Black Brazilian

“Brazilian” is not a race and life in Brazil is still black and white. Black people hardly benefit from Brazilian-ness.

Image credit Secretaria Especial da Cultura de Brasil via Flickr (Creative Commons).

We’re always told (by our media, politicians, commentators, etcetera) that Brazil is the most multicultural and multiracial country in the world. That Brazilian miscegenation gave birth to a unique kind of beauty and that the Brazilian mixture of races and cultures provided us with a complex of interracial relations that has, in some way, harmonized racism, in the name of some greater interracial identity. Now, “there are no races, but the Brazilian beautiful race,” the Brazilian beauty of the “Brazilian race.”

The documentary film, “Raça,” explores whether nationality should be considered a race (the “Brazilian race”) and whether black Brazilians should abandon once and for all their racial identity for the sake of some Brazilian unity. The filmmakers also ask whether this question itself isn’t already a consequence of institutional racism. Am I supposed to be more Brazilian than black?

Directors of the film are Joel Zito, a Brazilian filmmaker and researcher known for his work on black issues, and Megan Mylan, an American documentary film director. It was released in May 2013. Here’s the trailer.

“Raça” notes that Brazil imported ten times more slaves than the United States and was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888. Despite all this history, only 7,6% of Brazilians declare themselves as black. In contrast, at least 47% identify as white, 2,1% are “yellow” and 0,3% Indian. The remaining 43,1% declare themselves as “pardos.”

Pardos are the descendants of black, white and/or Indian — basically the children of the “Brazilian mixture” — and form the so-called “Brazilian race,” although as a group they’re still not as large a group as the self-declared whites.

While blacks are less than a tenth of the population, they form the largest majority of those living in the poorest neighborhoods or locked up in prison. In other words, blacks are the poor and the criminal, and vice-versa, while pardos are the blacks that became good, who became less black, or whiter.

Pardos thus became the perfect product of the Brazilian whitening culture.

In Brazil, racism and racial identity do not take place through the blood line — you’re not necessarily black if you or your parents are the child of an interracial relation — they take place through racial features: the less or more black physical features you have, the more pardo or more black you are considered.

So, because there is such an emphasis on whiteness as desirable, and black culture and beauty, most pardos also aspire to whiteness. Black people started choosing not to be black.

When people identify as black, however, and are proud of it, they’re usually told there are no races, that Brazil is multiracial and multicultural, that nobody is one hundred per cent anything and that they should only be proud of being Brazilian. And so, like that, any black person is just an individual free of identity and the only place for black to be plural is either in the favelas or in prison.

“Raça,” the film, tells three different stories of the struggle for equality by black Brazilians: They are Elda Maria dos Santos (better known as “Miúda”), José de Paula Neto (“Netinho”) and Paulo Paim. The filmmakers followed them from 2005 until 2011.

Miúda is a descendant of slaves who lives in a “quilombola” community of Linharinho, in the state of Espírito Santo. “Quilombos” are traditional communities created by runaway slaves existing until today. There are still more than one thousand Quilombola communities in Brazil. The most urgent struggles of Quilombola people are to have their traditional lands legally demarcated by the State. Miúda is the personification of that fight for recognition. Her community risks losing its traditional lands to AraCruz, a huge multinational paper and cellulose company. AraCruz’s eucalyptus plantation is encroaching on Quilombola land.

Netinho, the former lead singer of the very popular pagode group Negritude Júnior, is trying to start and maintain the first Brazilian TV network directed and presented by and for black people, the TV da Gente (TV of the People). Mainstream media in Brazil is still one of the greatest consolidators of white supremacy and whitening culture in Brazil. For example, while “colorblindness” erases black people from the screen, practices like blackface are still taken as an acceptable and common fact in Brazilian media. Netinho and the people behind TV da Gente arise to claim and stand the ground of black people in the media.

Paulo Paim, the only black senator in Brazil at the time when the film was made, advocates the sanction of the Estatuto da Igualdade Racial (Racial Equality Act), which had been passed around in the senate for ten years without the due attention. The Estatuto da Igualdade Racial is a set of laws that aims to correct the social inequalities between races. These include racial quotas for universities, ensuring a minimum number of black and Indian students in the universities. For example, blacks make up just 2% of the students in the Universidade de São Paulo (considered one the best public universities in South America). The Estatuto da Igualdade Racial also pushes for the legitimization of the Quilombos, guaranteeing the rights to quilombola lands to quilombola descendants.

The film shows Paim responding to some white opponents’ absurd accusations of reverse racism and racialization, as if there were no races in Brazil. Paim also gives some touching and brave speeches. In a “remarkable” discourse, one of his opponents, a well-known senator, Demóstenes Torres, alleges that miscegenation in Brazil didn’t happen as a result of the rape of black women during slavery times, and that the sexual relations were consensual. Paulo Paim is an extraordinary and admirable — as well as very patient — black man who perfectly and movingly answers those allegations.

“Raça” is a black must-see and is essential to a further and deeper comprehension of the complex structure of racism in Brazil. It is touching, tearful, enraging and absolutely clear in revealing the Brazil’s racial paradox. It takes the mask off racism and names its promoters in the media, in politics, in the economy. From the beginning of slavery and colonization until today, the economic, social, political and cultural lives of black Brazilians have little in common with white Brazilians. They also share very few public spaces. So, am I supposed to be more Brazilian than black? “Raça” answers that question. It refutes the idea that “Brazilian” is a race. Life in Brazil is still black and white.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.