What is the difference in race between the US and Brazil? Being mixed in the US is being closer to one’s black ancestry; in Brazil, being mestiço is being closer to one’s white ancestry



Note from BW of Brazil: The questions continue to be a hotly debated topics as more and more people become familiar with the racial politics of Brazil. Which country is more racist? What is the difference in terms of racial classification? Of course, I’ve come to my own conclusions about these questions, but I never tire of hearing the observations of others. Even as I’ve done much research on the issues of racism, racial identity/classification and race relations, I continue to come across little tidbits here and there that ad another piece to the never ending puzzle. When I came across the piece below, it was literally a “stop the press” moment. Let me explain why. 

Both the United States and Brazil are countries that have the takeover of lands inhabited by Native Americans, both used labor of enslaved Africans and both opened their doors to massive European immigration. But in the reconstruction era of the United States, strict laws of segregation were enacted in the American south and while we don’t find laws on the books in Brazil mandating segregation by law, segregation has been also been documented in numerous cities while the country remained a non-segregationist image, at least on paper, and in the imagination. But my question was the following:

How is that both the US and Brazil received European immigrants from places such as Germany and Italy, but while there was little racial mixture between men and women of different races in most parts of the US, in Brazil miscegenation spread far and wide? How do we explain this if the same peoples, Germans and Italians among others, went to both countries? Are we to believe that while these people went to the US and became staunchly anti-black, the same people went to Brazil and freely mixed with descendants of African slaves? Well, first let’s be clear, Italians and Germans did bring their beliefs of racial superiority to Brazil and we know this because, one, Brazil once had the largest Nazi party outside of Germany and, two, we have reports of the same views on the part of Italian immigrants, who often insulted, violently attacked and even killed black Brazilians. So what makes the two countries different in this regard?

Well, Catharina Rocha’s research came up with one intriguing detail of European immigration that I wasn’t aware of. Yes, it is well known that the Brazilian government subsidized millions of European immigrants, paid their fare across the Atlantic, made attainment of employment easy and even offered plots of land. But one detail, if it was a widespread practice, explains a key component to interracial unions that I don’t remember coming across. Read on, I’m sure you’ll find it intriguing also. 

Last thing, as I started writing this intro, I wanted to find images that adequately represent the way race has played out in the two nations. So, for Brazil, I used a painting that I’ve used numerous times in the past, A Redenção de Cam, meaning The Redemption of Ham, of 1895, on the Brazilian side and the 1934 American film Imitation of Life. The contrast in the meanings of the two are perfect for the analysis below. A Redenção de Cam represents the Brazilian dream of the disappearance of the black race through successive generations of racial mixture with whites. In the painting, the black grandmother thanks God for removing “the stain” of blackness from her family as her mixed race daughter holds her “white” baby in her arms while her European immigrant husband proudly looks on. In Imitation of Life, a very fair skinned woman decides to try and “pass” as a white woman against her dark-skinned black mother’s wishes. Two very relevant back stories in the understanding of the two countries.  

Eugenics and segregation in the US and Brazil

By Catharina Rocha with introduction by Pedro Borges

Catharina Rocha, author of the “Tons do Brasil” project and specialist in the theme of racial identification and colorism, wrote to Alma Preta (website) about the processes of eugenics in the country and in the US

In the US, debates about race served and still serve today as the basis for the Brazilian model of affirmative action. Brazil and the United States are very similar when we talk about racial issues, but the differences, besides being gigantic, are very important.

In the US censuses, the composition of the population by means of the classification of race is divided in two terms: whites and non-whites, that is, they opted for the binary classification.

There, non-whites are not only characterized by black people, but encompass all ‘mestiços’, fruits of any existing inter-racial combination.

This difference occurs because racial segregation in the United States is stronger and more rigid than in Brazil, and the reason for this is a simple fact: in American society the race of an individual is determined by ancestry. That is, in the USA, ‘mestiço’ (mixed race) or ‘pardo’ (brown/mixed) is black.

And why are these concepts different in each country?

The two countries have had distinct whitening laws throughout their history that have helped to construct the conflictive setting of black identity in their respective nations.

In short, the whitening is based on the concept of eugenics, which affirmed the superiority of the white race in relation to the other races.

In the US, the concept of eugenics emerged in the 19th century and was implemented through a twentieth-century law that lasted until 1968. This law, called the “one-drop rule”, was an anti-miscegenation rule according to which any American who had some degree of African ancestry, or any other non-European, was not considered white but a person of color and was forbidden to marry or have sex with the hitherto infamous superior race.

In Brazil, eugenics was established through the “lei do embranquecimento” (whitening law), which also emerged in the late nineteenth century but was created to encourage miscegenation.

Here, this issue happened during the transition process of abolitionism and with the encouragement of European imperialism, and of capitalism in the country.

The plan of miscegenation in Brazil consisted in basically attracting immigrants with promises of land and guaranteed cheap labor to copulate with blacks and Indians who lived here.

According to the article “A diferença como prestígio: a representação social do branco no livro didático” (Difference as prestige: the social representation of the white in the didactic book), by Ana Célia da Silva, the desire to transform Brazil with this hegemonically white ideal can be observed in the Brazilian immigration law instituted on June 8, 1890, which legally prevented the entry of blacks and Asians into the country.

This whitening law shows a very relevant historical point for the construction of a Brazilian racial discussion and the identity of our people.

In the book O Genocídio do Negro Brasileiro: Processo de um Racismo Mascarado (The Genocide of the black Brazilian: Process of a Masked Racism), by Abdias Nascimento, the author also talks about the whitening law, already in the 20th century. According to him, on September 18, 1945, Getúlio Vargas signed Decree-Law No. 7.967, which regulated the entry of immigrants “according to the need to preserve and develop in the ethnic composition of the population the most convenient characteristics of their ancestry European.”

​The decree required that possible immigrants personally present themselves to the consul for the diplomat to see the candidate and report whether he was white, black, or had any physical disability. At that time, the upper class of Brazilian society and many government men, including Getúlio Vargas himself, believed that the problem of Brazilian development was related to the poor ethnic background of the people. It was believed that “good” immigrants, white immigrants, when integrating with the non-white population, would cause Brazil to become a more developed society in 50 years.

Gilberto Freyre
Gilberto Freyre is one of the main formulators of Brazilian social thought and the idea of ​​the racial democracy

Marina Affarez, a 22-year-old student of scenic arts at the State University of São Paulo (Unesp), has in her family an explicit case of the whitening law introduced during this period in Brazil.

Despite having on her father’s side, a family with very little racial admixture, of black predominance and African descent, his mother’s family is one of the most typical families with different ethnic groups scattered throughout the country.

Her mother is a descendant of Indians, blacks, and Italians, and now declares herself to be a mulher negra de pele clara (light-skinned black woman). However, Marina says that, as her mother, Rosana, has a slightly lighter skin tone, very fine features and a sharp nose, she grew up with the idea that her mother was a white woman and her father, a homem negro retinto (very dark-skinned black).

As it turns out, the perception of Rosana, Marina’s mother, changed over time, going from white woman to light-skinned black woman.

Marina says that her great-grandmother, that is, the mother of her grandmother’s mother, was a case of extremely violent miscegenation.

Indigenous, but with her African father enslaved, Marina’s great-grandmother lived in her tribe throughout her childhood and adolescence. Marina tells how her grandmother was “laçada”, kidnapped from her tribe, away from her family, to marry an Italian white man, her great-grandfather.

The story the family knows is that marriage worked as an exchange, and her Italian-born grandfather hated being married and having children with a woman identified as non-white.

“The exchange worked more or less like this: the condition for him to be able to immigrate to Brazil, with a lot of land and a house, was to marry a black woman and reinforce the Brazilian miscegenation plan,” Marina said.

That is, in Brazil, the miscegenation began to be encouraged, as a way of distancing the country from its black and enslaved past.

The x of the question…

It is necessary to understand a whole historical and conceptual process, so that we can apply it to the present day and even then, it is clear how in Brazil, race and color are confused.

We have as proof famous cases such as futebol players Neymar and Ronaldo or singer Anitta, who have denied black ancestry, but are seen by each Brazilian in the way that is most convenient or fit a stereotyped pattern of race.

And, of course, these evaluations will take a different turn when one considers different regionalities, different social classes, different families and creations, and even different sex and sexual orientations.

And when you yourself don’t know what you are, and when others try to tell you and it changes with each new opinion, that’s where everything gets more complex.

And what’s the point of it all?

There is an obvious conclusion to this discussion: to be mestiço (person of mixed race) in the US is to be closer to one’s black ancestry and to be mestiço in Brazil, is to be closer to one’s white ancestry.

Therefore, it is more understandable why there is so much complexity in trying to define the racial classification of the pardo.

The classification of pardos is directly related to miscegenation and to the issue of embranquecimento, or not, of a population.

Source: Alma Preta

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


  1. Before even reading this I assumed this was the case in Brazil. The human race can be made up of mutts and the ruling class will still figure out a way to differentiate and discriminate to keep the blood lines “pure”.

    The thing is White men are never, ever held accountable to mixing up Northern European DNA with Asian, Latin and African DNA

    But Black men should be accountable for mixing up Black DNA??? Don’t White men especially in the United States share that same view? Doesn’t that make them bedfellows????

    This is why for me Black women in the US are OFF LIMITS.

  2. La situation des races au bresil me fait penser à la situation en republique dominicaine ou la majorité mulatre refuse son heritage africain et se dit Indio à cause de leurs voisins haitiens .

  3. Cette situation raciale me fait penser à celle qui prévaut en republique dominicaine.
    Les dominicains s opposent à leurs voisins haitiens jugées plus africains qu’ eux

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


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