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.
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).