible to change because it was just information in the system. It wasn’t printed on the ballot. That it wouldn’t harm me if I tried any public competition for racial quotas, because the agency would not divulge the information (wrong about me, in my view).
The girl also said that if I wanted a new document with the correct information (in my opinion), I would have to pay again. The amount at the time I paid was just over BRL 50 reais. I thought about the possibility, even if it hurt or was lacking in my pocket. But I decided to ask to speak to the supervision. I went to the counter where I was attended on December 11 and spoke to the attendant. Calm, although irritated, I told her that she put the wrong information about my color/race. And I asked her name. She replied, a little uncertain, but she replied. Soon after, I went to the supervision and explained what happened.
On the way, I had the idea of taking out my cell phone and talking to a friend, also a journalist and black like me. I tried to see if she could help me in any way. I talked to the supervision and my friend gave a feedback. It was scheduled for me to return on December 30th and to re-do the document with the correct information at no additional cost. But I had to write a document, justifying my motivation for the change. A document that I was going to justify because I consider myself black. And then, I would have to sit down and think about what I was going to write about me, about my close ancestors (grandfather) and those more distant, whose history, place and ethnicity I don’t know… unfortunately. But it would be an unprecedented experience.
Even with the expenditure of energy and tiredness, I insisted on this story because it’s my story! It’s my name! It’s my identity. And behind that, there are other people. Black and ancestral. And that must be respected! Behind me are my ancestors. And I couldn’t let anything disrespect them more than they already were. For years and years it was this disrespect. But if it were up to me now, no more! Well, I say that a film played in my head … I remembered Grandpa Bel. My black grandfather. The darkest-skinned person in my family. The individual who draws a lineage from an African ancestry in my life story.
The story I always hear: that Grandpa Bel is the grandson or great-grandson of a black woman, who was enslaved. My blackness, who I am, starts there. In my ancestry. In my blood. Yeah, I couldn’t leave my document wrong. It’s my name. It’s my history. It’s part of what I am. It’s one of the reasons I explain to myself that I carry my ancestors with me. I am not alone. And I demand and fight for respect in society. Let her understand that. That I am not parda, let alone being labeled by that whitening term. I’m not a parda!
Well, it will be necessary to write another article to explain the criticism of the povo preto (black people) with the term “pardo(a)” in Brazil…
Larissa Carvalho: Trained journalist, concerned with racial issues since she was 18, when she discovered she was black. She has experience in the areas of Communication Advisory, Print Journalism, Radiojournalism and Webjournalism. She worked as a social marketing volunteer at Fundación Sotrali in La Plata, Argentina. She worked for the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian as a freelance reporter in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has experience with Mídia Preta (Black Media), having worked at Ceará Criolo. She has a foot in fashion. She is the author of the book Mutuê: relatos e vivências de racismo em Fortaleza (Mutuê: reports and experiences of racism in Fortaleza) (2019).
- Vapt Vupt, the Integrated Citizen Service is a public agency that offer assistance in documents such a driver’s license, election registration, passports, school transportation, etc. In this article, the author speaks of the agency located in the Antônio Bezerra neighborhood of the city of Fortaleza in the northeastern state of Ceará.