Brazilian Racial Formations

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Brazilian Racial Formations







Brazil has the largest nonwhite population of any country outside the African continent. The 2000 Brazilian census found that 45 percent of Brazilians, out of a population of some 185 million, identified themselves as “people of color.” In Brazil, this term implies a range of skin tones from very dark to the many shades usually included under the English rubric “Mulatto.” The term is widely used in Brazil because it is among the most racially heterogeneous nations on earth. This is a result of the long tradition of race mixture and a consequence of violent sexual relations, as well as formal and informal unions between Portuguese men and African and indigenous women.

This tradition is evident from a 2000 DNA study of the Brazilian population. Even among the self-reported “white” population in Brazil, the study found that of those Brazilians who consider themselves “white,” fully 97 percent do, indeed, have paternal parentage from Europe. However, only 39 percent have maternal parentage from Europe, while 33 percent have indigenous parentage on the maternal side and 28 percent have African parentage on the maternal side. In short, fully 61 percent of Brazilians who consider themselves “white” also have African or Indian ancestry, a result of the nation’s history of miscegenation.


The term “people of color” is key to the most important feature of race relations and racial classification in Brazil: the absence of sharply defined racial groupings. In Brazil there is no distinct “black” group or distinct “white” group, as there is in the United States. There are, of course, individuals with distinctly Negroid and Caucasoid physical features, as well as intermediate types, but whites, Mulattoes, and blacks in Brazil do not belong to separate, identifiable social segments. Because well-defined social groups based on racial characteristics are absent, segregation and discrimination based on discrete social units are impossible.

The best way to describe racial classification in Brazil is to contrast it with that of the United States. In Brazil there is no “one-drop rule,” the U.S. custom that defines anyone with any known or suspected African ancestry as “black.” Because of the one-drop rule (also known as the rule of hypodescent), all people with any known African ancestry in the United States are said to be “black,” whatever their personal appearance. Hence, millions of people are called “black” or “African American,” even though their racial ancestry is decidedly mixed. The one-drop rules simply avoids the ambiguity of an intermediate identity.

The Brazilian system of racial classification is far more complex. In Brazil, people are assigned to racial groups based on what they look like—their skin color, hair type, and facial features—regardless of their ancestry. As such, individuals may be assigned to different racial groups than their parents, siblings or other relatives. Moreover, how individuals are classified racially does not depend solely on their physical appearance. Social class, education, and manner of dress all come into play in assigning someone to a racial category. As Brazilians put it, “money whitens,” so the higher the social class, the lighter the racial category to which an individual belongs. A well-to-do, well-educated woman with dark skin and Negroid features might be referred to as a moreno (roughly, “brunette”), while an illiterate sharecropper with fair skin might be assigned to a darker racial category than his physical appearance alone would warrant.

Because of this system of racial classification, Brazilians necessarily recognize and have terms for a wide variety of racial types. There are perhaps twelve principal categories based on varying combinations of physical features, with dozens of racial terms in daily use. Moreover, many of these terms are ambiguous, in that there is no wide agreement on their abstract meaning or on to whom they should be applied. As a result, the same individual may be called by different racial terms at different times and by different people. Because there is no rule of descent, people can actually change their racial identity by becoming better educated and moving up the social ladder.


A system of racial classification developed in Brazil that blurred racial distinctions, a result of the absence of the one-drop rule. Why did this occur? One must look to Brazilian history for an answer. First, emigration from Portugal to Brazil during the first two centuries of colonization was small scale and largely male. As such, once the importation of black slaves got under way, the people of African origin going to Brazil vastly outnumbered those from Europe. The forced passage of more than 3 million Africans to Brazil in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was ten times the number of slaves who were brought to North America. Most slaves worked on sugar plantations in northeast Brazil, and later in mining gold in the southeast and on coffee plantations in the south. Even with the increase in migration from Portugal to Brazil spurred by the discovery of gold in the state of Minas Gerais in the eighteenth century, by the time of independence from Portugal, in 1822, well over two-thirds of Brazil’s population of 4 million was of African or mixed heritage.

Not all blacks and people of mixed race were slaves, however. A sizeable but unknown percentage were free people of color, descendants of unions between Portuguese, Africans, and Brazil’s indigenous population. What is key here is the large number of free people of color in relation to the number of whites. This contrasts with the situation in the United States, where 80 percent of the population was white. Even in the American South, no state had a majority population of African origin.

Why the difference? Compared to the flow of people from the British Isles to the North American colonies, emigration from Portugal to Brazil was relatively sparse. There were simply too few Portuguese to provide the labor for the myriad economic and military functions that slaves themselves could not perform. White slave owners needed plantation foremen and hands to guard their property and hunt for runaway slaves. Labor was also required to staff the ranches that provided the oxen and horses so necessary to the sugar industry. There was also a growing demand for artisans in the colony’s towns and cities, and for farmers who could help feed the burgeoning slave population. With relatively few people of European origin, most of these positions were filled by the growing population of free blacks and Mulattoes. In the United States, however, the influx of African slaves occurred only after a large intermediate class of whites had been established, so there was nowhere for the freed slave, whether Mulatto or black, to go.

Hence, in the United States, the one-drop rule became a way of segregating all nonwhites—of whatever shade—into a singular, undifferentiated “black” category. Because of prejudice and discrimination, those in this category could not compete with the white majority. But no one would have gained from such a rule in Brazil, for the large black and Mulatto component of the population rarely competed directly with the nation’s relatively small white segment.


It has been claimed that Brazilians lack racial prejudice because of the absence of the one-drop rule and the myriad of racial terms in daily use. It is undeniable that many Brazilians do believe that their land is a “racial democracy,” one without prejudice towards its darker-skinned citizens. They compare race relations in their homeland favorably with those in the United States, highlighting their nation’s racial harmony. This harmonious multiracial heritage thesis is mirrored in the widely cited view of Gilberto Freyre, one of Brazil’s preeminent twentieth-century scholars, who wrote that “with respect to race relations the Brazilian situation is probably the nearest approach to paradise to be found anywhere in the world” (Freyre 1963, p. 9). In the 1930s, Freyre was instrumental in recasting discussions of Brazil’s multiracial legacy, making it a source of pride rather than shame, as it had been throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He asserted that because of its unique blending of African, European, and Amerindian elements, Brazil is a tolerant racial democracy, entirely lacking in harsh racism. This prideful representation has become part of national discourse.

It has been said that this ideology shapes the contours of interracial behavior in Brazil, smoothing its edges. And, it is, indeed, the case that there is quite widespread miscegenation and intermarriage among Brazil’s diverse racial groups, and that Brazil has never had an organized system of segregation based solely on race as existed in the American south. Moreover, the notion of a continuum of shades of color plays into the racial democracy ideal because such slight phenotypical variations make it difficult or impossible to discriminate against individuals solely based on their physical appearance.

Nonetheless, this rather rosy picture of race relations in Brazil has been strongly contested. Some scholars suggest, for example, that there has been an over-emphasis on color gradations, and they have questioned the degree to which such blurred linguistic distinctions have concrete consequences for an individual’s well-being. Others claim that, despite the wide variety of color terms in use in Brazil, there is still a great divide between whites and nonwhites. It has long been known that prejudice and negative stereotypes against dark skin and Negroid features are widespread in the country. In short, scholars have begun to challenge this national myth, attempting to show that race relations are characterized by exclusion, not inclusion, and that fair-skinned Brazilians continue to be privileged and hold a disproportionate share of the nation’s power and wealth.


Social scientists have long argued that discrimination in Brazil is more a matter of social class than of race, that one’s life chances as a poor person in Brazil are bleak, regardless of one’s color. While whites and nonwhites do not have equal social standing in Brazil, and while dark-skinned people are more likely to be poor than light skinned people, scholars have posited that all members of the national lower class are equally lacking in opportunities—regardless of race—because social class largely determines where one lives, attends school, works, and socializes. In Brazil, it is suggested, racial discrimination is relatively mild, while discrimination in terms of social class is sharp and pervasive. Finally, it has long been said that in Brazil membership in the lower class, and the disabilities that go along with it, are akin to those of belonging to a racial minority in the United States.

Researchers are questioning this “class over racism” thesis, however, because it has been shown that even when they hold markers of social class such as income and education as constants, people of color fare worse than whites in certain aspects of life, including rates of infant mortality and average life expectancy. While it is true that the color gap in life expectancy and child mortality diminished during the last decades of the twentieth century, whites continue to have longer life expectancies than nonwhites. Research also suggests that even when socioeconomic factors are held constant, the race of the mother continues to have a strong effect on infant mortality, and that this is likely due to differences in health care and housing.

Additional studies have shown the presence of discrimination in other areas, including educational and occupational opportunities and wages. Children of color enter school later and leave school earlier than white children, and they have a lower probability of being in school at any given age. People of color are also disproportionately employed in the lowest-paying occupations in Brazil, a fact likely linked to the deficit in education. One study found that—when matched for education and

job experience—nonwhites, both male and female, have lower wages than whites of either sex. This new research suggests that racial discrimination, independent of social class, explains such findings.

Are these different views of race relations in Brazil irreconcilable? Perhaps it is just that their levels of analysis are different. Followers of the Freyre school emphasize horizontal relations between the races, stressing their easygoing interactions and relaxed sociability. But those who question the racial democracy ideal underscore vertical relations between the races, pointing to the widespread disparities in life opportunities, as evidenced in the studies cited.

These two views have been interpreted as a generational divide. In the years following World War II, Brazilian and North American scholars almost invariably viewed the Brazilian paradigm as a far kinder and gentler model than that of the United States, with its ugly history of blatant racism and segregation. But since the 1970s, a new generation of scholars has questioned what they see as an idealistic interpretation of the racial situation in Brazil. They have sought, through their research, to unmask the profound racial inequalities in that nation.


The discourse on Brazil as a racial paradise long served to dampen Afro-Brazilian social and political movements. Moreover, because of the absence of the one-drop rule, racial consciousness has always been more muted in Brazil than in the United States, making it more difficult to organize on the basis of race. Then, too, until recent years, the traditional claim that Brazil had harmonious race relations compared with the United States led the Brazilian government to do almost nothing to address the issue of racial discrimination, other than passing a largely ignored law criminalizing it.

Still, some evidence does suggest that Brazil has been moving toward a system of racial classification similar to that of the United States. The multitude of racial terms commonly used by Brazilians may be giving way to a bifurcate system of negro and blanco (black and white). On the other hand, the more inclusive term Afro-brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian) has gained popularity, particularly among political activists, and more groups celebrating Brazil’s African heritage have emerged.

Nevertheless, it was not until the late 1990s that Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president of Brazil, officially acknowledged the existence of racial discrimination in Brazil. He followed this up by appointing a national commission to propose remedies. In 2003 an affirmative action program (called discriminaçāoposítiva or “positive discrimination”) was instituted for university admissions. This was a quota system intended to enhance the educational opportunities for nonwhites (who then made up only 2 percent of university students) and close the socioeconomic gap between the races. A number of Brazilian universities began reserving roughly 20 percent of their places for nonwhite and public school students. The next president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva, expanded these initiatives by creating the Special Ministry to Promote Racial Equality and initiating additional legislation.

Brazil’s embrace of affirmative action generated a backlash, however, particularly among some elements of the white elite, who argued that racial preferences were unconstitutional and that affirmative action was an “imported” ideology foreign to Brazil. The prestigious State University of Rio de Janeiro, which led the way by instituting reserved places for students of color in 2002, faces legal challenges from hundreds of private school graduates who claim they were unfairly denied admission under the new policy.

Ironically, in trying to take advantage of university affirmative action programs, some white middle-class Brazilians have initiated the one-drop rule by claiming to have a black ancestor. Said one university administrator of the practice: “It’s disappointing because that means the program is not always benefiting poor or underprivileged kids. But at the same time, what can you do? We have no idea really who is black and who is not. This is Brazil.”

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Blackness in Latin America; HIV and AIDS; Latin American Racial Transformations; Multiracial Identities; Racial Formations; Social Welfare States.


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Maxine L. Margolis