Note from BBT: I have been fascinated with the concept of racial classification and identity going all the back to my childhood. Thinking back to the moment when the question of race first became a little confusing to me, I will always remember the moment when my mother told me that, despite her very fair skin, she was indeed a black woman. It was an idea that didn’t make sense to me as an 8-year old child. At that stage in my life, I couldn’t distinguish the difference between my own mother and other light-skinned people in our family and community from the white people that I saw on television everyday.
Years later, this division between what constituted black and white became crystal clear. Some time along the way to this understanding, I began to look past simply the fair skin of the various light-skinned people of African descent that I knew. I began to distinguish what were said be African features such as thicker lips, the shape of the nose and the curly hair texture that I would see my mother and other black women ocassionally straighten out.
My mother’s affirmation that night at a Big Boy restaurant helped me to understand how it was that America saw people like singer Lena Horne as black women and how a woman like Vanessa Williams could be considered the first black Miss America. Ok, I got it, or so I thought. For most light-skinned black people that I knew personally or knew of, something always revealed why they weren’t seen or accepted as white.
I also knew that America’s infamous ‘one drop rule’ placed people into the black category even when they didn’t necessarily have any attributes that denoted African ancestry. Yet, even with this somewhat rigid rule, it still seemed that some white people seemed to slip through the cracks. I mean, to this day, I still look at Georgia Congressman Bob Barr and think one of his ancestors was probably dipping into the slave quarters a few centuries ago.
Highlighting America’s strict allegiance to the ‘one drop rule’ also brings us the story of Susie Guillory Phipps, a Louisiana woman who went to court to have her racial classification officially changed to white after learning through her birth certificate that she was classified as ‘colored’. According to records, Phipps had a black ancestor going back more than 200 years which, in the United States, was sufficient to classify her as non-white.
Some time in 2011, while working for a nurse’s union, I met a registered nurse in Michigan’s upper peninsula that, for the most part, looked like a white woman, but every time I looked at her, I also thought she had some black up in there somewhere. Having had several work-related conversations with this woman who I shall call ‘Sheryl’, at some point, we began to discuss a number of topics that had nothing to do with work. One of those discussions led to the race topic.
By that point, we had already been discussing a number of topics outside of her profession, so I after I asked her what she thought the percentage of black people in the city was, which led to a conversation on a wide variety of social topics. Eventually, I got around to asking her how she saw herself in terms of race. She immediately responded that she was white. When I asked her if she may have any non-European ancestry in her family, she responded that she didn’t think so. With that, I told her that if she would have told me that she had some level of African ancestry, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
‘Really?’, she asked. After a pause of a few seconds, she realized that, in her life, a number of people had asked her if she was in fact black, but she couldn’t understand why. At that point, I then asked her if she was familiar with the practice of ‘passing’. When she asked what that meant I explained that in the US, there was a history of light-skinned people of African descent who would distance themselves from their black families, sometimes move to other cities and assume new lives as white people. She was fascinated by the story but affirmed that she always considered herself white.
Ever since I began studying the racial situation in Brazil, I’ve consistently read that, unlike the US, Brazil never imposed anything similar to the infamous ‘one drop rule’. Well, this isn’t entirely true. When we look at the facts, we find that, as in Portugal where there were strict rules in certain institutions for people to have ‘purity of blood’ free from the so-called ‘infected races’, in Brazil, there were institutions that would check one’s ancestry back four generations before they were allowed entry.
It may be true that this didn’t apply to the society as a whole, but I would argue that whether there was any sort of nationally recognized racial purity statute or not, the nation inherited this view of the inferiority of non-whites that maintains pretos and pardos, that is, blacks and browns, at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. But the fact is, when you look into the country’s history, ‘In Portugal and especially in the Brazilian colony, the formulation ‘with no race of Moor, Jew or Mulato’ became common in countless documents’ (Mattos 2006).
For just one of these countless documents or statutes, consider a period in the history of the state of Minas Gerais where strict observance of such racial purity guidelines were followed.
‘The Overseas Council, which was directly related to the colonial reality and especially to the Capitania of Minas Gerais, complained about the constant entry of subjects ‘with mulato blood’ into local government positions ‘to serve as city councillors and participate in the governance of the Capitania’ The council insisted, therefore, that no position of the Capitania should be filled by any man who is mulatto to the fourth degree (Mattos 2006).
‘Mulatto to the fourth degree’, in other words, fourth generation of ancestry. The existence of such demands demonstrates that certain areas of Brazilian society also adhered to a type of ‘one drop rule’ that so many Brazilian citizens have deemed ridiculous. Such criteria also existed for certain ranks of military positions. I too see such criteria as ridiculous, but this isn’t the point. The point that I emphasize here is that you cannot separate a country from its history, and in Brazil’s history, we also find hints of ‘one-dropism’.
As stated by Grayce Mayre Bonfim Souza on the topic
‘The blood purity statutes can be considered as the legal expression of state and church racism in Portuguese society and, by extension, in Portuguese America. They are, therefore, the first examples of an organized racism’. (Souza 2008)
I also see that Portuguese America, i.e. Brazil, generally bestows upon its near white population all of the benefits of whiteness, this often doesn’t apply overseas. When I say ‘near white’, I refer to that parcel of the population that is considered ‘white’ in Brazil but are known to have recent African ancestry. Many of these ‘near whites’ will forever have doubt about their acceptance in the white ‘club’ and this doubt is often confirmed when they travel to countries such as the US and they come to the realization that they are not accepted as white in that country.
As one Afro-Brazilian website put it several months ago, if you’re not accepted as white around the world, then you’re not really white. The myth of whiteness in Brazil is in some ways equal to the myth of ‘racial democracy’ in that it deceives those who believe in it until some day they come to the conclusion that the reality propogated by the myth is something else entirely.
For this reason, we find a lot of Brazilians who make public statements in apparent attempts to affirm their whiteness in some ways or perhaps convince themselves that they are as a white as they believe themselves to be. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve met Brazilians who are of obvious mixed race that have looked me in the eye and, with a straight face, proclaimed themselves white.
Of course, it’s not my place to tell someone how they should see themselves in terms of racial classification, but the very fact that so many people feel the need to define themselves as the ‘branquinhas’, the ‘little white girls’ within their mixed race families, hints at the fact that these people are simply in denial, trying to fool themselves or the person to whom they make such proclamations. After all, if someone is obviously white, there would be no need to make such statements.
This is what came to my mind after reading the piece below.
When white Brazilian women discover that their whiteness doesn’t mobilize privileges in Europe
By Fabiane Albuquerque
I have been living in France for a few years now. I have also lived in Italy and, besides my studies on whiteness, I live with Brazilians abroad and have a vast experience with the frustrations, complaints, and crises of white women, especially from the middle and upper classes. I have been observing white people for a long time. I think I started to reflect on them by listening to the stories of the women in my family who worked in their kitchens, farms, in close relationship with Brazilian whiteness. So I had no lack of stories about how they behaved, thought, spoke, and related, especially with their equals and their Other (black men and women).
These women, however, didn’t see us (and still don’t see us) because they are too busy projecting onto black bodies the unresolved things in themselves. It is incredible how they talk about poverty in Brazil, about the political and social problems, about the lack of education of the Brazilian people, without even realizing the problems inside their homes. Lourenço Cardoso writes about this in his doctoral thesis entitled: “Whites before the rebellion of desire: a study on whiteness in Brazil” and explains that black people, even being dehumanized by whites, still manage to see them as human; the opposite is difficult.
Well, I see these women who, used to projecting their gaze outwards, towards the other, rarely question themselves and see themselves as they really are. They don’t see themselves as white, privileged, constructed and projected as superior beings based on race and class belonging in Brazil. And when they arrive in Europe and discover that, because they are white and have money, they cannot take advantage of the situation as they do in the country that has endeared them to their country, they go into crisis. The crisis of these women is one of the most interesting things that my researcher’s eye could see. It is not conscious for them, any more than the fact that whiteness has guaranteed them a comfortable place in their society of origin.
For three years my son studied in the same class as the son of a white, blond, Brazilian from Santa Catarina, a lawyer and Bolsonaro supporter, anti-Workers’ Party, anti-Lula and possessing a stereotyped view about the left, blacks and the poor. But one thing here has changed in her life: although we both come from different social and racial backgrounds, France has leveled us. She and I live in the same neighborhood and our children went to the same school, which, by the way, is public. For her, more than for me, this was a great nuisance, manifested in her constant attempt to show me what was different about her.
As the financial issue was not the main mobilizer of superiority, neither was her knowledge of culture, that is, while I am a lover of books, a researcher, a writer, I know Brazilian, French and Italian literature, among others, I go to the theater and the movies, she was proud of being a regular at the gym, Disneyland and McDonalds. In Brazil, it seems that the futility of these people is overshadowed by race and class privilege.
One day, at the school gate, she approached me as follows:
-Hey guria, there are days here that are difficult, I’m about to go crazy. The other day I went to the bank alone and they treated me like anyone else, can you believe it?
Disbelieving with the expression, because this “just anybody” should be the feeling of every citizen, from judge to street sweeper, from teacher to doctor, from politician to banker, I shook my head, winding her up:
And she continued:
-I had to call my husband to go there to see if it would be different with him. He keeps getting investment proposals from the bank because he earns well.
I kept thinking about her words. Here in France, she cannot mobilize a different treatment for being blonde and much less for her social class. Here the “do you know who you are talking to?” attitude doesn’t stick. After all, she is just another white among whites. And the whites here, as researcher Lourenço Cardoso says, are “whiter” than our whites due to the fingerprint left by colonization that hierarchized peoples and nations. The more Nordic, like the English, the whiter and more ideal a people is.
As I never flattered her for being white (as usually happens among Brazilians), another time, at the school gate, she approached me again. I said I was going for a walk and she immediately offered to go with me. On the way, without any modesty, she said the following:
-When my son was born, my husband was worried about my hair, if it was going to come out bad like his. I even found it funny because as soon as he was born, he ran to me and said “it looks bad, it’s very curly”.
I, who have “bad” hair in her family’s conception just let out a “really?” and it seems that this released in her her most latent racism. This only comes out when the person doesn’t feel judged or rejected, when she finds an opening and believes that the interlocutor is not judging her:
-My husband (white in Brazil) ‘shaves’ his head because he hates his own hair. But when he saw that he was taking after my hair, he got calmer.
What did this woman mean by telling me all this? She was looking for me to recognize her superiority, at least that racial one, since I, of my own volition, didn’t do it, she was there reminding me of that. Equality is one of the greatest psychic sufferings for white Brazilian women from the upper classes who come to live here in Europe. I say women because I have had little contact with white Brazilian men. And it doesn’t stop there, no. Another time she made the following comment:
-Guria, I talked to my cousin who lives in England and she told me that I am crazy to put my son in public school, to mix with these people.
She was referring to the large presence of immigrant children in the school, of African and Arab origin. Public school was the space that welcomed her son, taught him to speak French, provided him with a basis and a respectful and egalitarian coexistence with different nationalities, especially those he never had contact with in Brazil because he lived segregated in his little bourgeois world. But she insisted on trying to put herself forward as a special being.
Before anyone says that I had a lot of patience, I only resisted because I study white people and when I found out that it is better to give them rope to have material, my affective and emotional involvement causes me less suffering.
The stupor at not being treated with distinction doesn’t only come from far right people. In this point, whiteness is very similar, both right-wing and left-wing. A white girl, from São Paulo and, according to her, from the upper middle class, revealed to me that she was surprised to suffer discrimination inside the French university. The question she asked me was the following:
– Can I compare myself with black people for suffering racism?
I answered her that, with black people, never. And I continued saying that here, first of all, she is Brazilian and had some Arab traits such as her nose and the shape of her face. She was disoriented for not being able to enjoy the “invisibility” of race as it happened in Brazil and perhaps, without realizing it, the visibility for being white and bourgeois when it came to receiving privileges. These women are used, since childhood, to being pampered and, when this doesn’t happen, the “I” becomes weak.
Another woman, white with green eyes, seeing that I never commented on her physical appearance, as she is used to, after a while of coexistence, took off her glasses in front of me, widened her eyes and said
-Everyone says I should stop wearing glasses, because they devalue my eyes. Have you ever seen my eyes?
The scene was comical. The woman with her eyes wide open in front of me begging for compliments. I answered her:
– Fulana (meaning ‘so and so’ or ‘Jane Doe’), I’ve seen your eyes.
She put her glasses back on. What did she want from me? What everyone else was giving her: flattery of her white corporeality, her green eyes, and the recognition of her value based on this.
Many of these women try to reproduce the same social and racial hierarchy that we have in Brazil, looking for others who are at the disposal of their ego. I met a female prosecutor from Brasilia who arrived in France together with her husband to do a master’s degree. They both got a one-year leave from work. In the first contact we had she asked, “Do you know a daily worker to introduce me to?” I found the request strange, as the woman and her husband would be out of work for a year, living in a small apartment, as she described, but she had to have someone to serve her. These people outside Brazil and the relations of domination/servitude/that are based on the racialization of bodies are lost.
I have met Brazilians here who like to live with other Brazilians because between us, we understand the codes, the hierarchies, and the hidden laws of our country to reproduce the same logic of those who adore and those who are adored. Or, in other cases, they prefer to live only with French people, because according to them, “they don’t like to mix” and they cling to the “whiter whites” as if it were a trophy to show to the world and display to family and friends in Brazil: “Look at my French friend!!!”. It is a way of participating in the “purer” whiteness (even if indirectly), than what we have in the Brazilian lands.
One thing is certain, this experience in Europe could be, for them, a great chance to change paradigms, to be reborn, to become a better person. But, in most cases, the privilege is sought tooth and nail. If they knew they could give it up and live more freely, maybe they would. But someone like them, that is, white, would need to say it. Because in my case, if I tell them, I come across as an angry, resentful, envious black woman who sees racism in everything. I hope for change and human emancipation, but while this does not happen, I continue to have them as an object of analysis and study.
Fabiane Albuquerque has a PhD in sociology and is the author of Cartas a um homem negro que amei, published by Editora Malê.
Source: Geledés Mattos, Hebe. ‘Pretos’ and ‘Pardos’ between the Cross and the Sword: Racial Categories in Seventeenth Century Brazil. European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, (80), 43–55. 2006. Souza, Grayce Mayre Bonfim. ‘Uma Trajetória Racista: O Ideal de Pureza de Sangue na Sociedade Ibérica e na América Portuguesa.’ Politeia: Hist. e Soc., Vitória da Conquista, v. 8, n. 1, p. 83-103, 2008.