Brazil and the Yankee Way of Being Black – By Francis Wardle

Brazil and the Yankee Way of Being Black

— By Francis Wardle

In Brazil, race and class interact to create a highly stratified society where most people of color are poor, and most middle class and wealthy are “white.” To view this situation through the USA lens of racial categories and racial purity is not only intellectual dishonesty, but smacks of colonialism.     

In the proliferation of academic articles and books that have been published since the 2000 census — the one that “allowed” multiracial people to select more than one racial/ethnic identity — the existence of a government recognized mixed-race group of people in Brazil (pardos), and South Africa (coloureds), has often been used as an argument against the full recognition of multiracial and multiethnic people in the United States of America.     

The argument goes something like this — in both of these countries (its interesting that these two radically different cultures and societies are always lumped together) multiracial or ‘brown’ people end up as a buffer between whites and blacks, keeping blacks and whites as far apart as possible. Further, these mixed-race individuals have prevented blacks in Brazil and South Africa from achieving full equality (Daniel, 2003; Texeira, 2003).

While this argument is popular among many academics, others believe the insistence on focusing on mixed-race people in those two countries is really a smokescreen to whitewash the historical and current reality of colorism within the USA black population, and to bolster the only real argument for the one-drop rule — politics of numbers.

At the same time these writings on the problem of the mixed-race people in Brazil and South Africa are being promulgated, a plethora of articles in the USA and Brazil is examining racism within Brazil. Many of these articles claim that the Brazilian historical acceptance of people of mixed heritage has prevented blacks from demanding and getting equality in that country (Cristaldo, 2003).

These articles point to our history of combining all people with any African background as the reason for the relative progress of Blacks in the USA, as opposed to lack of progress in Brazil. They make the claim that the loyalty and unity of mixed-race people with blacks in the USA produced the needed changes in this society — the civil rights movement — without ever discussing that the Jim Crow laws in the USA, which relegated blacks to second-class citizenship, legally applied to anyone with any black heritage.

Thus these articles argue that for Brazilians to move toward racial equality, they must define race and racism in what Cristaldo calls Yankee terms: all Brazilians with any Black heritage must see themselves as Black (2003). – It is interesting to note that Brazilian academics, like academics throughout the world, are extremely critical of the Yankeeization of their country, yet fully embrace this Yankee view of race and racism.

While I am far from an expert on Brazilian race relationships — having visited several times since 1996, interviewed a variety of regular folks, college professors, and experts on the country’s genetic makeup, and read what I can on the topic (even finding people to translate contemporary articles from the Portuguese), I do possess something most US scholars on race and racism do not possess — the ability to look at this issue from outside of the narrow parameters of the USA experience.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of race and racism in other countries by US scholars is their dogmatic insistence on viewing this issue from the USA perspective. This is particularly fascinating because these scholars are post-modernists — academics who view important human phenomena from positions other than USA and European viewpoints — with historical, theoretical and political perspectives. These people are supposed to reject this First World way of thinking, yet they insist on a view of race and racism in Brazil from a narrow USA/British point of view (Cristaldo, 2003).

History of Brazil

Brazil, of course, was ‘discovered” by Cabral in 1500, and claimed by the Portuguese. While parts of Brazil were ruled at different times by the Dutch, French and Spanish, its history is significantly tied to Portugal. And to the Catholic Church. This, obviously, differs from our history of English Colonial power, Northern European immigrants, and the protestant religion.

However, like the USA, Brazil had a large slave population, and later encouraged significant number of immigrants from Italy, Japan, and the Middle East. “When Brazil was discovered in 1500 it was inhabited by 2.4 million Amerindians. Since then, 4 million African slaves and 6 million Europeans immigrated to the country (Carvalho-Silva et al, 2000).

“Portuguese and Italian immigrants arrived in almost equal numbers—comprising about 70 percent of the total, followed by immigrants from Spain, Germany, Syria, Lebanon and Japan” (Carvalho-Silva et al, 2000). Between 1822 and 1889, Brazil was an empire. Slaves were officially freed in 1888.

According to Dr Pena, the Portuguese have “a strange relationship with color” (personal communication, 2003). Portugal, of course, is a Southern European country close to Africa, with cultural and genetic ties to the Moors and others from North Africa. Many in Northern Europe consider the Spanish, Italians, and Portuguese to be darker — and less pure — than them.

Further, the original settlers of Brazil officially encouraged relationships between Portuguese and — first with the Indians, then blacks (Carvalho-Silver et al, 2000). And, while there were specific rules and laws established to maintain segregation, these laws were continually broken, much like the fact that people today, in a country that is over 90 percent Catholic, accept divorce, which is legal in Brazil. This is what Brazilians call ‘dar um jeitinho‘ — to find a solution or way out of a specific situation.

For example, one of the chief tourist attractions in the small, colonial mining town of Diamantina, in the state of Minas Gerais, is the house of Xica da Silva. She was the black mistress of a wealthy Portuguese diamond miner sent by the Portuguese to keep order in the rich diamond district — including moral order. He was so taken by her that he built her a large house, and a church — with a steeple at the back so that she could walk into the church without violating a law against blacks walking under a church steeple — a classic case of ‘jeitinho‘. He also built for his mistress a boat and a large lake on which to sail it, because she wanted a boat but Diamantina is inland (M.L. Meira, 2003, personal communication).

As a result of this acceptance of interracial mating, many Brazilians see themselves as multiracial (from 40-60 percent, depending on who you talk to). Brazilians form one of the most heterogeneous populations in the world, and, according to Parra et al, (2003), Brazilians constitute a trihybrid population with European, African and Amerindian roots. Further, today’s white Brazilians have much more non-white genetic makeup than even Portuguese whites living in Europe, and Brazilian blacks and Amerindians have more non-black and non-Indian genes than blacks in Africa and original Amerindian tribes (Parra et al 2003).

Race in Brazil

The history of slavery in Brazil is considerably different from the history of slavery in the USA. While it was equally cruel and inhuman, blacks in Brazil were allowed to purchase their freedom — and many did. Freed blacks would collect money to free other slaves. In the town of Ouro Preto (Black Gold), an extremely wealthy town in the late 1800s, successful gold miners and merchants showed off their wealth by building expensive baroque churches to ‘thank God for their good fortune’. One of the most impressive examples of these churches was built by a black brotherhood.

Further, the most famous architect and artist not only of Ouro Preto, but of the entire Brazilian baroque was Antonio Francisco Lisboa (Aleijadinho — The Little Cripple), a product of a Portuguese builder and black slave. Clearly, one difference between the USA and Brazil regarding slavery and mating of whites and slaves is that in Brazil this was open and even ‘accepted’; in the USA we still talk about Sally Hemings in whispers! Finally, Brazil passed a law requiring children of slaves — including mixed-race children — to be freed: the opposite of the USA one-drop rule.

Brazilian scholars who study Brazil’s ethnic and racial populations today divide the population into these broad groups:

European — including Portuguese and Spanish (they believe Hispanic is a USA made-up category), British, Italian and Germans; African; Amerindian; Asian (primarily Japanese), and mixed-race, or pardos.

As many who have a peripheral understanding of race in Brazil know, the mixed-race group is divided into a variety of sub-categories, — or tipos—including loura, branca, morena, mulata and preta (Fish, 2002).

Officially now the government lumps these altogether under one category. Again, USA detractors point to these various racial labels as a throwback to our history where people were labeled mulatto, octoroon, quadroon, etc., and see this as a slippery slope for racial subdivisions in this country (Teixeira, 2003).

One of my most interesting observations is that in Brazil almost every group I observed — early childhood programs, school groups, choirs and instrumental groups, Lions Clubs, kids sitting in shopping centers and eating or just socializing, and dance groups, were all made up of people ranging in color from what the Brazilians consider black to what they consider white, with every color of brown in between.

I never saw students, youth groups, or adults voluntarily segregate themselves by color; I never heard any discussion from the young people I was around that certain things are a “black thing”, “Asian thing”, “white thing”, etc.— largely because most of these youths did not fit any of these single-race categories. The re-segregation of schools in the USA into single-race student groups, popularly supported by many academic experts (Tatum, 1997), just does not seem to exist in Brazil.


While racial divisions in Brazil are not clearly defined, class lines are. There are the very wealthy, the middle class, and the very poor. And in Brazil the very poor make up a large percentage of the population. You see them on the streets trying to sell food and trinkets when you stop at a traffic light; they descend on you when you park your car, offering ‘protection’ for a price (and, if you don’t pay, your car will not be protected); and, you see them along the highways in miserable shacks trying to sell all sorts of things to drivers speeding by.

Clearly this class structure overlaps into race; but it is categorically untrue to say all the wealthy are white, and all the poor, non-white. It is also inaccurate to look at Brazilian society as if it were a society with the same potential for upward mobility as exists in the USA, and then to blame poverty of people of color on racism. In Brazil it is extremely difficult for anyone to advance social levels, regardless of race.

This is due to a complex set of societal factors, but anchored in the educational system that only works for families with money. Children must attend private secondary schools to be able to pass the vestibular entrance exam to get into the free universities; if they fail they can go to private universities that cost money to attend. In both cases the poor are shut out.


We in the USA have a history of racism, including legal segregation, legal support of the one-drop rule, laws against interracial marriage that were not declared unconstitutional until 1967, and the Eugenics Movement of the early 20thcentury that sterilized people to prevent the contamination of our pure white race.

Racial conflicts in Brazil were never this intense or absolute (Cristaldo, 2003), largely because “love has killed, in Brazil, the possibility of a supreme biological expression. Hatred has created in America the glory of human eugenism”. (Lobato, 1926, as quoted in Cristaldo, 2003)

In Brazil, race and class interact to create a highly stratified society where most people of color are poor, and most middle class and wealthy are “white” according to Brazilian standards (which are much different from ours).

However, to view this situation through the USA lens of racial categories and racial purity is not only intellectual dishonesty, but smacks of USA and British colonialism — imposing our view of the world onto others.

Further, to argue that Brazil’s historical acceptance — and even encouragement — of people of mixed-race heritage has prevented blacks in that country from achieving equality — and thus providing a warning against the support of multiracial identity in the USA and Britain — is simply political rhetoric and dishonesty. Brazil has many problems; the main one being poverty and the violence that poverty produces.

It is one thing to argue that blacks in the USA have not achieved the American dream; it is quite another to argue that blacks in Brazil are poor because of deep-seated racism, when most people, of every race, in Brazil are poor.


Carvalho-Silva, D. R., Santos, F. R., Rocha, J. & Pena, S. D. J. (2000). “The phylogeography of Brazilian Y-chromosome lineages.” American Journal of Human Genetics, 68.

Cristaldo, J. (2003, May). “Afrobrazilianists: Such Arrogance!” Brazzil

. Daniel, R. (2003). “Multiracial identity in global perspective: The United States, Brazil and South Africa.” In L. I Winters, and H. L DeBose, (Eds.), New faces in a changing America (pp.247-286). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Fish, J. (Ed.).(2002). Race and intelligence. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Publishers.

Parra, F. C., Amando, R. C., Lambertucci, J. R., Roca, J., Antunes, C. M., and Pena, S. D. J. (2003). Color and genomic ancestry in Brazilians. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 100(1), 177-182.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? New York, NY: Basic Books.

Texeira, M. T. (2003). The new multiculturalism: An affirmation of or an end to race as we know it? In L. I. Winteres, and H. L. DeBose, H. L. (Eds.), New faces in a changing America (pp. 21-28). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Note: The correct spelling for Brazil is Brasil (note the capital is Brasília), after pau brasil (brazil wood) that was used by the Portuguese to create a red die.

The research for this article was funded by Partners of the Americas. This piece appeared originally in Interracial Voice –


Francis Wardle, Ph.D. is executive director of the Center for the Study of Biracial Children in Denver, and author of the book, Tomorrow’s Children: Meeting the Needs of Multiracial and Multiethnic Children at Home, in Early Childhood Programs, and at School—available from the center. The author welcomes comments at  

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