Friday, February 19, 2010

Whitening Theory in Brazil

Modesto y Brocco's 1895 painting, The Redemption of Cain, offers a graphic representation of whitening theory. In it, an old black woman praises God for the fact that her grandson is white.

Over on Abagond’s blog, I was asked a pretty interesting question regarding Brazilian racial neuroses. In the question, however, there was a statement which sort of sums up American prejudices regarding Brazil. I thought it might be a good idea to address this statement as simply as I can, hopefully to give the internet a resource which explains Brazilian Whitening theory and practice to smart folks who aren’t specialists. If any colleagues or students of mine are reading this, a warning: This is off the top of my head, without references and it is a very abstract gloss on what we all know to be a complex topic. What follows below is a simplification of an extremely touchy issue for Americans who are interested in Brazil but who in general still think our country’s capital is Buenos Aires.
The comment was from a poster named eshowoman and this is her understanding of how race works in Brazil. I really like this comment because it puts in a very small nutshell, the most commonly held prejudice out there regarding Brazilian history:

Brazil is a place that promotes sex with black and native women as a way to “lighten up” the country.

As is the case with almost every stereotype or prejudice, at the bottom of this statement lies a hard core of truth which is then distorted and twisted around so that the result is a parody of history. Yes, it is true that Brazil (like the U.S.) is historically a deeply racist and white supremacist nation. And it is also true that, as in the U.S., the Brazilian white power elite spent a lot of time thinking about how to resolve their black and Indian “problems” – the "problem" in both countries ultimately being that blacks and Indians existed and the “solution” to said problem being their elimination.

My dislike of the phrase above, however, stems from the fact that it forgets that racists in both the U.S. and Brazil (and, indeed, in most nations in the Americas) have historically wished to “lighten up” their populations. What makes Brazil fairly (though not exclusively) unique in this respect was the fact that a certain portion of the Brazilian elite believed that this could be accomplished through correct breeding rather than through what their white American counterparts euphemistically called " competition” (i.e. killing or exile). From roughly 1880 on, a certain portion of the Brazilian power elite believed that the nation could be “whitened” and thus “improved” if whites were to mate with blacks and Indians.

"Whitening theory" in Brazil was hegemonic from about 1880 onto, maybe, 1940. 60 years out of the 500 that make up Brazilian history. To truly understand it, one needs to look at the context of the times. This period was the heyday of scientific racism in the United States and Western Europe and most of the world's top biologists looking at human race believed that intermixture between the races (i.e. miscegenation) led to immediate and utter devolution: the creation of "mixed" people who were morally, physically and intellectually inferior to their parents. (Something certain white and black Americans still believe unto this day, apparently…)

Well, this presented Brazil with a quandary. A huge portion of its population was black or native and  even more of what was left was mixed. If the racist presumption regarding intermixture was true, then Brazil was doomed to be a degenerate, sub-evolved mongrel nation (again, sort of like what certain Americans - black and white - believe it to be today).

Now remember, racist scientific theory wasn't just an academic debate at this point in history: it was widely believed by everyone as representing the key to human behavior. It was very pop. Hell, even such black luminaries as W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey apparently bought into it, going on their comments at the time. If I recall correctly, Garvey once made the claim that North American blacks were more "evolved" than other types because of "evolutionary pressure" from "the highly aggressive Anglo Saxon". Everyone thought that biology held the key to explaining human social behavior and almost everyone believed that "purity of race" created an unbeatable evolutionary advantage.

Faced with this consensus, Brazilian scientists split into two general groups: those who agreed with racial purity and those who sought other information from the biological sciences to question it.
The first group believed that "natural competition" from the "superior white race" would eventually eliminate blacks and Indians in Brazil. Obviously, then, Brazil would have to import more whites to make up for this fall-off. The United States, by the way, was these gentlemens’ model because, according to them, the U.S. was well on the way to eliminating its "black problem" through actual physical elimination (though they usually used the euphemisms of their American counterparts and said things like "out compete"). I call these boys (and they were almost exclusively male) the "kill the bastards off" crowd.

The second group is perhaps best represented by João Batista de Lacerda. This group took a long, hard look at what little information existed about genetics and interbreeding at the time and concluded that there was no scientific basis for the notion that racial purity was inherently superior. They looked at dog breeders and plant breeders and concluded that, with the proper management, hybridism could in fact create a super race. For this group, the question then became "well, what is the proper mix for the future Brazilian super race?" Given that they were indeed racists (as even most Black scientists were at the time) and also white supremacists, it was pretty much universally agreed that Brazil had "too much black blood for its own good" and that importation of white blood from Europe via immigration was called for. The members of this crowd were the real "whiteners" in that they actively encouraged interracial mating and marriage.

Now, these groups were locked in a struggle and neither one could truly be said to have achieved hegemony within Brazilian thought until Gilberto Freyre came along in the 1930s and kicked the blocks out from under both by proclaiming, in Casa Grande e Senzala, that blacks were historically the most “successfully competing” race in Brazil in pure biological and cultural terms and that there was no reason at all to see them as necessarily inferior.

Neither the white purists nor the miscegenists were able to enact significant legislation of any sort in Brazil. Their debate provided an intellectual pastime for the Brazilian elite during the Belle Époque, but it had very little impact in the way of national – or even local – laws. This needs to be emphasized because I’ve met many Americans who seem to think that Brazil actually engaged in some sort of effective national eugenics policy during the “whitening” period. In fact, Brazil’s migration and colonization policy stayed firmly anchored to the country’s economic need for cheap agrarian labor, no matter what the ethnicity. Brazil imported immigrants from Europe during this period, but also from Japan, because that was primarily where people were migrating from and those nations (again, in the case of Japan) were willing in many cases to subsidize immigration.

In other words, Brazilian law makers and scientists might have talked a nice line about applying eugenics, but the country's immigration policy was, in general, more concerned with picking up field laborers on the cheap from wherever they could be had at a decent price.

For all its supposed import in the eyes of Americans, it is difficult for me to see whitening theory as really having had much of an impact on life as it’s lived in Brazil today. Long before the theory became popular, interracial sex was fairly common in Brazil. The theory seems to me to have simply put the best possible gloss on Brazilian reality in order to contradict the purist eugenicists who were dominant in Europe and the U.S. at the time and whose theories condemned Brazil to eternal degradation. Most of the people who were having heterochromatic sex in Brazil at the time probably never even heard about the debate.

Furthermore, Brazil was a racist and white supremacist nation long before whitening theory came into vogue. Whitening theory certainly didn't cause Brazilian racism and may be seen, ironically enough, represent Brazil's first tentative step away from classic white supremacy, in that its at least postulated some sort of incorporation of blacks, Indians and mestiços into the body of the nation. While Lacerda himself didn't believe this (stating in 1911 that Brazil would eventually indeed become entirely white through selective breeding), other "whiteners" believed that the process would create a truly unique and new race, a "Brazilian" race, that was neither black nor white. This was ultimately the view of Lacerda's student, Edgar Roquette-Pinto, who would be an immense influence on Gilberto Freyre and who go on to found Brazilian national public radio.


  1. Please keep my name out of your blog.

  2. Y'know, Esho, I have kept your name out of my blog. I mentioned your handle. And I mentioned it because I think credit should go where credit is due. Your comment inspired me to put a lot of thoughts I've been having for some time down on paper. I felt that they could be better show-cased here than on Abagond's blog, where they'd be a tangent.

    None of this is meant to be disrespectful to you and I'm sorry you take it that way.

  3. Thaddeus, it is the first time I see the expression "white suprematist" associated with Brazil and it kept me thinking. In the US, it is basically associated to the Klan and similar movements. I wonder how organized are white suprematist movements in Brazil. Racism is intense and everywhere, but my impression is that it is not exactly organized. From time to time you hear of remaining nazi groups or the so-called "carecas". Do you think they are relevant (and growing)?

  4. B. R. sais:
    Blanchette quote:"rather than through what their white American counterparts euphemistically called " competition” (i.e. killing or exile)."

    Nice article ,Blanchette, except American racism was not about mass killing of black people or mass exile. It was a brutal hate formed racism, but the lynchings and back to Liberia have no relationship to mass killings or mass exile as a way to deal with that issue.You may be reffering to some academic racists or scientists , but it in no way was ever done on a mass leval

    The only part I miss in your article is a description of the "whitening " of Brazil in the media , which has been devastatingly efficient.

  5. Regina, by "white supremacy" I mean people who believe whites are superior to blacks and that definitely describes folks like Batista de Lacerda and his crowd.

    I don't think today's organized white supremacists are very significant or growing in Brazil. I worry more about the people who are unconscious white supremacists.

  6. B.R., I was refering to non-white in general and there was plenty of killing and exile of Indians going on. With regards to blacks, it was generally believed in Brazil at the time that "competition" (what we'd identify today as racism) was killing them off. And there was indeed significant support for the idea of "back to Africa" among certain white Americans before Liberia.

  7. As for whitening in the media, it generally came along quite some time after the period described here. Ironically enough, Roquette-Pinto's Radio Nacional was one of the first mass-media outlets in Brazil and it had quite a few black and brown artists playing on it, I b'lieve.

    Talvez a Ana Paula poderia falar mais sobre esse ponto.


  8. Everytime I see this painting, I think "Look, baby! Granma's having a senior moment!"

  9. B. R. sais ( I cant fifure out the id thing)


    Ana pode escrever Portugues ,se ela quiser

  10. Hello Thad I found your blog via abagond. I have been in love with your country since I was a child, I have always wanted to visit.

    My question is why do you personally think interracial coupling is so popular in Brazil?

  11. Hmm. I answered this over on Abagond's blog, but I'll do it againhere.

    Simply put, I'm not so sure that it is so popular in Brazil. The vast majority of realtionships here are what Laura Moutinho labels as "homochromatic".