The effect of slavery in shaping colorism and racism in Brazil

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Slavery was one of the most enduring world-wide institutions in the human history more common in the American society, being found nearly everywhere. By the time slavery was abolished, over ten million slaves had been imported into Latin America and the Caribbean greatly affecting the contemporary culture. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Spain, Portugal, and other European countries ‘discovered’ the New World in the Caribbean, giving a tremendous impetus to slavery and slave trade. The slaves were essential for the exploitation of the resources available in the new lands in order to benefit the Spanish colonizers. Beginning from Santo Domingo, Spanish rule extended to the other Latin America and Caribbean territories, and so did the African slaves who were either brought directly from Africa or from the reserves in Spain and Portugal (Franco 2). Most of the slaves were used to provide labour in the large agricultural plantations, particularly cultivating sugar while others, although relatively lower in number, were used in the copper mines. African slaves were highly concentrated on towns along the coastal lines of Venezuela, Brazil, West Indies, among others, which had slave markets and from whence the slaves were distributed. By the end of the 18th century and a few years in the 19th century, slavery and slave-trading were a common feature in Latin America, carried out with great enthusiasm and even considered as an honor by some. However, further down into the 19th century, slave trade was slowly declining, with the United States’ constitutional clause abolishing slavery as well as the progress of the Industrial Revolution. In addition, international instruments were being implemented, abolishing slave trade and forbidding the exportation of slaves. These instruments included the 1814 Treaty of Paris, which then led to the Vienna Declaration that abolished slave traffic. Soon, Spain and Brazil, key players of slave trade also signed these agreements, further severing the strongly established slavery trade. Enhanced vigilance at sea and international pressure from rising powers that had already outlawed the practice, such as the United States and Britain, also contributed to the eventual decline of slavery and slave trade.

Although slavery came to an end, there were great social, political, and economic ramifications in the Americas societies. The freed slaves were determined on improving their economic and political positions. They started engaging in economic occupations that directly resulted in growth and development, such as blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, teachers, and musicians. The social consequence was the creation of a middle class consisted of freed slaves that aspired to defeat the oppressive regime of slavery and other forms of exploitation and sought to have their human rights and liberties respected, upheld, and protected. In effect, slavery and slave trade helped in the creation of the multiracial societies that exist today and the diversity of cultures exhibited in Latin and Caribbean countries, such as Brazil, Haiti, and Cuba.

Colorism and Racism

Slavery as the main factor influencing the creation of multiracial societies, is also the main foundation of the concepts of colorism and racism. Colorism refers to prejudiced attitudes and discrimination based on an individual’s skin colour, shade and tone, regardless of their perceived racial identity while racism refers to prejudices and discrimination based on a person’s actual or perceived racial status through self-identification and other identification through appearance including colour and ancestry (Harris 54). The hierarchy employed in both colorism and racism is the same; light skin is highly prized over dark skin, European facial features and body shapes are highly prized over the African ones.

Colorism is often a symptom of racism, highly evidenced in regions were once under colonization, specifically from the European powers. During the colonization period, the standard of civilization was measured on European features, such as white and straight hair, pointed nose, and colored eyes (Webb). In such societies, privileges and rights were only enjoyed by individuals of a European descent while the rest were forced into slavery and servitude. With these kind of institutionalized discriminatory practices based on one’s race, a majority of individuals of African descent came to believe that Europeans were superior and acquisition of European features is the only way to a better life. This ingrained belief can still be evidenced in the contemporary world through the rising popularity of plastic surgeries that seek to achieve certain European features, such as a pointed nose as well as the vibrant hair industry, primarily selling straight European hair. Through slavery, the Europeans had already developed the superiority perception of their race and the inferiority of other races, particularly, the Africans. Thus, anyone who was not purely of a European descent was bound to experience the prejudices and discriminatory actions against his/her race. The focus of this paper is on the effect of slavery and the subsequent colorism and racism in Brazil.

Slavery in Brazil

Brazil is one of the countries whose foundation was greatly influenced by the Atlantic slave trade. Prior to the European settlement in Brazil, the country’s economy was largely underdeveloped. The main occupations of the inhabitants, who were mainly indigenous Indians, included farming, fishing, hunting, and gathering where the latter to dominate the drier savannahs and highlands. Development of the country’s economy took approximately half a century after the initial Portuguese contact due to the region’s perceived unprofitably when compared to other colonized regions. By mid-16th century, the development of sugar plantations began. The indigenous Indians were enslaved and used as the primary source of labor for the plantations but they started being attacked by European diseases (Klein 37). The Indian slaves were dying in great numbers and those that remained fled to the interior parts that had not yet been navigated. This led to the perception that Indians were too weak for hard labor in the plantations, subsequently leading to the importation of slaves from Africa. At this point, the Portuguese were well established in the Atlantic slave trade and thus, bringing African slaves into Brazil was not a challenge.

Up until the time of abolishment of slavery in 1888, Brazil had received over four million African slaves, four times as many as any other destination in the Americas (Arsenault and Rose 15). The Brazilian ports had been joined with numerous ports on the coast of Africa creating a complex dependency between the economies of Rio de Janeiro and the African countries of Angola, Bahia, and Benin. Due to the entrenchment of the slavery practice in Brazil, it went on for years even after it had been abolished in nearly all other countries, as those engaged in structuring the country’s foundations never engaged in serious debates over the issue. Although the country formerly abolished slave trade in 1850 achieved through the signing of several abolition agreement between the Portuguese and British administrations, the practice continued for years giving rise to abolitionist movements.

The Abolitionist movement was in effect a political movement that comprised of individuals of all classes, and hose initiation and end ere within the parliamentary context of cabinet administration, chamber debate, and legislation. The movement explicitly worked towards the creation of a legal framework ending slavery through the formal institutions of the constitutional monarchy (Needell 292). It was characterized by numerous parliamentary speeches, the most significant and influential of which were made by Joaquim Nabuco. Nabuco is regarded as the greatest contributor to the Abolitionist movement that ultimately led to the end of slavery in Brazil. His publication, Abolicionism, is the best known indictment of slavery. His political views and activities changed the historical path of the movement.

The abolition of slavery led to the creation of a special category of liberated Africans who had one thing in common with other freed African slaves across Latin America and the Caribbean; their special legal status as free persons who had to remain under the guardianship of the state for a limited period. The focus shifted from the ex-slave to the ‘black man’ resulting from the ensuing crisis on the part of the Brazilian administration of what to do with African portion of its society and protecting it from the established stereotypical beliefs of its defects and primitiveness. This provided a framework for development of theoretical approaches in studying the black Brazilians and the impact their emancipation had on the social order where the masters and slaves lived together.

The post-slavery Brazilian society had to bridge the enormous distance that previously existed between the slaves and their masters, corresponding to differences in color, where the whites were the official masters and the blacks were the official slaves. Consequently, the white race was regarded as essentially superior to the dark-skinned race in various aspects of its material and moral culture. Different sociologists and anthropologists provided numerous discourses that sought to understand the racial dimension that so challenged the Brazilian society. Notably, intellectuals, such as Gilberto Freyre provided explanations that considered the virtues and vices that had resulted in such racial distinctions. He opined that all Brazilians, whether black or white, were all a result of a particular social and patriarchal order that had developed on the colonial sugar plantations, particularly in the houses where both the masters and slaves interacted (Hebrard 51). He interpreted this as an opportunity of interracial relations rather than a degradation of one race, and which were less harsh than those carried out in other colonial empires. He further postulated that the Portuguese treated the slaves just like any other human being but as one who had been placed under servitude and through which he had the ability of distinguishing between the status of the slave as a commodity and the societally assigned race.

Racism and Colorism in Brazil

The White ideal continues to be the central element of the race ideology in Brazil. This explains the popularity of the ‘branqueamento’ basically meaning ‘whitening’ and referring to the aspirations and possibilities of transforming an individual’s social status by approaching Whiteness. This can be achieved through marrying a white or lighter-skinned individual or achieving worldwide fame or wealth. The idealization and promotion of racial mixture and identification as a national norm, which prefers the lighter-skinned individuals over the darker-skinned in effect overtly discourages individuals from identifying along the racial lines with the aim of maintaining the national myth of racial democracy.

In addition, just like in any other Latin American countries, an individual’s socio-economic status also influence the determination of their racial classification. Thus, an individual of African descent who has a higher socio-economic status has the freedom of choosing a racial classification that leans more towards Whiteness than his counterparts who are more impoverished (Hernandez 685). In a society where the black population is relatively higher than the white population, a lighter skinned segment of the Brazilian society, known as ‘Mulatto’ has always been held as distinct from the perceived subordinate black community. Mulattoes, those of mixed bloods, are afforded higher privileges than the predominantly blacks, but relatively lesser than the minority whites.

Employment practices in Brazil carry a colorist and racial aspect. For examples, some job applications require the applicants to attach colored photographs. Job announcements requiring ‘good appearance’ are generally understood as requiring light-skinned individuals as this is still used as the standard measure of beauty, intelligence, and civilization. Consequently, the highest percentage of economic opportunities that include the highest paying jobs across all industries are taken by the Whites and the Mulattoes. The Brazilian Military was also notorious for the exclusion of Afro-Brazilians from the ranks of officer. In fact, one of the official prerequisites was being as white as one could be. Other positions from which the Africans were excluded included prison guards and local police force. From the time slaves were emancipated in Brazil in 1888, they were only able to enter into the Sao Paulo police force in 1932.

The development of the light-skinned privilege is a result of governmental and social activities. The Brazilian government commenced the exclusion of the Afro-descendants almost immediately after the abolition of slave trade and slavery through the national whitening campaign. In a bid to seek workers replacing the African slaves, the government implemented different discriminatory legislations and policies to exclude the Afro-descended workers from the formal labor market while also encouraging European immigration. For example, the government enacted a legislation providing generous land grants to European immigrants while at the same time denying land titles to residents of quilombos, where Afro-descendants had lived for generations. The Immigration Decree No. 558, which was in fact the first legislation to be passed by the independent Brazil, categorically excluded Asian and African individuals from immigrating into Brazil. Particularly, the black population were explicitly excluded as some populations of Asians, Japanese and Chinese, were allowed entry two years after the enactment of the Decree.

European immigrants on the other hand, were offered automatic naturalization while also travelling at the expense of the government. Later on, the Sao Paulo administration took up the responsibility of transportation costs, while also providing fully funded housing, healthcare, cash grants, as well as offering subsidies on other services, such as farming tools (50). In addition, policies promoting immigration were heavily funded while the socio-economic conditions of the Africans were virtually ignored. The racial motivation of the immigration laws and policies is further evidenced by the fact that most of the Europeans employed were neither skilled laborers nor literate. These positions could have easily been filled by the newly emancipated Afro-Brazilians.

These legislations and policies effectively displaced the Afro-descendants from the labor market as white workers were imported from European countries. They received no social or economic support whatsoever, but rather encountered numerous hurdles in trying to join the labor market or owning pieces of land from whence they could engage in agricultural activities. The support and execution of the whitening campaign by the government itself may have resulted in the subsequent social segregation that the Africans later experienced, such as separate public spaces set aside just for blacks.

More than a century after the emancipation of the African slaves, it would be expected that situation, including social, economic, and political aspects have improved. However, Afro-Brazilians are still worse off than they actually should be. In the recent census conducted in 2010, more than half of the population (51%) identified themselves as being either black or brown (RIO DE Janeiro). Despite this large percentage of the general population, the wages and general living conditions of the black population is not at the same level as that of the whites. The income of the former group is nearly double that of the former who also have disadvantaged access to education, health, and other services. These differences are only explainable by racism and the lack of racial equality and justice as a result of the slavery legacy.

The most challenging aspect of dealing with racism and colorism in Brazil is the fact that the country veils and shame-faces racism and the people who undertake racism practices carry friendly faces but it is still racism nevertheless. The standards of aesthetic beauty and morality celebrated by the Brazilian society are evidenced even in high profile cases where making fun of black individuals has generally passed off as normal. Some of these incidences include; a prominent Brazilian black actor,  Vicinius  Romao was profiled by the police while going home late from work after a woman who had been mugged identified her attacker as a black guy with an Afro; Gloria Maria, a journalist, was trolled on social media over a photo she had posed with other blonde celebrities due to her skin color; and multiple ‘jokes’ made on mainstream and social media over the black people’s scent, hair, and other parts of their bodies (Iraheta). Thus, it appears that most people do not take the issue with the weight it deserves, which makes it hard to change the stereotypical beliefs. This is in contrast to the US where until strong legislation was implemented, racism was openly carried, for example, the ban on interracial marriages.

Affirmative policies, such as the ones found in the US are the best solution of eliminating institutionalized racism in Brazil. There are currently various forms of affirmative action undertaken by the government. The most notable ones are in the higher education sector. Beginning 20001, over 70 public universities have admissions quotas that set aside certain a certain percentage particularly for the black population. For example, universities in Rio de Janeiro have set aside 20% of its places for black students who pass the entrance exam, while another 25% is set aside for pupils who come from certain state schools whose parents earn two times less than the minimum wage and who are predominantly black. While opponents to admissions quotas may argue that this form of affirmative action has a tinge of racism by dividing the nation into arbitrary colours, they have effective in providing education opportunities to people who would otherwise not had it. This is evidenced by the increasing numbers in recent years of the black population in public universities.

However, the development and enactment of legislation outlawing racism and racial discrimination on its own is not entirely effective on its own. Proper mechanisms and frameworks of implementing and enforcing the already existing legislations and policies would be more effective. For example, even though the Brazilian constitution prohibits racial abuse and racism crimes, the prosecutions based on this provision are relatively few, especially as compared to the perceived prevalence of the practices in the country. Most significantly, it is important to change the deeply institutionalized racial attitudes, prejudices, and practices against the black and mixed race individuals. This begins from the realization that Brazil is not a racial democracy and that the influence of racism stemming from the slavery era is still present in the present day.

The European standards of beauty, intelligence, morality, and civilization still govern the country’s social, political, and economic structures. The black people are treated as second-class citizens with less opportunities to education, employment, health, and other services. One’s skin color and race is the single most popular determinant of how many doors open for an individual. Whether it is said on a friendly note or not, racism is a serious crime found at the core of the Brazilian society and which has fundamentally led to the social constructions of racial roles and positions. In a country that imported more slaves than any other in the world, and whose population is predominantly of Afro-descent, it cannot be over-emphasized the benefits that the country can experience by investing in availing equal economic opportunities to the blacks as it does to the whites. More education and employment opportunities translate to higher income for the government and ultimately a rise in per capita income. Significantly, it would create a better social environment for all individuals by giving them a sense of belonging and identity in a country they have called their home and which they will potentially continue to do for the rest of their lives.

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  1. Arsenault, Natalie and Rose, Christopher. Africa Enslaved. Liberal Arts, 2006. Web. Nov 21, 2017.
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  6. Hernández, Tanya. Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law, and the New Civil Rights Response. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  7. Iraheta, Diego. In Brazil, Racism Can Wear a Friendly Face — but it’s No Less Insidious. Huffington Post, 2015. Web. Nov 21, 2017.
  8. Klein, Herbert S. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1986.
  9. Needell, Jeffrey. The Call to Arms: Nabuco’s radicalized Abolitionism of 1885-1886. Revista Brasileira de História, 33: 65(2013), p. 291-312.
  10. RIO DE Janeiro. Affirming a Divide. Economist, Jan 28th 2012. Web. Nov 21, 2017.
  11. Webb, Sarah. Defining Colorism and Racism. Colorism Healing, n.d. Web. Nov 21, 2017.
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