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Afro-Brazilian Story II: Slavery, Identity and the Question of Racism


Beginning in 15th century, Portuguese captured and 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 items from that period.

As the engine behind the growth of sugar economy in Brazil, slave labor was used in sugarcane plantations. 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 today has the largest Black population of any country outside Nigeria.

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 among 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 masse 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.”

One aspect of Brazilian evolution from slavery is that it resulted in what may be regarded as a single multiracial low class, where poor whites and blacks live together, mostly in slums (Favelas). This is in sharp contrast to the abolition in the U.S., with its segregated neighborhoods.

With their departure from Sanzela (the slave quarters), Blacks were confronted with a new challenge: rejection in the 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, the European demographic crisis led to immigration of 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 Blacks as wage workers.

Inspired by the belief that some races were superior to others, in 1890, Decree No. 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- with the aim to not only provide a workforce, but “civilize” and “whiten” the Brazilian population, which by then was a mixture of Africans, Amerindians, Portuguese, etc.

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 the white Brazilian elite 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 that disproved this view.  Casa-Grande e Senzala remains a classic of modern cultural anthropology and an excellent reference in debates on race mixing and racial discrimination.

It can be argued that the mindset of branqueamento is still common, given the tendency of some white Brazilians to celebrate their blue-blooded white origins 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 noted  “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 combine the three  and 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 indicators that the living conditions 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 percent of Brazilians Black 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 Black Brazilian 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 its existence.  The indifference, abnegation and naivety on issues related to racism leave you completely bewildered. A mindset which renders many colorblind  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 of 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 to the recoiling of car owners as you pass by parking lots, the racial violence is simply suffocating.

If you encounter a porter who believes your dark skin disqualifies you from having anything to do with a small apartment (except as a painter); or  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 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, they booed and jeered at the bewildered Cubans calling them “slaves”, supposedly in reference to the payment of the doctors.

The 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.  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 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 racism. 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 colorblindness 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 third 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, the argument is put forward that discrimination and inequality in Brazil are based on class and not color. Such colorblindness 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 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 the 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 endeavor and search for empirical factual knowledge to decode the distortion of facts that sometimes present Blacks as ugly, inferior and lazy.

That is tough in a world that ends the lives of Treyvon Martins daily.

Abdulrazak B Ibrahim

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