To commemorate the 500th anniversary of its “discovery” by Portuguese sailor Alvares de Cabral in 2000, Brazil officially presented itself as a “rainbow nation” without discrimination or racism; a place where people from various ethnicities live peacefully together. That the “discovery” caused slavery and death for millions of Indigenes and Africans was overlooked. The Portuguese colonization was seen as a “non-imperial act, an exercise of fraternity and intercultural and interethnic democracy”, says Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos.
The German author Stefan Zweig, who fled to Brazil from Nazi Germany, already considered Brazil a paradise characterized by hybridity and said in 1941 that Brazil “has taken the racial problem, that unsettles our European world ad absurdum in the simplest manner: in plainly ignoring its validity.” (translation S.L.) According to Zweig, “for hundreds of years the Brazilian nation relies on the sole principle of free and unrestrained mixing, perfect equality of black and white, brown and yellow. (…) There are no limits to colours, no boundaries, no supercilious hierarchies…”
Hence the image of Brazil as a tolerant, peaceful, “mestiço” nation is not at all new. But it ignores then and still today the multifaceted forms of discrimination and specifically Brazilian shapes of racism.
From a subaltern colonialism
The aforementioned sociologist, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, contributed one of the major analyses on Portuguese (post)colonialism. Using the characters Prospero and Caliban from Shakespeare’s piece “The Tempest” he describes the Portuguese colonists as bipolar: Sometimes they are more like Prospero, the former Duke who now reigns the island and therefore embodies the typical colonist for Santos. Sometimes they rather resemble Prospero’s slave Caliban, his name an anagram for “cannibal”, who stands for the colonized people.
Santos derives the “Caliban” elements of Portugal from its increasing semi-peripheral position in the world capitalist system from the 17th century onwards and the loss of its naval and trade supremacy which it held in the 15th and 16th century. After temporarily being a Spanish province, the country was increasingly dependent on England financially and regarding external and economic policies. Thus England had strong influence on Brazil – the largest Portuguese colony – and acted as a co-colonist, hence the reason for often referring to Portuguese colonialism as subaltern. To some extent the Portuguese were colonists as well as colonized people and in that period settlers and immigrants in their colonies at the same time.
Santos’ image of Portugal as a “mix” between Prospero and Caliban runs the risk of trivializing Portuguese colonialism. Accordingly, cultural scientist Fernando Arenas warns not to overemphasise the subaltern character of Portuguese colonialism. After all, Portugal “was still able to forge a tightly centralized and interdependent triangular trade system across the Atlantic after it lost its commercial and military hegemony in the Indian Ocean by the end of the sixteenth century”, and the history of Portuguese colonialism also showed some “unambiguous Prospero-like figures”. However, Santos’ interest is not to present Portuguese colonialism as non-violent and peaceful, but rather to analyse its specific characteristics – without proclaiming its exceptionality like national ideologues in Brazil and Portugal later did.
Hence, according to Santos, the main difference between British and Portuguese colonialism for example was “that the ambiguity and hybridity between colonizer and colonized … was the experience of Portuguese colonialism for long periods of time.” The boundary between colonizer and colonized was not so easily to be drawn in Portuguese colonialism; the issue of difference was far more complex. Many Portuguese settlers were poor farmers, criminals or “New Christians” (converted Jews) and thus to some extent colonized “others” themselves. In contrast to the British colonists they did not have a “strong state” supporting them and nor were they so rigid in maintaining the boundary between colonists and colonized people. This influenced the identity regime of the Portuguese colonialism, which was far more penetrable than the Anglo-Saxon.
Even nowadays the porosity of Portuguese colonialism is apparent in Brazil from the variety of ethnic categories and self-designations. Unlike the USA, where the strict bipolarization of black and white predominated for a long time due to the one-drop rule, Brazil developed a highly refined spectrum with many intermediate stages. However neither in colonial times nor today this high degree of flexibility means absence of racism. In fact for decades, sociologists and anti-racist activists analyse the cordial racism as a (post)colonial singularity of Brazil – a racism that is subtle but still powerful.
… into an internal colonialism
Due to the expansion of other European naval powers from the 17th century onwards, Portugal lost its supremacy in the spice trade with Asia and its bases in Africa were mainly used to guarantee the participation in slave trade. Brazil then became the most important colony for Portugal, whose economic performance and natural resources hugely outpaced the small motherland for many years and thus led to economic dependence on the colony. When gold was found in the Brazilian hinterland in the early 18th century, many Portuguese emigrated and Brazil’s population swelled to two million and around 1800 it reached the three million mark. The strong bond between Brazil and Portugal is exemplified by the Portuguese court’s flight to Brazil in 1808 to escape Napoleon’s troops. The seat of parliament was moved to Rio de Janeiro until 1821 – a unique act in the history of European colonialism, “whereby the metropole became a de facto appendix of the colony”.
The relocation of the capital to Rio de Janeiro laid the foundations for Brazilian independence. Within the framework of the “United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarve” at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Brazil formally gained equality to its motherland. Public riots in Portugal forced King João VI to return in 1821. His son Pedro remained governing Brazil and declared its independence in 1822. While other South American states led by Simón Bolívar gained their independence as republics, Brazil implemented a monarchy and thus fulfilled “one of the most conservative and oligarchic independences of the Latin-American continent”.
Independent Brazil enjoyed a high degree of autonomy towards Portugal under emperor Pedro I. However the strong political, economical and cultural alliances persisted, not least to the fact that father and son were governing the two countries. The Brazilian empire was “firmly anchored in a conservative, plantation-based, slave-holding system that critics…describe as tantamount to the continuation of colonialism”; even though this gradually changed under Pedro II (1840-1889). This “internal colonialism” of the Portuguese descendants towards enslaved Africans and Indigenes is the essential characteristic of the young independent Brazil. Slave labour was of substantial economic relevance for this system, which is why the Luso-Brazilian elites had a strong interest in continuing slave trade. A British intervention in 1850 ended the transatlantic slave trade, but internally it continued between the North and South of Brazil. The changes in the agricultural and population structure were followed by a slow transition from slave to wage labour: coffee replaced sugar as the most important export product. The coffee boom attracted European immigrants and thus made slave labour increasingly redundant. In 1871 a law declared all children from slaves born after this date as free and finally in 1888 crown princess Isabel abolished slavery. Many supporters of abolitionism were also opponents of the monarchy and in fact only a few months later on the 15th of November 1889 the monarchy was overthrown and the republic proclaimed.
The praise of the miscigenação
In the following decades the ensaios de interpretação do Brasil (essays on the interpretation of Brazil) became a very popular genre for Brazilian intellectuals to reflect on the development and specifics of the “Brazilian Nation” – and thus widely contributed to its construction. One of the best known examples is the work “Casa Grande & Senzala” (English: “The Masters & the Slaves”) by sociologist Gilberto Freyre published in 1933, where he interpreted the Brazilian colonial society as a dynamic, contradictory system of social intimacy and violence. For him one of the reasons for the social and cultural proximity of the colonists and colonised compared to other colonial powers, was the repetition of the process of cultural and ethnical “mixing”, which the Portuguese supposedly had undergone with Arabs and Jews in the motherland and then – according to Freyre – again took place in colonial Brazil between Portuguese, enslaved Africans and Indigenes.
This understanding ignores the violent history of slavery and genocide of indigenous inhabitants respectively and legitimizes it through a trivial romanticisation. Yet this myth, even today, forms the basis of the powerful narrative of mestiçagem/miscigenação (miscegenation), which also appears in other national ideologies of Latin America. Advocates of this narrative, Sérgio Costa explains, wanted to “coin the model of a culturally and biologically ‘mixed’ nation, in which ethnic and racial lines of demarcation dissolve” (translation S.L.) and thus drafting an alternative to the powerful race theories of the beginning of the 20th century that advised against any “racial interbreeding”. Freyre’s innovation was the positive interpretation of this miscigenação, which until then was always considered the source of degeneration and obstacle for the development of Brazil. Nevertheless his approach is also founded on racist arguments as he assigns inherent characteristics to different population groups, which then constituted the “mestiço Brazilian race”.
Freyre’s approach fit perfectly into the nationalistic discourses of the prevailing Estado Novo from Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s that proclaimed the idea of a Brazilian “racial democracy” (democracia racial) and euphemised the inequality of the different groups. Praise of the miscigenação was thus also a measure for Brazilian elites to disguise racist structures and discrimination, and to retain power. Expert on roman languages, Claudius Armbruster, writes that, “the generally progressive idea of a mestiço-democratic Brazil turns into a dangerous ideology for Afro-Brazilians to the extent in which this utopia is being presented as reality” (translation S.L.). For many advocates of miscigenação, the “mixing” also, if nothing else, pointed the way to the embranquecimento (“whitening”) of the Brazilian population. Additionally the miscigenação was determined by sexist rules that in fact allowed relationships between white men and Black or Indigene women, but not vice versa. It was therefore by no means a consequence of the absence of racism but a consequence of a specific form of racism that combined images intentionally propagating the excessive sexuality of people of African and Indigenous descent with the mystified encouragement of interracial mixture.
Freyre’s ideas also provided the basis for the lusotropicalismo – one of the most powerful and controversial meta-narratives in Portuguese colonialism. Its underlying assumption states that the Portuguese have “mixed” stronger with people from the tropics as a result of several geographical, historical, cultural and genetic factors and hence were softer colonists than other European colonial powers. The perception of a Portuguese exceptionalism particularly gained importance under the Salazar dictatorship ruling Portugal from 1926 onwards. Aiming at the reestablishment of a Portuguese global power, the authoritarian regime attributed great significance to the remaining colonies especially in Africa and created an image of Portugal as a “pluri-continental and multiracial” state. Besides, it integrates Portuguese colonialism in the bigger narrative on the role of Portugal in the European expansion already happening since the 15th century.
Miguel Vale de Almeida notes that Brazil already was a projection of the fantasy that the Portuguese were the better colonists at that time. In acting as a role model for the alleged humanistic, multicultural colonization in Africa, it was the symbolic resource for the construction of a Portuguese colonial empire in Africa. Freyre’s ideas fitted the strategy and he was accordingly invited by Portugal to visit the African colonies in 1950. He only then started to use the concept of Lusotropicalism in his work. While it only received little resonance in Brazil, it played a central role in the official discourse in Portugal.
Only the Brazilian military dictatorship established in 1964 transferred Freyre’s lusotropicalistic ideas to Brazil as parts of the military envisaged a central role for Brazil in Africa.
The military regime adopted an ambiguous position in regard of the Portuguese colonialisation in Africa and pursued a policy of “active neutrality”, which caused strong resentment in political leaders not only in the Portuguese colonies but in other African countries too. They had hoped for more support and solidarity from Brazil in the anti-colonial fight.
Brazil in Africa, Africa in Brazil
This is one of many examples of the ambivalent role of Brazil compared to other Portuguese (ex)colonies especially in Africa, which also depicts Brazil’s general position in the world: On the one hand, Brazil has always been an ally to the west and maintained privileged relationships to Portugal, Western Europe and USA – though they were characterized by classical centre and periphery asymmetries. On the other hand, Brazil is progressively oriented towards the global south and thus trying to break away from the economical dependence on the north and establish itself as a regional or even global leading power.
Brazil shows a certain historico-political sensitivity in regards of slave trade. In view of the fact that Brazil imported the largest quantity of enslaved Africans in the Americas, the government today emphasises the historic debt and responsibility towards Africa. Nevertheless the coalitions with African countries are clearly motivated by realpolitik and economic interests. Even though Brazil has especially strong bonds to Lusophone Africa, the interest in the African continent relies upon the long-term goal of changing global market and trade patterns in Brazil’s favour and not primarily on the idea of a community induced by Portuguese colonialism.
At the same time the idea of “Africa” repeatedly plays a central, albeit ambivalent, role in the construction of a Brazilian national identity, which is still partially based on Freyre’s image of Brazil as a melting pot, in which Africans, Indigenes and the Portuguese have merged harmoniously. Although “African” was associated with traditionalism and backwardness for a long time, this changed with the strengthening of the Black civil rights movement at the end of the 1970s and the connected appreciation of the Afro-Brazilian heritage.
This also led to an intensified debate on racism in Brazil, in which the paradigm democracia racial was strongly attacked. It states that there is no racism or racial inequality in Brazil as a result of the high degree of “ethnic mixing”. For organizations like the United Black Movement (MNU – Movimento Negro Unificado) this myth “was not only a manipulation of the reality, but also an instrument of political domination that disguises black people’s subordination” (translation S.L.).
The constitution of 1988 was an important milestone. While the military dictatorship that ruled until 1985 pursued the policy of (forced) integration of ethnic minorities into the “mestiço” Brazilian nation, the new constitution of 1988 accounted for the tendencies of (re)ethnicising of the mainly Indigene and Black populations since the beginning of the 1980s. In guaranteeing the protection of indigenous cultures and the land claim of Quilombo communities, the Brazilian state turned away from the assimilation strategy and now rather follows a policy of recognition towards ethnic differences.
Affirmative Action – an attempt at reconciliation
Regardless of the theoretical appreciation of the “mestiço” heritage, Afro-Brazilians and Indigenes are still today more affected by poverty and discrimination than white Brazilians. At the beginning of this millennium many state universities therefore established quotas for Afro-Brazilians, Indigenes and pupils from public schools to actively fight racial discrimination. Critics regard the quotas as a danger to the equality of all citizens in the country, but the Brazilian Supreme Court nevertheless confirmed their constitutionality in April 2012. The anti-racist movement especially welcomes the establishment of quotas as a measure of reconciliation of historical inequalities. The implementation of university quotas relaunched the public debate about racism in Brazil, which is closely linked to questions of national identity. Some fear that the quotas jeopardize the flexible “ethnic” categories typical for Brazil and thus the mestiçagem, the cultural and biological “mix” that plays a central role in the national narrative. In contrast Black Brazilians argue that despite the alleged flexibility of racial categories in Brazil, all non-white Brazilians tend to be considered as Black and are hence affected by discrimination. They therefore request that the category negro in statistical surveys should be used in order to aggregate the categories preto (black) and pardo (brown).
In a manner of speaking Brazil is undergoing a “typical postcolonial” debate on the definition of Black people and the position of Afro-Brazilians in society. One major problem, also found in similar discussions, that comes along with combating racism and discrimination is the creation of respective categories.
Although much has happened in the past years, there are still good reasons for affirmative action measures like quotas. The formal equality before the law is a mere myth as long as the social reality is shaped by discrimination and racism. And in this regard Brazil is miles away from the well-presented ideal of the “rainbow nation”, as there are still some people who are “more equal than others”.
- Santos, Boaventura de Sousa: Between Prospero and Caliban. Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Inter-Identity. In: Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 39, No. 2, Winter 2002, pp. 9-43, here p. 37.
- Stefan Zweig (2013): Brasilien. Ein Land der Zukunft. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, p. 17f.
- Ibid, p. 18.
- Cf. Santos 2002, l.c.
- Arenas, Fernando (2005): „(Post)colonialism, Globalization, and Lusofonia or The ‘Time-Space‘ of the Portuguese-Speaking World“, UC Berkeley: Institute of European Studies, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/0vh0f7t9 (last access on January 5th 2014), p. 4.
- Cf. Santos 2002, l.c., p. 16.
- Cf. ibid., pp. 24-29.
- Cf. Owensby, Brian (2005): “Toward a History of Brazil’s ‘Cordial Racism’: Race beyond Liberalism”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 47 (2), pp. 318-347.
- Arenas 2005, l.c., p. 3.
- Santos 2002, l.c., p. 19.
- Arenas 2005, l.c., p. 5.
- Cf. Cesarino, Letícia Maria Costa da Nóbrega (2012): “Brazilian Postcoloniality and South-South Cooperation: A view from Anthropology”, Portuguese Cultural Studies 4, pp. 85-113, here p. 88.
- Cf. Almeida, Miguel Vale de: Portugal’s Colonial Complex: From Colonial Lusotropicalism to Postcolonial Lusophony. Paper presented at Queen’s Postcolonial Research Forum, Queen’s University Belfast, 28th April 2008, p. 4.
- Costa, Sérgio (2007): Vom Nordatlantik zum “Black Atlantic“. Postkoloniale Konfigurationen und Paradoxien transnationaler Politik, Bielefeld: Transcript, p. 145.
- Claudius Armbruster: Wider den Mythos vom Schmelztiegel Brasilien. In: Quetzal, summer/fall 2000, http://www.quetzal-leipzig.de/lateinamerika/brasilien/wider-den-mythos-vom-schmelztiegel-brasilien-19093.html (last access on 5th January 2014).
- Cf. Santos 2002, l.c., p. 17.
- Cf. Almeida 2008, l.c.
- Cf. Arenas 2005, l.c., p. 8.
- Cf. Almeida 2008, l.c., p. 7.
- Cf. Almeida, Miguel Vale de (2002): O Atlântico Pardo. Antropologia, pós-colonialismo e o caso ‘lusófono’, in: Bastos, C., idem and B. Feldman-Bianco (ed.): Trânsitos Coloniais: Diálogos Criticos Luso-Brasileiros, Lisbon: ICS, pp. 23-37, here p. 32.
- Cf. Almeida 2008, l.c., p. 7.
- Cf. Arenas 2005, l.c.
- Cf. Cesarino 2012, l.c., p. 100.
- Ibid., p. 106.
- Costa 2007, l.c., p. 168.
- Cf. Costa 2007, l.c., p. 158.
- Cf. André Cicalo (2012): Urban Encounters: Affirmative Action and Black Identities in Brazil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.