Note from BW of Brazil: The question of race and racial identity in Brazil has been historically explained and promoted as the extreme opposite of the racial scheme in the United States. Whereas in the US, “one drop” of “black blood”, or African ancestry, made one black regardless of their physical appearance, many believe that, in Brazil, one drop of “white blood”, or European ancestry, could make one non-black or in some cases, white. The belief in the fluidity of race in Brazil due to widespread miscegenation implied that this contributed to making racial relations much more harmonious than the in US where racial antagonism was open and strong. Although these have been the accepted beliefs, like Brazil’s famed “racial democracy” myth, the truth is more complex at the least and a complete sham at the extreme.
In recent years, more and more Brazilians of African descent have been finding their way to the development of a black identity after having found that the country’s promotion of a “racial democracy” was really “white supremacy” in disguise (see here, here and here, for example). In reality, the mythology enticed many Brazilians of visible African ancestry to run away from blackness in an attempt to identify themselves with the “winning team”, i.e, whiteness. In many ways it worked; today in Brazil, there are millions of persons of visible African ancestry who do not define themselves as such, opting instead to define themselves by a plethora of color-coded terms such as “moreno”, “mulato” or “parda”. The Brazilian “racial democracy” only existed for those wishing to escape being defined as black. It only existed for those who simply didn’t want to see the truth. It only existed for those who didn’t have to the pride and consciousness to say “eu sou negro/negra”. It existed only for those who didn’t notice the nation’s extreme racial inequalities and how nearly everything positive was represented by whiteness while blackness was associated with everything negative or simply invisible.
If one doesn’t have experience with the question of race from a Latin American perspective, the idea of “coming out” as black may sound a bit strange. Elaine Velorio, a woman whose parents are from the Dominican Republic also discussed this topic on National Public Radio in the US as well as on the website Huffington Post. In this personal piece, blogger Higor Faria details his denial, understanding, consciousness and finally acceptance of a black identity. This piece, as well as the others in the links above, provide a necessary understanding of how race is experienced in Brazil.
When I took my blackness “out of the closet”: denial, recognition and pride
by Higor Faria
Being black in Brazil is an issue that permeates the skin tone, kinky/curly hair and “non-refined” features (sic). It is a political issue and that of resistance. Being part of this group is to bring an historic process of slavery and a structured racism which resulted in a stigmatized, marginalized and subjugated population. Understanding that – and more than that – is a part of the daily struggle against veiled and explicit racism.
However, this consciousness is not born with those who are black. Actually, it is more likely that the individual has no contact with this discourse and is vulnerable to reproducing racist comments and behavior, such as the denial of their own ethnicity. Until I was 14, I did not identify myself as black, I didn’t see myself as black and I did not want to be black. In spite of my origins being on my face, in my skin, hair and features, my commentary intonated that of my father – who I wasn’t even close to – it was white, thus I would be a mestiço (or even moreno, lol). That’s because, in my head, I didn’t want to be that that “não faz merda na entrada, faz na saída (if he doesn’t shit when he comes in, he shits when he leaves)”, or who “parado está pensando em roubar, correndo já roubou (if he’s standing still he’s thinking of stealing, if he’s running he’s already stolen)”, or “não sabe qual é o pente que te penteia (you don’t know which comb is to comb your hair with)”, or that he came “de um povo amaldiçoado (from a cursed people)”, (1) etc..
The figure of the black was so subtly and explicitly (as in these lines above) made negative, I wanted no part of such a group. It was shameful. I thought that the less black the better. Maria Aparecido Silva Bento (2002) explains that this is part of the process of the hegemony and oppression of the white man, because whiteness stands at a level of superiority through the lowering and stigmatization of blackness. That is, the blacker the more inferior, the whiter is placed in a space of ideal for humanity. Cruel, right? And for this and other reasons, I intonated the light skin of my father, after all it was the only way to get away from being black and being closer to that perfection which is reflected in the white man.
Little did I know that the process of building my identity and of the space I occupy in the world would go through what I affirm to be what society says about me – Kabengelê Munanga (2004) speaks of self-declared identity and attributed identity. Until then, society pointed to me as black (attributed identity), even with me stating a possible mestiçagem (racial mixture) (self-declared identity). But racism doesn’t request that you verify your origin, your family tree, or the quantity of ethnic genes (Neguinho da Beija-Flor isn’t spared from racism because of having more European genes) (2). It occurs abruptly according to your phenotype – and gradually I realized that and my place as black.
From age 15, I recognized myself as black and decided to develop a “black power (afro)” on my head and another in my consciousness. It seemed that I had gotten darker, blacker after that decision. Between a suspicious look on the street and many other bacús (none too friendly police stops) on the streets of Brasília, the discourse of mestiçagem and equality of Gilberto Freyre was deconstructing itself more. I didn’t understand: if we are all equal, why am I treated so differently than my white friends? If treatment is different, if the approach is different, if the opportunities and obstacles are related to your ethnicity…Well, there is no equality! All this is set by the look of “other” on your black identity.
As always wanted to “disturb”, my black (afro) grew more and my discourse was (even if not yet grounded) stronger, mainly in the visual field. It was there that I took my blackness “out of the closet”. And exposing it involved feeling proud to be part of such a stigmatized population and wanting to change the entire bad configuration that was attributed to this group. I still didn’t know how to take my place in society or how to construct y discourse, but I positioned myself black and didn’t accept embranquecessem (whitening) myself – interestingly, today they frequently call me moreno, I confess: which irritates me, “offends” (in the words of Ilê Aiyê).
Constructing my identity as a black man was complicated. Finding who would introduce me to thinkers and thoughts so that I would grow and in which to base my discourse was very difficult, even in college – because it is a hegemonically white space, but that’s another discussion. Even today with greater access, more constant productions, spaces for different opinions and the number of people who declared themselves negras (black) has increased (IPEA), the content does not reach the young man who is constructing and positioning himself. Many still go through a lengthy period of denial of recognizing themselves and finally take their blackness of the closet.
Others deny it even today, even with society pointing at their ethnicity. “Who sees is who wants to see!”, one might argue. It is not so simple, because we are taught from an early age to not want to see, to not want to be, yet we become constant victims of racism. Sometimes, when one doesn’t recognize their blackness, there is an attempt to bring one’s self closer to this supposed ideal of white humanity, either through discourse or by means of chemical products, for example. It’s no use! There will always be a social finger that will point to you as black and tell you that you are different from what you’re trying to be. So, accepting your black identity is to appreciate yourself. It is to appreciate black people. It is to contribute so that more people recognize themselves, identify themselves, accept themselves and appreciate themselves.
Black is beautiful, meu nêgo (my negro/black man): there is a special home for you that stamps your blackness in the street!
Higor Faria is preto (black), works in advertising, studies black masculinity and writes at https://medium.com/@higorfaria
1. Here, the author makes references to a number of racist jokes/sayings that are common in Brazil. For more on this, see here.
2. The author refers to a 2007 DNA study which showed that singer Neguinho da Beija-Flor possessed 67% European ancestry despite his dark skin and kinky hair.