If you want to get a sense of how complex racial identity is in Brazil, you should meet sisters Francine and Fernanda Gravina. Both have the same mother and father. Francine, 28, is blond with green eyes and white skin. She wouldn’t look out of place in Iceland. But Fernanda, 23, has milk chocolate skin with coffee colored eyes and hair. Francine describes herself as white, whereas Fernanda says she’s morena, or brown-skinned.
“We’d always get questions like, ‘How can you be so dark skinned and she’s so fair?'” Fernanda says. In fact, the sisters have German, Italian, African and indigenous ancestry. But in Brazil, Fernanda explains, people describe themselves by color, not race, since nearly everyone here is mixed.
All of that is to say, collecting demographic information in Brazil has been really tricky. The latest census, taken in 2010, found for the first time that Brazil has the most people of African descent outside Africa. No, this doesn’t mean that Afro-Brazilian population suddenly, dramatically increased. Rather, the new figures reflect changing attitudes about race and skin color in Brazil.
Racial mixing came about early in Brazil’s history. Brazil imported more enslaved people than anywhere else in the Americas — some four million — and slavery lasted longer there than anywhere else in the region. The white Portuguese colonizers were encouraged to “mingle” with the locals. Plainly speaking, this meant that they raped many African and indigenous women.
The result is a vast mixed-race population, which has been added to over the years with successive migrations from Japan and Europe.
Unlike the U.S., where slavery was followed by legal segregation, Brazil never had a formal system of apartheid, says Rosana Heringer, a sociologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who studies race and the African diaspora. Still, there is a color hierarchy in Brazil, Heringer says. Consistent data shows that darker Brazilians are poorer, and they’re more likely to be killed and live in slums, called favelas .
“We should see the history of Brazil as a history of racial inequality,” Heringer says — and that’s a fairly new idea. For a long time, Brazilians have believed in what’s been called “the myth of racial democracy,” she explains. Part of that myth-building was a controversial survey that the government conducted the 1970’s. It asked people to describe their skin color, and the answers varied a lot. All together, respondents used at least 134 different terms.
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