Updated: Jul 26, 2021
By Terrence McCoy and Heloísa Traiano - November 15, 2020
RIO DE JANEIRO — For most of his 57 years, to the extent that he thought about his race, José Antônio Gomes used the language he was raised with. He was "pardo" — biracial — which was how his parents identified themselves. Or maybe "moreno," as people back in his hometown called him. Perhaps "mestiço," a blend of ethnicities.
It wasn’t until this year, when protests for racial justice erupted across the United States after George Floyd’s killing in police custody, that Gomes’s own uncertainty settled. Watching television, he saw himself in the thousands of people of color protesting amid the racially diverse crowds. He saw himself in Floyd.
Gomes realized he wasn’t mixed. He was Black. So in September, when he announced his candidacy for city council in the southeastern city of Turmalina, Gomes officially identified himself that way. “In reality, I’ve always been Black,” he said. “But I didn’t think I was Black. But now we have more courage to see ourselves that way.”
Brazil is home to more people of African heritage than any country outside Africa. But it is rarely identified as a Black nation, or as closely identifying with any race, really. It has seen itself as simply Brazilian — a tapestry of European, African and Indigenous backgrounds that has defied the more rigid racial categories used elsewhere. Some were darker, others lighter. But almost everyone was a mix.
Now, however, as affirmative action policies diversify Brazilian institutions and the struggle for racial equality in the United States inspires a similar movement here, a growing number of people are redefining themselves. Brazilians who long considered themselves to be White are reexamining their family histories and concluding that they’re pardo. Others who thought of themselves as pardo now say they’re Black.
In Brazil, which still carries the imprint of colonization and slavery, where class and privilege are strongly associated with race, the racial reconfiguration has been striking. Over the past decade, the percentage of Brazilians who consider themselves White has dropped from 48 percent to 43 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, while the number of people who identify as Black or mixed has risen from 51 percent to 56 percent.
“We are clearly seeing more Black people publicly declare themselves as Black, as they would in other countries,” said Kleber Antonio de Oliveira Amancio, a social historian at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia. “Racial change is much more fluid here than it is in the United States.”
One of the clearest illustrations of that fluidity — and the growing movement to identify as Black — was the registration process for the 5,500 or so municipal elections held here Sunday. Candidates were required to identify as White, Black, mixed, Indigenous or Asian. And that routine bureaucratic step yielded fairly stunning results.
More than a quarter of the 168,000 candidates who also ran in 2016 have changed their race, according to a Washington Post analysis of election registration data. Nearly 17,000 who said they were White in 2016 are now mixed. Around 6,000 who said they were mixed are now Black. And more than 14,000 who said they were mixed now identify as White. For some candidates, the jump was even further. Nearly 900 went from White to Black, and nearly 600 went from Black to White. How to explain it?
Some say they’re simply correcting bureaucratic error: A party official charged with registering candidates saw their picture and recorded their race inaccurately. One woman joked that she’d gotten a lot less sun this year while quarantined and decided to declare herself White. Another candidate told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that he was Black but was a “fan” of the Indigenous, and so has now joined them. Some believed candidates were taking advantage of a recent court decision that requires parties to dispense campaign funds evenly among racial categories. And others said they didn’t see what all of the fuss was about.
“Race couldn’t exist,” reasoned Carlos Lacerda, a city council candidate in the southeastern city of Araçatuba, who described himself as White in 2016 and Black this year. “It’s nationalism, and that’s it. Race is something I’d never speak about.”
“We have way more important things to talk about than my race,” said Ribamar Antônio da Silva, a city council member seeking reelection in the southeastern city of Osasco. But others looked at the racial registration as a chance to fulfill a long-denied identity. Cristovam Andrade, 36, a city council candidate in the northeastern city of São Felipe, was raised on a farm in rural Bahia, where the influence of West Africa never felt far away. With limited access to information outside his community — let alone Brazil — he grew up believing he was White. That was how his parents had always described him.
“I didn’t have any idea about race in North America or in Europe,” he said. “But I knew a lot of people who were darker than me, so I saw myself as White.” As he began to see himself as Black, Brazil did, too. For much of its history, Brazil’s intellectual elite described Latin America’s largest country as a “racial democracy,” saying its history of intermixing had spared it the racism that plagues other countries. Around 5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to Brazil — more than 10 times the number that ended up in North America — and the country was the last in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. Its history since has been one of profound racial inequality: White people earn nearly twice as much as Black people on average, and more than 75 percent of the 5,800 people killed by police last year were Black.
But Brazil never adopted prohibitions on intermarrying or draconian racial distinctions. Race became malleable.
The Brazilian soccer player Neymar famously said he wasn’t Black. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso famously said he was, at least in part. The 20th-century Brazilian sociologist Gilberto de Mello Freyre wrote in the 1930s that all Brazilians — “even the light-skinned fair-haired one” — carried Indigenous or African lineage. “The self-declaration as Black is a very complex question in Brazilian society,” said Wlamyra Albuquerque, a historian at the Federal University of Bahia. “And one of the reasons for this is that the myth of a racial democracy is still in political culture in Brazil. The notion that we’re all mixed, and because of this, racism couldn’t exist in the country, is still dominant.”
Given the choice, many Afro-Brazilians, historians and sociologists argue, have historically chosen not to identify as Black — whether consciously or not — to distance themselves from the enduring legacy of slavery and societal inequality. Wealth and privilege allowed some to separate even further from their skin color.
“In Brazilian schools, we didn’t learn who was an African person, who was an Indigenous person,” said Bartolina Ramalho Catanante, a historian at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul. “We only learned who was a European person and how they came here. To be Black wasn’t valued.”
But over the past two decades, as diversity efforts elevated previously marginalized voices into newscasts, telenovelas and politics, people such as Andrade have begun to think of themselves differently. To Andrade’s mother, he was White. But he wasn’t so sure. His late father had been Black. His grandparents had been Black. Just because his skin color was lighter, did that make his African roots, and his family’s experience of slavery, any less a part of his history?
In 2016, when Andrade ran for office, an official with the leftist Workers’ Party asked him what race he would like to declare. He had a decision to make. “I am going to mark Black as a way to recognize my ancestry and origin,” he thought. “Outside of Brazil, we would never be considered White. We live in a bubble in this country.” But this year, when he ran again, no one asked him which race he preferred. Someone saw his picture and made the decision for him. He was put down as White. For Andrade, it felt like an erasure. “It’s easy for some to say they’re Black or mixed or White, but for me it’s not easy,” he said. “And I’m not going to be someone who isn’t White all over the world but is White only in Brazil. If I’m not White elsewhere in the world, I’m not White.” He’s Black. And if he seeks public office again in 2024, he said, he’ll make sure that’s how he will be known.