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Brazil: Black Pride and the racism debate

From 1550 to 1888 at least 3 million Africans were brutally shipped to Brazil by the slave trade, making nearly half of all the slaves brought to South America. Most of them came from Angola and Mozambique, then Portuguese colonies in Africa, and were subjected to forced labor in the north-east's sugar plantations.

Throughout the years of slavery, thousands managed to escape and set up liberated communities known as quilombos. The most famous of them was the Quilombo dos Palmares, in Alagoas, led by a runaway slave called Zumbi, who became a symbol of resistance for defending it against attacks from colonial forces. Zumbi was killed in 1695 and on the anniversary of his death, November 20th, the country renews its ongoing fight against discrimination.

(Picture by Iberê Thenório)

Bloggers reflect on social exclusion, racism and pride

The African cultural influence remains strong in Brazil, a country where people of African descent form nearly half of the country's 180 million population. Even so economic, social and other forms of racial discrimination remain the main legacy of the enforced mass migrations of the slave trade. According to the latest census, in 2000, Brazilans of African descent account for 63% of the poorest section of society although only 5% of this group declare themselves ‘of black origin’. Roice, Leandro and Milena, students from the secondary state school Jair Toledo Xavier, take a look at the numbers [pt] and reflect on the causes of discrimination:

A lei proíbe o racismo, mas mantém estruturas sociais e econômicas que o alimentam. Pode evitar que um viole o direito do outro, mas não tem como levar brancos e negros a se amarem e menos ainda como ajudar cada pessoa a se sentir bem em sua pele e em sua identidade cultural. No Brasil, os dados oficiais mostram que as desigualdades sociais são mais profundas à medida que as pessoas pobres não só são empobrecidas, mas são negras.

The law forbids racism but maintains the social and economic mechanisms that feed it. It can stop people from violating the rights of others, but this can't make blacks and whites love each other, and it is even more hopeless at making people feel good inside their own skins and with their cultural identities. In Brazil, official numbers show that social inequalities are deeper inasmuch as poor people are not only impoverished but black.

(Picture by Iberê Thenório)

Is the law really working at all? Aldo Cerqueira Santos [pt] publishes a collection of accounts by people who have been discriminated against and poses some questions for reflexion. The last of them is:

Estes depoimentos aconteceram há dez anos. Por que até hoje existe preconceito racial.

These accounts happened 10 years ago. Why is there still racial prejudice nowadays?

But is there in fact racism at all in such an ethnically mixed country as Brazil? This is still a much debated and highly controversial issue. Edu amasses more than 50 comments on his three posts on the subject. In one of them he writes [pt]:

O único tipo de preconceito que existe é o preconceito SOCIAL, relacionado à condição financeira e os símbolos de status ostentados pelo indivíduo. Neste país, não se olha cor antes de se julgar uma pessoa – se olha o que ela tem no bolso. No pulso. O que ela veste. Um negro rico é mais respeitado e bem tratado que um branco pobre – como se fosse uma pessoa melhor apenas por ter grana.

The only type of prejudice that exists in Brazil is SOCIAL prejudice relating to personal financial conditions and displays of status symbols. In this country, one doesn't judge others by their color – one looks what there is in people's pockets. On their wrists. How they dress. A rich black person is more respected and better treated than a poor white one – as if they were better people because they have dosh.

Zélio Luz [pt], who reports that he still faces racism after establishing himself as an engineer, is among those commentators who disagree with this post, inviting the author to put himself in black people's shoes for one day and listing some of the situations he has been through in a racist Brazil:

Muitos como o dono do texto, dizem que temos complexo de perseguição… imaginemos que você seja negro, e que entre em um desses cursinhos preparatórios, depois de trabalhar o dia inteiro, para pagar é claro o tal cursinho. Vai ao banheiro e se depara com a seguinte mensagem: “SAI FORA PRETO AQUI NÃO É SEU LUGAR” o que você faria? Imagine-se caminhando em um bairro nobre, vestido “arrumadinho” indo para o trabalho, alguém o vê se aproximar e percebendo sua negritude, atravessa para o outro lado da calçada segurando sua bolsa desesperadamente, o que você faria? Imagine-se agora em uma balada na vila olimpia, arrumadinho novamente, alguém lhe entrega as chaves do carro e lhe pede para que guarde no estacionamento, o que você faria?

Many people, such as the one who wrote this post, say that we have a persecution complex… imagine that you go on one of these courses [to prepare for the university exams] after a whole day's work to pay for said course. You go to the loo and stumble upon this message: “GO AWAY NIGGER, THIS IS NOT A PLACE FOR YOU”, what would you do? Imagine that you are walking through a posh neighborhood, all “dressed up” to go to work, someone sees you getting close and perceiving your “blackness” crosses to the other side of the road, holding their bags desperately tight. What would you do? Now, imagine you are going out in Vila Olímpia, again dressed up, and someone gives you the car keys and asks you to find a car parking space, what would you do?

(Picture by Iberê Thenório)

One of the highlighted topics of the above debate was a legal measure approved in May 2004 that allowed federal universities to use a quota system, according to skin color and social class, in order to improve access for people of African descent in further education. This is referred to as ‘soft racism’ and is the worst kind of discrimination, according to Reality is out there [pt]:

Falo daqueles que acham que, sim, os negros são inferiores e precisam de um tratamento diferenciado por parte dos brancos privilegiados senão nunca chegarão a ser nada na vida. Aqueles que não acreditam que, dando-lhe consições iguais, um negro é capaz de disputar uma vaga de trabalho em igualdade de condições ou até mesmo levar vantagem sobre um branco.

I am talking about those people who think that, indeed, black people are inferior and need to be treated differently by white people otherwise they will never get anywhere. Those who don't believe, given equal conditions, a black person is capable of competing in the job market in parity or even in an advantageous situation over a white person.

Truth be told, in Brazil the term ‘racism’ is mostly used regarding discrimination against people according to the color of their skin. Sérgio Mendes [pt] reminds his readership that the word racism should not only have this connotation:

Já que tanto se batem pela questão do racismo contra os negros, poderiam, sensatamente, perceber que o inverso também o é. A palavra racismo não tem um componente “negro” no seu significado. Racismo é o preconceito que determinada raça ou etnia tem contra outra, independentemente se são brancos contra negros, negros contra brancos, portugueses contra espanhóis, paulistas contra nordestinos ou sérvios contra croatas: é racismo da mesma maneira, independente de qual parte parta.

As the question of racism against black people is often targetted, one could, reasonably, acknowledge that the inverse idea is also racism. The word racism does not have any ‘black’ component in its meaning. Racism is a prejudice that a certain race or ethnic group has against others, regardless whether they be white against black, black against white, Portuguese against Spanish, people from São Paulo against people from the Northeast or Serb against Croat irrespective of which side it starts on.

(Picture by Iberê Thenório)

Eduardo Peret goes further, reflecting on discrimination of all kinds, against homosexuals, women and races concluding [pt]:

Então, vamos todos nos educar para a verdadeira perfeição, alcançando as virtudes da tolerância e da aceitação mútua. Aí, sim, as paradas, os dias internacionais e as comemorações de consciência e de orgulho serão desnecessários. Porque todos nós seremos verdadeiramente iguais, tal como quando nascemos.

So, let's all educate ourselves for real perfection, reach the virtues of tolerance and mutual acceptance. Then, indeed, the pride days, international days and commemorations of pride and awareness will be unecessary. Because we will all be truly equal, as we are born.

(Picture by Iberê Thenório)

Jaqueline Lira, a teacher and blogger, has the last word on this debate saying she is proud of her descent [pt]:

Tenho orgulho de ser negro. Não sou marrom, nem furta cor, nem camaleão. Sou negra.

I am proud of being black. I am not brown, nor iridescent, nor chameleon. I am black.

If you read Portuguese, Valeu Zumbi [pt] is a new blog that has been set up to spread information about the Black Pride celebrations accross Brazil.

All the pictures that illustrate this feature have been kindly provided by Iberê Thenório. See his full set from last year's Black Pride in Avenida Paulista, São Paulo.


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  • BRE

    This is a lovely and informative post Paula, and I thank you so much for the roundup on what Brazilian bloggers think about the struggle to overcome racism and prejudice inside of their own societies.

    Somehow deep inside I know that the good people of Brazil will one day overcome discrimination and racism and marginalization. After all, Brazil gets its national strength and pride and worldwide acclaim from the efforts of ALL of the various ethnic and racial groups that make-up this wonderful, mulitcultural nation. Brazil without its diversity of cultures would be unimaginable.

  • Thank you very much, Bill. I would like to have your optimism to believe that we will eventually overcome racism/prejudice/marginalization – and we may do – but I don’t think I will live to see it, unfortunately. Things are and always will get better, but this is a 500 years legacy that may take 5000 other years to be written off completely. And I see the same happening everywhere, here where I live (in London), in other countries I have visited… it seems to be the worst of human traits, the one that we shall get rid of all together in all countries in order to eliminated it for good…

  • BRE

    5000 years to get rid of racism in Brazil??? No way! You are a young woman Paula and I predict you will live to see enormous changes for the better of many people living in Brazil today, especially members of your generation and younger people. Who knows, perhaps you will live to see an Afro-Brasilian female president within the next decade or so. That would shakeup the political status quo in South America, wouldn’t it?

  • […] o dia da consciência negra e o grande debate sobre racismo no Brasil. Eis a matéria original em inglês e a tradução para a nossa língua. Leia, compare as versões, opine, […]

  • […] Zumbi’s honor, November 20 is a Brazilian celebration of national pride and especially pride for those of African descent … while the king who would not be a slave has lent his name, somewhat paradoxically, to an […]

  • Thanks for this superlative post, Paula. This is why Global Voices is so fantastic. I’ve linked it from my day’s Zumbi story.

  • […] celebrate the Black Pride today in Brazil, The Spectacled Bear recommends a list of books on the subject: “As this blog […]

  • kasozi mulindwa

    I too add my voice against racism ,discrimination and marginalisation of any nature.
    it should however be remembered that we need to move on beyond the pain of the bad history of slavetrade and slavery.
    In one ignorace another was suffers, now in our enlightenment we all should gain.

  • great post, i really enjoyed reading it! very informative, and so true, not only for brazil, but for all parts of the world.

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