Racism or colorism? Bus incident re-visits the light-skinned/dark-skinned issue

Woman accused of racist insult on bus in Salvador, Bahia
Woman accused of racist insult on bus in Salvador, Bahia

Note from BW of Brazil: The question of colorism and classification within African descendant populations has long been an issue throughout the African Diaspora, from the United States to the Dominican Republic to Brazil and Colombia. With whiteness being long upheld within communities of color as the standard of which they even judge themselves, it is rather common to see or hear of incidents in which a darker-skinned person of African descent is verbally insulted by a person who is much light-skinned or even a person who is not much lighter-skinned. Many trace the origins of the ongoing Haiti-Dominican Republic conflict to that of skin color, with Dominicans often seeing themselves as having lighter skin and thus being better than their perceived darker-skinned Haitian neighbors. In the US, although most people use the terms African-American and black interchangeably, the term “black” can be used in different manners depending on how the words is said. When using the term “black” in regular conversation, the term simply refers to all persons of African descent. But when the term is stressed louder or with more stress, as in “BLACK”, it can considered pejorative in that it negatively differentiates persons with skin tones darker that what is considered “acceptable” even within in the black community. 


In Brazil, there are two popular terms that can be used to mean black, preto and negro, and even three depending on how the term moreno is used. For activists of the Movimento Negro, while the term preto denotes the actual color black, negr0 is the term used to defined all persons of visible African ancestry regardless of the wide array of phenotypes. For some, the term preto can also define all persons who are part of the black race while others use the term to define only the darkest-skinned of African descendants. The term pardo is a tricky term and like preto and negro, it can depend upon how the term is used and the understanding of the user. For some, pardo simply means brown, or a skin color between black and white. For some it is a term signifying any degree of racial admixture and for others still, it simply means a person of visible African ancestry who displays whatever degree of admixture with another race. The term can also apply to any person of American Indian ancestry in mixture with any other race.

Regardless of how one sees the issue, in the 34 years since the release of sociologist Carlos Hasenbalg’s 1979 groundbreaking work, Discriminação e desigualdades raciais no Brasil (Discrimination and Racial Inequalities in Brazil), hundreds of studies and reports have confirmed that pardos hold no significant socioeconomic advantage over pretos and the disadvantages of both are nearly identical vis-a-vis the white population. But this does not mean that mulatos/pardos necessarily see themselves as part of the black community in a political sense. Various studies have shown this. Iociologist Roger Bastide wrote: “In the United States, the mulato is part of the blacks. Here, the mulato escapes to the caste of color and revolts against the black, it is he, maybe more than the white man, that persists against his brothers.” 

The understanding of color-coded terminology is important to grasp in order to understand this recent incident. Moisés Cunha commented on this case a few days ago in his social networking profile and made the following comment:

“Although we are in festive period, I invite my ‘Facebookers’ to watch this video. You laugh to keep from crying. Some people say there is a big problem of “racial” identity in the Dominican Republic, among other countries in Latin America, but when analyzing certain parts of Brazil we are faced with serious, deep and ancient crises of “Cultural Identity” that not even Sir Stuart Hall would be able to understand. The (mis) behavior and biotype of the “deletante” person has generated reactions correlated to xenophobia in some cities in southern Brazil. How do defend people who (mis) behave in this way? It’s simply indefensible.”

See video of incident here (in Portuguese)

Bus cashier accuses passenger of racism in Salvador

Bus cashier accuses passenger of racism
Bus cashier accuses passenger of racism

Woman confirmed that she insulted bus employee road, but claimed that the collector was rude to her

by R7/Record Bahia

The misunderstanding occurred, according to the passenger, after the collector refused to throw out a plastic cup

Passenger accused of racism by bus cashier
Passenger accused of racism by bus cashier

The cashier on a bus in Salvador (Bahia) accused a passenger of racism, on Tuesday (24). The victim said he was called “preto, vagabundo, descarado (black, bum, shameless).”

Accused passenger being escorted to police precinct
Accused passenger being escorted to police precinct

The woman confirmed that she insulted cashier, but claimed that the collector was rude to her. The misunderstanding happened, according to the passenger, after the collector refused to throw out a plastic cup. She also said the bus tried to hit her with an iron bar.

Incident occurred on public bus in Salvador, Bahia
Incident occurred on public bus in Salvador, Bahia

Police were summoned and the other passengers were sent to the Central de Flagrantes at the 1st DT-Barris (Delegacia Territorial or Police Precinct).

Note from BW of Brazil: As the issue of “race” is not always clearly defined in Brazil and there is such a wide array of phenotypes of afrodescendentes (African descendants), perhaps this case would be more accurately defined as “colorism” rather than racism. There are a few reasons for this. First, it cannot be defined how the woman identifies herself. She could see herself as a parda, mulata or mestiça (mixed race) and completely separate from those considered negros or pretos. Or she could be a person who sees herself as parda and belonging to the black race or a light-skinned negra (black woman) who in either case, may see herself as being better or in a different category than the man she insulted. The second question only applies if one considers both the people involved as being black and thus part of the same “race”. That question would be, is it possible for one black person to be racist against another? However you see it, the case is not unique to only Brazil and speaks to the complexities of the concept of “race” and identity in societies in which whiteness continues to be the standard. 

Source: R7, Bastide, Roger. As Religiões Africanas no Brasil. São Paulo, Pioneira, 1985 [1960]

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


  1. There is something else, the hair, some women doesn’t matter the color of the skin, just because the hair is not really curly they consider themselve nearer of be owhite than those with curly hair, “cabelo pichaim”, so they are superior than the former…

  2. Colorism??? Please stop with the confusion. It has always been and still is White Supremacy at the end of the day. White Supremacy (racism) has conditioned this woman to think this way when it comes to skin color and phenotype.

  3. All of this over a plastic cup though?

    These people are only acting out what they have been taught. It truly is tragic, because the division that colonialism placed among Blacks is difficult to undo. It’s not just a Brazil thing, it’s all over. This is the power of slavery, the mental slavery, the mental conditioning that is passed down generation after generation. So while many Black people think they are free in the sense that they no longer have the burden of servitude, they are still very much enslaved mentally and that is why they can look at another Black person and hate what they see, or perceive that person to be of less value than they. As Bob Marley said, we have to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, because that is where the power of slavery lies. Until we see beauty in each other, and love Blackness in all its splendour; coarse hair, ebony skin, thick lips, flat or fat noses, until we embrace and value Blackness in all its manifestations then situations like these will continue to occur long after we all have departed this earth.

  4. Racism is one thing. But Brazil being a POLICE STATE is scary even more so. I’ve been called the N word many times. If every person who called me the N word went to jail, the jails would be full. As you can tell, I don’t believe in putting people in jail for making racist comments. Just dust yourself off and move on. Just be glad it wasn’t physical.

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