Almost white, almost black: How race relations in Brazil make racial identity a complex process

Author this article, Liliane Gusmão, at approximately three years old (personnel file)
Author this article, Liliane Gusmão, at approximately three years old (personnel file)

Note from BW of Brazil: The peculiarities of race, denial of racism and avoidance of blackness makes racial identity in Brazil quite a complex topic. While many have argued for years that the question of race is not a problem in Brazil, reports of deeply ingrained racial inequality, personal experiences with racism of the Afro-Brazilian population and the near complete whiteness of the Brazilian media shows that race is clearly a problem even when a lot of people continue to deny it. The piece for today is a personal experience of a Brazilian woman that gives an inside peak into the realization of how covert racist experiences can make the adaption of a racial identity a curious thing in Brazil. In the US, for example, segregation and black communities contributed to a strong sense of a black identity while in Brazil, the lack of both combined with a strong desire for whiteness made and continues to make this a difficult process which is often rejected altogether. 

Quase branca, quase preta (Almost white, almost black)

by Liliane Gusmão

Reading the text “Os privilégios de ser uma mulher branca (The privileges of being a white woman)”, on feminism and black women, I had a kind of epiphany.

I, a daughter of the middle class, of a black father (self-identified as moreno) (1) and a white mother, experienced prejudice early in the school, presented by my reading teacher. Maybe I had known even earlier, in the systematic erasure of the black part of the family of my mother. But the episode with my teacher was one that struck me the most.

For many years, the rejection of my teacher for me was a feeling that I did not understand. I didn’t understand why she loathed me. I didn’t understand why she, who took the hand of all other children when they were the first in line to go to recess, would not take my hand when I was first in line. I didn’t understand why she was always harsh and made fun of me when I answered questions wrong. I was six years old, with short hair that stood up and pele parda (1) (brown skin, in this case, light brown). The persecution was so great that my parents demanded that I be switched from the class.

My place in society is a place that rejected me. I always felt displaced after this episode with the teacher. My school career was a struggle that I locked into against this feeling. The attacks that I suffered and that hurt me at the time never had a name, I only later understood that it was racism. My friends’ jokes about my curls seemed covert. Or of lesser friends who expressed their pity in how I must suffer in trying to do my hair. Of the teacher who told me that my hair looked like a nest; the recipes of my grandmother and aunt to straighten my hair (2).

The climax of all this happened at age 12, when I straightened my hair for the first and last time.  It was horrible! The product smelled like ammonia and burned a bit on my head, broke many strands of my hair and to my surprise and great disappointment, had no effect. Besides burning, from the straightening I would have to resign myself to wear caps every night to keep the hair straight-looking. That’s what I did that night and never again. Because my head hurt so much, it was so hard to sleep with your hair all tied up with hair clips, I decided that this sacrifice was not worth it. That was not for me.

I don’t know for certain what my father’s trajectory was. I know he went to college, despite being black, despite being poor, despite working as a child to help support the house. The son of a washerwoman with her boss, I don’t know if my grandfather participated or helped with the children he had with my grandmother. I know it was him who registered them, which excluded my paternal grandmother from the birth certificate of all her children with this man and therefore from mine also. On my birth certificate I am the granddaughter of a woman who I didn’t know, nor have ever seen and that was the official wife of my grandfather.

Although my skin passes for white, especially now during the long Canadian winters, my hair never leaves doubts about the African-ness of my origins. Over time, what was shame and rejection for me, turned into pride, it became acceptance. I definitively accepted my curly hair when I was in college. When I finally let it grow long, I found products to give them a style that I like and specific products to hydrate them at home; a relief not to have to listen to the customers of the salon that I was stretching out my hair every time I would do a hydration treatment.

Immigration made me dig deep inside myself. Exile has given me a perspective of myself that I didn’t have in Brazil. Not that there is no racism or prejudice here. It exists, but it is not as veiled as in Brazil. People here have color and it is not necessarily bad, neither does it necessarily disparage or erase them. Here, I stopped being dislocated to being a visible minority. This condition gave me strength and provided an understanding of myself that I didn’t have. For example, it was here in Canada that stopped feeling like a rebel, as I felt in Brazil, and I started to feel comfortable with my choice of not straightening my hair.

I haven’t accepted my blackness yet, but I am in the process. Accepting my black identity is not just me saying I am black, it is embracing a fight that I only started to know when I found feminism and the Blogueiras Feministas (Feminist Bloggers) group. Because of this, I don’t present myself as black, but I also know that I am not white. I’m non-white.

Source: Blogueiras Feministas 


1. Colored coded terms describing phenotype/skin color such as moreno and parda are important for an understanding of how race and color functions in Brazil. There are a number of articles that discuss these terms on this blog.  For an introduction, see here.

2. Hair texture is another question that is important in the context of color/race in Brazil. Often times, hair texture can label a person as white or non-white when other physical features don’t clearly indicate racial classification. The question of “cabelo bom” or “cabelo ruim” (good hair/bad hair) is part of everyday Brazilian conversation with straight hair being the accepted standard. Several articles on this blog discuss the topic of hair. See here.

Related articles

The racist face of Brazil’s miscegenation
Black Women in the First Person: Dandara Correia discusses the construction of her identity as a black woman and the struggle for racial equality
Nádia Maria Rodrigues: “Everything changed in my life after I became black”. Teacher reveals how consciousness and bell hooks influenced her identity
Becoming a black woman: an identity in process
Black Brazilian women abandoning hair straightening techniques in favor of natural hair textures

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

1 Comment

  1. Love your article. I love the fact the you put yourself is a non-white.

    I am half black and half japonese. I do look more like indigenous people. I always put I am Parda.

    I love being Parda. I don’t understand this obsession of if you are non-white you are black. I do think and feel is so patronising from anglophonic cultures.

    It is like they want to descontruct our identities and only the black is the correct one. When all of this are social constructions. Brazil has one and anglophonic culture other.

    I don’t know which is better.

    I had lived in German and in England. I felt German were more honest of their racism. When English people were petrified to be accused of being racist.

    Brazil has no social conscious about anything, about feminism, about racism, about capitalism oppression. How disarticulate a group of people who are proud of being supposedly totally mixed and a group of people who are so happy and a group of people who are the most beautiful women.

    I don’t think with those Brazilian fantasies we can engage in real consciousness of racism and any form of prejudice.

    I am sorry to hear the racism you suffer. I have my stories too. But I am very proud of our Brazilian experience of mixing; our unknown heritage which makes just Pardo.

    I think the non white exclusion it is the most important struggle.

    Best of Luck!

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