AFRICANGLOBE – Note: Racism in the land that would later be known as Brazil has existed perhaps since the colonization of the land by the Portuguese. And even as Brazil continues to deny or fall short of fully acknowledging how deeply ingrained this system of racial privilege structures so many facets of life, underneath the practice of racism lies yet another layer or perhaps sub-category of this system of penalties:colorism. From perhaps the earliest articles posted on this blog in which we attempted to break down various terminologies commonly used throughout the country in an attempt to explain an existent color-coded hierarchy, colorism explains so many things about the very question of race in Brazil. From the widespread escape from a specifically Black identity, to treatment within one’s own family to the difficulty of a Black woman finding a life-long partner of the opposite sex, colorism remains alive and well!
Though not as commonly discussed and debated as its more powerful relative, a recent controversy about a lighter-skinned Black woman replacing a darker-skinned Black woman for a position that many agree is in itself detrimental to Black women of all skin tones brought the topic to forefront. And it needs to be! Due to numerous conversations with various afrodescendentes in Brazil, this writer can attest to the fact that many lighter-skinned self-defined Blacks sometimes even deny the very existence of such privileges and penalties. The blog’s position on racial classification has long been the fact that in terms of socioeconomic data that shows quality of life in Brazil, pretos (Blacks) and pardos (browns) are almost at an identical disadvantage in comparison to those who classify themselves or are classified as brancos (whites), which is the reason most social research studies usually classify and study the two together as group, ie, Afro-Brazilians. But even so, as Brazil’s color hierarchy operates in a color continuum, this is NOT to say that that privileges and penalties don’t exist within the group. Today’s piece explores this reality very well.
Colorism: What It Is, How It Works
Colorism* or pigmentocracy is discrimination by skin color and is very common in countries that suffered European colonization and in post-slaveholding countries. In a simplified way, the term means that the more pigmented a person, the more exclusion and discrimination that person will suffer.
Contrary to racism, which is based on the identification of the subject as belonging to a certain race to exercise discrimination, colorism is oriented only on the person’s skin color. This means that even if a person is recognized as Black or African descendant, the tone of his or her skin will be decisive for the treatment that society will give him or her.
Colorism makes difficult and even completely prevents access of dark-skinned people to certain places in society, which in turn damages or prevents their access to services of which they are entitled as Brazilian citizens.
Although orienting oneself in skin color, colorism in Brazil presents a peculiarity; phenotypic aspects such as cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), round or broad nose, among other physical aspects that our culture associates with African ancestry, also influence the process of discrimination.
But why does having lighter skin bring privileges for the Afro-descendant person if he/she is still not identified as white? Because even when he/she is identified as “negra” by a racist society, which would mean that he or she could not enjoy the same rights as a white person, he/she is still more “pleasant” to the eyes of branquitude (whiteness) and should/can therefore be “tolerated “in their midst. This is a very important aspect in colorism: a Black person is tolerated but not accepted because accepting him/her would be recognizing that the difference exists and that overcoming prejudice that one has about this “difference” has to be defeated.
In the branquitude-pessoa negra de pele clara (whiteness-light-skinned Black) relationship the important thing is not convincing one’s self that the person is in fact white, but rather to ignore their Black features to the point of imagining him/her as white, to the point of enduring his/her presence that, because of racism, is seen as intrusive.
In our society tolerance of the Black subject is constructed through mimicry**. The most common example of mimicry is that of insects such as the owl butterfly (caligo memnon) case, whose open wings look like the face of an owl. This kind of “camouflage” protects it from potential predators and is a survival strategy.
In order to be tolerated in a racist and discriminatory society, Black people force themselves to practice mimicry to gain access to spaces in which they were always excluded. Hair straightening was also born from his necessity of “camouflaging” their very presence, to become less “visible” to the whiteness and thus ensure their very survival.
The colorism works as a system of favors, in which branquitude allows the presence of Black subjects with greater identification of close physical traits of Europe, but not elevating them to the same level of whites, it tolerates these “intruders” of which they can recognize themselves in part and in whose act of imitating they can also recognize the domain of their ideal of human in the other.
It’s important to accepting this “favor” is not an option for the Black subject. Rejecting this “agreement” would result in their exclusion. An example is the mulheres negras de pele clara (light-skinned black women) that while straightening her hair, suffers less racial harassment in the workplace, but after abdicating from this process goes on to be openly discriminated against. What happens is that the blackness of these women could no longer be ignored and her reaffirmation through the Black aesthetic comes to be seen as a threat by whiteness as a threat, a sign of insubordination that deserves retaliation and/or exclusion. In the case of dark-skinned women abandoning the white aesthetic can mean the intensification of social exclusion, of which she has already been an uninterrupted victim and in all spaces.[/sociallocker]