Highlighting Brazil's Complex African Identity And Race Issues
December 28 2013
We've all heard about Brazil having one of the largest African populations outside of the African continent. We've all heard Bahia has one of the strongest, rootsy African cultures in the Americas, and when we hear a samba tune, we immediately associate it with Brazilian culture. Of course everyone knows that Brazil is one of the world's top football nations.
Well, I even have some Brazilian roots from the
Tabom people - African-Brazilians who returned to Ghana and other West African territories. But apart from some of its music, I haven't been particularly interested in Brazil, and was not aware of its complex African identity and race issues until very recently.
Oh, that's apart from a story I heard at a Soul Trade seminar many moons ago - I think it may have been told by Dotun Adebayo in his days as a music journalist. Apparently, despite the huge number of Africans within Brazil society, its people were just not used to seeing successful Africans within the mainstream (perhaps with the exception of Pele) that when they saw crossover music stars on TV like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, they just assumed that they were European!
In Britain, when "black" is used as a racial descriptor, it generally means people of African or South Asian heritage. In the political context, it can be as broad as to cover non-Europeans, and can even go as far as covering oppressed European groups! In the US, "black" pretty much covers people of African heritage, irrespective of whether their antecedents are located in Africa, or more recently, from the Caribbean.
However, in Brazil, it turns out to be another ball game! It seems our debate about what we call ourselves in Britain is nothing compared to what's going on in Brazil - The Black Women Of Brazil blog has an article on the subject worth reading:
Black (Negro) or African descendant (Afrodescendente)? What's in a term?
The article explains the five main racial classifications (for a fuller understanding of terms such as "preto" (black), "branco" (white), "pardo" (Mixed-race, brown), "amarelo" (yellow, East Asian) and "indígena"/''indio" (Amerindian) see
Racial Classification And Terminology In Brazil or Afro-Brazilian), the recent revelations from the 2010 Brazilian census, and which terminology three well-known Brazilians of African heritage prefer to describe themselves by.
Interestingly, whilst Brazil is held up to be the nation with the most Africans outside of Africa, strictly speaking, only 7.6% of the 2010 census identify themselves as "black", "preto" or African. That's about 13 million out of a population of some 195 million people of different shades.
This is the 2010 census breakdown: "Brancos" ( 47.3%), "Pardos" (43.1), "Pretos" (7.6%), "Amarelos" (2.1%) and "Indígenas" (0.3%). However the figures do not tell a complete story -
the census is dependent upon self-identification by respondents, so perception and reality are not always the same. For example a "pardo" who sees himself as "branco", can self-identify as such on the census and hence pass as white.
However, advocates of the Movimento Negro (African Brazilian movement), which urges African pride, also argues that the African-Brazilian population is politically, culturally and racially made up of those classified as "preto" (African) and "pardo" (part-African), which makes up what is popularly described as the "Afro-Brazilian" population. "Pardo" covers those described as "mixed race", and also known as brown, mulatto, or "mestizo". Among the "pardo" is a mixture of African with European, Asian, and/or Amerindian. The numerous permutations produce a wide range of shades and phenotypes.
Whilst some "pardos" are comfortable aligning themselves with the "Afro-Brazilian" terminology, others, one would imagine those closer to "brancos" in shade and other typical European phenotypes, whilst not passing themselves as "brancos" do not want to be identified by their African blood.
Other terms worth noting are "morena", which basically describes a brown or light skinned female of African heritage, whilst "negra" basically refers to a female with mainly African features. Considering the socio-economic advantages of being a "morena", ironically the actress Camila Pitanga, who is an obvious "morena" takes pride in describing herself as a "negra", whilst the media often describes her as a "morena" and asks her why she insists on describing herself as a "negra"!
With the 2010 census showing that the
African-Brazilians are the biggest racial group for the first time in the country's history - the "preto" and "pardos" population has grown whilst the "brancho" population has fallen in the last 10 years - perhaps it's not surprising that another terminology has sprung up to describe this ethnic majority group: Afrodescendente, which means African descendant.
It's a good move, in that it links people to their African ancestry. But what's up with the Brazilian love for the word "Afro", which in places like Britain is often associated with the Afro comb! And as all humanity descended from Africa, they ought to consider using African heritage instead (see
Thinking About Language In Teaching African History - the TAOBQ Primer).
Glória Maria, a famous TV host/journalist doesn't like Afrodescendente, favouring negro ("black") or "neguinha" (supposedly a term of endearment meaning "little black woman"). Is it because Afrodescente identifies too strongly with Africa? Particularly for someone in mainstream media, where a strident African association may not be perceived as a career enhancer. Incidentally, we've been there before - the TAOBQ campaign started by finding out which
terminology African heritage people in London preferred - African or black?
Preta Gil is a singer and actress, and the "prado" daughter of Gilberto Gil, a famous musician and former Brazilian Minister of Culture in Brazil. With her first name mistakenly substituted with "Preto" and even "Afrodescente", no wonder even though she recognises her African roots, she dislikes labels of any kind.
It's left to singer Toni Garrido to give the unequivocal support for the use of "Afrodescente". Says Toni: “I use Afrodescendente because it’s a cooler word than negão, crioulo or neguinho."
Curiously, there isn't much of a socio-economic gap between the "preto" and "pardo". However, not surprisingly, there's a massive gap between the African-Brazilian and their European counterparts.
To deal with racism in Brazil, I'm indebted to an article on Travel Making Kai's blog entitled
'A Lighter Shade Of Black… Observations Of Racial Identity In Rio'. I'd like to think that she's taught me a bit about our Tabom history, and that through attending some of the TAOBQ events, I've made her more aware of issues around African identity.
Kai, who's on a visit to Brazil, where she's researching Tabom history, is also taking the opportunity to research the experiences of continental Africans living in different parts of Brazil.
'A Lighter Shade Of Black…'
reveals the racism and sexism African women face in Brazil. Kai sees beyond the "We’re all one people - Brazilian" facade. She even talks about an Irish mother who faces discrimination because she has a "pardo" child, and some of the discrimination associated with what's popularly known as "shadism".
Well, this just about scratches the surface of a deep issue. Should you wish to explore further, I've copied below some links to use as a starting point on your journey of discovery of Brazil's rainbow nation.
Another important area, sadly not touched on here, is
class, and how it places out in tandem with racism.
Kai Li's Tabom Project
A lighter Shade Of Black… Observations Of Racial Identity In Rio
Black (negro) or African descendant (afrodescendente)? What's in a term?
Racial classification and terminology in Brazil
Brazil census shows African-Brazilians in the majority for the first time