Part 2 of 2 – W.E.B. Du Bois and race in Brazil

From a Brazilian perspective, Du Bois work is of particular interest.  It’s interesting to find out that Du Bois was so attentive to science as a way to fight racism. Black movements (and many other minorities) sometimes are too attached to emotional sides of the process, such as pride and identity, but less attached to studies that would possibly promote dialogue and systemic changes.

Capitalism is a system based not only on inequalities but segregation.

Du Bois perspective on social/economical systems, as some kind of background scenario to racism, is important because it observes more factors to racial inequalities rather than think of it as an isolated social problem. For example, Capitalism is a system based not only on inequalities but segregation. Even on “the meaning of race”, it was a smart move by Du Bois to start his research on race from the basic topics surrounding racism, like history and colonialism, not only looking for solutions.

Race in Brazil thus is believed by most people to be not so ‘black and white’ like in America but some kind of a gradual system

This view on racism and colonialism is very accurate to discuss race in Brazil, especially because it feels like the country right now may be on a different level on racism talks, in comparison to the United States. Many of the situations from the early 1900’s in US described by Aldon D. Morris are still going on in Brazil.

Race in Brazil is a topic that is not easily discussed because the country has eccentricities that make it harder to battle racism. One of the biggest obstacles, I would say, is the ‘myth of racial democracy’ (DaMatta, 1984; Riserio, 1981). In the early 1900’s Brazilian government was very interested in reinforcing a national identity, which included the idea of Brazil as a racial tension free country, only 50 years after slavery was abolished. The thing is Brazilians started to believe more and more in that theory of the country as a racially blended one. Race in Brazil thus is believed by most people to be not so ‘black and white’ like in America but some kind of a gradual system, in which people are not only black or white. So, one can also be seen as many things like mulato or pardo or moreno or lusco-fusco or latino or amarelo or escuro (escurinho), etc.

Of course the myth of “mulatismo” (DaMatta, 1984) became a way of hiding racism under the carpet. The myth of mixed country made it harder for Brazil to point out racism because, after all, people thought “nobody in Brazil was purely white or purely black”. At the same time, many skin color categories contributed to the development of self racism, in which black people try to fit inside of different skin tones, so they can feel artificially free of the burden of being black in Brazil. This is a problem because it shows clearly that racism is still a thing in the country.

Blackness and poverty in Brazil are highly connected.

‘Silent’ racism creates a more difficult scenario for fighting racial inequality because everything else that is caused by racial prejudice starts to get blurry too, such as social disparities and violence. In that sense, white supremacy groups like the KKK could not be popular in Brazil probably but at the same time this hidden – and dangerous – racism flows easily through Brazilian society without people even noticing it.

Blackness and poverty in Brazil are highly connected. According to 2010 IBGE Census, in Salvador, the most black capital of Brazil, 80% of the population is black or pardo (mixed) and also 80% of the population lives with less than $ 760 CAD. In the whole country, the majority of people in misery is black or pardo also. Favelas are visibly mainly black. Every 23 minutes a black man is killed in Brazil. Rio’s police kills people three more times than the whole American police. Public universities and academia are extremely white. In a country where almost 60% of its population is black or mixed, I can remember of having only three black professors in my four years of college in Rio. To be recognized as important authors black scholars in Brazil must be some kind of powerhouse geniuses, like Joel Rufino dos Santos, Milton Santos and Muniz Sodré. Although the numbers are very clear, it seems harder to fight racism in a society that is not aware of its own racism.

These background differences make the black movements in America and Brazil have many different histories. In recent years, however,  it feels like things are changing fast in Brazil. The country is opening its eyes for racial segregation with big influences by black movements in the United States based on pride and identity, like Black Lives Matter, or even cultural products like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

At the same time, this blur created by the myth of racial democracy (Riserio, 1981) somehow may have had influenced some mixing in Brazil. The country is at least visibly more mixed than others like the US when one looks at skin colors at the streets. It is a situation that starts to make people think about at which point this myth is part of reality. However, mulatos may be seen sometimes as part of a different race but at the same time they suffer from racism in many situations the same way people of darker skin do.

In 1906, a time in which interracial relationships were illegal in some American states and society used biological theories as tools to keep the negro as a lower race, Du Bois used Sociology and Photography (Hammonds, 2000:307) – he took photos of groups of people with different black skin tones, from whitest to blackest – to analyze miscegenation in the United States. According to him, at that time, the best way for the whites to stop with the mixing of races was to raise the black population to such a plane that they would “never stoop to mingle their blood with those who despise them”. Whether Du Bois was right or wrong, what is interesting here is to notice how science, social classes and capitalism were main points for his methods on race studies.

Caio Bersot (University of Alberta/Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)


Riserio, Antonio. 1981. Carnival Ijexa. Salvador: Corrupio. Print.

DaMatta, Roberto. 1984. O que faz do brasil, Brasil? Rio de Janeiro: Rocco. Print.

Hammonds, Evelynn M. Hammonds. 2000. New technologies of race. The Gendered Cyborg: a reader. P. 307. London: Routledge. Online.