Affirmative Action and Color in Brazil

by Moraima Flores

As written in Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, South America has a way of looking at race by appearance and not by ancestry. This may sound liberal in a way that we don’t have to identify ourselves or be identified in “white or black.” We get many more options, and options are always good.

The problems pointed out in the chapter “The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil,” written by Edward Telles, are those of self-identification, racial mixture, color-blindness, and affirmative action. It is difficult to address such sensitive problems, especially in Brazil, where the criteria for “race” isn’t defined, not even addressed.

When is someone negro in Brazil? Well, we could say someone is black because of its ancestry (the one-drop rule), but then probably more than half the population in Brazil would be black; so what would be the point of affirmative action and quotas? Besides, being Brazil a country with such a large population of black, where the culture is more African than European, it wouldn’t be crazy to be proud of being negro, at least that’s what I would think. Why not apply the one-drop rule the other way around then?

When it comes to affirmative action, we need to have an official, legal criterion to tell who is who. Although I don’t agree with the American way of looking at race, I have to admit that at least they do have it clear(er) and well-defined. However, even if Brazil were to do the same, how can we now tell the ancestry? For starters, I don’t even know mine and although I tried keeping track of it once I started feeling curious about it, I found nor my parents, neither my grandparents know. So, again, how do we define who is what?

In class, during the discussion, someone said that the benefits of affirmative action should be given to the less fortunate economically. Japan does that ―maybe not under the label of “affirmative action” but helps young people afford school, and single mothers feed their children―and I think it is a great idea. However, as Telles says, we can’t ignore that “color” is a factor for the huge gap between light-skin Brazilians and dark-skin Brazilians. Yes, we live in the 21st century, and we all think that discrimination is in the past, that we are all equal, and that we don’t look at someone by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, but is this true? Maybe for people on the top of the social-class pyramid that’s how it works, but I’m not so sure about how less advantaged people think about this.


Telles, E. 2009. “The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil.” Pp. 9-24 in Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, edited by Nakano Glenn, E. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

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