A Racial Paradise? Race and Race Mixture in Henry Louis Gates’ Brazil

A Racial Paradise? Race and Race Mixture in Henry Louis Gates’ Brazil

Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies
Volume 8,  Issue 1, 2013
pages 88-91
DOI: 10.1080/17442222.2013.768464

Chinyere Osuji, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Camden

In this documentary, Henry Louis Gates explores the extent to which the notion of being a racial paradise applies to Brazil. He introduces Brazil’s contradictions of being the last country to abolish slavery’ in the New World in 1888, yet the first to declare that it was free of racism. He explores a variety of cities in Brazil in order to understand the history of early race mixture, contemporary valorization of Blackness, and attempts to address racial inequality. As a viewer, we watch how Gates’ fascination with the Brazil’s African heritage and race mixture at the beginning of the film turns into a questioning of the myth of racial democracy.

The film is useful in terms of providing a primer on race in Brazil for novices on race in Latin America. Geared towards the general public, this is a film that could be used in an introductory course for undergraduates about race in Brazil or Latin America more broadly. Its strengths are in illuminating the nature of slavery and race mixture in Brazil’s history while introducing the racial ideologies of whitening and racial democracy. Gates introduces scholars such as Manoel Querino and the more renowned Gilberto Freyre to discuss their scholarship on black contributions to Brazilian society. Gates’ film also has vibrant images of Carnaval, capoeira, and a Candomblé ceremony, providing opportunities for students to gain exposure to these African-influenced cultural practices.

This film is somewhat problematic in terms of illuminating racial and color categories in contemporary Brazil. Gates indirectly cites a 1976 Brazilian National Household Survey study that found people used over 100 terms to describe their color. Gates says: ‘In the U.S., a person with any African ancestry is legally defined as black. In Brazil, racial categories are on steroids.’ However, this perspective has been discredited by scholars who argue that most Brazilians only use a handful of terms to describe themselves. In fact, re-examinations of the same 1976 survey found that 95 percent of Brazilians used only six terms to describe themselves: branco, moreno, pardo, moreno-claro, preto and negro (Silva, 1987; Telles, 2004). The 10 most common terms were the aforementioned as well as amarela, mulata, clara, and morena-escura. All together, these 10 terms account for how 99 percent of all Brazilians think of their race/color. These findings have been replicated using more national survey data (Petruccelli, 2001; Telles, 2004). However, the myth of the hundreds of racial and color terms that Brazilians use to identify themselves will not die, and now Gates aids in perpetuating it…

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