As a white Brazilian born in Mbyá Guarani land, I see myself as the by-product of the different migrations linked to the nation's sad history, such as 'whitening' policies from the mid-1800s and Portuguese colonisation itself. These racist policies were a deliberate political effort aimed at fostering a more European-looking population. Prevalent well into the 20th century, they promoted immigration from countries such as Italy, Germany, and Poland as a means to dilute the African and indigenous ancestry present in the population. The idea encouraged intermarriage and the birth of multi-ethnic children, ultimately reducing the visibility of non-European features. Much of my own family gained entry to the country due to these policies, as they searched for better opportunities away from Europe and were greeted with free plots of land in the mountains of south Brazil.
The legacy of these policies and Portuguese colonisation itself has left a profound impact on Brazil's social structure, cultural identity, and racial dynamics. These historical factors have contributed significantly to the complex mosaic of Brazil's population, where racial diversity remains a defining feature alongside enduring socio-economic disparities rooted in this historical legacy.
Luckily, I was born into a family that always made sure to educate me about our nation's social issues. Thus, this piece about the beautiful and grim sides of Brazil's many shades is written from a specific position of structural privilege. Since moving to Europe, I felt the lack of general knowledge of Brazil's demographics and hence the need to utilize my privileges to share this topic with the international community. I need to acknowledge - borrowing a term from Djamila Ribeiro - that these writings come from my locus of speech: that of a white cisgender Brazilian man who is part of a left-wing sociopolitical bubble.
I was inspired by a short YouTube video where family members from Rio de Janeiro were asked to classify each other and often gave different answers, showcasing how Brazilians usually don't utilize ethnic background as a differentiator, but colour instead. The shades of colour that surge from the responses range from ‘café com leite’ (‘coffee with milk’) to ‘marrom bombom’ (‘taffy brown’) besides the usual ‘black, brown and white,’ or ‘preto, marrom, and branco’ in Portuguese.
Most Brazilians do not utilise ethnic backgrounds to define themselves as black or white, and the preferred method for classification in the country is the shade of skin colour. As most of the population is mixed and cannot be defined as any of the two main hues, it is common to hear people referring to themselves as ‘white but not enough’ or ‘black but not enough’, thus creating a large ‘pardo zone’. Pardo is a colonial word that comes from the Portuguese coloniser's attempt to characterize Indigenous populations. The etymology comes from panther, as it has a color in between dark and light, yet, it ended up being used as a descriptive for any mixed-race person, whether they have Indigenous, European, or African background.
Brazil is arguably one of the most diverse countries on Earth: it has the largest Japanese diaspora, more Lebanese than Lebanon itself, and the largest African population in the Americas. This diversity is something very normal for Brazilians, but since coming to Europe I found out that it is not a widespread notion outside of the country. Easily over 90% of the time someone asks where I am from I receive looks of shock and doubt when I proudly answer ‘Brazil’. It is something I take in a slightly annoyed but mostly careless way, with a hint of debauchery. Yet, I am fully aware of how this showcases how the privileges I have back home are translated into Dutch society. These reactions sadden me as they surely make me feel seen as less Brazilian, but honestly, Brazil is as much of a settler colonial nation as the United States and Australia, and I am fully aware that I am not ethnically Brazilian nor a rightful owner of the land.
Going back to Brazilian diversity, Scholar Cida Bento writes in her book O Pacto da Branquitude (Whiteness's Pact) that the European colonial rhetoric always highlighted skin tone as a basis for distinguishing status and worth. Analysing the European's view of non-Europeans, we see that he gained strength and identity, a kind of substitute, clandestine, underground identity, that positioned himself as the ‘universal man’ when compared to non-Europeans. This is how ‘Brazil,’ with its poorly-led ‘independence’ done by a Portuguese prince, constructed its inter-demographic relations for the last 500 years. I share what Cida Bento believes is fundamental: the recognition and debate about this heritage by white people.
Differently from the United States and South Africa, Brazil never had clear-cut segregation laws, yet institutional racism was and still is hidden in our legislation. The government encouraged mixed couples as it had the intention to ‘whiten’ the population, a common practice in Latin America. In the case of Brazil, this not-so-hidden practice grew after the abolition of slavery in 1888, one of the latest dates in the world. Most of my family settled in the south of Brazil during this whitening period when poor Europeans were welcomed with pieces of land and citizenship. Germany, the Netherlands, Italy… in this region of the country it is hard to find a white person without a second passport, while in the meantime, many Brazilians don't own any passport at all.
There is a certain rhetoric that Brazil is not racist because of its miscegenation, but this couldn't be further from the truth, and as long as Brazilians do not acknowledge that they're part of a racist society, people of colour (POC) will continue to be oppressed. Brazilians understand that racial hatred exists abroad, but not in their homes, and this is the perversity of our racism: it was constructed in such a skilful way that Brazilians reached the point where blindness became the norm. No one explains this concept better than the famous Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre. For him, the term denotes the belief that Brazil escaped racism and that Brazilians do not view each other through the lens of race and do not harbour racial prejudice towards one another. Because of that, while social mobility may be constrained by many factors such as gender and class, racial discrimination is often considered irrelevant within the confines of the concept of racial democracy.
One of the largest national mobilisations where this notion came along was the establishment of the ‘quotas’ system: a public policy based on equity where there's the allocation of certain spots for students from public schools and, within this reserve, some spots are for self-declared black, ‘pardo’ or indigenous people. In Brazil, public education – which is free – is terrible, haunted by budget cuts and underpaid professors. The exception is university, as this is the best higher education you can get in the country, but universities have become elite and white spaces due to how bad public education is and how hard it is to get in, so quotas came to change that. This is still a very polarising topic in Brazil, but not for me. Speaking from personal experience, the existence of these quotas allowed our educational system to become a lot more diverse. My mother teaches at the Medicine school of my hometown's federal university, known for being the best and hardest course to get into in the whole state. Before quotas were implemented, she used to teach for a 95% white class, mostly sons and daughters of renowned doctors. However, after quotas, her class is at least 50% POC, with people from public high schools and other regions of the country.
Many say this quota system is unfair, and that ethnic and social backgrounds are unrelated to education, yet, this is proof of Brazil's blindness. I did not get into the university I wanted because of the reserved spots for quotas, but for me, this was natural and extremely valid. I had the opportunity to study in private schools, my family had the funds to put me in extra classes when I was doing badly in a course, and most importantly: they could pay for a private university. Of course, I would have loved to go to one of the best universities in the country, but I understand my privileged position and how I could have just studied harder if I wanted it that much.
According to Sérgio Penna, a Brazilian geneticist, the biological differentiation of humans in race is outdated and dangerous, having caused some of the most outrageous crimes in history. With our bare eyes, it is not race we see, but the superficial biological diversity within our species in traits such as skin colour, hair form, and eye shape. These variations are not enough to justify racial classification since our biological diversity is too small, yet racism does exist. Racism can be related to the category of a ‘racialised group’, which is very much alive and can be of great sociopolitical value by offering a way for those who have historically been treated as members of ‘inferior races’ to assert and defend themselves collectively. We need to be talking about racism, racialisation, and racialised groups, not ‘race’.
Brazil's diversity is something to be proud of: it is a beautiful reflection of our country and how welcoming it is, yet the history behind it is one of sadness, genocide, slavery, and indenture. Brazilians come in every colour and shade – it is what makes us so unique in the global scene. But Brazil cannot continue living the lie of racial democracy, first because race as a biological differentiator does not exist, and second because it is a racist and unequal nation, where people will be privileged according to their whiteness. Brazil is a spectrum of colours and ethnicities, but the opportunities afforded to individuals are still dictated by the shade of their skin. To truly honour Brazil's diversity and move toward a more equitable society, acknowledging and confronting these historical injustices is imperative. It's time for Brazilians to confront the pervasive racism that continues to shape its cultural, mediatic, and social spheres, fostering a more inclusive nation.