Note from BW of Brazil: No Brazilian or visitor to Brazil could deny the wide range of phenotypes that exist throughout the country. Due to five centuries of miscegenation between descendants of Africans, Europeans and American Indians, Brazil’s population presents a stunning array of physical combinations, some of which would difficult to categorize according to one’s understanding of race. But even so, as Cristiane Oliveira and many others have argued, it is not as difficult to determine who is black, or afrodescendente (African descendant), as it might appear. And when these differences are perceived, they lead to clear socioeconomic differences for which Afro-Brazilian militants as well as sociologists have long argued that regardless of the phenotype, Brazil’s African descendants experience discrimination in similar manners.
Historically, because of a professed elite agenda to mix the black population out of existence and widespread negative connotations associated with blackness, many of those who attempt to distance themselves from blackness (even though their physical features denote African ancestry) don’t perceive or accept how society may discriminate against them because of these attributes. Often times, this denial leads to difficulty in accepting such a stigmatized identity or recognizing when discrimination based on physical appearance occurs. This may be particularly difficult for those African descendants with lighter skin and/or less obvious African physical features even when they are victims of racism (see here, here or here, for example). The following story is an example of such. As you will see, even with the subject of the story having very light skin, her experiences show that Brazilian society can distinguish the difference between whites and non-whites easier than one is led to believe.
Ebony and ivory ties
Even in a miscegenated (mixed) country like Brazil, family members with different skin tones still produce estrangement in society
by Mariana Brasil
“My, how different she is from you, I would not have thought she was your daughter.” This phrase, uttered by countless mouths, was the comment most heard by Deuzeni Pereira Lucena while Bruna was growing up. Part of a very racially mixed family, the different appearances of mother and daughter generated a lot of disbelief about the relationship between the two. “My family is of really black skin. We are 9 brothers and sisters, my father, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncles, all black. Only my mother who is clara (light-skinned or white) but nobody took after her. Bruna took after my husband’s family, where they are all quite white,” reveals Deuzeni, dubbed “Deusa” (meaning ‘goddess’) by the family.
“I think that what most marked my childhood was the bureaucracy, because it was all very difficult, my mother always had to prove that she was my mother.” At the time, the family lived in Itaquaquecetuba (1), São Paulo, and regularly visited her maternal grandmother, who lived next to the São Judas subway station. “I was little and we needed to catch the Pássaro Marrom [intercity bus], and every time I needed to present my documents. Sometimes my mom had my ID, but didn’t have my birth certificate and they would not let me get on. Several times we had to go home because they said ‘no, you will not catch the intercity bus with this girl,’” recalls Bruna, irritably.
Lucas, a cousin who was raised by the family since he was five months old, never went through difficulties when traveling with Deusa since he has a skin tone similar to hers. “Catching the Pássaro Marrom with Lucas, for example, they only asked if I had the child’s document but didn’t ask to see it. With Bruna, they demanded to see her RG (ID document).” Bruna says, with a laugh, that his mother could have been kidnapping Lucas, but as both have a similar color, nobody would ever know.
Deusa tells that not even her daughter’s arguments, then eight years old, helped drivers – and often police – in believing that the girl with the light-colored hair and eyes was the daughter of that black girl with the cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair). There was only one time when Deusa remembers losing her temper with the treatment she received while trying to ride the bus with her daughter: she had an appointment with the pediatrician to treat Bruna’s sinusitis and could not be late. Coming to the bus stop, she saw that she had switched purses and didn’t have a copy of the birth certificate and was prevented from getting on in front of all the other passengers. “I went home crying the whole way because I felt so humiliated. On the bus everyone heard the conversation and everyone was looking at me, suspicious of me. I didn’t want to go back to that stop, but my daughter needed treatment.” The bus came only every half an hour, left from Itaquaquecetuba, passed through Ayrton Senna (2), by Marginal Tietê (3) and dropped passengers off at at Rodoviária Tietê (bus station). “When we arrived in Ayrton Senna, that bus that made me get off was stopped, and that same driver that asked us let some passengers on, because it ended up being high jacked.” Deusa never complained about forgetting the documents again.
Many people don’t even go through the stage of doubt that Deusa was Bruna’s mother, as they assume the guy that she was the girl’s nanny. “I remember once we went to Porto Seguro (state of Bahia in the northeast) and became friends with a couple. It was me, a dear friend, Bruna and my husband. We started talking but reached a certain point in the conversation when I noticed that I had been forgotten in a corner. Nobody was talking to me anymore, the conversation was only between my friend, my husband and this couple, and I, sitting at the same table, even being a wife and mother, as if I didn’t exist.” When the couple wanted to work out a family outing, of which they would take to a niece to play with Bruna, they invited Arnóbio, Bruna’s father, and my friend. “At that moment I realized that for that couple my husband’s wife was my friend because she was white. Thus, people connected white to white. Bruna is white, my husband is white, my friend was white, so the family was the three of them and I was the maid accompanying them.” On that same trip, Bruna says that the management of the hotel where they were staying even asked if the nanny would also have breakfast with the family – “my mother being the nanny that they were talking about,” Bruna says.
As a child, Bruna always resented a little the way she saw her mother being treated because of the doubts that many people insisted on in terms of their kinship. Deusa, in turn, was rarely bothered with that kind of treatment. Instead, she and her husband liked to think back to this kind of perception to laugh at people’s confusion. “After this couple discovered that I was his wife, they apologized, trying to justify it by saying that I had been very quiet in the conversation. I said that was because I liked to observe,” she says laughing. The strangeness of society with her family became a joke in the house and for months the couple was making fun of each other when something embarrassing happened. Once in the waiting room of the pediatrician, Deusa recalls, with a laugh, what prompted a curious mother to know if Bruna had taken after the looks of someone white in the family. “The people in the room were agonized, you could see that everyone wanted to ask, but no one dared, until one of the mothers broke down and came to talk to me like ‘wow, she’s your daughter? But she’s so white, is your husband white?’”. Very serious, Deusa replied that her husband was “so black that the white part of his eye is red.” The room got silent as Deusa tried to remain serious playing with her daughter. “When I got home, I told my husband and he was laughing, calling me crazy.”
In Deusa family, there never was a case of prejudice among family members. Bruna says that, as she was the only white cousin, she ended up getting several nicknames from her cousins in her childhood, like branquela (whitey) and Vandinha Adams (Wednesday Addams of Addams Family fame).”
Source: Raça Brasil
1. Itaquaquecetuba is a municipality in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, with an estimated 2006 population of 352,755. The city’s name derives from the Tupi (Native American) language. Source
2. Rodovia Ayrton Senna da Silva (officially designated SP-070 and formerly named Rodovia dos Trabalhadores) (Workers’ Highway), is a highway in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. The highway is named in honor of the deceased Brazilian Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna. Source
3. Marginal Tietê (officially SP-015) is a section of this highway that runs through the city of São Paulo, Brazil. The name of this section comes from the fact that each way of the expressway runs near a different waterfront of the Tietê River. It is a very important road of São Paulo, connecting the East, North and West portions of the city, and linking the Lapa neighbourhood and the Penha neighbourhood. Source