Colorism: The development of black identity in a country that encourages one not to be black

colorism - capa

Note from BW of Brazil: When one grows up in Brazil, whether people acknowledge it or not, they are quickly oriented into the system of skin color supremacy. But even so, it is very common to hear Brazilians argue that “we are a country of mestiços (persons of mixed)” in which race/color doesn’t matter although the reality is far from this. In 1954, sociologist Oracy Nogueira exposed the situation when he wrote: “When the child of a mixed couple is born white, also one says that the couple “was lucky”; when the child is born dark, the impression is of regret.” And also according to the same author, “in Brazil, the intensity of prejudice varies in direct proportion to negroid features.” (1) And as proximity to blackness is the measuring stick for how one will treated throughout life, it is also according to this standard that people learn to distance themselves from this classification in any means possible.

For both the negro/preto (black) and the mulato/pardo (brown/mixed), this can lead to many issues, doubts and low self-esteem as darker, more obviously black persons are encouraged by others to never define themselves as such. As being negro/preto is such a negative stigma, the person is often told to classify him/herself as moreno/morena, a more “acceptable”, “less pejorative” term basically meaning “dark”. As such, the term is sort of meant to “soften the blow” of being black. People usually know that the person is black, but they figure, they can’t escape the classification so why not make them at least feel better. The mulato/pardo type usually has more visible non-African admixture and as such, are also often told to identify themselves as moreno/a or moreno/a claro/a, again meaning dark (in comparison to whiteness) or light-brown skinned, which is a way of encouraging the person to whiten themselves. It’s as if one is saying, “we know you’re not white, but at least you’re closer than the negro.”

With all of these negative associations with blackness, Afro-Brazilians often grow up with a lack of racial identity. They know what classification they don’t want and are encouraged to identify according to such views, but on the other hand, at any moment they can be the victim of racial discrimination which then gives a conflicting message that they are in fact what they were told to avoid! Confusing? It doesn’t have to be, but this the experience of growing up in an anti-black society. The debate over classification and identity continues today with those who believe terms such as pardo/parda should be accepted by any Brazilian who doesn’t clearly fit into one racial category. On the other hand, there is a growing parcel of the population who, after coming into a certain level of racial consciousness, see terms such as moreno/morena, pardo/parda as a means of dividing the black population while simultaneously maintaining blackness in an inferior racial position in a society dominated by white supremacy. 

Below we present another in our ongoing series on the development of black identity in the face of deeply-ingrained colorism that often makes this identity a difficult mountain to climb. 

What is colorism?

Courtesy of the Feminiciantes page

Only at twenty years of age did I manage to recognize and self-affirm myself as negra. Even when I tried many times to identify myself as white – due to having a white mother and grandparents – I didn’t cease from suffering racism. I, over the years, whitened, and I had my identity and ancestry made invisible. I learned only very late, that colorism is one of the cruel ways in which racism manifests itself.

To self-affirm oneself as black is, in addition to a political posture, a cry of resistance. There is no way to fight oppression without recognizing it first and without knowing your roots.

What is colorism?
What is colorism?

Colorism, friendships, is by definition the division of negros between “the true” (dark-skinned) and negro-non-negros (light-skinned). Colorism is what we call a legitimate form of veiled racism. From birth, negros, mestiço (mixed-race) children of a white father and black mother and vice versa, are called pardos (brown). Why pardos? What is it, after all, to be pardo?

“Pardo” is one of many terms created so that they call us “not so black”. We are called “not so blacks” for not being able to apt to standard that branquitude (whiteness) established to legitimize our identities, but at the same time we do not possess white privilege. Our features scream and no embranquecimento (whitening) shuts us up.

Colorism functions as an agent of the maintenance of whiteness and ensures that the society continues to see what is “branco/claro” (white/light) as good and what is “negro/preto/escuro” (black/black/dark) as bad. We are whitened because that’s the purpose we serve, being negros that in fact “are not so black”. Magazines, television, billboards; advertising tells us it’s okay to be black if not we’re not “so black”. Our references are made whitened in advertising campaigns. They try to suffocate us by all means.

Our features denounce our ancestry and define us, however, as negros. We are not “almost black” or “negros de pele clara” (light-skinned blacks), we are blacks.

I remember that in my childhood, my only reference of a black woman was the grandmother of a friend of mine. The woman, a heavyset lack woman with straight hair, was always praised for her hair that even white, drew attention. I also praised and often wondered how a black woman with straight hair was possible. Now I understand that the hair of Grandma Regina were praised for referring to whiteness and I discuss, from readings I did some time ago, about the proportions of the cruelty of racism. The miscegenation of blacks began in the senzalas (slave quarters, when slaves were raped by their sinhôs (2). Wouldn’t be, as such, that exalting the “white” traits of a black person is not legitimizing the pain of those women? The animalization to which they were submitted?

I must, however, emphasize that self-affirmation should not be trivialized. The affirmation of your blackness is not an open space for whites to appropriate and demand space to speak in our movement. Self-assertion is an empowering agent for black people who were whitened during their lives. I saw in recent days two people saying they were black because of having curly hair. Being black is not having curly hair. Curly hair is a European trait also. To white people I say: be careful with appropriation and attention to location of your comment.

The appreciation of terms such as “pardos”, “mulatos” and “morenos” brings us closer to “almost white” and we are not that. We are black. I repeat: we exist and we are many.

As a final consideration I raise the question: Why is it that whites are in thousands of biotypes – redheads, blonds, light and dark eyes – and still they affirmed whites, but blacks have to fit into the standard of strong features/dark skin or then are “not so black?”


1. Nogueira, Oracy. “Preconceito racial de marca e preconceito racial de origem: sugestão de um quadro de referência para a interpretação do material sobre relações raciais no Brasil”. Anais do XXXI. Congresso Internacional dos Americanistas, realizado em São Paulo in August 1954. V.1, pp. 409-434.

2. In Brazil’s slavery era, the term used for a slave master was senhor (seen-yor), but when slaves would say senhor, the pronunciation sounded closer to sinhô (seen-yaw). 

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


  1. Interesting article. I like the last question that you posed. In response to it, I’d like to assume that the same reason whites are considered “white” regardless of their actual nationality is because either way, they’re white. The same thing can be said about people’s interpretation of black. Regardless of whether you’re Brazilian, Jamaican, African, or even mixed with anything black, you’ll still be categorized as black; and thus, relegated to the same status as anyone who is considered similar to you. In a way, you could argue that it has a lot to do with pigmentation, especially considering the intermixing of races to the point where it is unclear what race one belongs to. All we really can do is assume someone’s belonging to a particular group and treat them accordingly….and that seems to be exactly what we’re doing.

  2. This article is something that I can definitely relate to, because I have witnessed it with my own eyes. Standards of what is superior or ‘better’ exist even in the same race. I was in Mexico for most of winter break, and the division among classes and skin colors is not too pronounced but very noticeable. You’ll have the people with the more indigenous features/darker skin perform the lower skill jobs and are most likely to be begging for money. The people with lighter skin/fairer features do not really interact with those with darker skin. In Mexico, having indigenous features is looked down upon as that is not the standard of beauty. Just like the article mentioned about it being considered ‘lucky’ to be born white if a parent is dark, that same mentality I can say applies to most cultures. Its saddening to see that being dark is not associated with beauty, because in my opinion beauty comes in all shapes and colors.


  3. While I don’t believe the acceptance of diverse biotypes within “whiteness” necessarily tracks well in Europe, say in the 30’s, the author’s observation of this contradiction within Brazil reveals the fundamentally constructed and situational nature of its racial order. That the distinctions, which colorism (re)produces, have no basis whatsoever in fixed/static essences of being, does that make it easier or not to unconstruct it?

    I’m curious to know more about what the Feminiciantes have to say regarding the self-assertion of blackness and the appropriation of those spaces by whites. Do they mean by self-identifying whites or whites who mistakenly self-identify as non-white? Would eliminating the language of colorism help at all to eliminate colorism itself? And how would the dismantling of colorism affect notions of blackness?

  4. I thought that this blog was really interesting, and I liked the fact that there was a personal story within it. I thought it was interesting that Africans were called or referred to as pardos and mulato if they had some kind of white ancestry in them to make black men and women feel better about being African, but in reality it was more insulting to people of African consent because there are black, not mulato. I like how at the end of the blog she asks a question revolving around white people in all different hair type, eye color, and color but they are never looked upon as “less white.” This blog just shows that people who are uneducated about different races are naïve and therefore go about the topic of race in the wrong way. It’s a shame that women do not feel comfortable or want to classify themselves as black because of the discrimination they may face. You are who you are, and everyone should be treated equally, no matter the color of your skin. Unfortunately till this day, that’s not the case.

  5. “To self-affirm oneself as black is, in addition to a political posture, a cry of resistance.”

    This quote in the section on colorismo, or colorism, really stood out to me. A few weeks ago, in class, we had discussed what does our race mean to us compared to what our ethnicity means. In it, one of the themes I (and others) brought up was comparing what the term “Black” means, compared to a term like “African-American.” I talked about how, for me, the term “Black” was much more political in nature and symbolized a certain worldview and oppositional identity that a term like “African-American” simply did not. It seems to me to be a similar concept when we think about terms like moreno/a, pardo and mulato. While these terms may (and I’m skeptical of that) have been created with the well-intentions to “soften the blow” of being Black, the usage of them at all as a way to be Black without being labeled “Black” illustrates that there is something wrong with being Black. In this face of this, I think it can be very liberating to proudly reclaim that part of one’s identity which they are taught to deny and/or downplay.

    As to the last question, I would say that this has evolved over time. Looking at the U.S. and abroad, we can see instance where, within White societies, only certain phenotypical features were considered “pure,” like in the case of the many Aryan nationalists. The reason why I think that changed over time is due to the merging melting pot of Whiteness, which let’s in White ethnic groups but still excludes non-Whites

  6. Very strong article, the topic goes well with what our class spoke about on Tuesday. Regarding the forced division amongst the “black” and “mulato” population. This idea of being “whitened” as a way to climb the social/economic ladder, breathes this idea that “mulatos”/”pardos” are better than “black” Brazilians. All the while “whites” are oppressing both groups just the same, but by planting this seed of this order (Black<mulato) it keeps these groups from uniting and fighting this injustice together. "Why is it that whites are in thousands of biotypes – redheads, blonds, light and dark eyes – and still they affirmed whites, but blacks have to fit into the standard of strong features/dark skin or then are “not so black?”. Great question it shows the contradiction in this discriminatory practice. Racial dominance/opression is affective if, those who opress can keep the majority and imposs their numbers to intimidate the minority.

  7. this happens here in America as well. some black like to assimilate and attribute themselves as mixed. just like in making of a nation it states that mixed people are not really better off than pretos or blacks that don’t look mixed. I believe this is more psychological stress pinning blacks against each other. all forms of blacks should learn to embrace each other and appreciate one another instead of looking at specific characteristics and attributing them to being white. the reality is a lot of people don’t know what characteristics are what. how can you really tell? the human race has been mixing since its creation. that’s thousands of years. some traits have been passed to various ethnic groups including blacks passing their traits to whites since the world started in Africa. I just think that their should be Interventions on being beautiful the way you are and making it go national so people all over can talk about what they really feel.

  8. Being a black man in America I can see where black sisters are doing the very same thing to make themselves look more European than black. Why? Because being black is bad because white society has said so? They have no right to make that decision about you. Appreciate your Yahuah given color and ethnicity! Remember this my sisters, Yahuah created Adam and Eve in the Bible and they were Black! You never need to be ashamed of your heritage. Enjoy it, there is nothing shameful about having brown or black skin.

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