The final pillar of the debunked ‘racial democracy’? Post-doctorate research project exposes racism and racial hierarchies within interracial families

Note from BW of Brazil: In reality, I don’t know why this research would come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the issues of race and racism in Brazil. Maybe if one were to seriously believe the rhetoric about race relations it could come as a surprise. After all, popular discourse among millions of Brazilians posits that racism cannot exist because of the existence of so many interracial couples. Or that, as Brazilians are all mixed, “somos todos iguais” (we are all equal). We’ve already seen so many examples of how racism functions in Brazilian society (in the labor market, in the media, or in schools, for examples)  that anyone who seriously denies the existence of white supremacy would come across as either blatantly lying, in denial or openly attempting to cover up the facts. 

In reality, the truth about how racism lurks even within homes of blended families has already been covered. We’ve also seen hints that some white Brazilians are either uncomfortable or blatantly reject having black people in their families through intermarriage. In Brazil, who’da thunk it, right? Books such as France Winddance Twine’s (Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil) (1997) and The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families (2015) by Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman shed a lot of light on how subtle and even blatant examples of racism continue to exist even within households where one would assume this wouldn’t happen. The books also document how physical features associated with race play roles in how family members are seen, see themselves and are treated by others. This latest study picks up where these previous works left off. 

The existence of racism within interracial households was briefly discussed in a previous post when a young woman, the child of an interracial couple, reflected upon how her white mother was racist and only married her black father because she had few opportunities in life. This revelation was, in fact, nothing shocking to me. Why would it be? Believing that a person cannot be racist simply because they are married to a person of another race is akin to believing that a man can’t be sexist simply because he is married to a woman. We know that Brazil is dominated by ideas of white superiority so why wouldn’t such beliefs extend to interracial households and families? Think about it: the people involved in these relationships are also products of a racist society. Makes sense. 

One of the  main reasons for denial of such matters has been the sheer power of the racial democracy myth but as more and more people begin to understand the various faces of racism, I suspect that we will be seeing more and more recollections of racism within interracial families.  

interracial marriage

Research investigates marks of racism in “interracial families”

By José Tadeu Arantes

One hundred and twenty-nine years after the abolition of slavery, and despite the myth of racial democracy, racial prejudice continues to be widespread in Brazilian society – so widespread that it even manifests itself within “interracial families”. This was the conclusion of a study conducted by social psychologist Lia Vainer Schucman.

The study was the postdoctoral theme carried out at the University of São Paulo (USP) with support from FAPESP, a collaboration of Felipe Fachim and under the supervision of Belinda Mandelbaum, coordinator of the Laboratory of Family Studies at the Institute of Psychology at USP.

“Our objective was to verify if and how the racial hierarchies of society reproduce within families whose members self-classify differently in relation to ‘race’: as ‘brancos’ (whites), ‘negros’ (blacks) or ‘mestiços’ (persons of mixed race). And how these hierarchies coexist and interact with affections,” Schucman told FAPESP.

Lia Vainer Schucman
Author of study Lia Vainer Schucman

In addition to exhausting the specialized literature, the research, which lasted for three years, was based on face-to-face interviews with 13 families from different regions of the country. The results were gathered in the book Famílias Inter-raciais: tensões entre cor e amor (Interracial Families: tensions between color and love), with release scheduled for 2017.

“The theme was configured starting from my interaction with people from these families – people who, so to speak, experienced ‘racial contradictions’ in their own skins. This happened at the end of my doctoral research, which addressed the issue of ‘branquitude’ (whiteness) [read about this previous research at. At that time, due to the study I was doing, I began to be invited to give lectures. And often, after the lectures, people approached to report cases of suffering from racism in their own families. This happened many, many times. From these conversations, I realized that families could be a key to understanding ‘interracial’ relationships in the larger context of society,” said the researcher.

Schucman started from the assumption that “race” is not a biological data, but a construção social (social construction). It is a construction, based on the phenotype that engenders and maintains deep material and symbolic inequalities in society, and impacts the daily lives of millions of people.

“If the existence of ‘human races’ doesn’t find any evidence in the biological sciences, they are nevertheless fully present in the social world, as sociologist Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães affirmed”, said Schucman. Based on this criterion, she selected, for the study, families in which at least one of the members recognized that the family group consisted of people of different races.

“The same family can be considered ‘interracial’ for one of its members and not for another. In addition, a family considered as ‘interracial’ in Rio Grande Sul can be classified as ‘white’ in Bahia. Faced with the fluidity of classifications, I decided that I would only consider a family as ‘interracial’, and therefore object of study, if my subjective impression was corroborated by one of the members of one’s own family. If someone told me ‘eu sou negro e minha irmã é branca’ (I am black and my sister is white), or ‘meu pai é negro e minha mãe é branca’ (my father is black and my mother is white), or any other such statement, the family would fit the scope of the research,” she explained.

According to the specialized literature, interracial relations began in Brazil in the private sphere since the earliest days of colonization – mainly as a result of rape and other forms of violence perpetrated by Portuguese “homens brancos” (white men) against “mulheres negras” (black women) or “mulheres indígenas” (indigenous women). The 1960 census pointed out that, in that year, 8% of marriages were “interracial” in the country. In 2010, this percentage jumped to 31%. That is, almost a third of marriages in Brazil happen among people who self-classify as being of “different races.” “The phenomenon is very common among the poorer classes, but very rare among the wealthy classes,” Schucman said.

“Currently, the predominant setting is the marriage of the ‘homem negro’ (black man) to the ‘mulher branca’ (white woman), or the ‘homem pardo’ (brown/mixed man) to the ‘mulher mais clara’ (lighter skinned woman). Some studies, such as those by Elza Berquó and Ana Claudia Lemos Pacheco, suggest that this predominance stems from an overlapping of sexism and racism, producing a hierarchy in which the ‘white man’ is the main choice and the ‘black woman’ is the most passed over,” the researcher continued.

According to Schucman, a peculiarity of Brazil’s cultural formation is “racism of intimacy”. Contrary to segregationist racism, which prevailed in South Africa or the southern United States, what we have here is a type of racism that presupposes the interaction between whites and blacks. And this relationship can eventually be mediated by affection, while remaining racist. “My purpose was to analyze how ‘interracial families’, in their intimacy, experience, negotiate, construct or deconstruct racism,” she said.

Based on this guideline, her interviews showed that racial issues can take on a wide range of settings within the family context: from explicit and brutal racism with manifestations of physical violence to extremely subtle, affection-mediated denials.

Naked and raw racism

“The hardest story I collected was that of a young university student who came to me when I had finished the interview phase. She was phenotypically ‘black’, daughter of a ‘white’ mother. And she told me that when she was a child her mother sang like this:

‘Plantei uma cenoura no meu quintal/Nasceu uma negrinha de avental/Dança negrinha/Não sei dança/Pega no chicote/ela dança já’.

‘I planted a carrot in my backyard/A little nigger girl in an apron was born/Dance little nigger girl/I don’t know how to dance/Pick up the whip/She’s dancing already.’

The mother’s lullaby was not only racist, but also a slave-related,” Schucman said.

According to the researcher, this “mãe branca” (white mother), a blue-eyed maid from the northeastern part of Recife (capital of the state of Pernambuco), had married several times with “black” men. And she called her ex-husbands “macacos” (monkeys). The father of the young woman, a bricklayer, born in Bahia, and classified by the daughter as “preto retinto” (very black-skinned man), was the second of them.

“They had met in São Paulo. And when I interviewed the young college girl, they had been separated for a long time. The father was already 80 years old; and the mother, 70,” the researcher said. She told her that she “knew she had been black since she was a child” because of the violence she suffered from her mother. When he fought with her, her mother called him “macaco” and “preta fedida” (stinking black). She said that her hair was “ruim” (bad) like her father’s and beat her when she cried when she was getting her hair combed. “I used to look at my father, and that man, who had an extremely negative black identity, even positioned himself as inferior,” said the interviewee.

In Schucman’s interpretation, this mother, a poor, ignorant, humiliated woman with very low self-esteem, used her “branquitude” (whiteness) as the only value and instrument of power. “Her racism was not half-disguised, kind of jocular, which is so common in Brazil. It was a cruel, violent racism in a context of extreme poverty. When she was unemployed and didn’t have a husband to help her, her mother and her children became beggars, and they had to knock on the doors of acquaintances to get food. The ‘whiteness’ was the only thing left to her and she used it in a very crude, very basic way,” she said.

“One of the forerunners of the area of research that we now call ‘estudos críticos da branquitude’ (critical studies of whiteness), the American William Du Bois, nominated at the beginning of the last century ‘public and psychological salary’ that which gives the pessoa branca (white person) access and symbolic privileges, however bad their situation may be. I started from this concept and realized that in the family in question, ‘race’ was, in fact, a modulator of affective bonds; because the ‘lighter’ siblings suffered less. The young woman was the ‘darkest.’ And she needed to sleep with a clothes pin on her nose because her mother thought it would make it thinner,” Schucman said.

In spite of such an adverse childhood, the young woman made it to college, and got in touch with the movimento social negro (black social movement). It was through political acting and rap that she began to reconstruct her identity. Later, she also sought psychotherapy.

“She told me that there are two people inside her: one who participates in the movement, who is militant, who assumes her cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair); another that is still that massacred child. She said she firmly believes that one day she will find redemption. But for now, that child is still there. And it hurts,” Schucman said.

The Other Side of Denial

Other interviews have shown the researcher much more subtle ways of denial, leading her to conclude that people’s racism does not necessarily prevent affection. “In most cases, the ‘black’ individual is loved by his or her family. What happens, however, is that, by loving or loving him, these family members often deny their status as ‘black’. Instead of reworking their racism with the aim of overcoming it, family members simply withdraw their loved one from the stigmatized group. I used Freud’s concept of ‘negation’ to interpret this behavior,” she explained.

In the case of one of the families heard by Schucman, originally from Bahia, the mother considered that all her relatives were “white”. And that, therefore, the interview itself did not make sense. But one of the children considered himself “negro, com uma irmã branca” (black with a white sister), living in an “interracial family”. For the mother, this idea of the son was “a nonsense, which he adopted after entering the university”. This son was the one who received his mother’s greatest affection, but in order to love him, she somehow had to deny that he was “black”, hence the concept of “negation”.

For one of these “ironies of fate,” which seem to exemplify the psychoanalytic concept of “return of the repressed,” the boy’s sister who was born “bem clara” (very light), “white”, had an “interracial” relationship with a man which the family classified as “muito preto” (very black) and she became pregnant. The expectation regarding the color of the child caused the longest period of tension in the intra-family dynamics. “The mother of this family, therefore grandmother of the child, told me a highly significant phrase: ‘We were very nervous. But when we saw that my granddaughter was born white, everyone fell in love with her, ” Schucman said.

When the researcher interviewed the family, the girl was already 14 years old, and self-classified herself sometimes as “morena” (light brown/mixed) or “mulata”, saying that she was not “black” because “blacks” had cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair) and she straightened hers. “Just like her family members, she needed to deny her ‘blackness’ to legitimize her affection,” she said.

According to Schucman, the son’s phenotypic traits probably came from his father. But this was the great absent one, the great stranger, whose presence no photograph documented and about which nothing was said. On the other hand, the mother, despite light skin and straight hair, had visibly black ancestors, though she did not recognize them as such.

In the case of another family interviewed, from São Bernardo do Campo, in the state of São Paulo, the father was not unknown, missing or absent. The family lived with him, loved him, but the mother never admitted that her husband was “black.”

According to the researcher, the daughter of the couple suffered other types of denial. When she was a kid, and would go to spend the weekends with her cousins on her father’s side, she would always come back with her braided hair, in the Afro style. When she got home, her mother told him that it was horrible, and immediately undid the braids. And even as an adult she wore very large earrings or wore more colorful clothes, her mother criticized her for “usar coisas de negro” (wearing black things).

“She told me, ‘My mother said I was almost white, but my nose was not white. When I was little, I always had the feeling of trying to be something that I was not, the feeling of being bodily inadequate. Later, when I had a child, my mother told me to put my hand on his little nose a lot while he was still a baby, and the cartilage was soft to thin out the shape,’” Schucman said.

The conclusion of the researcher is that, in Brazil, it is possible to be against racism, to think that racism is an evil to be combated, to marry “black”, and yet to be racist. Racist in the sense of hierarchizing people from the phenotype, of finding “cabelo do branco” (white person’s hair) the most beautiful, the “nariz do branco” (white person’s nose) the most beautiful, and so on. “But if the ‘interracial family’ is often the locus of racist experiences, it can also be a privileged space for hosting and developing coping strategies for racism in the surrounding society, as I could verify in more than one interview,” he said.

SourceAgência FAPESP

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


  1. If a white, marries a black it means= not racist. I myself hate stupid people, so I don’t get around them. When I was a kid and fought my brother, I used to call him monkey, he replied, but you’re also black! Me: but you’re darker, don’t get me wrong , I love my entire family to death, sometimes you shouldn’t consider ‘stuff’ people say when they’re mad at you. You have a lot of good points in this article, but most of if is garbage.

    And..would you please stop asking white people to save us?! Speaking of it, princess Isabel did not free the Brazilians slaves.

    • Thiago,

      Thanks for your comment although I respectfully disagree. The whole point of this article addresses this idea that the existence of interracial couples proves the non-existence of racism. It’s a very simple way to look at things and yet another narrative that impedes black people from truly understanding racism and white supremacy. In the article, I also posted a link to the recollections of another child of an IR union who CLEARLY understood how racist her white mother was against her black father. In a racist society, one cannot simply believe that people are non-racist because of the partner they choose. Whether people know it or not, living in a system in which white people are deemed superior to all others, both partners of any marriage also bring a certain level of these beliefs to the marriage whether they are conscious of these sentiments or not.

      In terms of things people say when they are angry, it often is a time when people are actually the most honest and open about how they really feel. I`ve seen this over and over in my life and not just in moments of racism. This is not about someone calling another person a monkey; a person may NEVER call someone a monkey and still see the non-white person as inferior. White supremacy affects EVERYONE. Black people themselves have deeply internalized this ideology. In other articles on this blog, children of interracial unions have mentioned how their black parent is sometimes silent on issues of racism in the household, which signals to me that they have no desire to challenge this discourse.

      All of this to say that, you are free to believe what you believe, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thank you for this article. It underlines a point many anti-racist activists have made, which is that interracial relationships and familial ties, especially when they involve a white partner or family member, do not automatically negate anti-black racism. In fact the push for interracialism and mixed-race identity can aid in anti-black racism by further isolating the visibly or phenotypically black person, in effect valorizing the more white-proximate or white-adjacent person over black people and blackness. It can and does often work hand-in-hand with anti-black racism and white supremacy. What Dr. Schucman identifies in Brazil happens all over the West, and the globe. I hope she continues with her studies and that she continues to be in dialogue with scholars in the US, UK, and elsewhere, where this reality continues to play out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.