Racial Panels and a Drop of Blood

I have this cringeworthy memory where I’m pretty sure I offended a whole roomful of people of color repeatedly.

I mean, it’s one of those really bad memories where it flashes back and I mentally go: “LA-LA-LA-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU. LA-LA-LA-I’M-STILL-A-GOOD-PERSON-SO-GO-AWAY-LA-LA-LA-LAAAAA!!” 

Sigh. It’s an “oops!” memory of Epic Proportions. All of us probably have them (well… everyone except maybe Donald Trump, who seems to be suffering from massive amnesia in these sorts of things).

So what happened? Grassroots leaders had been called together to help communicate to minority communities the importance of declaring your racial status at the local hospitals. That’s because health disparities exist between races. Studies and research are almost always completed on white men, so there is little data on how various medications and treatments affect various populations. In addition, there’s growing data to suggest that people of all shades of non-pinkish skin get different treatment when they go to the doctor’s office. So, in sum, the goal of the meeting was good, verging on radically excellent.

I had a point to make: the U.S. Census racial categories suck. From years of work as an interpreter, I was tired of asking a series of questions that just don’t work that well to describe peoples’ actual realities. Case in point: I helped my partner (boyfriend at the time) and other Brazilian roommate complete our U.S. Census form. My partner checked “Of African Descent.” Yeup, that probably matches what the form-designers intended. Our roommate did too. Not so much. Unless you literally subscribe to the “one drop of blood” definition of African descent–in which case, 95% of Brazil probably qualifies–he didn’t really fit the category. But the U.S. Census definitions are arbitrary and confusing, and they’re often not descriptive of how people see themselves. And when you have people from other countries, they often have OTHER systems of defining themselves that don’t fit into our American set. It’s confusing. So be it.

In that meeting I perseverated on that point. And perseverated. And perseverated. See, that’s the problem with us white people. Sometimes we’re so used to people listening to our opinions that we forget that there are others in the room. I can only imagine how it came across–this white girl assessing the race of this unknown Brazilian guy. There were others in that meeting with a LOT more first-hand knowledge about what it’s like to be a person of color in American hospitals. Really, I should have just said my point and then shut-the-eff-UP. (Note: So for all the people I know who were at that meeting, I’m so sorry. Really really sorry. I’m older now, and have learned how to shut up more and listen better. I hope.)

Then this week I learned that since practically everyone in Brazil is somewhat descended from Africans, Brazil uses controversial boards that visually assign racial categories to assist its affirmative action. The whole cringeworthy memory came rushing back and I got to thinking about the whole problem all over again.

The affirmative action part makes sense–every country has its histories of oppression; it makes sense to make policies to try to equal the playing field. Brazil didn’t outlaw slavery until 1888–making it the last country in the Americas to ban it. In that time it imported more than 5 million enslaved people–more than any other country. Even though there was much more egalitarian racial mixing throughout the slavery years than in the USA–for example, slaves could win or buy their freedom and the predominantly single, male European settlers often married female slaves freeing them in the process*, etc.–there is still a strong class divide in Brazil between those who have darker skin and those who are lighter in tone. You can probably guess who’s on top and tends to be on TV, running the government, and in the cushy, administrative jobs.

In our town’s conversations there seem to be four general labels for race in Brazil. There is branco/a (pale pink), pardo (beige to creamy-coffee colored), nego/a (cinnamon to dusky-dark), and africano/a (dark brown to blue-black). There is also the term “preto/a” (black) and that is a slur, similar to our “nigger.” The Brazilian government seems to recognize three of these–branco, pardo, and africano.

How does this work out in daily life? In the USA, I and my daughter are white, my husband is Black. We’re kind of an odd couple there, I guess. At least that’s what I gather from the double-takes we get. Here in Brazil, I’m branca, our daughter is branca to pardo (depending on how much she’s been in the sun lately), and Mr. Crônicas is probably legally pardo but everyone describes him as the negão. His father is probably somewhere between nego and africano, his mother parda.In Brazil lots and lots of families are like ours–mixed race. No one even bats an eye. One parda friend of mine always proudly displays her two very different daughters in this manner: “Here is my white one, and this one is my black one!” (the girls’ grandmother is very, very africana).

many colors

Which goes back to the original question: how the heck do you define all this mess? How to make sense of this complexity of the human experience?

I stand by my original assertion–our U.S. system of considering anyone with a drop of African blood as African-American is bollux. Plus, it makes life confusing for anyone with more than one identity, for example, Afro-Latinx or Blasian (Afro-Asian) American.

I’m not sure that Brazil’s racial panels are all that much better. Judging someone solely on visual appearance ignores the fact that while maybe you could pass as white, other members of your family maybe suffered discrimination and that limited your family’s ability to get ahead or carve out a stable existence. Transgenerational trauma is a real thing, y’all.

Both Brazil’s and the US’s systems judge the biological individual, not the social networks within which we live. But isn’t that racism in general? Defining and dividing people based upon arbitrary genetic factors? Wouldn’t it be dandy if the policies enacted to correct it managed to look beyond that?

* The marriage of slaves is definitely still problematic (is it really an equal relationship if you have to marry to be free? did these women enter into their marriages of their free will?)  and at the same time it can be compared to the USA’s history of racial mixing where up until the past century the children with mixed heritages were often born of rape or to women obliged to be “mistresses” (again problematic) to slaveowners.


  1. Oh boy, Malvina, I could write a whole book on racial weirdness. My son is white, with hazel eyes and light brown hair. My daughter is pale as a ghost with curly blond hair and blue eyes. My husband is pardo and I am white. I always feel very, very uncomfortable when we walk around town as a family because the comments are always the same, “WOW look at that boneca! Look at those blue eyes! Look at that blonde hair!” People touch her arms, her hair. I’ve grown immune to people literally whipping around to comment about her appearance. Or there’s the more frustrating comment, “That can’t possibly be YOUR daughter!” (to my husband). And as a mother, I want to push my son forward and scream, “Don’t forget this handsome fella! He’s just as admirable!”

    And teenage me owes Christina Aguilera a huge apology for questioning her Latina status. My daughter absolutely gets denied her Brazilian heritage due to her appearance. Just this morning I had to correct a woman in the deli that my daughter was “also half Brazilian.”

    In terms of census taking, I am always confused as to which box to check for them. Hispanic? No.. I mean, they’re not of Spanish decent. Latino? Yes. But when the chart reads “Hispanic” not “Hispanic/Latino” I always think.. well I guess I mark them as white? But then I’m denying the Brazilian half of them.

    And as I write this, I’m looking at a picture of my late in-laws. They have the same skin color, but my sogra had curly blonde hair and blue eyes. She was “white.” My sogro had curly black hair. He was “pardo.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  2. Hey!

    As I read this article I started thinking of an assignment I’ve been working on. Could I ask you some questions about how race plays into business in Brazil? How do they treat non-white people in Brazil (not just of African decent, but Asian, Arab, etc.)? Is it similar to the U.S.? How about women in “power positions”? And what about gay men and women in the corporate world? Finals are rolling around, so if you’d like to write me a direct message or just comment back, that would be amazing!

    Chris J.

    • Hi! I can’t speak to what it’s like in the large cities here as I’ve never lived in one. In our rural backwater they are familiar with Afro-descent variations but little else. There’s lots of stereotyping of Asian and Arab people. For example I know someone who’s Japanese-Brazilian. Every time she visits from São Paolo the whole family refers to her as “the Chinese one” and makes comments about how soft-spoken and gentle she is (she is about as much of either as I am, which is to say not much at all). And she’s 2nd generation Japanese, to add insult to injury. She’s not an immigrant at all, but try telling people that. I had to ask a dentist to not show me some gag reel of someone dressed as an Arab placing a backpack and scaring people who thought it was a bomb, because I found it offensive. I had to be pretty blunt before he got my point. So, I’d say in those regards it’s equal or worse than what I’ve seen in the US. Women in power positions–there’s an NPR article out there somewhere about some of the harassment that female Brazilian politicians get. Mansplaining is pretty culturally epidemic here, so I imagine it’s pretty bad for women in power in general. Gay men and women in the corporate world–I have no idea. Good luck! Looks like you’re covering a lot of area!

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