Not black, not white: just the opposite. Culture, race and national identity in Brazil

Not black, not white: just the opposite. Culture, race and national identity in Brazil

Centre for Brazilian Studies
University of Oxford
Working Paper Number CBS-47-03
52 pages

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Professor of Sociology
University of São Paulo, Brazil

The search to define Brazil and Brazilians by colour, more specifically by a miscegenation so extreme that it appears exceptional, is longstanding. Mid-nineteenth century naturalists that visited the country from Europe were astounded by the lush vegetation, the wide variety of fauna, and another phenomena – a type of unprecedented laboratory of humans and their various races. Local intellectuals also focused on the racial theme, but more as explanation for their perceptions of national degeneration than racial mixture. It is from these origins that debate reappears as an official model in the 1930s and persists until today in notions about what makes Brazil unique. After an introduction of this historical context, and rejecting the myth of racial democracy, this paper reflects on the impasses of race anew and from a different perspective attuned to contemporary problems. The central question that remains is whether race is a social and economic variable or whether Brazilian identities are dispersed across a wide rainbow of color. The goal of this paper is to use recent census and 1996 PNAD data that reveal 136 categories for Brazilians to identify several specific characteristics of this debate. This analysis implies a more political discussion of the limits of citizenship in a country where the color line is always viewed subjectively and contextually. The maxim of the sixteenth century Jesuit, Antonil, that “Brazil is hell for negros, purgatory for whites, and paradise for mulattos” still appears to resonate.

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