“Girl, You Are Not Morena. We Are Negras!”: Questioning the Concept of “Race” in Southern Bahia, Brazil

“Girl, You Are Not Morena. We Are Negras!”: Questioning the Concept of “Race” in Southern Bahia, Brazil

Volume 35, Issue 3 (September 2007)
pages 383-409
DOI: 10.1525/eth.2007.35.3.383

Michael D. Baran, Preceptor in Expository Writing
Harvard University

In 2003, teachers at the municipal high school in Belmonte, Brazil, began presenting students with a radically different ideology about racial categorization: an essentialized ideology that defines anyone not “purely” branco (white) as negro (black). This system of categorization conflicts with popular belief in a mixed-race moreno identity based not only on ancestry but also on observable physical features. Through a combination of ethnographic and experimental methods, I examine this apparent clash of ideologies in Belmonte with respect to academic theories on the cognition of race and ethnicity. I show how children and adults integrate certain aspects of essentialism but not others in their constructions of identity and in the way they reason about hypothetical scenarios. These nuanced solutions to the challenges posed by explicit conflicts over supposedly natural categories lead to my own questioning of race in anthropological theory.

During a March afternoon in 2003, in an eighth-grade science class in Belmonte, Brazil, racial ideologies collided. The lesson of the day dealt with human biology and basic genetics. One student in the class asked the teacher about the biology of race mixing. The teacher then tried to clarify the supposedly natural facts about racial classification for the class. She explained that there were only two races—blonde and blue-eyed brancos (whites) and everyone else, considered negros (blacks). Although a few heads nodded in approval, most of the class looked confused or upset. The teacher was presenting a particularly extreme form of the racial classification system that black movements have urged Brazilians to adopt, one in which those with any traceable African ancestry would self-identify as “negro” as a sign of positive self-image and political solidarity. While this conception of “negro” has been animating black movements for at least 25 years in Brazil’s urban centers, it has only now reached more rural areas like Belmonte. And it is not always well received.

“I’m morena, not negra!”2 cried 14-year old Paula. This claim of mixed-race “brown” identity echoes the more common ideology in Belmonte, academically labeled “racial democracy.” The roots of this ideology extend back to Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre’s influential 1933 book, The Masters and the Slaves (1946). Freyre found strength in the biological and cultural mixing of Portuguese colonizers, native Brazilians, and slaves of African descent, whereas race scientists before him saw only physical and mental weakness (Freyre 1946; Nina Rodrigues 1938; Ramos 1939). Freyre’s foundational story, still framing Brazilian history in school texts, holds that historical mixing has created an ethnically unified population without stark racial divisions or resulting discriminations making Brazil a supposed “racial paradise.” Consistent with this ideology, most residents of Belmonte prefer to self-identify with the inclusive term morena, which can be used in various linguistic contexts to refer to almost any combination of physical features. To call someone a “negra” within this racial democracy ideology is to separate them out from the mixed Brazilian mainstream and denigrate them as a separate category of “pure” black, associated with slavery and Africa. That is just what caused a stir when Ana Maria yelled out to Paula, “Girl, you are not morena. We are negras!”

In the title of this article, the phrase “Questioning the Concept of Race” has two levels of significance. First, it refers to the questions of some students as teachers impose new identity categories that clash with previously held “common sense” beliefs about race. Second, the title of this article refers to my own questions regarding academic conceptions of race. In the literature on racial categorization in Brazil, I found two different arguments that parallel the debate in the class between Ana Maria and Paula. On the one hand, a more conventional wisdom holds that racial categories in Brazil are multiple (up to hundreds in some cases), they can change from day to day or person to person, and they are based on physical features rather than rules of descent (Harris 1970; Harris and Kottak 1963; Kottak 1983).5 On the other hand, recent critics, both anthropological and psychological, argue that racial categories in Brazil are essentialized: they are dichotomous, rigid, and defined by descent (Gil-White 2001b; Sheriff 2001). Observing the coexistence of both ideologies in Belmonte and the active construction of supposedly natural categories by local actors led me to question both sides of this scholarly debate and to question the academic concept of race more generally…

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