Afro-Brazilian story II: Slavery, identity and racism


Beginning in 15th century, Portuguese exported over 4 million Africans as slaves to Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, the remains of Valongo wharf, the point of disembarkation of most slaves brought to Americas, continues to reveal the scale of suffering buried in paved stones as archeologists unearth several items from the wreck. As the engine behind the growth of sugar economy in Brazil, slave labor was used in sugarcane plantations and with the discovery of gold and diamond deposits in 1696, Brazil witnessed a surge in importation of African slaves to power this newly discovered lucrative market.  By 1697, slaves built the Estrada Real (the royal road), which connected the ports of Rio de Janeiro and Paraty to cities like Diamantina and Vila Rica, where minerals were manually extracted and exported to Portugal. In Vila Rica (present day Ouro Preto) slaves were subjected to a brutal breeding program, where short men were forced to procreate while taller men were eliminated, so that the young boys arising from this artificial selection were used in the labor to ease access into the gold mines. By the time slavery was abolished in 1888, more than 7 million black people were killed and Brazil ended with the largest black population of any country in the world outside Nigeria today.

Brazil was the last American nation to abolish slavery and the credit for the abolition often generously goes to Princess   Isabel, the heiress presumptive to the throne of the Empire of Brazil and daughter of Dom Pedro II, who, while serving as a regent, signed a law named Lei Áurea or the Golden Law, officially emancipating all slaves in Brazil, an action that would turn her into a cult figure amongst some ex-slaves. However, it was actually slave resistance and the abolitionist movements it inspired, that led to eventual abolition. As O Rebate, a periodical of 1889 stated, “Had the slaves not fled en mass from the plantations, they would today be still slaves. Slavery ended because slaves rebelled against it and against the law that enslaved them”. The abolition “was nothing more than the legal recognition – so that public authority wasn’t discredited – of an act that had already been accomplished by the mass revolt”.

A curious aspect of Brazilian evolution from slavery is the fact that it resulted in, what may, on the surface, be regard as a single multi-racial low class, where poor whites and blacks live together, mostly in slums (Favelas). This is in sharp contrast to the abolition in the US, with its segregated neighborhoods. A central theme in this piece is the concept of race. The word is used throughout this text as the social construct that’s used to designate such morphological features as skin color which, although lacking basis in biology, continues to affect the lives of people who face institutionalized practices of preference and discrimination.

With their departure from Sanzela (the slave quarters), blacks were confronted with a new kind of challenge: rejection in remunerable labor market even when their services were clearly needed. This was even harder for the Agudás who had earlier left following abolition, but had to return as immigrants following their rejection back in Africa. Towards the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, European demographic crisis led to immigration of several European peasants into Brazil, ostensibly to be employed as wage workers following the abolition of slavery. Guided by pseudo-scientific theories on the superiority of white race, it would appear that Brazil embraced new racist ideas by excluding black as wage workers. Inspired by the belief that some races were superior to others, in 1890, decree number 528 was signed by President Diodorus da Fonseca, prohibiting the entry of immigrants from Africa and Asia while encouraging the immigration of Europeans, creating a policy known as branqueamento (whitening) whose purpose was to, not only provide remunerable workforce, but “civilize” and “whiten” the Brazilian population, which by now was a mixture of Africans, Amerindians and Portuguese with different colors. Among the first intellectuals to discuss this mixing was Gilberto Freyre, a Brazilian anthropologist who, in his 1933 classic Casa-Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves) appears to challenge the mindset of white Brazilian elites who considered Brazilians with African and Amerindian ancestry as inferior. Although Freyre´s book emphasizes on the positive elements of miscegenation in the Brazilian cultural formation, it also created a highly contested theory of “racial democracy” free from racism. However, many critics of this theory present facts which disprove this view as we shall see presently.  Casa-Grande e Senzala remains a classic of modern cultural anthropology and an excellent reference in debates on race mixing and racial discrimination. One may argue that the mindset of branqueamento is still common given the tendency of some white Brazilians to manifest ostentation of their blue blooded white origin in an undertone that eulogizes everything white while dehumanizing anything black. For example, in a recent television program, a celebrity was commenting on people who inspired and shaped his career, among whom was an African-American entertainer, whom he said “was black”, with a scornful gesture,   but he went on to show how good the African-American entertainer was when on stage, and how he attracted so much applause that you´d think “he was blond”. Many would argue that such a remark is not racist, though.


In modern Brazil, black identity may be confusing due to the complex nature of defining color. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) uses five categories of color in census; amarelo (yellow, Asian), branco (white), indígena (Amerindian) pardo (multiracial, brown) and  preto (black). Most pardos do have European and African ancestry while most pretos tend to have, essentially African ancestry. Confusion arises in these categorizations because others yet, combine the three such that, what is socially referred to as “race” is actually difficult to establish. This perhaps summarizes the central philosophical idea of Gilberto Freyre when he wrote:  “Every Brazilian, even the light-skinned fair-haired one carries about him on his soul, when not on soul and body alike, the shadow or at least the birthmark of the aborigine or the negro, in our affections, our excessive mimicry, our Catholicism which so delights the senses, our music, our gait, our speech, our cradle songs, in everything that is a sincere expression of our lives, we almost all of us bear the mark of that influence.” However, there is a general tendency of grouping pardos and pretos into a categorization known as negro, based on the fact that the indicators of living condition of these groups are quite similar in addition to their darker skins. Data from a 2010 census reports that of the 194 million Brazilians, 82 million consider themselves as parda while 15 million are black, 2 million Asian and around 1 million indigenous people. This effectively makes over 50% Brazilians negro by classification.  This fluidity has led to the “bioligization” of what is conventionally referred to as “race”, based on recognized differences in phenotypic features that are, by default, associated to one form of ancestry or another. Perhaps borrowing from the Americans, a term that is officially used to refer to this group today is Afrodescendantes (African descendants) or Afro-Brasileiros, (Afro-Brazilians) to describe those with different tones of black skin. Despite the seeming integration of different groups including the black population, the extreme inequality and racism more commonly against Brazilian negros is not difficult to observe. In low market districts, train and bus stations, Freyre´s theory of “racially democratic” society may seem to work, but in offices, commercial areas, hotels, restaurants, a different image emerges. In every Brazilian upper market district, you´ll see black nannies pushing strollers with white toddlers and not the other way round. Indeed the whiter your skin, the better your chances of climbing the social ladder.

Racism and inequality

In Brazil, every kind of prejudice can be dismissed with humoristic recklessness often with tacit media support, and on that basis underrate or simply dismiss and downplay its existence.  The indifference, abnegation and naivety on issues related to racism leave you completely bewildered. A mindset which renders many color blind  on one hand, and perpetuates stereotype on the other, seems to be deeply entrenched. As you walk on the streets and see faces of people in different tones of color, you would want to believe that racial prejudice couldn’t exist in such a highly mixed society. However, scratch a little and you will find yourself grappling with the question of racism on regular basis. Step a little farther from the bus stops and stations, and   it hits you with ferocious insistence. From the racial profiling of “you-are-black-and-therefore-can-not-afford-it” stares in shops and recoiling of car owners as you pass by parking lots, the racial violence is simply suffocating. If you are lucky to encounter a porter who believes your dark skin disqualifies you from having anything to do with a small apartment (except as a painter); or you encounter a total stranger who exhibits open and unprovoked hostility against what he refers to as “seu negrinho terrorista” (terrorist nigger), in a xenophobic reference to your color and dress; or an apparently well-educated white lady driving by who, on nearly hitting you around an intersection, shouts “Voce esta vendo não, seu macaco?” (Can’t you see the road, you bloody monkey?), your eyes will open up to the reality of the kind of racism in Brazil. Indeed such encounters soon become common and therefore easy to identify and handle. Beyond the daily contacts from which you may be subjected to one kind of prejudice or another, you soon discern the vertical and hierarchical nature of Brazilian society and the manner by which differences are transformed into naturalized inequalities even as they have been crystallized by historical events. Suddenly, what the Guardian newspaper referred to as the “superficial appearance of lack of racism in Brazil” which “serves the elites, because they use “look how well the poor whites and blacks get along in the Favelas” to obviate the need for real change”, becomes conceivable. The absence of legal segregation and the warmth of social intercourse created the so-called “cordial racism”.

Under the scenario of this naturalized inequality and the veil of racism that sustains it in some cases, it is difficult to imagine a black man (much less a black woman) with say a degree in medicine. This was demonstrated recently when a government health intervention program for importation of doctors from Cuba provided an opportunity to expose the unspoken yet deeply entrenched and unconscious racism in Brazil. With media cameras on, the first contingent of Cuban doctors, who happened to be mostly blacks, arrived at Fortaleza in northeast of the country, only to be received by a crowd of young white doctors who were supposedly protesting against the policy. Coming out of their racist closets, the young white Brazilian doctors booed and jeered at the bewildered Cubans calling them “slaves”, supposedly in reference to the small amount of salary the are allegedly receiving, based on a controversial agreement between Brazil and Cuba. The country´s minister of health referred to the incidence as a “brutality” that “incites xenophobia”. Preoccupied with anti-communist sentiment, many didn’t see anything racist in this attitude, including the media.    Indeed, no less than a journalist questioned the doctors´ credibility on the basis of their color. In a widely circulated tweet, a journalist wondered if the Cubans were indeed doctors because according to her, they do not have the posture of doctors since they looked like housemaids (black). This probably makes sense in a society where the black is generally an uneducated nanny, yardman, cleaner and bricklayer, who is probably homeless, criminal and, as they say, favelado. As Jarid Arraes, a highly brilliant feminist blogger put it “people refuse to accept that they are racist and they think they live in a multiracial democracy, but the statistics show that is far from the case. White is the image of the rich, the nice, the successful, the good, while people see black as the opposite of all that.” Dr Marilena Chaui, a professor of philosophy in University of São Paulo actually put it rather grimly; “It’s as if you have the heaven, the earth, the sun and the moon in one place, and the black people in another”.

Those who deny the existence of racism in Brazil often invoke Freyre´s theory arguing that the problem is actually that of inequality and not racisms. However, the Guardian captures both concepts when it stated that “the vast majority of business and government executives are white, while most menial jobs are done by black and mixed-race workers”, even as many choose to ignore or deny these facts. Commentators have argued that color blindness resonates well with those who apparently have the privilege of ignoring the existence of racism especially when influenced through acts of commission or omission by the media. More so given a cultural narrative that assigns significance to certain issues and not to others and sets standards that perpetuate stereotypes and promote racism, intentionally or not. This for example, finds expression in the tendency of defining violence in the context of criminality only, which is much common among the black population, without highlighting the psychological violence of racism against rational human beings, in full possession of their senses and the injustices and underpinning historical factors that lead to, at least in part, the criminality.

But the mere fact that there are initiatives like the national black consciousness day, conceived to create awareness about this inequality and marginalization, is a measure of its existence. Indeed no further proof is needed than the  Brazilian Penal Code, article 140, paragraph 3 which criminalizes  racism under Law number 7.716/89. This is complimented with the establishment of a presidential think-tank in the Secretariat on Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality in 2003 (SEPPIR), which is responsible for the formulation, coordination and articulation of policies and guidelines for the promotion of racial equality in Brazil. Indeed SEPPIR organized its 3rd conference on promoting racial equality last week, with the theme “democracy and development without racism; for an affirmative Brazil”.  Several anti-discrimination campaigners and social commentators like Dr Marilena Chaui, Jarid Arraes, in addition to many blogs and online newspapers publish news, debates and reports related to misogyny, racial discrimination, homophobia and related issues, which prove the existence of racism in Brazil.

Perhaps what is more violent than denying a person his humanity is the denial of the fact that such a denial exists. In the tendency to reduce apparently serious issues to “intelligent” and  innocent jokes and the unbelievably ingenious, subtle, and naive stance on discussions broaching on inequality and discrimination, racism is alive and in full swing in Brazil. Nothing but a colonial mindset would induce a humorist to appear on TV making fun of people who, historical circumstances and brutal force subjected to genocide that ended their lives in millions and for which they are subjected to devastating consequences to date. As  a commentator argued, such a joke is similar to a joke about Hitler´s holocaust. This scenario is repeatedly enacted such that many in the public accept them as normal even as they reinforce stereotype and promote discrimination.  Typically, argument is put forward that discrimination and inequality in Brazil are based on class and not color. Such color blindness in the form of “we are all blacks” or “look at my skin, I am not white” actually negate cultural values because society doesn’t ignore the color, as Jay Smooth, an American hip hop artist puts it. This attitude denies black racism even when it clearly exists.

It would therefore appear that the ideological legitimation of the colonial project, which is partly responsible for racism in Brazil, is also partly responsible for stereotypical views and a good number of conflicts in Africa. But in a world where massive media machine manipulates based on specific priorities and agenda, predisposing people in huge number, to think in apathetic and selfish manners, it requires courageous endeavour and search for empirical and factual knowledge to decode the distortion of facts by sometimes, even well-intentioned media outfit which unconsciously presents the black as ugly, inferior, wild and lazy. That is tough in a world that ends the lives of Treyvon Martins daily.

Link with Africa

Complex as racism is, Brazil has certainly made progress in addressing it within the last years. The close cultural relationship of Brazil with Africa permits for drawing parallel between the country and some African countries. The ethnic and religious intolerance that characterize countries like Nigeria for example, is not any less racist. How can it not be, when countries like Nigeria were themselves enslaved based on a colonial rationale that Africans were heathens and geographical entities were arbitrarily and deliberately created in total disregard for humanity with the sole purpose of exploiting, dividing and ruling? For many Africans, the very idea of being an African only occurs outside Africa where they experience their first true and vivid experience African identity, often inflicted in the form of racial aggression. The general tendency to treat the entire 54 countries in the continent as one country inhabited by black people only who probably live with wild animals in war ravaged and hunger stricken huts, is one of the many such stereotypes created by the media.  Indeed the very concept of Africa as a geographical entity with homogenous socioeconomic indicators is being questioned. In an article in Financial Times of 1st November 2013, Simon Kuper highlights the enormous diversity, not only in Africa but within African states themselves. His submission that Newspapers like the Economist, frame the commonly accepted narrative on issues involving Africa vindicates the perception that mainstream media works in setting stereotypes related to Africa.

Media narratives easily create mindsets that, for example, promote the idea that Africans have no history or in the manner their languages like Swahili (spoken by 140million), Hausa (54 million people), Yoruba (28 million) Igbo (24 million) etc., are lumped together and regarded as “African dialects”. Indeed the size of Africa itself has historically been manipulated to suit colonial invasion and slavery.  It is impossible for example, to imagine that by 1986, Nigerian Wole Soyinka had won a Nobel Prize of literature. This is what Chiamanda referred to as the danger of single story which is enough to incite the anger of Franz Fanon in his Wretched of the Earth in every rational human being confronted with the propaganda on the myth of African and black inferiority.

Like the blindness of the African reality, racism is a consequence of an ideological legitimation of the colonial project (read white supremacy), as Chinua Achebe wrote “If you are a colonialist, you construct a very elaborate excuse for your action. You say for example, that the man in question is worthless and quite unfit to manage himself or his affairs. If the worse comes to worse, you may even be prepared to question whether such as he can be, like you, fully human”. Throughout the history of the world though, there has always been racism. From the harsh tyranny of Eastern Europe, to Congo, South Africa, US, Germany, Middle East, Spain and Italy, it has always been there.  However, as Noam Chomsky said “racism developed as a leading principle of thought and perception in the context of colonialism. That’s understandable. When you have your boot on someone´s neck, you have to justify it. The justification has to be their depravity”, effectively denying them humanity.

Affirmative actions in Brazil

 Perhaps the most debated issue on inequality which is also directly related to race in Brazil is currently centered on social programs and affirmative actions that appear to favor blacks.  Critics of such programs argue that everyone should have equal opportunity since theoretically they are of the same capacity arguing that blacks are poor only because they are at the bottom of pyramid in a society that is stratified by class and not race. They further posit that since many white Brazilians of the same class suffer similar misery as the blacks, affirmative actions are in themselves discriminatory. However, many disagree, submitting that the disparity based on skin tone, can only be explained by racism arguing that black people, as a social group, were historically meted with the injustice of slavery and have never had any kind of privilege, unlike the beneficiaries the “whitening” policy. The adoption of affirmative action is clearly one of the many American influences that have been gripping Brazil in the last decades. Experts in sociology predict that this inequality is reversible by systematic affirmative action policies, while the actual racism can be addressed by stronger legal actions. Another example is seen in Bolsa Familia, an innovative social initiative which ensures that Brazilian poor families with children receive US$35 monthly in return for committing to keep their children in school and taking them for regular health checks. By default, majority of beneficiaries of this program are black. Although critics fault the system, data from the World Bank indicate that reduction in current poverty is linked to the program. Indeed the Brazilian Research Institute for Applied Economics recently reported that Bolsa Familia was responsible for 28% of the total reduction of poverty in the country between 2002 and 2012, with the number of poor living on less than $ 32 a month decreasing from 8.8% to 3.6%. Indeed 12% of beneficiaries of Bolsa Familia are already sufficiently empowered to give up the benefit. Already, countries like Egypt, Ghana, India, and Turkey are adopting the model. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that, New York City has adopted the policy as well. The same trend is expected with the implementation of quota system in schools and government jobs. Proponents of affirmative actions and commentators that are often at logger head with those who insist there is no racism, argue that, such denial, as Jay smooth puts it, “diminishes the experience of black people and an opportunity to learn more about the experience of racism from them is lost when their experience is minimized by trying to make it comparable or less painful than others”. Even as the superficial impression is that discrimination is based on class, the darker you are, the less opportunity you have to attend school and therefore get a job, the more you have to worry about being treated as a potential criminal by the public or as over sexualized female by advertisement agents and their consumers. They further argue that teenage pregnancy, drug problems and criminality are a result of people underserved by its government and that is what quota system is trying to address. Every young male black Brazilian, is about 4 times more likely to get killed than his white counterpart and that should certainly be of concern in any society. A parallel that can help in understanding better and addressing the violence among young black Brazilians may be found in Tom Burrell´s Brainwashed even though it is based on American model.

The changing trend

Today, the era of social media is providing platforms for open discussions on delicate issues like black identity, inequality, racism, misogyny, homophobia etc. Alternative media is bringing many closer to reality and more and more historical distortions are being discovered. Today for example, many Americans no longer celebrate Columbus day because, as Dr. Jack Weatherford, an American anthropologist and ethnographer said, by doing so, they celebrate a man “who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history.” We have the likes of Dr Chinweizu Ibekwe   highlighting a hitherto largely ignored process of forced ‘Arabization’ and anti-African genocide that has been taking place across Northern Africa for hundreds of years and now in Sub-Saharan Africa with devastating consequences like the madness of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

Several Brazilians of African descent are demanding racial equality in the political and economic domains of the broader society under different groups. It is encouraging seeing all Brazilians engaging in meaningful debates on discriminations of all kind. When a popular and powerful evangelical pastor recently twitted highly racist and homophobic tirades, practically the entire country rose against him. Indeed president Dilma herself personally apologized to the offended Cuban doctors in a state reception organized in their honor. The contagious Brazilian allergy and general warmth and hospitality which echoes the African tradition, is certainly an important factor that has been cementing the different groups in Brazil. Perhaps in recognition of the enormous benefits of retracing the Brazilian African roots, former president Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva has been at the forefront in the campaign against reduction of inequality among all groups in Brazil and establishing greater cultural and economic ties with African nations, clearly setting example to African leaders. In the city of Redenção of Ceara state for example, University of International Integration of Lusophone and Afro-Brazil (Unilab) was established. The unmistakable symbolism in the choice of the city is the fact it was the first town to abolish slavery in Brazil.

The fact that Brazil produced Justice Joaquim Barbosa, a black man from Paracatu of Minas Gerias, who rose to become the current president of the country´s supreme court, at a time when there was no quota system, is a rebuttal of the black inferiority myth. As one professor often says, “all you need for excellence to emerge is the right system of selection” by offering the right opportunity. When James Watson, the co-discoverer of double helical structure of DNA, told The Sunday Times, a British Newspaper in 2007, that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”, he was merely narrating that single-sided story while roping on the old racist colonial propaganda that seeks to justify white supremacy. His subsequent apology and denial of having implied genetic superiority were a mere obfuscation to make his racism harder to identify. Any discussion on the alleged inferiority of the black (or women), must start on the inequity these groups have been continuously subjected to throughout history.  Long before him, other “respected scholars”, including Ibn Khaldum, a Muslim scholar, made even more racist remarks. But science teaches us that all human beings are organic creatures with capacities that have scope and limits linked to each other which ultimately determine what kind of cognitive creature they are. It is what gives them, as people of different color, sex, orientation, background, culture and geography, the capacity to explore and create in a certain ways but not necessarily in others. Biologically we are all distinct as individuals and race is a completely discredited concept. However, when next you feel prejudiced against someone different, remember they are human, like you.


Brazil will certainly continue debating and talking openly about race, problematic as the definition of the term is, since it is a scientifically erroneous   categorisation system. This is even more so in such a seemingly racism-free mixed nation. While it is biologically impossible to categorize members of the same species in to race, it is however a social reality because many do face racism. Science, critical thinking and skepticism will continue to expose our self-serving bias and illusionary optimism helping leading us to true knowledge for understanding the human condition. The fact that the journalist of the Cuban housemaid fame is from a region that is itself, subject to prejudice and discrimination by other regions within Brazil, shows how difficult it is to first admit, and then overcome self-serving bias often inspired by in-group bias which makes us perceive our group favorably while rejecting or hating others based on superficiality. Brazilians never had iconic civil right movements’ leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but they don’t  not need a ridiculous Morgan Freeman´s 30 seconds video asking them to forget about black consciousness day (or month) much less a CNN´s Don Lemon´s “how not to be black”. Not talking about a thing has never been known to make it go away.  Even as it emerges as one of the leading economies, surpassing countries like UK, perhaps the biggest Brazilian challenge is bridging the gap of inequality between the rich and the poor, which, clearly has some racial implication. By lifting 3.5 million people out of poverty and more than a million out of extreme poverty in 2012, Brazil has demonstrated that it can attain economic prosperity that addresses multi-racial and pluralistic nature by applying homegrown initiatives.

Decades after the defeat of Nazi Germany and establishment of majority rule in South Africa, biological racism and its cultural essentialist equivalents continue to flourish, even in the absence of support from state and the law. Brazil provides a classical example of how historical discrimination by institutions and individuals against those perceived as racially different can persist and flourish under the illusion of non-racism, long after policies like branqueamento are abolished. But as you probably prepare to attend the FIFA world cup in 2014, know that Brazil, in whose heart lives Zumbi, is a warm and welcoming country that´s actually working, despite its challenges.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s