Note from BW of Brazil: Racial identity and classification are topics often discussed on the BW of Brazil blog. The article below taken from the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper is a good example if how “race”, which is often substituted or confused with “color”, can often be a complicated issue in Brazil. How should a person be classified if he/she defines him/herself as “branco”, or white, when the majority of people don’t him or her as such? For further discussion on this ever-intriguing topic, please see the “related articles” at the bottom of the article.
by Laura Capriglione
A sort of colorblindness struck the 2,982 respondents of Datafolha (1) when they were asked what color they attributed to 11 national celebrities. An example of this confusion was observed regarding the color of the (former) soccer player Ronaldo, who self-declared himself white. “I think that all blacks suffer. I, that am white, suffer with the ignorance,” said the ace in 2005 about episodes of racism in Spanish soccer stadiums.
The majority of respondents were not convinced, at least about his whiteness. For 64%, he is preto (black) or pardo (brown). Only 23% agreed with the athlete and said he was white.
“When asked to assign colors to celebrities, it is obvious that the respondents did not respond just about skin pigmentation. They composed response criteria of intellectual qualification, the roles that the person plays in society, how the person wants to be seen. In the case of actors, it came into question even the characters that they eventually brought to life,” says the historian Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, professor at the University of Paris 4.
Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), who in his first term said he was a “little mulatto” with “um pé na cozinha (a foot in the kitchen)” (2), was the champion of whiteness with 70% of respondents defining him as such, versus just 17% who said that he was pardo and 1% who said he was preto.
“FHC appeared whiter than Lula (da Silva, president from 2003-2010). But Fernando Henrique is white? He is a mulatto. If people didn’t know that they were dealing with FHC, they would probably only judge him by skin color and would say that he was a mulatto. But as he is the FHC, an intellectual, he is seen as white,” plays the poet and anthropologist Antônio Risério.
The daughter of black actor Antonio Pitanga, actress Camila Pitanga, defines herself as negra (black), a category that is often synonymous with afrodescendente (African descendant). In her case, 27% of respondents defined her as preta (black), against 36% who said she was parda (brown).
Another actress (also self-declared negra), Taís Araújo, was recognized as preta by 54% of respondents, double that obtained by Pitanga. “I have cabelo crespo (kinky-curly hair). Then there were characters I played like “Xica da Silva” and “Preta”, the protagonist of the novela (soap opera) Da Cor do Pecado. Camila has straighter hair,” she explains.
“From the times of the hunters of runaway slaves, the criterion for knowing whether one was black or Indian was the hair,” explains Alencastro.
Professor Ronaldo Vainfas, from Fluminense Federal University, agrees: “Look at [former soccer player] Romário (de Souza Faria), for example. Most said that he is pardo (51%), against 31% who thought that he was preto. From strictly the color point of view, he is one of the celebrities most “enegrecidas (blackened)” from the list presented to respondents. But his hair is not the typical, hence the fact that the (term) pardo prevailed.
Ronaldo is already even white, but his hair betrays him. Because of this, he shaved his head. In the end there’s no way, it’s the catchphrase “O teu cabelo não nega, mulata (Your hair does not deny it, mulatto).” (3)
The researcher cites a soccer match of blacks against whites held in São Paulo at the end of every year since 1972, bringing together residents of the favela of the Heliópolis in the neighborhood of São João Clímaco. According Vainfas, teams are assembled from the self-declaration of the players.
“But they changed from one team in one year to another. After so much switching, trying to minimally control this exchange of colors, someone said, ‘Okay, but that guy whose hair flies when he runs cannot play on the team of the blacks.’ This is an essential characteristic.”
There are others. The singer Zeca Pagodinho defined himself as “gente (or “one of the people”), when asked about his color. “I don’t live this world of color,” he said. Zeca is pardo to 52% of respondents and preto to 22%.
The artist was then informed by Folha that members of one of the most exclusive clubs of São Paulo started a movement against his show scheduled to take place in a upper-middle class auditorium. Zeca attempted an explanation: “I know what prejudice is. Although I don’t have color, I’m a sambista (Samba musician) and from the subúrbio (suburb). Meaning: I’m preto.”
Source: Folha de S.Paulo
1. Datafolha is a research institute that is part of the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper.
2. A popular saying referring to one’s African ancestry. “A foot in the kitchen” means to have at least a hint of African ancestry as the kitchen symbolizes the place of a cook or maid which is usually associated with black women.
3. A popular Marchina song written in 1932. The lyrics, “your hair doesn’t deny it, mulata”, are a means of reminding a light-skinned person of African descent that the texture of the hair is a clue to racial origin.