Whiter Shades of Pale: “Coloring In” Machado de Assis and Race in Contemporary Brazil

Whiter Shades of Pale: “Coloring In” Machado de Assis and Race in Contemporary Brazil

Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 3 (2013)
pages 3-24
DOI: 10.1353/lar.2013.0046

Alex Flynn, Lecturer in Anthropology
Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom

Elena Calvo-González, Professor of Anthropology
Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil

Marcelo Mendes de Souza
Department of Comparative Literature
University of Auckland

Debates surrounding race in Brazil have become increasingly fraught in recent years as the once hegemonic concept of racial democracy (democracia racial) continues to be subject to an ever more agnostic scrutiny. Parallel to these debates, and yet ultimately inseparable from them, is the question of what it is to be “white.” In this interdisciplinary paper, we argue that whiteness has become increasingly established in Brazilian public discourse as a naturalized category. Seeking a fresh perspective on what we perceive to have become a sterile debate, we examine Machado de Assis and his work to illustrate how assumptions surrounding his short story “Pai contra mãe,” and indeed comments on the author’s very body, reveal the extent to which whiteness has come to be seen as nonnegotiable and fixed. Placing a close reading of Machado’s text at the heart of the article, we explain its implications for the scholarly debates now unfolding in Brazil concerning the construction of whiteness. The article then develops an anthropological reading of whiteness by pointing to the inherent differences between perspectives of race as a process and perspectives of race as a fixed and naturalized given.

Debates surrounding race in Brazil have become increasingly fraught in recent years as the once hegemonic concept of racial democracy (democracia racial) is subjected to an ever more agnostic scrutiny. In a public sphere where certain ‘“types of mixture’ are clearly preferred to the detriment of others” (Pinho 2009), what can be understood as whiteness has an obvious and tangible importance, with various signifiers having varying levels of meaning. The texture of hair, the shape of facial features, even certain embodied notions of interaction can connote discrete positions on a racialized hierarchy. As Pinho (2009, 40) states, following the tradition of 1950s anthropologists such as Oracy Nogueira (1998) or Donald Pierson (1971), skin color is perhaps only the beginning of someone’s subjective judgment: “One’s ‘measure of whiteness,’ therefore, is not defined only by skin color; it requires a much wider economy of signs where, together with other bodily features, hair texture is almost as important as epidermal tone. In any given context, the definition of whiteness is also, necessarily, shaped by the contours of gender and class affiliation.”

These judgments take place within a wider historical discourse that has promoted the “whitening” of Brazil as a country and race. Dávila (2003) describes how from the turn of the nineteenth century, state actors in Brazil implemented policies that had at their heart a belief in whiteness as a naturalized state identified with strength, health, and virtue. This racial category was gradually shaped in opposition to “blackness,” a status that carried an explicit cargo of laziness, primitive and childlike nature, and an inherently antimodern gaze to the past. Dávila outlines how state actors believed that the nation could be “whitened” by educating people out of a black identity and leading them toward a white set of behaviors and morals. In this way, race was not a biological fact, it was rather a metaphor for the imagining of Brazil’s modernist trajectory; race was a malleable tool with which to better the future. Thus, the racial mixing of Brazilian society was a deterministic process toward securing a brighter, “whiter” future, one where blackness and its degeneracy could be cast aside and social ascension would guarantee a more productive population. Dávila (2003, 6) states that in the 1930s, “white Brazilians could safely celebrate race mixture because they saw it as an inevitable step in the nation’s evolution.” But it is important to note here that the supposedly realizable goal at the end of this process was essentially being cast as a naturalized category. There were no searching questions as to exactly what whiteness represented on this hierarchical trajectory; the definition was based upon a certain Europeanness and was whatever blackness or  indigenousness was not. As Dávila (2003, 7) states, “whiteness” was defined through both “positive and negative affirmation,” becoming a sedimented and fixed category without any internalized processes of self-reflection.

Despite this historical lack of analysis, recent state interventions have prompted a more quotidian interest into questions of whiteness in Brazil. Carlos Hasenbalg and Nelson do Vale Silva’s groundbreaking research in the 1970s had already demonstrated the disparities linked to race in socioeconomic indicators between self=-classified “whites” and “browns/blacks,” with the latter grouped together due to the similarity of results when compared to the “white” group. Such work helped to destabilize the myth of racial democracy, as well as the “mulatto escape hatch” thesis, the idea that the space ceded to people of mixed race in Brazil allowed some to escape the “disabilities of blackness” (Degler 1971, 178). However, the recent introduction of racial quotas at federal and state universities has brought into sharp relief how binary manners of self-identification can have a profound influence on one’s social trajectory, or as Vron Ware (2004, 38) describes it, “the relationship between social and symbolic power.” With an expanding middle class and growing competition for places, university places reserved for those who do not identify as white has brought into the open questions and prejudices that many people might have perhaps preferred to remain opaque. The debates around the implementation of affirmative action policies have brought into sharp focus the serious issues that a bureaucratic reconfiguration of racial categories implies, given that the category “black” subsumed those that self-declared as mixed race. At the center of these debates is the question of what it is to be black and, discussed much less, what it is to be white, a subject that has acquired all the more significance with the recent publication of census data demonstrating that for the first time since records began, those that self-identify as white are in a minority (47.7 percent) in Brazil (Phillips 2011). In this article we will build upon recent literature on whiteness as well as more classical work on race and race relations to reinforce the idea that, rather than being a fixed category, whiteness is in fact a volatile and nuanced construction continually subject to social reinterpretations as well as state-determined reconfiguration…

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