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Challenging the Myth of Brazil’s “Post-Racial” Society

Lily Kershaw discusses the unique role of race in Brazilian politics and society, arguing against dismissing racism as a bygone phenomenon.

CW: Racism

There is a long history behind Brazil’s presentation as some kind of “post-racial” society: from its depiction as a land free from racism, both explicitly and implicitly, in classic texts such as Nella Larsen’s Passing and films such as Black Orpheus, along with the representation of Brazil in the media in the build up to the 2016 Olympics. It is very easy for many across the world to see Brazil—a nation that, despite a similar colonial history to countries such as the USA, has actively encouraged race-mixing—as a place where race and all of its associations would not be so limiting. This is incorrect. Race in Brazil is an incredibly complex topic with an equally complicated history and, just because race is not treated as a binary like it is elsewhere, this does not mean that Brazil is free from its own issues regarding race and discrimination.

Brazil, after having imported the largest number of enslaved Africans of any slaveholding nation, was the last American country to abolish slavery in 1888. While of course any colonised nation’s racial history starts long before the 19th century, what makes Brazil stand out here is its reaction to the emancipation of slaves. Rather than adopting segregation style policies, like the US, or some form of apartheid as was the case in South Africa, Brazil actively encouraged racial mixing. Brazil, entering the 20th century, came to define their society as a democracia racial (a racial democracy) – a place in which Indigenous, White European, and Black African populations could mix and interact in relative harmony. Yet, such mixing does not mean that Brazil and the upper echelons of Brazilian society were immediately accepting of Black people, nor of blackness as a concept. Rather, it reflects an attempt to “whiten” the population.

After slavery was abolished, ruling classes offered free land and other benefits to White Europeans, encouraging the immigration of over 4 million people in an effort to whiten a majority-Black population through both increasing the number of white people in Brazil overall, and also miscegenation. One 1914 pamphlet, made to attract more White Europeans, said this in more explicit terms: “The Brazilian people, more than any other, needs the influence of advanced peoples in building a race […] when the percentage represented by the African race is beginning to decline and most disappear into the whirlpool of the white race.” Today, this process of “embranquecimento” or “whitening” is often seen as a form of genocide, an effort to specifically erase blackness from the general population. Brazil is not alone in this, with the concept of mixing with White people to “mejorar la raza” (improve the race), being seen as a common ideology throughout South America.

While many, including the Vice President, Hamilton Mairão, may claim that “racism doesn’t exist in Brazil,” that is simply not the case. The painful impact of slavery and the policies which followed will echo throughout the decades and the centuries, touching the lives of all Brazilians in one way or another. Over 75% of murder victims in Brazil are Black. 75% of those killed by the police are Black. White Brazilians earn nearly twice as much as their Black counterparts. The top 1% of Brazil’s economy is 80% is White, while three-quarters of the bottom 10% are Black or Mixed race. Racism and discrimination have real impacts and hurt real people.

Attitudes towards racial identity in Brazil are more fluid, and so it is often harder to define discrimination in Brazil using our own standards. Race is a social construct, and Brazil makes this incredibly apparent as their attitudes towards defining race are so different from our own. Over a quarter of the 168,000 candidates registering themselves for federal elections in 2020 changed their race from 2016:

–   Nearly 17,000 people who called themselves White in 2016 are now Mixed

–   Around 6000 who said they were Mixed are now Black

–   More than 14,000 who once said they were Mixed are now White

–   Nearly 900 went from White to Black

–   Nearly 600 went from Black to White

While some, admittedly, said that they only changed race because of bureaucratic errors that were made when they initially registered in 2016, others felt that their concept of their race and their identity had shifted in those four years, and they wanted that to be reflected in their registration. Aside from highlighting the fluidity of race as a concept, this only further highlights how vastly Brazil differs from other nations.  Yet, despite this difference, racism and discrimination remain present, suggesting that race doesn’t need to be binary for people to face discrimination.

Before the abolition of slavery, many slaves escaped to create their own communities called “quilombos,” and that tradition continues to this day. While 3500 rural quilombos exist, many Black people in urban areas such as São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro are beginning to form their own quilombos as havens and community hubs where art and music can be shared in a space of mutual understanding. 

While it is often easy to romanticise these spaces of blackness, but it is always worth remembering quilombos are not enough, Black Brazilians deserve real change and real acceptance; they deserve a government that acknowledges their struggles; a government that doesn’t actively oppress them, nor legitimise their oppression through dehumanising them. A government that doesn’t think it is appropriate to evaluate race by measuring nose width and skull shape.

Many feel frustrated that, within the education system, black history is often reduced to slavery alone, as if the Black Brazilian experience is defined by a history of passivity. These quilombos offer an opportunity for Black Brazilians to learn more from one another, reclaim their history and sense of identity, and somewhat escape, for at least a short while, the limitations perpetuated by the systemic racism which pervades their society. The experience of racism is exhausting. Yet even the quilombos cannot fully shield them from the racism that pervades every level of Brazilian society. Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian President, once compared Black Brazilians who live in quilombos to cattle, even going so far as to say they “don’t even serve to procreate”. Such bigoted rhetoric from a political figure of high standing aids in normalising racist behaviour among the wider population, with many seeing Bolsonaro’s racially provocative comments as being playful rather than dangerous and offensive.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Black and Mixed people are underrepresented in Brazilian congress. While around 56% of Brazilians identify as Black or Mixed, this same group make up only 18% of members of congress, possibly contributing to Afro-Brazilians’ growing feeling of alienation from their government. Bolsonaro tends to appeal to those who are wealthy and White, whose concerns often relate to fear of violence and loss of tradition. Thus, his increasingly aggressive stances, not only against Black Brazilians but also against gay people and other minority groups, often garner large support despite (perhaps even because of) the negative impact of his rhetoric. Bolsonaro has thus firmly established himself as a president who is not there to listen to the needs or interests of his Black or Indigenous populace, but rather a president who sees Black people as inhuman and a potential threat. Having a racist in such a powerful position has many real life implications. The number of Black people killed by police in Brazil in 2019 is almost 6 times that of the US, and his pro-police brutality policies have led many activists to say the Brazilian government has adopted a “política da morte” (policy of death) against the Afro-Brazilian population.

Through doing research for this, I found many (often American) op-eds and articles which acted as if Brazilians who identify as Mixed or even White are somehow confused, as if they are not aware of their inherent otherness from the European “norm”. While, oftentimes, these articles do not expressly state this, it is often the way in which they present their facts: while Time may state that 56% of Brazilians identify as Black, the latest official census data reveals that 43.1% identify as Mixed while only 7.6% identify as Black.  This then suggests that Time does not view the distinction made in the census between Black and Mixed as relevant because, to them, they are the same thing and, thus, do not require distinction. I find this evaluation to be highly patronising.

Race, as I have already mentioned, is a social construct, therefore, all ideas of race will be shaped by the society in which they are formed. As a Mixed-race woman myself, I like to call myself Mixed because I like to acknowledge the different aspects of my identity, and would feel that my cultural background would be erased if I were to follow what these articles imply is correct. Equally, if someone else with my background would prefer to call themselves Black, there is nothing wrong with that. We should have the right to define our own identities. Furthermore, the focus on what defines blackness in Brazil distracts us from the real issue: racism. Why critique how people identify and imply that they are wrong for not following your cultural traditions of racial binaries, when discrimination still remains so rampant and is a far more urgent issue? It is patronising to imply that the way in which many Brazilians talk about race is wrong, just because it falls outside of the norms of the anglosphere, and Brazilians, Black, White, Mixed, or however else they choose to identify, deserve so much more than that.

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