Since my first trip to Brazil in September of 2000, I have visited the country two more times, all three visits spent in the state of Bahia. My experiences of that first trip can be found in the June 2001 issue of Brazzil and is entitled "Playing the Race Game in Bahia". I am currently pursuing a degree in Anthropology at the University of Michigan, thus the idea of race from the Brazilian perspective is very intriguing to me.
Though my last two experiences supplied me with enough memories to fill up a book, the reason I decided to write this essay was because of a comment that another African-American recently made when I mentioned my interest in Brazil. This person was under the impression that there were no black people in Brazil, but a "bunch of Mexican-looking people". This view of Brazil isn't rare as I am sure millions of people have the same perception of Brazil, including George W. Bush.
According to article from German Der Spiegel, published on May 19, 2002, during a conversation between Bush and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Washington, Bush uttered the question, "Do you have blacks in Brazil, too?" It was National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice that saved Bush from an embarrassing situation by telling him "Mr. President, Brazil probably has more blacks than the USA. Some say it's the country with the most blacks outside Africa."
The majority of my last two trips were spent in the city of Ilhéus and it provided me with even more insight into the complex ways that Brazilians view the idea of race. After devoting much time and research into Brazilian racial issues, I felt it necessary to get opinions from actual Brazilians who are the focus of these studies. My discoveries supported but also contradicted many of the conclusions that many Brazilian scholars had theorized.
As most of us who have spent some time learning about Brazil know, the Afro-Brazilian population is said to represent anywhere from 44-59 percent of all Brazilians, depending on what classifications constitute being black. Reports from the United Nations have gone as far as to say that Brazil is a 73 percent black country. Most of us also know that gente de cor (people of color) in Brazil use a plethora of euphemisms to describe their "race", or better yet, color.
The Tones of Black
In the book "The Brazil Reader" there is a list of 134 different terms for how Brazilians responded when asked to state their "race" or color in the 1976 Brazilian Census. Terms like "moreno", and "mulato" were popular but people also used terms such as "jambo" (deep red fruit color), "corada" (ruddy), "cor-de-canela" (color of cinnamon), "quase negra" (almost black) and "marrom" (brown). The IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) officially recognizes only five racial categories: Branco (white), Preto (black), Pardo (mixed race), Amarelo (Asian) and Índio (Brazilian Indian). The confusion begins when one tries to decipher the difference between a "branco", "pardo" and a "preto". Most "pardos" I have seen would be considered black by American standards.
As Brazilians are asked to self-identify in the census, a pardo could have the light complexion/light eye color of American singer/actress Vanessa Williams or the dark skin/dark eyes of a Michael Jordan. Generally, Brazilians tend to only use the term pardo in the census and not in everyday interaction
When Brazilians speak of "pretos" they are usually referring to a person of African descent with very dark skin. According to Marshall Eakin in his book Brazil-the Once and Future Country, "to be black in Brazil means to have no white ancestors". If this code of color were to be true in America, the majority of the black population would also not be counted as black.
A common practice in Brazil is for people with dark skin to refer to themselves in a lighter skin category, thus pretos can become pardos and pardos can become brancos. As many Brazilians of obvious African descent acquire better socio-economic positions, they tend to "whiten" their identity, or at least try. While many Brazilians adhere to the famous Brazilian saying "money whitens", in Charles Wagley's classic 1952 UNESCO publication Race and Class in Rural Brazil, a white Brazilian was quoted as saying, "A preto may be a doctor and have status, but he always remains a negro."
In my first article for Brazzil, I spoke of my friend "Danielle" who has a very dark brown complexion. On Danielle's birth certificate she is listed as a parda. In Melissa Noble's book "Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics", ex-President Cardoso supported the idea of combining the preto and pardo categories into one as representative of the Afro-Brazilian population.
According to Eakin in his book, in Brazil, "whites tend to view blacks and mulattos as a single group of Afro-Brazilians". Many studies have confirmed the fact that many Brazilians of African descent will try to deny their African heritage when possible, but again, what do the people themselves say?
What's Your Race?
During my first visit to the city of Ilhéus, I was taken to a neighborhood school to visit the children and get an idea of how the Brazilian education system works. As my American eyes wandered from child to child, the much debated question of who in Brazil is black never became a problem, again as viewed through my AMERICAN eyes. My video camera was in constant motion as I tried my best to preserve my memories on film.
Kids are all the same when they know they are being recorded: they are ALL camera hogs!! I was taken to two classrooms that contained a total of about 60 kids, all aged 7-10. I thought it would be a good idea to find out how these kids viewed the idea of race. So in the first class of about 25 kids, I had each child step in front of the camera and state their name, age and race.
The results? Four kids either didn't know what raça (race) they were or didn't know what the word race meant, six said that they were negro/negra (black) and three said that they were white. What did the rest of the kids say? The most popular answer of the day? Moreno. By American terms, only one of these kids might have passed for white.
Also interesting was the fact that two of the light-skinned kids claimed to be black, while one of the light brown skinned boys said he was white. More interesting still was the second classroom of 35 kids, 5 of whom could have passed for white. When asked who was white in this class, about 80 percent of the students raised their hands. It is a well-known fact that blackness carries such negative connotations in Brazil thus it is understandable why many don't care to be categorized as such. 3
It is also highly likely that when many hear the terms negro or preto they think of the actual color black that can be found in a box of crayons. In many ways, the blatantly negative ideas of blackness in Brazil hark back to America, circa 1950s. An issue that I thought of while talking to these youngsters that would take more research to discover was the question of which was more influential to their concepts of race: society or their parents?
Now that I have given a short summary of my experiences with some middle school-aged children, I feel it is important to analyze some of the more popular terms that apply to the concept of race. Until the early 1900s in America, the term "mulatto" signified a person of mixed African/European descent. In Brazil, the term "mulata" seems to carry more of a sexual connotation than of a racial definition.
Afro-Brazilian women (who play such prominent roles in Brazilian Carnaval festivities) possessing medium dark brown skin (some semi-nude, others in extravagant costumes) and sensuous physiques have been a part of Brazilian popular culture for centuries and are defined as mulatas. Mulatas are said to have a skin color that is the "cor de pecado"(color of sin), prominent bundas (derrières) with hair that is somewhere between pixaim (kinky) and straight, with noses and lips that are not as blatantly (West) African as their preta counterparts. Again, by this definition, millions of African-American women would be considered mulatas.
Racial Democracy Lives
During the slave era, the sexy mulata was the female with whom white Brazilian boys were expected to have their first sexual experiences. Famed writer/sociologist/anthropologist Gilberto Freyre wrote much about these sexual relationships during Brazil's slavery era in what was to become the blueprint of Brazilian race relations, Casa-Grande & Senzala (translated in English as The Mansions and the Shanties). With the publication of this book, as well as several articles, Freyre became one of the chief architects of the Brazilian "racial democracy" myth that many Brazilians continue to have faith in to this day.
It has also been the subject of much debate as to whether some of the sexual exploits in this book were actually autobiographical accounts of the author's inter-racial sexual exploits in post-slavery Pernambuco. The mulata also gained much notoriety from the legendary Bahian author Jorge Amado, who is no doubt responsible for the thousands of Europeans and Americans who flock to Brazil every year in search of the sexually insatiable mulata.
The image of Amado's mulata character Gabriela (from the novel Gabriela-Cravo e Canela) is celebrated throughout Ilhéus. If one visited Ilhéus it would not be difficult to spot the image of the brown skinned, long-haired, curvaceous mulata on billboards, on the sides of buses, restaurants or even in the yellow pages as names of businesses. As Baianos have told me, because of Amado, the idea of being thought of as the alluring, promiscuous, brown-skinned Gabriela has been permanently engraved in the minds of thousands of school-aged Bahian girls.
In comparison, the preta woman is thought to be the less attractive, dark-skinned woman whose permanent position in life is in the kitchen or tending to the white children for whose parents she will be employed for the majority of her life. As the Brazilian saying goes, "brancas (white women) for marriage, mulatas for sex, pretas for work". Thus, as was thought during and after the slave era in America, the black woman's worth in Brazil was (and in many ways still is) measured by her value as a worker, baby factory or sexual toy.
The moreno/morena term can also be rather confusing. The morena has been the subject of countless Brazilian songs over the years and is recognized as the Brazilian symbol of beauty. On the one hand, it could refer to the black woman whose features are less African than that of the mulata or the preta. Examples of the so-called (black) morena would be Brazilian actress Camila Pitanga or American singer Mya. The other definition of morena is a white woman who has dark hair. Brazilians refer to blondes as loiras and brunettes as morenas. According to the Oxford Portuguese dictionary, a morena/moreno can be a "dark person", a "brunette" or "bronzeado" (tanned) brown.
The Moreno Dilemma
In many books that speak of the issue of race in Brazil, Afro-Brazilians are divided into pretos and pardos while Brazilians of European descent are at times divided into brancos and morenos. While pardo is recognized as a person of predominant African descent with any degree of racial admixture, moreno is at times used to signify Brazilians of predominant European descent with noticeable Native or African facial features or hair texture.
Over the course of generations, using the term dark to describe one's skin complexion has become even more ambiguous. I had always been confused as a kid when I heard white women speak of the man of their dreams as being "tall, dark and handsome" in reference to the mythical Prince Charming character. The logic of my thinking was always, how could a white man be considered dark in comparison to a black man?
Another question is, if black or white women could both be considered a morena, how does one distinguish between the two? According to Wagley's Race and Class, during that era, Brazilians separated morena mulatas from morena brancas, which doesn't appear to be the case today. The term moreno is the perfect vehicle with which to enter this perplexing issue. Moreno is also a popular term throughout other Latin American countries, but exactly where did the term originate? To answer this question we must venture into the pages of the often misunderstood history of the African continent.
The word "moreno" is derived from the word Moor or Mauro. The Moors were black Northwest Africans that Roman invaders encountered when they attempted to conquer this area that is present day Mauritania and Morocco. They referred to these black Africans as Maures, which, according to the Ivan Van Sertima book Golden Age of the Moor, is taken from the Greek term maure, which meant dark or black.
Mauritania and Morocco were also derived from the term maure and refer to the land of the Moors. The term maure has since the 11th century come to signify the image of an African's head, the image of an African or anything associated with Africans. From the word Maure/Moor comes a slew of words and names that we are all familiar with; Maurice, Morien, Morelli, Moreno, Maury, etc.
As history tells us, the Moors were responsible for bringing the light of civilization to the dark ages of Europe. Historians tend to label the Moors as Arabs because they spoke Arabic and adopted the religion of Islam, but according to Golden Age, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was invaded by an army of 6700 African Moors and 300 Arabs. The Rock of Gibraltar was named after the leader of this invasion, the Moor Tarik ibn Zeyad.
The racial origins of the Moors has been a controversial issue among historians and anthropologists for many years but there is much evidence to support its black African roots. In Shakespeare's play Othello, Moors were described as being "black as pitch" with thick lips and wooly hair. Images of Moors can be found in several prominent European families' coats of arms and depict Moors with black profiles.
In some Latin American countries, a popular cuisine is called "Mauros e Christianos" (Black Beans and Rice). The Portuguese word for blackberry is amora .As a matter of fact, before Europeans enslaved Africans and labeled them as negros, the terms African, Ethiopian and Moor all meant the same thing. The term negro is derived from the term necromancy, a form of worship in which believers can communicate with dead ancestors.
Thus the word negro is derived from necro, which means dead. Ironically, today Afro-Brazilian activists insist that African descent Brazilians refer to themselves as negros when Africans themselves did not refer to themselves in this way. This is the reason why legendary African-American activist Malcolm X always referred to blacks as the "so-called negro" in his famous 1960s speeches. In Brazil (as well as in other Latin American countries), African descent people who want to avoid the shame associated with calling themselves negros prefer to be called morenos.
Society has given them the impression that moreno is a term that signifies an intermediary position between black and white when in reality moreno actually means dark or black. Afro-Brazilian activists have also made a point of distinguishing between the terms preto and negro. While both terms mean black, preto refers to the actual color black that one could find in a box of crayons while the term negro signifies a racial category.
Negroes, blacks and coloreds
Self-definition among African-Americans has also gone through a myriad of changes. Since the slavery era in the U.S., people of African descent have been labeled negro, colored, black, Afro and now African-American. Along with these official terms are a multitude of color-coded terms that apply to the various skin tones within the African-American community. "High yellow", "blue-black", "redbone", "caramel", and "chocolate" are but a few of these terms.
It seems that as generations pass, some racial terms become vogue while others are discarded. I remember on a 1970s album by comedian Richard Pryor, while portraying a character from his past he exclaimed, "don't call me black I'M A NEGRO!!" Author Michelle Wallace wrote that it wasn't until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that African-Americans proudly began referring to themselves as black. While African-Americans use different words to describe skin colors, the vast majority conceptualize all of these terms as belonging to the category of black or African-American.
Studies of the Afro-Brazilian population have led me to believe that Brazilians of African descent don't subscribe to such ideas. To the contrary, in all three of my trips to Bahia, as I interviewed several Brazilians who were black in my opinion, I found that many DO group ALL Brazilians of obvious or even less obvious African descent into one category. Many of them went as far as to tell me that terms such as moreno and mulatto don't exist and are only figments of imagination that less conscious Brazilians use to denounce their connections to negritude (blackness).
There were also those who preferred to remain in an intermediary category because they could count African, European and Indian within their ancestral lineage. One particular female affirmed herself as a negra but didn't agree with the term Afro-Brasileira because she knows that there were Portuguese and Native Brazilian ancestors in her family as well.
Another question that must be considered when pondering the issue of race in Brazil is if Brazilians separate blackness from Latin or Brazilian culture. Again, there is no one answer for this question but there are several clues. During a recent lecture by Afro-Brazilian activist Diva Moreira, a question was asked as to whether Afro-Brazilians have a separate culture from European descent Brazilians as is the case in the U.S.. As Moreira explained, "black culture IS Brazilian culture" as it has been so thoroughly appropriated by the elite and Brazilians in general.
In periodically flipping through the pages of Latina magazine, or looking at the programming on the Telemundo Spanish language television channel, very rarely does one see a black face, though according to BET News and the book No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, Latinos of African descent represent 1/3 the population of Latin America and 40 percent of the Latino population living in the US. But rarely have I met a person from Latin America of obvious African descent who described themselves as being black.
No Latino Land
In the view of Afro-Brazilian activist Abdias do Nascimento, it is a fallacy to refer to Brazil as a Latino country when African and Native influence is so strong within the country's culture. Though I disagree with the ways that Jorge Amado's novels stereotype Afro-Brazilians, his work does offer insight into the attitudes, beliefs and mores of Brazil. In Tenda dos Milagres (Tent of Miracles), one character says to another, "how dare you call our Latin culture mulatto! That is a subversive, monstrous statement."
Surfing on the Internet one finds several Brazilian online dating personal ads with photos included. Most of these sites ask people to denote their age, height, weight and race among other categories. In one of the websites, in relation to race, Brazilians have the choice of choosing between black, white, Indian, various races or other races. The results were intriguing. In one of the websites, many people who chose black as their "race" would include terms like "mulata" or "morena clara" in parentheses next to their identification as black.
This would seem to confirm the idea that they consider themselves to be black while also describing their color and physical characteristics, similar to the way that African-Americans do. I also found people of more or less African features who listed themselves under the racial category of "various" or "other" with the terms "mulata" or "morena" signifying how they perceived themselves. These people seem to adhere to the belief that these terms make them separate from those listed as black.
In Robin Sheriff's book Dreaming Equality, many of the people that she interviewed in a Rio favela accepted the belief that in Brazil, if you're not white then you are black. While Brazil never legally adopted the infamous "one drop" of black blood rule as in the US, in the book "Negroes in Brazil", author Donald Pierson discovered a popular saying in Brazil that said "quem escapa de branco, negro é" ("who can't be a white man is a negro"). In several websites and books, writers have claimed that in Brazil, a person's appearance is the way Brazilians classify themselves by race.
But in both the Wagley and Sheriff books, when asked the race of particular Brazilians who appeared to be white or near white, people would say they didn't know because they weren't familiar with their families. In another example from the Wagley book, a woman, when speaking of another woman with a light skin color, said that she could not be white because she knew for a fact that the woman in question had pretos in her family. In interviewing several Brazilians of obvious or somewhat African appearances, I met many that would use terms such as "morena" or "negra" interchangeably in describing themselves, which would appear to signify that they consider both terms to be derivative of the same.
Three personal stories will put these beliefs into perspective. My friend "Danielle", who has a complexion similar to that of basketball star Michael Jordan and refers to herself as a "negra", corrected a white Baiana who had called her "morena" while the two traded makeup ideas in a store. The white woman told her that she was "too pretty to be called negra". In a 1998 issue of Veja magazine, actress Camila Pitanga said that people frequently made these same comments to her also.
My friend Dione from Ilhéus tells of describing herself on the telephone to a white Brazilian in Minas Gerais who was supposed to provide her with transportation. She waited and waited for the man to arrive when they finally met by accident. He never thought that she was the person he was looking for even though they were standing less than fifteen feet apart. On the telephone, she had described herself as a "negra". When they finally figured out who the other person was, he remarked that he didn't know it was her because she said she was a negra.
Dione has a skin color that is similar to that of model Tyra Banks. When I asked the group of school kids what race they considered me to be, they all simultaneously yelled "MORENO!!" I would say my own complexion is similar to that of actor Denzel Washington. What do these results tell me?
1) In the view of many Brazilians, a person cannot be attractive and black at the same time; and 2) for many people in Brazil of today, the term moreno seems to encompass the entire African descent population.
Land of contradictions
Brazil is a country of contradictions in many ways. One of the more fascinating contradictions that you will find is the fact that many "white" Brazilians are quick to announce their partial African ancestry as long their outward appearance doesn't signify it thus maintaining the higher social status that whiteness in Brazil guarantees. By claiming that all Brazilians are of mixed race, this appears to be an attempt to "prove" the authenticity of the "racial democracy" myth.
Former President Cardoso once infuriated Afro-Brazilian activists when he stated that even he had a "foot in the kitchen", a derogatory manner of admitting partial African ancestry. On the other hand, some Brazilians of obvious African descent will try to deny their heritage when posed with the question of their ethnicity. This phenomenon can also be found in other Latin American countries with significant African-descent populations.
Race in America has always been a stringent, bipolar ideology, but in the 2000 U.S. Census, 2 million people listed themselves under the category of black and another race, the majority of whom were under the age of 21. If we consider the fact that many bi-racial Americans consider themselves to be African-Americans of mixed descent, we can understand that the official statistics could be grossly understated.
Race will forever be a factor within societies in which different "races" or ethnicities of people must co-exist. Has the history of racial classification taught us anything that we can apply to the complexities of the race issue today? Though I am pursuing degrees within the field of Anthropology, this is not to say that I don't have major issues with this field of study. The field of Anthropology actually began as a means of white scientists to "prove" that certain "races" of people were naturally inferior to others, with European descent people and populations being at the top of the racial hierarchy.
Anthropologists of the second half of the 20th century at least realized the racist foundations of the field's beginnings and have since promoted the idea that the concept of "pure" races has no biological basis. Brazil is a perfect example of this idea. Some estimates claim that at least 90 percent of all Brazilians today can count some degree of non-white ancestry in their blood line.
To me, Brazilians of African descent were not as difficult to recognize as some studies have suggested. It is the Brazilian "white" population that at times baffles me. Many Brazilians with whom I have discussed the idea of race in Brazil consistently use the term "Brazilian white" to describe Brazilians who claim to be white but would never be considered as such by American standards.
Brazil and the States
I once saw a photo of singer Caetano Veloso in which his dark brown skin color would have easily labeled him as mixed or Latino in America. In other photos, he appears much lighter yet still not quite white. The same holds true of Brazilians such as actress Sonia Braga, and model Viviane Araújo. Many Brazilians express the idea that because of the rampant mixing of Africans, Europeans and Native Brazilians over the course of centuries, it is impossible to label Brazilians with the same rigid racial terminology of the U.S..
But as American scholar Thomas Skidmore has commented, Brazilians don't seem to realize the extensive level of racial mixing in the U.S. in the past 400 years. The family trees of the majority of African-American families also include branches of European and Native American ancestry as well as that of African. What is not frequently discussed is the fact that American whites may not be as white as they may think they are.
R. P. Stuckert writes about this in his article "African Ancestry of the White Population." Anthropologist JA Rogers spent his entire career tracing the history of the amalgamation of races throughout the world and printed astounding discoveries in his books. Consider this fact: In America's past, many people of mixed European/African heritage had light enough skin to "pass" as whites and many of them married whites and raised "white" families thus passing the blood of Africa into the white population.
Many European descent Americans also know of Native American heritage in their family trees. Considering these facts, should these people still be considered "white"? I often see "white" people who have naturally thick or curly hair or even "afros". If African people are said to be the original people with tightly coiled or curly hair, where do these "white" people get these traits?
I often observe "white" people who obtain deep, dark tans while others simply turn a bright lobster colored hue of red. If I were to follow the Brazilian or Italian examples, I'd say these people had a certain degree of non-European blood. When considering American racial classification, why is it that one drop of black blood makes one black but a drop of Native blood does not disqualify one from whiteness?
In the Brazilian example, is it not inherently racist for African descent Brazilians with European or Indian admixture to be referred to as mixed when many European descent Brazilians also have this mixture but are still "white"? It is a fact that the majority of Brazilians are mixed to a certain degree, with some phenotypes showing more of an African, Native or European influence.
Trying to Make Sense
Thus, if the vast majority of Brazilians have mixed ancestry, then the mestiço, pardo, moreno and mulato classifications make no sense if they don't apply to the ENTIRE population. In the Melissa Nobles book, Cardoso was made aware that many of the "white" people in his cabinet were not really "white". Cardoso commented that he knew that, but that the people themselves didn't know it.
Anthropologists tell us that "race" is a social construction. I would have to agree. In my observations of people, I have seen "black" people who look East Indian, Native American, Asian, Arab and white. I have seen white people (especially brunettes) who would look black if they had a darker tan. I have also noted the similarities between Colombian singer Shakira and singer Beyoncé of the group Destiny's Child. Shakira is said to be of Colombian and Lebanese descent. Beyoncé, like most African-Americans, can probably count some Native and European ancestors in her genealogy. Does this mean Shakira looks "black" or that Beyoncé looks "white", "Latina" or Lebanese?
Consider this idea: a man of Michael Jordan's complexion produces a child with a woman of mixed European/African heritage but who physically looks like blonde actress Heather Locklear. The baby takes on the identical physical attributes of its mother. The baby looks totally "white" even though it is actually 75 percent black. What color or "race" should this child be labeled? If viewed as a social construction, the child would most likely "pass" as white.
In the 1950s, the United Nations began a series of studies on Brazil in an attempt to learn how this country achieved its "racial democracy" when other societies were experiencing chaos and strife with race relations. As statistics among the white and black (pardo/preto) populations in Brazil proved, the racial democracy was a farce.
While I wholeheartedly wish that we could simply erase the category of "race" from all of our most important applications, forms and documents, the fact is, as Cornel West says, "race still matters". As long as the so-called "pretos" and "pardos" of Brazil continue to occupy the lowest rungs of Brazilian society, this issue must continue to be addressed. Though I don't believe that I will live to see a true "racial democracy" in any society, as Robin Sheriff entitled her book in reference to the Afro-Brazilian state of mind, I am still dreaming equality.
Sources of information for this article:
Negroes in Brazil. Donald Pierson
Golden Age of the Moor. Ivan van Sertima
Dreaming Equality: Color, Race and Racism in Urban Brazil, Robin E. Sheriff
Tent of Miracles, Jorge Amado
Brazil-the Once and Future Country, Marshall Eakin
No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, Minority Rights Group
Race and Class in Rural Brazil, Charles Wagley
The Brazil Reader, Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti
Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics, Melissa Noble
Mark Wells is an Anthropology major at the University of Michigan and has a deep interest in Brazil and the African Diaspora. He can be reached at: Quilombhoje72@yahoo.com