What Brazil Can Learn from the US on Race and Education

A classroom in Brazil Since 1996 I have had the pleasure of visiting Brazil many times. On each of these occasions I have visited schools, creches (nurseries), kindergartens, and NGOs. The schools visited include municipal, state and federal public schools, private schools, and schools where students attend for a few days at a time (language and arts schools).

I have also talked to principals, teachers, and students in these schools, and education professors and students at local universities. My observations are, of course, viewed through the prism of an American educator who teaches both at the university and community college level.

I am also very familiar with the American multiracial education movement. In my Brazilian observations I have learned a great deal about Brazil’s early childhood programs and schools. While I believe Brazil must develop her own, unique solutions to the scourge of racism in her schools, I believe she can benefit from the overall educational approach used in the United States, not to mention specific multicultural educational strategies.

These ideas include recognizing the severity of the problem, adopting a multicultural approach, including all cultures and peoples equally within the curriculum, providing alternative methods for students to enter college, targeting federal resources to the poorest schools, and using a variety of instructional approaches in the classroom.

Racist School Presentation

On one of my many visits to Brazil to study schools, creches and NGOs, I had the opportunity to observe a group of gifted performers present a program to children in a municipal school. The children sat on the floor in a typical Brazilian educational space that was half indoors and half outdoors.

The performance was presented on a stage and local community members also enjoyed the activity from behind a fence. The young performers were paid by a federal agency for the express purpose of providing culture and educational enrichment for children in public schools.

The play is a collection of vignettes taken from a variety of popular fairy tales, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and many others. Between each scene one of the performers plays her guitar and sings a beautiful song. Many of the teachers join in the chorus; apparently it’s a well-known song.

Large puppets that the actors place on their feet and then attach to their bodies provide the action. There are also a few props, including a ship (for the pirate), a blue butterfly, and some cute green bugs. The presentation is very well done, and captivates the children, even though it is quite long by American standards.

While I watch the action on the set, I am really more interested in watching the children. They are a rich combination of browns  –  brown skin and brown hair. The girls have their hair in a variety of styles: tight braids held with colorful barrettes, curly hair loosely framing their faces, and two simple braids. All the children have big, brown eyes, and enthusiastic, open faces.

The plot is the old standby of a beautiful princess looking for a husband. She is visited by a variety of suitors, including a black prince who is quite ugly and engages in stereotypical behavior – dancing and being silly. Finally the princess chooses a pirate to marry so that she can travel and see the world. (Wardle, 2005a, p. 2)

The presentation was extremely well done, and the children, teachers and community members enjoyed it greatly, and clapped enthusiastically.

But I was stunned by the racism.

The beautiful princess was a blonde, blue-eyed princess; the man she eventually decided to marry was a white-skinned, European-looking pirate.

After the presentation in the municipal public school the principal and some of her teachers graciously took me on a tour of the school. We visited classrooms, talked to children, and got a real feel for the school and the commitment of the principal and her staff.

On our way to the principal’s office to eat lunch, I observed the three performers from the earlier presentation. I mustered the courage to ask my translator if he would pose a question to the actors for me. He asked my question:

“All of the little girls watching the play have beautiful brown skin, brown hair and brown eyes. Why did you make the princess a blue-eyed blonde? Why did you tell each of these young girls that they couldn’t be a princess?” I could have added, “and why did you tell each of the boys watching your presentation they could not be a successful suitor for the princess?” (Wardle, 2005a, p. 4)

According to my translator, they were quite upset with my question, but finally gave me several answers:

* In the four years we have given this presentation, you are the first person to ask this question.

* We tried to change the traditional fairy tales. This is why we included a Negro (black) prince, and why the princess chose a pirate, so she could travel and see the world.

* This princess is the symbol of female beauty in Brazil (Wardle, 2005a).

An American Perspective

I viewed this presentation from the perspective of an American educator schooled in multicultural approaches to education. “Multiculturalism incorporates the idea that all students  – regardless of their gender and social class and their ethnic, racial or cultural characteristics  –  should have an equal opportunity to learn in school (Banks and Banks, 2004, pp. 3).

Multicultural education in the United States developed as a direct result of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed all minorities in the United States legal equality, including students in public schools. It gained considerable popularity during the 1980s (Banks and Banks, 2004).

It now includes pre-K programs, K-12 grade public schools, and colleges and universities. American multicultural education has many components, but “accepts and affirms the pluralism (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, and gender among others) that students, their communities, and teachers reflect” (Nieto, 2004, p. 437).

I do not believe that Brazilian educators should adopt our multicultural approach without critical analysis. Brazil has very different contextual parameters when compared to the United States; further, there are aspects of our multicultural education approach that do not work (discussed later in the article), and we still have important work to do in this area. Let’s look at the three answers to my question through the perspective of American educational approaches and attitudes.

You Are the First to Ask This Question

If this is true, and I have no reason to believe it is not, then the educational establishment in Brazil has no understanding of the heavy negative psychological impact racism can have on the healthy development of children of color, and on their learning and overall educational success.

The research by Sandra Leila de Paul and Simone Loiola de Ferreira powerfully illustrates that children in public schools in Brazil have very negative and stereotypical views of black and dark-skinned children and people (2005). My extensive interview of a mixed-race college student (African/Amerindian/white) further confirmed the extreme pain and negative psychological damage caused by the very popular children’s TV programs of Xuxa, a blond host with identically cloned blond, blue-eyed assistants.

This student reported that both the students and teachers in her schools compared her hair and complexion negatively to Xuxa and her attendants, and made derogatory comments about her dark skin (Wardle, 2005b). What made this comparison particularly destructive was the view by the children and teachers that a blond-haired, blue-eyed European prototype not only represents the ideal Brazilian female beauty, but also symbolizes a higher cultural and academic potential of European-looking students.

In the United States our approach to teaching healthy identity development, including gender and race/ethnicity, is framed through several theoretical lenses, including Piaget, Vygotsky and Bandura. Piaget has powerfully demonstrated that young children are concrete learners, learning all their basic concepts through direct experiences (Piaget, 1963).

This means that children in our educational programs learn from teachers, other children, visual images on the walls, and curricular and instructional materials. Vygotsky’s work has helped us understand that children learn new ideas and reinforce existing concepts through their social interactions with other children and adults, including teachers (Vygotsky, 1978).

Clearly, if teachers and children have negative and stereotypical views of people of color, (those with darker skin and curlier hair), these negative views will be adopted by children of color themselves, and negatively impact their self-concept development and learning.

And, finally, Bandura’s social learning theory has demonstrated the powerful impact of the models that children look up to, such as TV personalities and teachers in their schools (Bandura, 1963). If the princess in the story is the European ideal prototype, all the children will constantly compare their dark, wavy hair, dark eyes, and dark skin to the princess’s straight, blond hair, white skin and blue eyes. And they will come up short.

In the United States we use ideas from these three theorists and the overall multicultural educational approach to make sure that curricular materials represent children and people with a variety of racial, ethnic, and language backgrounds, and with different abilities and of both genders (Nieto, 2004; Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2004; York, 2003).

We also are very careful to avoid stereotypes, and thus would not portray an African prince as comical and always dancing. Teachers are taught in college and in professional development sessions about the negative impact of holding one kind of person and one culture superior to other people and cultures, and of the critical need to empower every child to feel good about their physical characteristics and learning potential (York, 2003).

However, Brazil must avoid a fundamental mistake of American multicultural education: using the single-race/ethnicity approach to culture and identity (Wardle, 1999). This is a practice that places all people and cultures within basic, single- racial/ethnic groups defined by the US Census: Black or African American; American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; White or Caucasian, and Latino (Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2004).

The single-group approach does not work in the United States because there are many children in our schools who do not fit into any one of these groups; it would be even more problematic in Brazil, which has a very large, diverse and rich mixed-race population.

Adapting a Traditional European Fairytale

One of the challenges Brazil must face in addressing racism in schools is that, to a very large extent Brazil views its European cultural background as highly superior to all the other influences on its culture, including Afro-Brazilian, Amerindian, non-European immigrants, and its own unique Brazilian culture (created out of an amalgamation of all Brazilian peoples). European folk tales are preferred to Amerindian, Black or Asian folk tales, or even Brazilian tales that have developed throughout Brazil’s unique and rich cultural history.

In the Untied States we have made considerable progress in this area, including acknowledging and celebrating the histories and culture of the vast and rich diversity of Native American tribes, African Americans, Latinos and others. However, we still have a long way to go, as we do not fully represent the rich diversity of people within these large groups, or include the many new immigrants in our tales, books, and other classroom materials, and we still totally exclude and ignore any part of our own mixed-race heritage and culture (Wardle and Cruz-Janzen, 2004).

Part of the dilemma in the United States is that commercial publishers of books, curricula and curricular materials must produce enough products to make a profit, which requires each of these groups of people to be a certain size. The other huge problem is that our schools still do not collect demographic data on the total racial and ethnic diversity of children, being confined to the five over- broad US Census categories previously mentioned (Williams, 2006).

This Princess Is the Symbol of Female Beauty in Brazil

This, of course, is true. Casual observations of magazine advertisements, billboards in shopping centers, women on commercial TV, and popular fashion models both in Brazil and the US, would lead the average foreigner to believe that all Brazilian women are white or morena.

American culture also includes a whole variety of biases, prejudices and stereotypes. However, one of the central goals of multicultural education is to change these biases, and to provide students with a much more accurate and empowering view of American culture and diversity (Banks & Banks, 2004; Nieto, 2004; York, 2002).

Thus Brazilian schools need to address this European cultural bias head on. This must occur both at the university level, where teachers receive their training, and at the national level, where the national curriculum is developed, and the vestibular’s content is determined.

The national curriculum must reflect the positive contributions of all Brazilians, including rich mixed-race people, to the country’s culture, history, and nation-state: literature, art, architecture, dance, music, religion, industry, history, agriculture, discoveries, etc.

Structural Inequalities in Brazilian Schools

On my many visits to Brazil I studied private schools; federal, state and municipal public schools, and federal schools that children attend  –  at a cost  –  on visits from their regular schools (language and art schools in Brasília).

Of my many observations, one that sticks with me the strongest is that the poorer the school, the more children of color attend; the wealthier the schools (private and federal schools) the lighter the skin of the children who attend (Wardle, 2005b). Thus, in Brazil, race and income are very closely linked.

Unlike many others who are currently focusing on issues of racism in Brazil, I deeply believe that racism cannot be adequately addressed without addressing poverty at the same time. To me they go hand in hand.  Clearly poverty is a larger question that involves the inequitable distribution of income and wealth in Brazil. But an attempt must be made to equalize educational opportunity for all children in Brazil, regardless of their race, ethnicity and/or income.

Unequal Financial Support

The municipal public schools are funded at a far lower level than the federal schools, with the state public schools somewhere in the middle.  In one city that I visited, the municipal public school had one TV (contributed by the principal), their gym was a slab of concrete, and teachers did not have enough chalk for the chalkboard.

The lighting in the classroom was so poor that I had considerable trouble seeing children in the back of the room, and there were no books, posters or other curricular materials in any of the classrooms. In the very same town the federal public school contained its own dentist’s office, they published their own educational journal, there were separate rooms for culture, play and physical therapy, and the school employed many teachers with master’s degrees. I was told the students who attend this school are children of politicians and teachers at the local university (Wardle, 2005b).

Public schools in the United States are funded through a combination of three sources of money: private property taxes (homes and businesses), state budget funds, and federal dollars (the smallest amount). This approach leads to schools in wealthier districts being funded at a higher level than schools in poorer districts (inner cities and rural areas); however, in many areas the state’s contribution to the local school budget has increased over the last years, and will probably continue to do so.

And almost all of the federal funds go to the poorest school districts across the country. Head Start, a multi-billion dollar federally funded program for preschool children (the year before formal school entry) is only for poor children. Head Start is a program that, I believe, Brazil could replicate effectively.


Brazil uses the European approach to university entrance, rather than the US approach. The European approach requires students to pass a complex variety of exams  –  in England (where I am from) they are called the A level exams. In England the average public school provides adequate preparation for students to pass these college entry-level tests, and thus parents do not have to pay for expensive private schools and tutors to prepare their students to pass these exams.

However, the irony is that, while the tax-supported universities in Brazil are free, it is virtually impossible to pass the vestibular without attending private secondary schools and paying for expensive tutors. Thus the wealthy and middle-class get a free university education, while the poor do not!

It is my understanding that the current federal administration is attempting to address this inequality. It is yet to be seen how effective they will be in eliminating the vestibular or vestibular-type assessment as the only gateway for students to receive free higher education in Brazil.

In the US there are a variety of 4-year college and university options  –  state, private and religious (there are no federal universities). We also have a vast array of community colleges  –  two-year colleges and technical schools.

Entry into US state colleges and universities (the cheapest) is through two primarily channels. The simplest way for students to enter is through a combination of a single test (SAT or ACT) and their high school grade-point average. Unlike Brazil, most public schools in the US prepare their students to be able to pass these assessments and have a high enough grade-point average to enter college.

My son, who struggled in high school due to a learning disability and who also had a very low SAT score, nonetheless was able to enter Colorado State University, due to a special program. It must be noted here that, despite what many Brazilians believe (based on my interviews), Harvard, Yale and Stanford (very expensive private schools) along with expensive religious schools such as Notre Dame, are not the only options for a university education in this country. Every state has a variety of state institutions. In Colorado, a small state by population, we have over ten four-year institutions of higher learning.

The second way for students to enter a university is to attend a community college for two years. By law these colleges must admit any student over the age of 18. If these students are incapable of doing the work at the college, the college provides remedial assistance. After completing the two-year program at the community college, a student can transfer from the community college to a four-year degree college or university.

Further, in the US there are many grants and loans for students who cannot afford to pay for a college degree. There is even a specific grant for students who are the first in their family to go to college.

It is quite accurate to say that anyone in the US who wishes to go to college can, in fact, go to college.

In Brazil the reality for poor, mostly children of color, is that they will not be able to go pursue their education beyond public school. Thus there is no motivation to do well in school. There is no long-term goal for which they can achieve, and for which their teachers can help them plan for and work towards. Thus, to a large extent, doing well in school for poor children is meaningless.

Instructional Approaches

From my observations of schools in Brazil, the most common teaching approach is the didactic approach: teacher-to-student, with the teacher as the expert and the student as the passive receiver of information. It is my experience that Brazilian educators teach almost exclusively using the verbal-linguistic and logical – mathematical intelligences described by Howard Gardner (Gardner, 1983).

Further, the poorer the school and the more minorities in the school, the more teacher-directed the approach appears to be (Wardle, 2005c). In the United States teaching approaches include a variety of methods: large group, teacher-directed approach; small group; individual, and lots of student-directed learning opportunities: projects, papers, research, etc. Some schools even include mixed-age instruction.

Further, in the United States Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences are quite popular among educators. This theory proposes that children learn through a variety of learning styles – a preference of one or more of eight intelligences (approaches to learning) (Gardner, 1983): logical-mathematical, verbal linguistic, musical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, and naturalist. Teachers then provide a variety of instruction that allows students to learn though one or more of these modalities.

While all children need teaching approaches that match their own unique learning styles, and teachers who provide a variety of delivery methods beyond just teacher-directed instruction, it can be argued that children from low-income and poorly educated homes benefit most from approaches that focus on more child-directed learning and multiple intelligences.

For one thing, both these approaches place the child in the center of the curriculum, thus fulfilling John Dewey’s mandate to start with the child so that instruction and learning will be personally meaningful to each child (Dewey, 1997/38).

Of course, this latter point is a direct result of my earlier observation in this article that in Brazilian schools everything European is considered superior to anything that is uniquely Brazilian, Afro-Brazilian, Amerindian, Asian or from other immigrant cultures. And the teacher is viewed as the disseminator of this superior culture to children who are what we in the US used to call culturally deprived.

All children, regardless of their racial and economic backgrounds, need to be viewed as competent, able to learn, and containing within their own cultures and experiences, knowledge that can be used as a foundation for learning (Dewey, 1997/1938).

Finally, in the United States the federal IDEA law requires all schools that use public tax funds (local, state and /or federal) to teach children with a variety of disabilities, including students with an array of learning disabilities.

This federal act also requires that these children learn with non-disabled children in regular classrooms, to the extent possible to meet their own individual educational needs (Gargiulo & Kilgo, 2005). Teachers are taught how to differentiate their lessons and instruction to meet the individual needs of children with disabilities in their classrooms.


Racism in Brazilian public schools needs to be addressed through a variety of approaches. While it is not recommended that Brazil’s educational establishment automatically adopt approaches used to eliminate racism in American schools, the ideas and methods used in public schools in the US provide hope and suggestions that can be adapted to address Brazil’s unique needs.

As a result of the multicultural education movement in American schools, the cultures, histories, arts and biographies of all the people who make up its population are integrated into the curricular content and instructional materials. Teachers are trained on methods to empower and support non-European students, and a variety of teaching methods are used to maximize the learning of all children, including children with a variety of disabilities.

While the American system of financing public schools does not fund all schools equally, attempts are being made to equalize funding, with federal money being targeted to low-income schools and low-income children in programs such as Head Start.

Finally, unlike the gatekeeper function of the vestibular in Brazil, which effectively prevents poor children from attending programs of higher education, the United States provides a vast amount of choices avenues for students to attend college. Any student in the United States can go to college if they so desire.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Banks, J.A., & Banks, C. A. M. (2004)(Eds.). Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Dewey, J. (1997/1936). Education and experience. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gargiulo, R., & Kilgo, J. (2005). Young children with special needs (Rev. ed.). Clifton Park, NJ: International Thompson.

Nieto, S. (2004). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Piaget, J. (1963/1936). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: Norton.

Paul, S. L., & Ferreira, S. L. (2005, May 26). Interpreting children’s drawings using the sociological perspective. Presentation given at Universidade Federal de Uberlândia, Uberlândia, MG, Brazil.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wardle, F. (1999). Children of mixed race: No longer invisible. Educational Leadership 57 (4), 68-71.

Wardle, F. (2005a). Racism in Brazilian schools: Notes from Brazil. New People Magazine. Retrieved Oct 10th from http://newpeoplemagazine.com/

Wardle, F. (2005b). Trip Report. Washington, DC: Partners of the Americas.

Wardle, F. (2005c). Brazilian public schools. Notes from Brazil. New People Magazine. Retrieved Oct 10th from http://www.newpeoplemagazine.com/

Wardle, F., & Cruz-Janzen, M. I. (2004). Meeting the needs of multiethnic and multiracial children in schools. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Williams, K. (2006). Mark one or more. Civil Rights in multiracial America. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

York, S. (2003). Roots and wings. Affirming culture in early childhood programs. (Rev. ed.). Saint Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Francis Wardle has a Ph.D. in Education (University of Kansas). He has been a Head Start director, education director of Children’s World Learning Centers (a national childcare and education corporation), a teacher, and a program director for Big Brothers & Sisters. Currently Dr. Wardle teaches for the University of Phoenix (online) and Red Rocks Community College (Denver). He has published four college textbooks and over 300 articles in a variety of educational magazines and journals. Research for this article was partially supported by Partners of the Americans.


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