The myth of racial democracy and national identity in Brazil

Posted in Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Dissertations, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science on 2011-07-26 02:05Z by Steven

The myth of racial democracy and national identity in Brazil

The New School, New York, New York
February 2006
195 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3239941
ISBN: 9780542943904

Leone Campos de Sousa

Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

In the 1930s and 40s, both government and academics popularized the notion that several centuries of miscegenation had rendered Brazilian society uniquely free from racial prejudice and discrimination, a society in which citizens of all ‘races’ and ethnicities lived in harmony and had equal access to societal advantages. Since the 1950s, however, social scientists and black activists have insistently denounced the Brazilian myth of racial democracy as disingenuous for occluding racial inequalities. Indeed, statistics-oriented studies have largely documented the discrepancy in levels of socioeconomic conditions between whites and nonwhites in Brazil.

More recently, scholars of race have claimed the myth of racial democracy is in truth part of a deliberate ‘racial policy’ designed by white elites and enforced by the State to subjugate blacks and perpetuate white domination. They are committed to demystify the myth of racial democracy and enhance the racial consciousness of the ‘non-white’ population, who could thus politically defeat ‘racial hegemony.’ Even the Brazilian State, which has traditionally cultivated the myth of racial democracy, now rejects the idea that ‘race is not an issue in Brazil.  The last two administrations have implemented racial quotas to increase the access of ‘racial minorities’ to public universities and jobs in the public sector.

These efforts notwithstanding, it is a fact that the large majority of blacks and mixed-race people in Brazil have not been inclined to cultivate a strong racial identity. In fact, evidence shows that most Brazilians, regardless of ‘race,’ remain convinced that their society is blessed with relatively harmonious racial relations and oppose the ‘racialization’ of society explicitly proposed by this solution. Moreover, public opinion has fiercely rejected race-based affirmative action measures.

To make sense of Brazilians’ die-hard belief in the idea of racial democracy, I reconstruct the trajectory of this concept in the light of some theories of nationalism, especially Liah Greenfeld’s. I demonstrate that this myth was crucial to Brazilian national identity, and its long-lasting significance attests to the power of nationalism in Brazil.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
    • I. Race and Nationality in Brazil
    • II. Theoretical Framework
    • III. The Relevance of The Topic and Further Research
    • IV. Methodology and Sources
    • V. Structure of The Dissertation
  • Chapter 2: Constructing An Identity: Nation-Building and Race in Brazil
    • I. Early Nationalism in Brazil
    • II. In Search of A “European” Identity
    • III. Miscegenation As “Whitening”
    • IV. The Rise of “Aggressive” Nationalism
    • V. Getúlio Vargas and The Triumph Of Brazilian Nationalism
    • VI. Gilberto Freyre And The Myth of Racial Democracy
    • VII. Conclusion
  • Chapter 3: Deconstructing The Myth of Racial Democracy
    • I. From Fact to Myth
    • II. Challenging The Myth of Racial Democracy
    • III. The Myth Survives
    • IV. Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: The Myth of racial Democracy As National Identity: Three Alternative Explanations
    • I. Race And Nationality By Thomas Skidmore
    • II. Anthony Marx’s Making Race And Nation
    • III. Race Vs. Nation: Hanchard’s Orpheus and Power
    • IV. Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: The Myth Persists: Brazilians reaction to Affirmative Action Policies
    • I. The Increasing Influence of The Black Movement
    • II. The Controversy About Affirmative Action Policies in Brazil
    • III. Conclusion
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion
    • I. Theories Of Nationalism And The Myth Of Racial Democracy
    • II. Alternative Explanations: A Critique
    • III. Globalization Then And Now: The Case of Brazil
  • Bibliography


This dissertation focuses on the role of the myth of racial democracy in the formation of Brazilian national identity. It discusses why the idea that Brazil’s multiethnic population lives in racial harmony has persisted despite centuries of slavery, as well as evidence of deeply ingrained racial prejudice against blacks, Indians, and the mixed-race people. This study argues that the myth of racial democracy, elaborated by Brazilian intellectuals in the first half of the last century, draws its strength from the fact that it was able to offer an answer to society’s apprehensions and misgivings about the large colored population in Brazil. Brazilian intellectuals resented popular European theories about the existence of a link between underdevelopment and racial composition, and responded by interpreting in a positive light what had been traditionally seen as the country’s Achilles’ heel: miscegenation. Racial mixture became the very basis of the concept of racial democracy that has since been crucial in the formation of Brazilian national identity.

Race and National Identity in Brazil

Until recently, both the Brazilian population and intelligentsia conceived of their society as relatively free of racial prejudice and discrimination, a society in which citizens of all “races” and ethnicities lived in harmony with similar access to societal advantages. It was also assumed that this laudable trait of Brazilian society reflected the widespread process of mestiçagem (miscegenation) that has taken place in that country since the colonial era. Although the celebration of mestiçagem as a distinct feature of Brazil can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century, it was in the 1930s that the discourse on Brazil as a “racial democracy” was accepted as a credible depiction of social reality by the cultivated elites and incorporated into popular jargon.

The racism-free image of Brazilian society gained recognition after the publication of Casa-Grande & Senzala in 1934, written by Gilberto Freyre, a young Brazilian social scientist recently graduated from Columbia University. Freyre sought to uncover the fundamental characteristics of Brazil’s society and culture. Although the main thesis of his book refers to the role of the colonial patriarchal family as the foundation of Brazilian society, Casa-Grande & Senzala also celebrates Brazil as a “hybrid civilization”—the product of a blending of Africans, Indians, and Europeans (primarily Portuguese).

The country he describes is not a racial paradise. He recognizes the structural disadvantages that blacks and mestiços (mixed-race) faced both in slavery and in their attempts toward social mobility after freedom, topic he further developed later in Sobrados e Mucambos. Freyre claims that racial miscegenation and cultural amalgamation in Brazil has not only created a new type of society but also founded the basis of a unique variety of ethnic and social democracy. According to him, the relative tolerance and communicability between the races engendered in the casa grandes (the masters’ mansions in the colonial era made modern race relations in Brazil less antagonistic than in any other country. Even though he never used the expression “racial democracy” in his Casa-Grande & Senzala, the author did suggest that:

Perhaps nowhere else is the meeting, intercommunication, and harmonious fusion of diverse or, even antagonistic cultural traditions occurring in so liberal a way as it is in Brazil… the Brazilian regime cannot be accused of rigidity or of a lack of vertical mobility, and in a number of social directions it is one of the most democratic, flexible, and plastic regimes to be found anywhere.

Some empirical facts seemed indeed to corroborate the discourse about the virtues of racial relations in Brazil. As a multiracial country, with a long history of slavery, the country has never witnessed, as in the United States or South Africa, relevant civil rights or racial-based movements. Racial discrimination had been declared illegal since the inauguration of the Republic in 1889. Brazil’s system of racial classification employs a color system—dividing Brazilians into whites, blacks, pardos, and yellows – which is perceived as a mere objective description of reality, as opposed to categories that evoke clear-cut racial or ethnic descent such as “Afro” or “Native” Brazilians…

…By the late 1970’s, the image of Brazil as a racial democracy came under fierce attack by many scholars and black activists who have claimed that it is in reality a veiled form of racism, part of a deliberate policy created by the Brazilian “white elites,” and enforced by the State, to subjugate blacks and mixed-raced peoples. This has been especially suggested by a new generation of scholars of race influenced by American scholarship on racial relations as well as by Abdias Nascimento. As Peter Fry has noted, for these authors. Brazil no longer represents a superior alternative but rather “an archaic and obscurantist system of race relations that must give way to the ‘reality’ of clearly defined races.”…

Purchase the dissertation here.

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Kept In, Kept Out: The Formation of Racial Identity in Brazil, 1930-1937

Posted in Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Dissertations, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science on 2011-07-25 02:23Z by Steven

Kept In, Kept out : The Formation of Racial Identity in Brazil, 1930-1937

Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
November 1996
95 pages

Veronica Armstrong

Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Latin American Studies Program

This thesis examines the roles of historian Gilberto Freyre and the Sao Paulo black press in the formation of racial identity in Brazil. In Casa Grande e Senzala, published in 1933, Freyre presented a hypothesis of Brazilian national identity based on positive interpretations of slavery and miscegenation. His emphasis on racial harmony met with the approval of Getúlio Vargas, a president intent on the unification of Brazilian society. With Vargas’ backing, racial democracy became Brazilian national identity. Supporters included the black press which welcomed an idea that brought blacks into definitions of Brazilianness. Yet, blacks were embracing an interpretation of Brazilian identity that would replace a growing black racial awareness. Reasons for the undermining of black racial consciousness and the enshrining of racial democracy as Brazilian national identity emerge in an overview of shifts occurring during the first decades of the twentieth century. The forces of mass immigration, negative evaluations of Brazil by scientific racism, and the nation-building politics of Vargas affected the elite minority and the poverty-stricken majority of Brazilians, but in differing ways. For while economic stability and national pride were the goals of the former, research suggests that survival was the paramount aim of the latter. Addressing the needs of both groups, the adoption of racial democracy as national ideology in the late 1930s maintained elite privilege, defused the potential of racial unrest, and promised social mobility to the masses.

Benefits to the largely-black masses, however, had strings attached. Social mobility depended on their acting “white” and becoming “white” through miscegenation. In the face of desperate poverty, blacks had few options and assimilation seemed a way to move beyond their low socio-economic status. Furthermore, contrasts with American segregation convinced black writers that battling discrimination had to be secondary to the economic survival of their community. The thesis concludes by seeking to explain the paradox of a society characterised by many foreigners and most Brazilians as a racial paradise from the 1930s to the 1970s even though Brazilian reality evinces gross inequality between the small Europeanised elite and the large black and mixed-race underclass.

Table of Contents

  • Approval
  • Abstract.
  • Acknowledgments.
  • Preface.
  • Introduction kept in, kept out:the question of brazilianness and black solidarity 1930-1937
    • The March for national identity
    • Brazilianness vs. Blackness
  • Chapter 1. Ideology and Identity
    • The dawning of a new era of national thought
    • A historic moment
    • Whitening
    • A New Era
  • Chapter 2. Race
    • Miscegenation and Racial Terminology
    • Racial Democracy: Theory and Revision
  • Chapter 3. The Making of a Cultural Hero
    • Freyre: the child and the man
    • Freyre s “Old Social Order”
    • Ciasa Grande e Senzala
    • Freyre, the Intellectual
    • Freyre, Father of National Identity.
  • Chapter 4. The Politics of Identity
    • The Black Press in Brazil
    • The Meaning of Language
    • From the mulato to the black press
    • The Black Press: an alternative path
    • Assimilation vs. segregation
    • A Frente Negra
  • Chapter 5. Only we, the negros of Brazil, know what it is to feel colour prejudice
    • A Voz da Raza
    • Conclusion: We are Brazilian
    • Intellectuals and Ideology
    • Searching for identity
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography

List of Figures

  • figure 1: Roquete Pinto’s prediction of the racial make up of Brazilian populations based on official statistics 1872-1890
  • figure 2: System of values within the miscegenation process

Read the entire dissertation here.

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Creolization of the Atlantic World: The Portuguese and the Kongolese

Posted in Africa, Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2011-04-15 22:19Z by Steven

Creolization of the Atlantic World: The Portuguese and the Kongolese

Portuguese Studies
Volume 27, Number 1 (2011-03-01)
pages 56-69

Francisco Bethencourt, Professor of History
King’s College, London

In the 1930s, Gilberto Freyre’s praise of mixed-race people in Brazil challenged the idea of white supremacy, contributing to the building of a new Brazilian identity. In the 1950s, Freyre projected the idea of openness and racial mixture onto the Portuguese empire, fuelling Salazar’s colonial propaganda. The idea of Lusotropicalism was contested by Marvin Harris and Charles Boxer, who demonstrated that there were very few mixed-race people in Angola and Mozambique, and exposed the long history of racism in the Portuguese colonies. However, the fashionable notions of hybridism and creolization have been putting Freyre back on the map. The article exposes the limits of Freyre’s approach of inter-ethnic relations, structured around the flexibility (or otherwise) of white colonists. It engages with the much more interesting but problematic approach suggested by Linda Heywood and John Thornton, who shifted to Kongo and African agency the creolization of the Atlantic. It suggests a reassessment of the real Christianization of Kongo and its complex chronology, drawing attention to the royal interests of conversion, the limits of conversion among the population, and the conditions for erosion of Christianity in the long run.

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Mestizo Nations: Culture, Race, and Conformity in Latin American Literature

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs on 2010-10-12 21:27Z by Steven

Mestizo Nations: Culture, Race, and Conformity in Latin American Literature

University of Arizona Press
May 2002
161 pages
9.6 x 6.4 x 0.7 inches
ISBN-10: 0816521921
ISBN-13: 978-0816521920

Juan E. De Castro, Assistant Professor of Literature
The New School

Nationality in Latin America has long been entwined with questions of racial identity. Just as American-born colonial elites grounded their struggle for independence from Spain and Portugal in the history of Amerindian resistance, constructions of nationality were based on the notion of the fusion of populations heterogeneous in culture, race, and language. But this rhetorical celebration of difference was framed by a real-life pressure to assimilate into cultures always defined by Iberian American elites. In Mestizo Nations, Juan De Castro explores the construction of nationality in Latin American and Chicano literature and thought during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Focusing on the discourse of mestizaje—which proposes the creation of a homogenous culture out of American Indian, black, and Iberian elements—he examines a selection of texts that represent the entire history and regional landscape of Latin American culture in its Western, indigenous, and neo-African traditions from Independence to the present. Through them, he delineates some of the ambiguities and contradictions that have beset this discourse. Among texts considered are the Indianist novel Iracema by the nineteenth-century Brazilian author José de Alencar; the Tradiciones peruanas, Peruvian Ricardo Palma’s fictionalizations of national difference; and historical and sociological essays by the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui and the Brazilian intellectual Gilberto Freyre. And because questions raised by this discourse are equally relevant to postmodern concerns with national and transnational heterogeneity, De Castro also analyzes such recent examples as the Cuban dance band Los Van Van’s use of Afrocentric lyrics; Richard Rodriguez’s interpretations of North American reality; and points of contact and divergence between José María Arguedas’s novel The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below and writings of Gloria Anzaldúa and Julia Kristeva. By updating the concept of mestizaje as a critical tool for analyzing literary text and cultural trends—incorporating not only race, culture, and nationality but also gender, language, and politics—De Castro shows the implications of this Latin American discursive tradition for current critical debates in cultural and area studies. Mestizo Nations contains important insights for all Latin Americanists as a tool for understanding racial relations and cultural hybridization, creating not only an important commentary on Latin America but also a critique of American life in the age of multiculturalism.

Read the preface here.

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

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science on 2010-10-10 23:15Z by Steven

“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…

Read or purchase the article here.

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Triumphant Miscegenation: Reflections on Beauty and Race in Brazil

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science on 2010-04-15 04:52Z by Steven

Triumphant Miscegenation: Reflections on Beauty and Race in Brazil

Journal of Intercultural Studies
Volume 28, Issue 1 (February 2007)
pages 83-97
DOI: 10.1080/07256860601082954

Alexander Edmonds, Professor of Medical Anthropology and Sociology
University of Amsterdam

In Brazil racial mixture, mestiçagem has been a dominant theme in the political and cultural re-imagination of the nation in the twentieth century. This paper approaches the role of mixture in Brazilian social life from the angle of aesthetics, looking both at Brazilian intellectual history and the commercial and medical beauty industry. It first discusses the aesthetics of race in the works of Brazilian scholar Gilberto Freyre. Second, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, it shows how cultural constructions of race are reflected in the clinical practice of plastic surgery. Analysing cosmetic practices illuminates central tensions in the ideal of mestiçagem, but also reveals it as a distinct logic of race and beauty that contrasts with multiculturalism. As the beauty industry expands in the developing world, such cultural logics may not be erased but rather incited.

Read or purchase the article here.

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The Masters and the Slaves: Plantation Relations and Mestizaje in American Imaginaries

Posted in Anthologies, Arts, Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2010-03-27 03:44Z by Steven

The Masters and the Slaves: Plantation Relations and Mestizaje in American Imaginaries

Palgrave Macmillan
January 2005
176 pages
Size 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
Paperback ISBN: 1-4039-6708-3
Hardcover ISBN: 1-4039-6563-3

Edited by:

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond, Assistant Professor of Luso-Brazilian Literature
University of California, San Diego

The Masters and the Slaves theorizes the interface of plantation relations with nationalist projects throughout the Americas. In readings that cover a wide range of genres–from essays and scientific writing to poetry, memoirs and the visual arts–this work investigates the post-slavery discourses of Brazil, the United States, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Martinique. Indebted to Orlando Patterson‘s Slavery and Social Death (1982) and Paul Gilroy‘s The Black Atlantic (1993), these essays fill a void in studies of plantation power relations for their comparative, interdisciplinary approach and their investment in reading slavery through the gaze of contemporary theory, with particularly strong ties to psychoanalytic and gender studies interrogations of desire and performativity.

Table of contents

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White Negritude: Race, Writing, and Brazilian Cultural Identity

Posted in Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Science on 2010-03-27 03:29Z by Steven

White Negritude: Race, Writing, and Brazilian Cultural Identity

Palgrave Macmillan
December 2007
208 pages
Size 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
Hardcover ISBN: 1-4039-7595-7

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond, Associate Professor of Luso-Brazilian Literature
University of California, San Diego

White Negritude analyzes the discourse of mestiçagem (mestizaje, métissage, or “mixing”) in Brazil. Focused on Gilberto Freyre‘s sociology of plantation relations, it interrogates the relation of power to writing and canon formation, and the emergence of an exclusionary, ethnographic discourse that situates itself as the gatekeeper of African “survivals” in decline. Taking Freyre’s master/slave paradigm as a point of departure for theorizing a particular form of racial and authorial impostery, this book analyzes the construction of race and raced writing in Brazil in relation to U.S. identity politics and Caribbean “mestizo projects.”

Table of Contents

  • Vanishing Primitives: An Introduction
  • Poetry and the Plantation: Jorge de Lima‘s White Authorship in a Caribbean Perspective
  • White Man in the Tropics: Authorship and Atmospheric Blackness in Gilberto Freyre
  • Joaquim Nabuco: Abolitionism and Erasure in the Americas
  • From the Plantation Manor to the Sociologist’s Study: Democracy, Lusotropicalism, and the Scene of Writing
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