The “Return” of Race in Brazil 

cotasby Chloe Lyu

Different from the American white or black model of racial classification, there is a large range of choices between black and white for Brazilians to identify themselves, since Brazil applies skin colour as criteria for classifying one’s race. However, skin colour is more than skin tones in Brazil, as it also relates to the texture of hair, the shape of nose, lips and cultural background.

Moreno (brown) is the most popular term, which is used by nearly 44% of the population when people describe their skin colour. Its ambiguity allows a wide range of people with different skin tones to fit in the same box. In addition, brown is celebrated as a national symbol of mixed raced Brazilians. The founder of Brazil’s national identity, Gilberto Freyre, declared that the skin colour of brown was a great combination of Black, Indian and European, thus it symbolized mixed races of Brazilians’ commonness. Freyre’s work created an image that Brazil was a racial democracy without discrimination, due to everyone’s mixed background, thus everyone was the same.

democracyNevertheless, the reality tells a different story, from the statistics it is obvious that white Brazilians have more opportunities accessing education, work, and a higher standard of living. Despite the race-mixing, the white Brazilian population still occupies the top of Brazilian society, while black and brown people are largely struggling in poverty; Racial democracy is a myth and never actually existed. The colour classification, which has been promoted as a wonderful racial democratic system, sugars up the racial differences and inequality by obscuring the concept of race. In fact, colour and race are the same thing.

The current racial quota policy that benefits black people puts race back on the table and has raised heated discussions. In a debate about the racial quota policy, Demetrio Magnoli, a Brazilian professor, stated that Brazil enjoys racial democracy because people are identified by colour but not race. The new policy has created races by putting into racial boxes and would result in racial discrimination.

Nonetheless, it is really so? Hasn’t race existed forever in Brazil? Without applying the word “race,” people are still judged by their skin colour and treated differently. Racial problems are not returning to Brazil because they never left, while the word race is returning. Brazilians have been fooled so long by the myth of racial democracy, and the black community has begun to say no to the situation.

This response asserts that the American Black or White system is a universal system that should be applied in Brazil for achieving racial equality. However, the colour classification system, as an outcome of myth of racial democracy, makes the race problem rather vague and glosses over the shadow of racial differences and inequality in Brazil.


Guimarães, Antonio Sérgio Alfredo. 2012. Race, colour, and skin colour in Brazil. FMSH-PP

Edward Telles. 2009. The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil. In Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Still Matters, edited by Evelyn Nakano Glenn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Brazil’s racial quotas (2012),

Colorism and affirmative action in Brazil

by Seimu Yamashita

Reading Edward Telles’ work on the social consequences of skin color in Brazil made me think whether affirmative action is truly justified. The author mentions about difficulties in having affirmative action, especially where to draw the line between potential beneficiaries and dominant group members. Without clear rules for making racial distinction, some people who have not suffered from racial discrimination might benefit from affirmative action. This is more likely to happen in Brazil than the United States since the criteria of race is self-identified in Brazil rather than determined by appearance. In addition, it is very difficult to decide when to end affirmative action. Besides such problems that make affirmative action ineffective, I believe that affirmative action promotes racial discrimination. There are three reasons why I consider it would bring negative effects.

Firstly, affirmative action policy makes racial distinction even more obvious. By officially indicating who are black and who are white, people would tend to take the opportunity to distinguish one race from the other compared to before. People might even consider it right to treat other races differently because the government does so in the name of affirmative action.

Another reason is that affirmative action would make potential beneficiaries looked down upon. For example when someone sees a “negro” (‘black’ in Portuguese) in the university, people will think that they only got into the university through the policy, rather than hard work. This would lead to people looking down on other who are given opportunities. If there is an easier way to get into university for a certain race of people, some people may think those people of a certain race do not try to study hard to normally get into university as everyone else. As another case in Japan against burakumin, some people claim that buraku people should not complain about discrimination against them as long as they benefit from affirmative action. This way of thinking would be totally nonsense and it’s the totally opposite effect to the affirmative action is intended to make. Affirmative action has a possibility to produce new types of prejudice against beneficiaries.

Lastly, it cannot be sure when to finish affirmative action. Ideally, it would be the time when there is no discrimination against a certain race that benefits from affirmative action. However, it is hard to truly admit whether discrimination still exists or not. I personally think there is such time that everyone would agree to finish it.

In conclusion, affirmative action that benefits a certain group of people would not make the effects as it intended. It would promote discrimination by considering that there is official distinction between them. It would even lower the status of the beneficiaries by providing them an advantage, for example, for promotion or enrolling the university because some people may consider all the people of the group effortlessly have achieved it. It would never be fair enough since it is impossible to decide how long affirmative action should last. In addition to the reading that claimed difficulties in making fair affirmative action, I have mentioned three reasons above to claim that it should not exist to make an equal understanding of the race. I believe that a fair understanding against all the races cannot be achieved by affirmative action but by keeping being conscious that all the races are equal.

Race, ethnicity, and caste: Classifying and dividing

by Naresh Kumar

It is interesting to learn more about race and ethnicity. I never knew before that the issues regarding race and ethnicity are so complex. People from all around the world are affected and for some it is painful to bear the fact that they have been classified, which they are not even aware of. It seems that your career, your position in the society, and other things in life are decided by your color rather than your ability. In the society where the classification of races is huge, it is hard for a person to proceed his or her career in the desired field.

In South Asia, society is divided into castes rather than ethnicity (Mines & Lamb, 2002). There are many tribes and castes in India, Nepal, and in other South Asian countries. However, it seems that these days, people are more influenced by western ideas. I always used to wonder within myself to hear about blacks and whites and used to think, why we judge people by their skin tones. I have never experienced class stratification according to the skin tone but for castes there is so much in South Asian countries. As we educate ourselves, it is not hard to say that there is inequality between people all around the world and that it is done by us. One thing that amazes me a lot is that why do we need to differentiate each other. I guess it is all for more money and more power.

I think that the quota system and affirmative actions as in name of racial preferences can bring no more than gaps and more highlights on race and ethnicity. The history that we are trying to learn can give us no more than differences between us. I am not against knowing the history but I wonder why there are so many inequalities in the past. The sad thing is that most of all take so many things in life for granted. I wonder how the media is playing its role to bring the truth and facts in front of the society. Rather than encouraging, it is doing the opposite by promoting differences among us (Everett, 2008). I guess the motive is profit. Media plays a vital role in spreading information around the world but rather than giving people the facts, it is manipulating them.

I guess the problem is within ourselves, rather than embracing who we are and being proud of that, we are always looking to change our identity, appearance, and everything about us. We need to appreciate and accept ourselves as we are, rather than trying to be someone else.


Everett, A. (2008). Learning race and ethnicity: Youth and digital media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mines, D. P., & Lamb, S. (2002). Everyday life in South Asia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Black and White in Brazil? – It’s hard to identify race

by Aya Murakami

flagWhile the US has been importing a racial system from Latin America, Brazil is going in an opposite direction. It has imported the traditional US way of classifying race. The system called ‘Black movement’, and it divides people into two categories: black and white. Even though there are another two classification systems, this idea has been rapidly spreading over Brazil and having huge impact on people’s idea of race.

Traditionally, Brazil had been identifying itself as “racial democratic” country. Brazil is one of the most racially mixed societies. It counts 2nd largest black population and the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. There was no legislation to divide people into racial groups and people could claim their own racial categories. As a consequence of these reasons, racial groups in Brazil were very ambiguous and elusive.

However, even in Brazil, the racial democratic country, statistic revealed that discrimination toward darker skin people exists. Although afro-Brazilians occupy at least 50% of total population, there were less than 5% of blacks in the government. Also, nearly two third of poverty was made up by Blacks. The average income gap between white and black was huge, black only gained 40% of which white did in 1980. Moreover, blacks were unlikely to be able to get higher education.

These are some of my Brazilian friends.

These are some of my Brazilian friends.

Since 2001, some of the state and federal universities have provided a certain percentage of seats to blacks. As a result, the number of black students in the university has been bigger and bigger. It has certainly given chance to blacks and in the long run, people are expecting it to reduce the gap between black and white.

However, it is true that these actions are providing equal opportunities for blacks? Or rather, it is increasing the gap between white and black? There remain some questions. Since most of the people are mixed race hence it is very difficult to draw a line between two categories. In fact, it is still ambiguous who is black and who is white. Sometimes family members, such as siblings are categorized in different racial groups.

Also, the system made people to think whether they are black or white whereas most of people have never thought about it. Thinking about it and assigned in a racial group increased awareness of race. As people started to have sense of belonging to either black or white racial groups, some white people felt that the black were taking benefit from the system. Actually, there were some violence attacks toward African students from white students.

Therefore, it can be said that it is difficult to define racial categories especially a country like Brazil where most of people are racially mixed. In my opinion, without clear classification I think it would be very difficult that the system work efficiently. Although the quota system might bring brighter future for blacks, there are still some controversial questions to be answered.

See Also:


Black in Latin America E02, Brazil: A Racial Paradise

WIDE ANGLE | Brazil in Black and White | PBS


Guardian. (2011, November 17). Brazil census shows African-Brazilian in the majority for the first time. Retrieved from

The Economist. (2012, January 28). Race in Brazil: Affirming a divide. Retrieved from

The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil

by Joana Ito

Cultural diversity and racial miscegenation is now an image that Brazil is pride to export. However, the ideal of racial democracy in Brazil is still a dream. Although the ideology of miscegenation is widely spread, the mixing of races and colors did not result in physical nor socioeconomic homogeneity.

The problem of racial discrimination against blacks in Brazil is largely attributed to the historical past. The racial inequality that remains in Brazilian society is regarded as a consequence of the long history of enslavement, an inheritance of a dirty past of exclusion and discrimination. However, in a society where the general perception of “being black equals being poor” remains, and where most would be truly surprised if they met a black lawyer, doctor or businessman, the discussion of race and color cannot be limited to matters of correcting a “historical debt”.

Black African slavery did, undeniably, impose social economic exclusion for black people and was cause and consequence for the establishment of racist values of white superiority. Amazingly though, the question of white privilege is often disregarded in the discussion of racial inequality in Brazil. In its discussion, the focus is not on the income concentration of white elites, but on the poverty of the black. It is more about the fact that the black cannot benefit from the free public higher education, rather than about the fact that richer white portion of the population enjoyed for decades a “free” education in public universities, subsidized by taxes of the whole population and with high costs for the public budget.

In August this year, Brazil government enacted an affirmative action law requiring federal universities to reserve half of their admission spots for students from public secondary schools, with racial quotas prioritizing the blacks, pardos and indigenous. Additionally, a plan for the adoption of quotas for blacks in the federal bureaucracy should be announced in late November, representing important gains for the Black Movement. Nevertheless, it is relevant to point that the protection of white privilege is an issue that is not limited to the problem of access to quality education and job opportunities. The historically very high concentration of land ownership inherited by white elites and also the regressive tax system that largely lifts the burden from the higher income class are not only issues that protect an economic elite, but mostly a white economic elite.

The plurality and differences of the Brazilian society are not only in the color of the population, but also reinforced by a socioeconomic stratification in which the majority of the black and pardos remain in the lower class, while the white enjoys the effects of white privilege. To believe that Brazil is a racial paradise, in essence, is to deny the relevance of these issues of inequality and dominance.

Is Brazil’s New Affirmative Action Policy Fair?

by Satoru Kishi

On August 29th, 2012, the Brazilian government passed a law to oblige all public universities in Brazil to ensure fifty percent of their admission seats to the poorer background students. The fifty-nine federal universities in Brazil, usually free of charge, have only four years to implement this law (Romeo, 2012). The objective of this affirmative action is to bring major changes in the social structure and lessen the income inequality in Brazil.

First, this law will generate a great transformation of social structure or the seats of the elite jobs. Currently, most of the elite jobs or high wage jobs are possessed by the so-called “whites”. If the new affirmative policy were to be enforced, it would create better chances for blacks or Africans and the indigenous people to be educated in great universities, fewer for the affluent whites, automatically assuring more possibility for the poor background blacks to attain high-wage, elite jobs, like becoming a lawyer and a governor. This will also contribute in reducing the gap between the rich and poor, or whites and blacks, since the people with poorer background will have better opportunity.

Despite of this reputable intention, there are questions of whether this affirmative action policy is just or not. There are many aspects to this issue.

From the Utilitarian perspective, since this was signed by the President and given consensus by eighty out of eighty-one senators, who were elected by its citizens through domestic impartial election, the implementation of the affirmative policy is justified, because it signifies the majority of its opinion, maximizing the utility and happiness of all people.

For the libertarians, the only consideration for them is whether this policy violates the fundamental individual human rights. Through giving an invented example, this issue can be seen clearly. Let’s assume that that the university admission requires students to take a central exam. A black woman score 50 out of 100 and a white woman score 70 out of 100. With the new policy implemented in four years, a university may take this poorer black woman, rather than highly educated rich white woman. Some may say this is unjust, prejudice and violate the white woman’s individual rights, because she is discriminated in something that she cannot control. On the other hand, some may claim that this is just, when considering the fact that this black woman could not afford to attend a good high school as the white woman, due to economic reasons. This corrective reasoning of justifying the affirmative action is still arguable.

Another justification for the affirmative action is compensatory reasoning. From the 16th to the 19th century, the “whites” or former Europeans had been importing massive African slaves, seven times of the number exported to the United States, and forced them and the indigenous people to work on agriculture and mining, with cheap labor or for free (Telles, 2009). To compensate for historical exploitation, it is arguable that this affirmative action is temporary justifiable, until the blacks reaches the social and economic equality as whites. In contrast, there are many people who argue that “why do the present people have to pay for what their ancestors or what people in the past did” (Sandel, n.d.).

Another possible justification for this affirmative action is that universities are better off to have more diversity, whether people are coming from different social, economic, national, ethnic or racial background. Assuming that the universities’ main objective is to educate students and make them attain better jobs, having diversity in universities is an advantage, because it creates an opportunity for students from different background to share their opinions, cultivate in way of thinking and learn how people from diverse background look at the world differently (Sandel, n.d.).

Currently the public universities in Brazil is said to be better than the private ones (Romeo, 2012). However, due to the implementation of the affirmative law, there may be a large flow of educated white professors and students into private school, who dislike blacks, lowering the educational level of Brazil’s public university.


Romeo, S. (2012). Brazil enacts affirmative action law for universities. The New York Times: Americas. Retrieved from action-law-for-universities.html?_r=0

Sandel, A. (n.d.). Justice: What’s the right thing to do? Episode 09. Harvard University Lecture. Podcast retrieved from:

Telles, E. E. (2009). Affirmative action in Brazil. Wideangle. Retrieved from ation-and-affirmative-action-in-brazil/4323/