Blackness’s Fear and Stigma Make Brazil a 6% Black Country

Brazilian crowd I would now like to turn my attention to the ever popular argument concerning racial affiliation in Brazil. Frequently, essays and forum letters at this website express the popular Brazilian view that racism and quotas based on racial identity cannot exist in Brazil because the majority of Brazilians are of mixed descent.

While I will agree that the majority of Brazilians are of varying degrees of mixed descent, I would also say that in my 18 weeks of travel in Brazil, it is rare that I cannot judge one’s predominant racial phenotype. Countless Brazilian and American social scientists are under this same impression. This is not to be confused with the issue of self-affirmation of racial identity, which is another subject altogether.

In sociologist Edward Telles’ book Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, the author, who has researched racial issues in Brazil since 1989, included a bar of his interpretation of racial ambiguity, or lack thereof, in Brazil. The bar shows the color black fading into the color white from top to bottom with a very narrow range of grey that represents those who are difficult to categorize as one specific race.

In past and future essays, I have and will continue to use the terms negro (black), afrodescendente (African-descendent), negro-mestiço (mixed black) or afro-brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian) as these are terms that activists have adopted when speaking of Brazil’s pretos and pardos or negros and mulatos.

Each of these terms have been used abundantly in studies of racial politics in Brazil with none seeming to have a clear advantage in popular usage. Thus, I will use afro-brasileiro because of its historical value dating back to the First Congresso Afro-Brasileiro held in Recife in 1934.

I will use negro and afrodescendente because, as geneticist Sergio Danilo Pena explains, the word negro fits in the morphological sense while afrodescendente is related to ancestry (1). I will also use negro-mestiço because, as Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil says, it “much better defines the adaptation of the Africans brought to Brazil”(2). I will use these terms interchangeably and use the terms preto, pardo, negro, mulato when it is necessary to make a comparison.

As I am aware, coming from a North American perspective, I will automatically be accused of attempting to apply US racial politics to a Latin American perspective. To alleviate this problem immediately, let me establish the facts. The much debated issue of the infamous US “one-drop (of black blood) rule” has nothing to do with my racial ideology.

I have known more than a few white Americans who have admitted to having some African ancestry but whom I have never looked upon as anything but white. The “one-drop rule” is quite unique and for the most part has no validity in the Latin American context (although there are clues that Brazil’s colonial elites also subscribed to this ideology of racial identification).

From the physical perspective, I am speaking purely of persons who show obvious signs of African ancestry. This will become important when dealing with the often debated issue of quotas for afro-brasileiros to enter Brazilian universities.

Who is considered black in Brazil is often times a contradiction. When the argument has to do with racially-based affirmative action, the Brazilian will instantly quote the “we’re all mixed” or the “who can tell who’s black in Brazil?” argument.

But when the “keep the peace” mentality is challenged, the truth comes out. Take for instance essays from April and May of 2003 in Brazzil where the writer says that Bahia has a “black majority” but then changes his terminology to “black and mulatto” (3).

In the May 2003 article (“Afrobrazilianists: Such Arrogance!”), the writer goes on to refer to politician Alceu Collares, as well as beauty queens Deise Nunes and Vera Lúcia Couto dos Santos as black. Anyone who has seen photos of the three aforementioned individuals will agree that they are all of varying degrees of mixed African descent.

My point here is that the Brazilian will often times claim that they do not view blackness in the same terms as the American but then when it’s time to proclaim that blacks have made great contributions to Brazilian society, they immediately point to the Brazilian of mixed descent whom they had previously categorized as mulato.

From this standpoint, at least from the American perspective, the individual will remain black regardless of whether their attributes are positive or negative. From the Brazilian perspective, if this person has whatever degree of admixture, there is always the possibility of ‘whitening’ them. Take the case of one of Brazil’s most famous writers, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), for example. According to historian Emilia Viotti da Costa:

“When Machado de Assis died, one of his friends, José Veríssimo, wrote an article in his honor. In an outburst of admiration for the man of modest origins and black ancestors who had become one of the greatest novelists of the century, Veríssimo – a mulatto himself – violated a social convention and referred to Machado as the mulatto Machado de Assis.

“Joaquim Nabuco, who read the article, quickly perceived the faux-pas and recommended the suppression of the word, insisting that Machado would not have been pleased by it. “Your article,” he wrote to Veríssimo, “is very beautiful but there is one sentence that caused me chills: “Mulatto, he was indeed a Greek…”

“I would not have called Machado mulatto and I think that nothing would have hurt him more…I beg you to moot this remark when you convert your article into permanent form. The word is not literary, it is derogatory…For me Machado was a white and I believe he thought so about himself” (4).

This passage is telling for two reasons. One, when a prominent Brazilian of mixed African ancestry leaves an indelible impression on Brazilian society, he cannot be remembered as being of African descent, fully or partially. Second, it is important to note that being a mulatto was deemed to be as derogatory as being described as negro, a point that I will explore further later in this essay.

Returning to the question of the Latin American view of race and the contradictory negro/mulatto argument, one finds this same contradictory attitude toward the classification of people of African descent in a December 2004 forum letter from the Argentine Pablo Diaz:

“With respect to the few places in the Brazilian Congress for blacks, or the smaller number of black Miss Brazils when compared with the U.S., perhaps the numbers should rise if you take into account the mulattos (5).”

These contradictory ways of defining blackness have had detrimental effects on the formation of black identity in Brazil. Historian Décio Freitas tells us that the preoccupation of not being black in Brazil is obsessive (6), so when afrodescendentes are consistently bombarded with negative images of blackness or presented with unclear ideals of what Brazilian society considers to be black, is there any wonder why census data, based on self-affirmation, reports Brazil to be a 6% black (preto) country?

As far as racial classification is concerned, it is important that one establishes not only how one is classified, but also by whom. A person’s identity or identification can be viewed from at least three perspectives. One is the way that person classifies him or herself. Another is how others within or outside of a social group classifies another person. A third would be how that society’s power elite classifies that person.

Thus it is quite easy to understand how a Brazilian could refer to him or herself as a moreno, while a friend describes him/her as mulato/mulata and government officials refer to him or her as a negro/negra. So when the official census of the IBGE (in which racial identification is declared by the person interviewed) tells us that Brazil is only 6% black (preto), it is necessary to consider the words of Luisa Farah Schwartzmann:

“…the interviewers’ answers are in a sense more “real” than the respondents’ answer, since the way people are seen by others is thought to have greater consequences for their life chances than the way they see themselves.” (7)

While it is not a secret that common Brazilians may use a plethora of terms when describing skin color or physical features, it is the dominant society, the “powers-that-be”, that include, exclude and classify peoples within that society. For Nilza Iraci, executive coordinator of the black women’s group, Geledés, this point is clear. Nilza possessing very light skin, is classified as white on her birth certificate but considers herself to be a black woman. As she sees it:

“Presenting myself socially as black, I know that I am depriving myself of a series of advantages. I have this advantage (in a job interview, for example) when competing with someone with darker skin than mine. In this case, I am a morena. When competing with a white person, I am a black” (8)

At this point I thought I would offer a few quotes from Brazilian social scientists (or those foreigners who have worked in Brazil) in order to get an idea of who Brazilian society recognizes as black.

“…when we affirm that these black groups are specific, we don’t mean that they are composed only of “pure” negros, in physical anthropology terms, but, also of pardos, (mulatos, curibocas, caboclos) those which, in consequence of the group of social situations in which they overlap, are marked as negros by the white society and, at the same time, recognizes and accepts a connection, total or partial, with his African roots…
– Sociologia do Negro Brasileiro, Clovis Moura, Editora Atica, 1988 (emphasis mine)

“By and large, the negro of Brazil is the mulatto. The negróide
– Mansions and Shanties: the Making of Modern Brazil. Gilberto Freyre, 1963.

Summarizing the thesis of the late Afro-Brazilian militant and intellectual Eduardo Oliveira e Oliveira entitled, “O mulato, um obstáculo epistemológico”, Maria de Lourdes Bandeira writes:

“The social category mulato is not to be confused with the racial category mulato. The social place attributed to the mulato, not his place as racial intermediary, is an obstacle to the comprehension of racial difference as a form of submission or oppression. The phenotypic characteristics do not interfere with this understanding…The racial categories, while indicating the diversity of racial traces, are not instruments of analysis….within the boundaries of the class system, the variations of color are socially irrelevant in race relations. The racial origin, not the color, remains as the basis of classification.” (emphasis mine)
– Território Negro em Espaço Branco, Maria de Lourdes Bandeira.
Editora Brasiliense, 1988.

“The term “preto” was always used by whites to designate the negro and the mulato in São Paulo, but through a stereotyped and extremely negative image created in the past.”
– Integração do Negro na Sociedade de Classes. Florestan Fernandes. Dominus Editora. Editora da Universidade de São Paulo. 1965.

“What is the negro? In our definition, negro is a social place instituted by diverse coordinates: the color of the skin, popular culture, African ancestry, slave ancestry (near or distant), poverty, the attribution of negro identity by the other and the assumption of this identity by one’s self.”
– “A Inserção do Negro e seus Dilemas”, Joel Rufino Dos Santos

“..the mulato appears as a negro at the same time privileged and stigmatized by the double condition of race and parvenu…the rules of social exclusion define the position of the mulato in terms quite firmly in Rio Grande do Sul: “he who escapes being white, is black”. The mulato is a negro, thus, an inferior, but at the same time, he is a privileged negro“…
– Capitalismo e Escravidão no Brasil Meridional – O Negro na Sociedade Escravocrata do Rio Grande do Sul. Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Paz e Terra. 1977.

“…whites make a social and cultural distinction between their black and mulatto neighbors and themselves. Conversely, blacks and mulattos distinguish themselves from whites in the same way. The dichotomy which exists is clear…all non-white individuals are considered negros.”
– Raças e classes sociais no Brasil. Octávio Ianni. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1972

“we consider as blacks all those who are dark-skinned, who possess a pigmentation which is neither white nor Indian. These ‘pardos‘, who according to IBGE constitute the majority of non-whites…are considered socially to be blacks.”
– “Que é um negro?” Décio Freitas. Folha de S. Paulo (March 1, 1982) (9)

“…the term negro is as much a conventional category as branco. Grouping together all the gradations, going from pardo to preto, including the color of copper. In the same way, the white category also covers different colors, even those whites that are not truly white. Besides this, one can observe that the multiplication of categories related to skin color, shape of the face and texture of the hair is a common phenomenon in multi-racial societies. Translating the desire of people to group the others into determined racial or color groups is a banal exercise. But it can correspond sometimes to a desire of hierarchizing the others into a chromatic and racial scale (10).
– “Ação Afirmativa e igualdade de oportunidades” (2000) – Jacques D’Adesky

Taking these definitions as written by Brazilian social scientists (11) themselves debunks the argument that North Americans are trying to impose their views about race upon Brazilians. When analyzing hundreds of books and Internet articles one will notice that negros, mulatos, or pretos and pardos are always grouped together when speaking of Brazil’s population of African descent.

This is not a recent phenomenon. While militants of Brazil’s current Movimento Negro have argued that these two official census categories should be combined as representative of Brazil’s blacks, in Gilberto Freyre’s classic 1933 work Casa Grande e Senzala, the author consistently pairs negros and mulatos together.

Black identity, political identity

“The destruction of black identity is the first feature of racist violence” (12)
– Iolanda Oliveira

At this point I wish to stress that I (as the aforementioned Clóvis Moura as well as legendary activist Abdias do Nascimento have written) am not speaking of race from a biological perspective. There is no need to argue about the various genetic studies and racial-genetic percentages that have been coming out in recent years. I will contemplate that issue later on. For now, I will consider the words of Fátima Oliveira, the executive secretary of Rede Feminista de Saúde:

In the context of racial mixture, being black possesses various meanings that result from the choice of racial identity that has African ancestry as origin (African-descendent). Or in other words, to be black, is, essentially a political position, where one assumes a black racial identity (13).

University of São Paulo social anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz also makes reference to the idea of black identity as a political position highlighting the difference between the terms preto and negro:

“Even during the slave years the etymological usage of these apparently synonymous terms already revealed differences in sense: Negro referred to the disobedient, rebellious slave, while Black (preto) denoted the loyal captive. A news story that appeared in the Correio Paulistano (The São Paulo Post) in 1886 demonstrates this clearly in employing the terms as if they referred to two wholly distinct realities:

“One particular day, the black João Congo was quietly working on his master’s farm when he noted that two fugitive negroes were approaching, who soon said – ‘Leave this life behind, old black (preto), it’s not for you’ to which the loyal (preto) black replied – ‘I’m not going to go wandering about here and there like some runaway negro.’ Irritated, the negroes retorted – ‘Die, then, you black coward'” (14)

In the context of Brazilian terminology and folklore, ‘old black’ refers to the folkloric figure of the preto velho, the old, docile, submissive, black slave that is somewhat reminiscent of the American Uncle Tom figure. Considering these last two statements, it becomes obvious that a black identity goes beyond just one’s phenotype or physical appearance.

It is a stance or attitude that joins an individual with a group in which the individual has something in common bonded by an express ideology that represents the interests of a that particular group. As one probes the complexities of Brazilian racial politics, this becomes clearer. Senator Benedita da Silva explains how an uncompromising black identity is viewed in Brazil:

“The more elevated the social position of the black in Brazil is, the more uncomfortable the black feels if he or she continues being a black and keeps defending the black cause. Blacks become a threat and, as white elites do not want to yield anything, blacks become a concrete target for racists.” (15)

It is here that the similarities between Brazil’s Movimento Negro and the 1970s African-American Black Power Movement become most evident. Between the 1950s and 1970s, African-Americans of all skin tones and hair textures began to adopt the term black to signify their politicized racial identity. Within the span of a few decades, African descendents in the United States went from being labeled colored to negro to adopting the term black. As Rosenblum and Travis explain:

“black emerged in opposition to Negro as the Black Power movement sought to distinguish itself from the Martin Luther King-led moderate wing of the civil rights movement. The term Negro had itself been put forward by influential leaders WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington as a rejection of the term “colored” that had dominated the mid- to late 19th century” (16)

The differences between these terms can be analyzed through the exclamation of an irate white person quoted in a July 30, 1975 Boston Globe article:

“We’ve always welcomed good colored people in South Boston but we will not tolerate radical blacks or Communists…Good colored people are welcome in South Boston, black militants are not” (17)

The feeling from the comment above brings to mind the common saying that black people “know their place” and are expected to accept and abide by this social standard. This proverb is common to both the American and Brazilian racial hierarchy. According to historian Emilia Viotti da Costa, writing about Brazil’s myths and histories:

“Whites became more aware of their prejudiced attitudes once they had to confront blacks where they had rarely been seen before…or when they had to deal face to face with an “aggressive”, “uppity” black who did not play his traditional role of humility and meekness.” (18)

It is important to note here the difference between physical blackness and blackness as a political identity. There exists in both Brazil and the US those types of African descendents who do not strongly identify with other African descendents as a group. They prefer to live their lives strictly as individuals, having no preferences for or affiliations with others who may look like them.

In this sense, there may be many African descendents living middle-class lifestyles in either country, but as long as they don’t raise any issues of racial discrimination, speak out against it or advocate policies that could improve the situation of any group that has been historically discriminated against, society may extend them an honorary “pass” of mainstream acceptance.

At this point, allow me to reiterate that there is a difference between the identity one assumes and the identity that is imposed from the outside. Having established the differences in terminology, it could be argued that Brazil’s African descent population can in some ways be defined as simply gente de cor (people of color) as opposed to black.

Negritude (blackness) in Brazil can be said to still be an “identity in construction”, as the title of a recent study by Professor Ricardo Franklin Ferreira (University of São Marcos) suggests. The main point that I would like to establish here is that the concept of blackness and the transition from gente de cor to negros is not simply an American import.

As early as the 1920s and 30s, Afro-Brazilian newspapers such as O Clarim da Alvorada (The Morning Bugle) and A Voz da Raça (The Voice of the Race) brought to the forefront the importance of black consciousness and ethnic identity. A Voz da Raça was the newspaper produced by the Frente Negra Brasileira (Brazilian Black Front), one of the earliest black civil rights organizations in Brazil (19).

While analyzing Brazil’s official census may establish some general ideas about Brazil’s racial composition, these statistics are not etched in stone. Several anthropologists (Telles 2004, Sansone 2003, Heringer 2002) have noted that the way many Brazilians classify themselves racially is not always in agreement with how an observer views them.

A study conducted by Rosana Heringer (of the Centro de Estudos Afro-Brasileiros da Universidade Cândido Mendes no Rio de Janeiro) showed that 30% of those who classified themselves as pardos were actually pretos while 30% of those classifying themselves as brancos were actually pardos (20).

Livio Sansone (of Universidade Federal da Bahia) discovered several intriguing details when doing field research for his book Negritude sem etnicidade. First, those who declare themselves negro are usually younger than those who refer to themselves as preto. Also, those defining themselves as negro usually have a higher level of education than those who refer to themselves with some other euphemism.

This is a recent development and is a radical departure from studies of the 1950s that confirmed that well educated Brazilians of African descent tended to whiten themselves. One of the most telling of Sansone’s findings were the ways that Brazilians classified others in relation to their physical proximity to those people.

For instance, when asked to describe the race of someone standing right next to them, some of his respondents would say moreno. Yet, that same person would refer to the other as negro when that person wasn’t standing close enough to hear their remarks. This idea of espaço (space) also came into play when speaking of places where people of African descent felt comfortable in displaying and affirming their blackness.

In places and social situations in which they were the majority and were practicing some form of cultura negra (black culture), negro-mestiços were more likely to declare their negritude (blackness) than other times when they were in more job-related situations or in contact with whites (21).

In my view, many Brazilian negro-mestiços adopt a sort of “light-switch” racial identity which they may turn on or off depending upon the context of the social situation. As a political position, black identity can be perceived as a threat to those of the dominant (white) society.

Take African-American Omar Wasow (22) for instance. In the book Face Forward: Young African-American Men in a Critical Age, Wasow remembers that in high school he identified himself as mixed while ignoring the fact that it was easier for whites to deal with him than if he identified himself as black (23). Wasow is an African-American of mixed descent, his father Jewish and his mother black.


1. PENA, SÉRGIO DANILO. “Os múltiplos significados da palavra raça”.

2. DAMIANI, MARCO; Studart, Hugo; Leite, Janaína. “BENEDITA E O AFRO-TURISMO”.

3. Cristaldo, Janer. “A Trap for Blacks”.
Cristaldo, Janer. “Afrobrazilianists: Such Arrogance!”

4. Da Costa, Emilia Viotti. The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories. Revised Edition. University of North Carolina Press. 2000

5. Diaz, Pablo. “A Response to Mark Wells”. Brazzil Forum.

6. Oliveira, Evilazio de. “Movimento Negro cai na armadilha acadêmica”.

7. Schwartzmann, Luisa Farah. “Does Money Whiten? Educational Mobility of Parents and the Racial Classification of Children in Brazil.” –

8. Alberto Ramos e Marina Oliveira. “Sem medo de revelar a cor”.

9. As quoted in George Reid Andrews’ Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1988. University of Wisconsin Press. 1991.

10. D’Adesky. Jacques. “Ação Afirmativa e igualdade de oportunidades”. FASE, Mimeo, November 2000 .Available online August 14, 2006.

11. With the exception of Jacques D’Adesky, who did his doctoral work in social anthropology at the University of São Paulo, and currently does research at the Centro de Estudos das Américas of the University of Cândido Mendes in Rio de Janeiro. He has also authored or co-authored two books on race relations in Brazil: Pluralismo Étnico e Multiculturalismo (Pallas 2001) and Racismo, Preconceito e Intolerância (with Edson Borges and Carlos Alberto de Medeiros) (Atual 2002).

12. Oliveira, Iolanda. Desigualdades Raciais: Construções da Infância e da Juventude. Intertexto, 1999.

13. Oliveira, Fátima. “Ser negro no Brasil: alcances e limites”.

14. Schwarcz, Lilia Moritz. “Not black, not white: just the opposite. Culture, race and national identity in Brazil”.

15. Da Silva, Benedita. “The Black Movement and Political Parties: A Challenging Alliance”. In Racial Politics in Contemporary Brazil. Michael Hanchard (editor). Duke University Press. 1999.

16. Rosemblum, Karen E.; Travis, Toni-Michelle C. The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class, and Sexual Orientation. McGraw-Hill. 2003.

17. Moore, Robert B. “Racism in the English Language” in Rosemblum, Karen E.; Travis, Toni-Michelle C. The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class,
and Sexual Orientation. McGraw-Hill. 2003.

18. Da Costa, Emilia Viotti. The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories. Revised Edition. University of North Carolina Press. 2000

19. Moura, Clóvis. História do Negro Brasileiro. Editora Ática. 1992

20. Ramos, Alberto; Oliveira, Marina. “Sem medo de revelar a cor”.

21. Sansone, Livio. Negritude sem etnicidade: o local e o global nas relações raciais e na produção cultural negra do Brasil. Salvador/Rio de Janeiro, Edufba/Pallas, 2003.

22. Wasow is a Ph.D. candidate in African-American Studies and Political Science at Yale University. He is also a co-founder of the website His website is

23. Okwu, Julian C.R. Face Forward: Young African-American Men in a Critical Age. Chronicle Books. 1997.

This is part three of a multi-piece article.

Mark Wells holds a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Social Justice at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michigan. He can be reached at quilombhoje72@yahoo.

© 2007 Mark Wells


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