Black Liberation in Brazil: Embracing African Ancestry

30 Dec


What is the first visual image that comes to your mind when you think about a Brazilian woman? My first images were that of exotic Brazilian super models Gisele Bundchen, and Alessandra Ambrosio.1e3ae765e3c1592b3bdcb99e959b848f It is not uncommon that the immediate association of the typical Brazilian woman bears the resemblance of whiteness. The media reinforces this misrepresentation. alessandra_ambrosio05In addition to the misconception that Brazilian woman are exotic others, bearing the looks associated with the Caucasian race, we are fooled to believe that this is the most common representation of the typical Brazilian woman. Interestingly enough, Brazil holds the largest population of African people outside of the continent of Africa, so how is it that this vast distortion has become normalized? The system of white supremacy is the answer. This post will address the lingering racism and classism, which has created a wedge between Black and white Brazilians. I should add, that when I use the term white in this post, I am referring solely to skin color, not to national origin. In addition, this post will also look at some explanations for the negative sentiment towards African’s in Brazil. Lastly, I will explore some of the ways that Afro-Brazilians are rejecting white supremacy through creative expression and the embrasure of their natural hair. This disavowal was highlighted in Brazil’s first annual Marcha do Empoderamento Crespo (the March of Curly Hair Empowerment) in 2015. This leaves us with the question of how to obtain Black liberation in Brazil, and is this even possible in the 21st century. I will conclude with some proposed solutions.rtemagicc_crespo811-jpg

Brazil has an interesting racial structure. Lighter and even whiter skin is embraced and celebrated, despite having such a large number of Africans dwelling in this country. Brazil served as a hub for newly abducted Africans, where they were trained in the art of being slaves. Most African slaves were brought to various different coastal countries in South America, mainly Brazil and the Caribbean, before being transported to the North American colonies for slave labor. This accounts for the massive population of Africans living in Brazil today. liberdade_history_of_slaveryUpon further examination, “the negative representations of blackness in Brazil can be traced back to the period of slavery. Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery and one of the largest buyers of African slave labour in the world” (Pinho 1). On the continent of Brazil, slavery was especially harsh and lasted longer than in the US. Since the harsh racial divide was embedded in Brazilian society for so long, a country-wide disdain for Black Africans living in Brazil developed and lasted for years after slavery ended. Thus a negative racial sentiment was created, leaving Afro-Brazilians on the receiving end of said animosity.

White supremacy is not a concept that is distinct to the United States. Wherever colonization occurred, white supremacy followed. Although the concept of race in society did not always exist, once established, it was used as a dividing tool to separate people based on phenotypical features. The most prominent feature being skin color. Scholarly writers Dzidzienyo and Hasenbalg, “analysed the racial order in Brazil in terms of the linkage between culture and structure, between ideology and inequality. In this sense, these writers adopted early versions of a racial formation perspective” (Winant 181). In Omi and Winant’s article, “Racial Formation,” racial formation is defined as how we came to view the term race as we understand it today. The history behind racial formation lies in the creation of slavery and the marking of anyone of African descent as being inferior to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Race defines how people are seen in society, and what they can accomplish. In the US, race is understood by scholars as having been socially constructed. However, Omi and Winant explain that Brazil, “has historically had less rigid conceptions of race, and thus a variety of ‘intermediate’ categories exist” (Omi and Winant 61). Brazilian racial categories, unlike the US binary Black or white structure, can be placed on a sliding scale, where the whiter your skin, the greater your chance of passing as white. Embodying whiteness allows Brazilians of African dissent the ability to compete with the rest of society for economic stability. slide_5Because ultimately, in Brazil, “inequality is ‘smoothly’ maintained by a combination of ideological manipulation and coercion, all with the objective of maximizing white elite (i.e. capitalist) control of the developing Brazilian economy” (Winant 181). So here I must note, that class is able to trump race, as long as your skin color allows you the opportunity to encroach on the spaces of wealth.

In Brazil, the “mulata” is celebrated. Mulata refers to someone of equally mixed African and Caucasian ancestry. Mulata’s usually have lighter skin, more Eurocentric features and straighter hair. ransom1photoBrazil also has a group of individuals who are, “somatically Caucasian, or what many Brazilians refer to as amulatada, meaning a person officially classified as white, but with a hint of African Ancestry” (Hamilton 183). These individuals do not even have any recognizable African features and it is this ability to phenotypically assimilate, that allows this group to climb the ranks in society. Although arguably, it can be debated that many individuals maintained some African bodily features that are attributed to Blackness, such as full lips, curvy figures and round backsides. Conservatively, “in both the United States and Brazil, miscegenation was seen by some as a solution and by others as a threat” (Hamilton 185). However, in stark contrast to the United States, Brazil advanced to celebrate, “miscegenation as the aforementioned process of the progressive whitening of the population” (Hamilton 185). racial-suicideThis was seen as a solution to the problem of Blackness in their country. In theory, they sought to turn everyone white, through implementing the ‘mulatto escape hatch’ as a means of disclaiming the existence of racism in their country” (Hamilton 188). By encouraging African Brazilians to procreate with whites and water down their bloodline, elites claim that this inclusion into whiteness gives future generations a way out of racial and class subordination. However, statistics have shown that there is really no difference in the socio economic class structure of Blacks and Mulatos.  Howard Winant, in the article “Rethinking Race in Brazil,” add emphasis to, “the fact that 100 years after the end of slavery blacks are still overwhelmingly concentrated in the bottom strata (which) certainly suggests that race is still a crucial determinant of economic success” (Winant 178).

As a direct result of institutional racism in Brazil, many Afro-Brazilians have turned societal hate inward and have become very self-conscious of their looks, specifically those with darker skin. The mainstream media outlets all display whiteness as beautiful and the norm. deise-d_anne-do-maranhc3a3o-raissa-santana-do-paranc3a1-e-danielle-marion-do-rio-grande-do-norte-celsoThese types of dismissive actions openly reject Blackness, and allude to a lack of desirability for people with dark skin. Again it is important to emphasize the fact that the mainstream beauty norm in Brazil is that of European origin, in spite of African people making up such a large population in the country. Upon further examination, in Brazil it has been found that, “racism operates in this context in such a perverse manner that it obliges its victims to adapt their bodies to standards of cleanliness that are humanly unfeasible, and therefore inhuman. Underneath the vigilant control of one’s smell and appearance lies a strategy to avoid the repugnance that other people may express towards one’s body” (Pinho 5). It is because of this negative attitude portraying Blacks as ugly and unclean, Afro-Brazilian people are then pitted against unrealistic standards of beauty to which they would never measure up to. This causes tension between lighter skinned and darker skinned Blacks in Brazil, resulting in colorism and self-hate for one’s culture. As researchers, we must acknowledge the fact that “the racial hierarchies and values of colonial racism have left a deep mark on our conceptions of beauty” (Erasmus 12).

Internalized oppression in some has led to a complete denouncing of one’s African-ness. For others, this provided them the drive to embrace African nationalism, Pan Africanism, and Black Power, concepts not specific to the US. 11223482_856018131172629_1112707470509206557_nAccording to scholars, “Africanness is defined on the grounds of impression, the same can be said of how Africa is imagined and recreated for the purpose of creating Africanness and the elements that compose its beauty” (Pinho 12). So, this embrasure by Afro-Brazilians created an African culture outside of Africa, where they could rock Afro’s and Dreadlocks confidently without fear of exclusion. Blacks in Brazil finally found a way to outwardly express themselves through the embracing of one’s natural hair.marca-do-emporamento-crespo3 According to Patricia Pinho, “hair is an important issue in most black cultures… the first important question at the birth of a child after ‘Is it a boy?’ remains ‘And the hair?’ Black hair is politicised by class and gender. It is also racialised. The vocabularies of hair in black discourses are rich, indicating both the importance of hair and its complex politics.” (Pinho12). So, for Black people in Brazil, it is essential to have this means of racial expression that cannot be discredited by white supremacy. Being able to embrace one’s natural hair is an actor in Brazil’s liberation of Black people because Afro Brazilians are rejecting white supremacist ideology and discriminatory standards of beauty.

10703626_792551154099668_1326559359461778534_n    20161230_113331

The emergence of a natural hair movement was the first of its kind in Brazil. Zoe Sullivan and Ana Terra Athayde declare that, “in Brazil, flattening irons have fallen by the wayside as more and more women choose to embrace their curls and kinks” (Sullivan and Athayde 1). Afro Brazilians have developed their own aptitude for self-definition. This movement began with the focus on Black empowerment, and nothing else.marcha_crespa_-_foto_allyson_alapont It goals were to demand equality in jobs, wages, housing, etc., in addition the decolonization of Black hair. This movement sought to liberate Black women in Brazil so they can efficiently join the rest of society socially, economically and politically, without having to conform to whiteness. This movement encompasses, “all of these periods where you can see a freer use of one’s body, including hair, are associated with political processes of reflection, of affirmation, of agency, of recognizing women” (Sullivan and Athayde 1). The choice to wear natural hair can be identified as a direct political stance against white racism in Brazil.67ae75e94b327cbc1a98b81390fc89cd In the 2015 March of the Curly Hair Empowerment, “Black women from all over Brazil, of different backgrounds, education and socioeconomic status, came together to protest widespread inequality” (Freelon 1). This movement has made some strides, although Blackness is still not seen as comparable to whiteness. In addition to that, “statistics show that activities_racism_and_inequality_in_brazil_write-6f57db4bc42c995385dc694ee9c3f063black Brazilian women suffer some of the highest rates of violence and poverty in Brazil… and on average, they earn $364 per month, which is about 44 percent of the average pay for white men, 75 percent of the pay for black men and 60 percent of the pay for white women” (Freelon 1). So there is still some work that needs to be done here.

When looking at some interviews I conducted to explore race relations in Brazil, I was given mixed messages. On one hand, a white Brazilian woman was asked: Does racism exist in Brazil? To what extent? And by racism, we are specifically looking at any difference in the way people of color, or African people are treated in Brazil. She replied with the following response:

Interviewer 1: I don’t think Racism is still in Brazil. I think that those times have passed.

I think this is important to look at because scholars argue the idea that one’s perception of racism is dependent on one’s social and racial status in society. Because she has lighter skin, she is not receptive to racist ideology in Brazilian society. When I asked an African activist and professor, who is active in the Brazilian movement, her answer was completely opposite to the woman who, except for her accent, could pass for white. She said conclusively:

Interviewer 2: Yes, it is endemic and apart of the fabric of the society.

Another question I feel the need to address is the distinctions made in the question: Is there a distinct way that classes of people are separated in Brazil? By hair type, race, religion, age, disability, economic status, skin color, region, etc.

Interviewer 1: Yes. People who have a lot of money have nicer homes, cars, and resources. I am not sure about hair, but my daughter is mixed with African American and when she was young, I did not know how to do her hair that good.

Interviewer 2: Yes, in general colorism is a very significant problem and there are peoples’ expectation of your potential as a human being is determined by your skin color and phenotypical traits. The closer to European, the more technicolor your life tends to be.

There is a distinct difference in the way the interviewees answered the same question. The second interview from an esteemed professor, answered the question in the exact same way the scholars I have read concluded.20160910_irc514 The first interviewee was a middle class mother and housewife, who attributed the separation of people as exclusively to tangible resources that can be obtained through financial capital. It is clear that she is not conscious to the way race and class are stratified in Brazil. I have come to the conclusion that since she is of middle class, white standing, she is oblivious to the hardships imposed on African’s in Brazil.

The natural hair movement sparked a fire in Afro-Brazilians to demand a change in their society. image003It is necessary to note that, these demands merely scratched the surface to Brazils racist and classist framework. Because of the work these women put in, “Black power’s popularity is beginning to challenge the Brazilian notion that ‘straight is beautiful’” (Rabouin 2). This push back against white supremacy is powerful and speaks to the power of the Black woman. Our proposed solution to this structure is: wake up, increase awareness and visibility, perform scholarly research, develop a true passion for change, love for your brother and sister, and get involved in activist efforts to end structural racism in Brazil. Afro Latina’s in other region stress the need for them to, “overcome the invisibility (they) have been subjected to due to the structural racism and the various forms in which discrimination manifested in (their) countries” (Falcon 197).

In closing, I want to leave you with a quote from one of the natural hair sisters who participated in the movement, “‘Contrary to the rules of society and straightening crazes, relaxing and stretching, many black women are discovering the beauty, the charm and femininity of black power, with or without accessory, with or without comb cream,’ she (said). ‘The texture and volume of curly hair is conquering those who are tired of chemical alteration’” (Rabouin 2). By incorporating awareness and activism, Black liberation in Brazil is something that can be obtainable in the near future. Once the system of white supremacy has been challenged and eventually dismantled, Black liberation in Brazil can be achieved.bf877178ee0cea05bd0f2e15253a892114111711_1268901619801461_1396986870_n






Athayde , Ana Terra and Zoe Sullivan. “‘Black beauty has a place here’: Brazilian women embrace hair’s curls and kinks.” 4 August 2016. Web. 3 December 2016.

Erasmu, Zimitri. “‘Oe! My Hare Gaan Huistoe’: Hair-Styling as Black Cultural Practice .” Empowering Women for Gender Equity , No. 32 (1997): 11-16. JSTOR.

Falcón, Sylvanna M. “The Particularism of Human Rights for Latin American Women of African Descent.” Feminist Formations, Vol 28.1 (2016): 190-204. Project Muse.

Freelon, Kiratiana. “Fighting Poverty, Plagued by Violence: Why 10,000 Black Women in Brazil Marched for Their Rights.” 15 November 2015. Web. 3 December 2016.

Hamilton, Russell G. “Gabriela Meets Olodum: Paradoxes of Hybridity, Racial Identity, and Black Consciousness in Contemporary Brazil.” Research in African Literatures , Vol. 38.1 (2007): 181-193. JSTOR.

Omi , Michael and Howard Winant. “Racial Formations.” Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. New York and London: Routledge Press, 1994. 57-69. Print.

Pinho, Patricia. “Afro-Aesthetics in Brazil.” Nuttall, ed. Sarah. Beautiful Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. 266-291. Print.

Rabouin, Dion. “Black Power in Brazil Means Natural Hair.” 26 June 2014. Web. 3 December 2016.

Winant, Howard. “Rethinking Race in Brazil.” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 24.1 (1992): 176-192. JSTOR.





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