“What Brazil really wants to be is blonde,” says researcher of racial inequality

Black blond Brazilians
Black blond Brazilians

Photo: Top, left to to right: Rafaella, sister of soccer star Neymar, actress Aparecida Petrowky, soccer star Neymar and singer Juliana Diniz. Bottom, left to right: Singer/actress Thalma de Freitas, actress Roberta Rodrigues, actress Ildi Silva and singer/actress Leilah Moreno

by Conceição Freitas

In the nation’s capital of Brasília for 17 years, the researcher Mário Lisboa Theodoro, director of development and cooperation of the Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Aplicados (Institute of Applied Studies and Research or IPEA), lives in Lago Norte with his wife and two children. Despite living in an administrative region which has 80% branco (white) residents, 11% pardo (brown) and 1% preto (black), Theodoro, black and born in the city of Volta Redonda (state of Rio de Janeiro), has never experienced prejudice. “Maybe because the houses overlook the backyard and not the street, so almost no one knows.” What impresses the researcher is the Escola-Classe of Lago Norte, created to accommodate the children of the residents, but that houses children of caretakers, gardeners, maids and children from neighboring Varjão. “It’s a recess of black children in the middle of Lago Norte. Residents have a real prejudice against those children. They’re afraid of being robbed. That school is the face of Brazilian prejudice.”

Mário Lisboa Theodoro of the Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Aplicados
Mário Lisboa Theodoro of the Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Aplicados

Economist scholar of race, activist of the Movimento Negro (black rights organizations), Mário Theodoro is the editor of the book As políticas públicas e a desigualdade racial no Brasil: 120 anos após a abolição (Public policies and racial inequality in Brazil: 120 years after the abolition), the IPEA’s own edition. In the 12th and final part of the series Negra Brasília (Black Brasília), the researcher deals with the great wound that is the racial question in Brazil, the reasonable advance of public policies, the limits of  abolition (that occurred in 1888) and the role of the Movimento Negro at this moment. He says: “What Brazil really wants is to be blonde” (1) ,to explain the reasons why there is a consensus among researchers and activists that negros (blacks) are the sum of pretos (blacks) plus pardos (browns) (2).

A major milestone

There was a major breakthrough in the past 10 years. Progress was made in addressing the racial question and perhaps the major milestone is the creation of Seppir [Secretaria de Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial or Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality] (3). Even if the political activity of Seppir is residual, small, prompt, even if it doesn’t take account of the racial issue in Brazil, the creation of it was the recognition by the State that the race issue has to be the object of public policy. This was the breakthrough, for those who are critics. From there, we have to start building.

Reviving the racial question

From the initiation of racial quotas in the universities, there started to appear a national controversy. And this is the most important (thing). The issue of race has become a national issue. Every important segment of society felt the need to position itself. Brazil only truly discussed the race issue between the years 1850-1888 (4) and, since then the issue disappeared from the national discussion. Quotas revived the racial question. People are going to court to say no or yes. This debate is making us tackle race as a Brazilian problem. Silence is the worst of all worlds because silence is as if the problem does not exist. Now, we have to give answers to these questions, to formulate major public policies.

Racism as an ideology

Abolition did not solve the race problem. It freed blacks and nothing more. Abolition threw into limbo the Brazilian workforce, the former slaves. And migrants came to occupy the new jobs. The myth of racial democracy was born and even after abolition racism was just settling in Brazil as the dominant ideology after abolition. This is curious, but all racist thought appeared as a way to justify differences and inequalities as naturalization. It seemed “natural” that blacks continue where they were because they were always in this place. Since abolition settled silence about race and who dared to speak of it was treated as a police matter. As was the case with the Frente Negra (5) of the 1930s, that was persecuted and decimated or Abdias Nascimento, with the Teatro Experimental Negro (Black Experimental Theater) (6). And then came the continuous discourse of: “You want to divide (Brazil), how awful! You are imitating the United States” (7), as if it was a fight that had no legitimacy. Women can burn their bras, cool, the landless can ask for agrarian reform, but blacks, what are they are complaining about?

Blacks are not equal

After the World War II, European social reconstruction was in the sense of removing its equals from a situation of destitution. But the white Brazilian doesn’t see the other black Brazilian as an equal and doesn’t mind if certain group go through hardships. He is not my equal … There is no moral appeal for inclusion. They are two groups, one with all the rights and the other naturally with the right to nothing. It’s as if it’s natural that blacks are poor.

Open wound

Racism is an open wound on a daily basis. A person suffering racism, he or she feels the offense not only in itself. If I’m a dirty black, my mother is a dirty black, my grandmother is a dirty black. So it’s an unspeakable scourge and blight that are in everyday life, it’s only veiled, but it’s there all the time. Antônio Candido said recently that racism diminishes both sides, it diminishes whoever suffers the offense because the person is directly diminished and it diminishes whoever practices it because it demonstrates that he is unable to see the otherness, he is a person who narrows the world. Brazil created generations of racists. And we continue to do that with our children because nobody is born a racist. Little children embrace, kiss, but as time goes on he/she learns to be racist.

Black, the principal interlocutor

It is the first time that the black movement is the main interlocutor of the racial question. In abolitionist debates, there were urban intellectuals from Rio de Janeiro, people from São Paulo, each one had an idea, but blacks were a minority in the discussion. Now Movimento Negro comes in as a prioritized speaker.

Preto + Pardo  = Negro

Blacks and mulattos have a very similar racial suffering, although blacks suffer a little more. But any mulatto who dares leave his social position will feel that the racial issue speaks louder. Someone might even say he’s a moreninho, but police will see him as black. A mulatto can even say that he’s not black, but at the last minute, in a fight with a white man, he will be called crioulo (8). Joining pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) into only one classification, blacks, is a political choice, no doubt. It’s a way of saying that we are all together, we suffer racism together, we have a problem to face together and we’ll face it together. Because, in the end, what Brazil really wants is to be blonde. It doesn’t want to be moreninho (9), it doesn’t want to be pardo (10). And if the ideal is to be blonde, then blacks and mulattos are together. The fact of being mulatto doesn’t lead someone to the TV. In the novelas, who has the soul are the blue-eyed blondes. All this makes it so that the movement calls everyone negro (black) [pretos and pardos].

Source: Correio Braziliense


1. In Brazil, it is easy to perceive that there is a premium placed on blond hair in a mixed country where true blonds are very rare, especially outside of the three most southern states where between 71%-85% of the population defines itself as white. According to research by Veja magazine, of each 10 women that color their hair, 7 color it blond. One can also note this obsession with blondness from the various television program hosts. For more see here and here.

2. Activists and many scholars have long argued that pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) should be combined and considered Brazil’s black population. Although persons of African descent run the gamut of phenotypes in Brazil, socio-economic statistics that measure quality of life of light, medium and dark-skinned persons of visible African descent show that differences between pretos and pardos are negligible while both trail the white population in nearly every important social statistic (income, education, health, types of occupations and invisibility in many realms of society) which supports the idea that the two groups experience discrimination in similar fashion vis-a-vis white Brazilians.

3. Please see various articles on this blog that feature the Minister of this entity, Luiza Bairros

4. The period of an intensified debate and discussion on the need to abolish slavery in Brazil. Slavery would finally end on May 13, 1888.

5. The Frente Negra Brasileira (Brazilian Black Front) was founded on September 16, 1931 and lasted until 1937, becoming a political party in 1936. It was the most important Afro-Brazilian entity of the first half of the century that advocated for equal rights and full citizenship of black Brazilians. The organization had branches in various parts of the country including  São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and other states. Under the leadership of Arlindo Veiga dos Santos, the organization developed several political, cultural and educational activities of a  for its members. It held lectures, seminars, promoted literacy and sewing workshops and promoted music festivals. At its headquarters it ran the organization’s official newspaper O Menelik, which was succeeded by O Clarim d’Alvorada, under the direction of José Correia Leite and Jayme de Aguiar.

6. In the 1940s, when in Brazilian theaters, white actors painted their faces black to represent black people, Abdias Nascimento, a militant of black consciousness, decided to change this racist attitude. On October 13, 1944, he created the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), which began its activities in Rio de Janeiro, with a cast consisting of maids, laborers and slum dwellers, all black. The purpose of the TEN was not only cultural and artistic, but also social, according to the Abdias. “The need for the foundation of this movement was inspired by the imperative of social organization of people of color, with a view to raising their cultural level and their individual values​​,” he explained. Long-time actresses such as Ruth de  Souza and Lea Garcia honed their crafts with TEN that gave exposure to Afro-Brazilian actors/actresses in a Brazil where the most time blacks spent on stages were in cleaning them.

7. This was and continues to be a common accusation in Brazil. Deflecting attention away from deep-seated racist ideologies and everyday racism that affected Afro-Brazilians, the United States was and is often pointed to as the racist country. Thus, with this train of thought, people who complain of racism or fight against it are accused of importing a problem from the United States.

8. A term that many consider to be racially offensive and a means of reminding someone of their slave origins and/or social/racial inferiority

9. For more on the usage if skin color/phenotype terms and identity, see here, here and here.

10. In the late 19th century as the slavery era was slowly coming to an end, Brazilian elites, noting the non-white majority of the population, aimed to whiten the country through a policy of heavy European immigration. From the 1870s to the 1940s, 4 million European immigrants from countries such as Portugal, Spain, Germany and Italy settled in Brazil, coincidentally, approximately the same amount of African slaves Brazil received between the 16th and 19th centuries. In 1934, African immigrants were strictly prohibited from entering the country and in order to stimulate European immigration, in 1945, President Getúlio Vargas also signed a law designed to “to preserve and develop in the ethnic composition of the population, the most desirable basic features of its ancestry.” Along with European immigration, elites also encouraged racial mixture with the goal of the complete disappearance of the black race. In the early 20th century, many white Brazilian social scientists and statesmen began estimating how long it would take for the Brazilian population to look completely white. Thus, one could argue, although many proclaim that Brazil is proud of its racial mixture, this mixture was not the goal but only a step on the path to the desired whitening of the nation.

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

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