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Ordem E Progresso:
The Attempted Exclusion and Erasure in Brazilian Thought

Orville A. Carey Turnquest

Many Brazilians deny the existence of racism in their county. Because of Brazil’s history of miscegenation and the absence of overtly racist laws, Brazilians, often guided by prominent intellectuals, have come to understand their country as a “racial democracy.” Brazil’s historically mixed population of blacks, whites, indigenous people and people of mixed race expanded further with the influx of Japanese and Middle Eastern immigrants in the twentieth century. Therefore, many Brazilians believe that their country’s racial and ethnic plurality renders discussions about racial dichotomies inappropriate. The conception of a Brazilian “racial democracy” gains credibility when compared with that of the United States’ Jim Crow laws or South Africa’s apartheid.

However, this “racial democracy,” while appealing to many Brazilians, does not correspond to the Brazilian racial reality. Racism cracks through the surface in unspoken acts and attitudes. Consequently, the mid-twentieth-century international movements for national independence and civil rights forced Brazilians to examine the systems of oppression in their country. Both the emergence of a black consciousness movement in the second half of the twentieth century and recent controversial affirmative action laws attest to increasing awareness about the existence of racial prejudice.[1] Black into White is an intellectual history that tracks the changing discourses on race in Brazil. As world events altered, so did the ways in which Brazilians perceived their society. Skidmore begins his discussion of changing racial ideologies by contextualizing Positivism, the philosophy behind the abolition of slavery in 1888. In the late empire, Positivism, first developed by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, gained a sizeable following among younger “lettered Brazilians”[2] who envisioned that abolition would allow for economic growth and the maintenance of the social status quo. European liberalism, with its motto of “order and progress” and its message about the dignity of each human being, as well as international pressure, convinced many elites that Brazil needed to emancipate their slaves and thus move forward into the modern era with other countries that had already achieved abolition.

In Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought, Thomas E. Skidmore chronicles ideologies of race, ethnicity and nationality in Brazil from the Paraguayan War of 1865-70 to the middle of the twentieth century. Black into White is an intellectual history that tracks the changing discourses on race in Brazil. As world events altered, so did the ways in which Brazilians perceived their society. Skidmore begins his discussion of changing racial ideologies by contextualizing Positivism, the philosophy behind the abolition of slavery in 1888. In the late empire, Positivism, first developed by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, gained a sizeable following among younger “lettered Brazilians” who envisioned that abolition would allow for economic growth and the maintenance of the social status quo. European liberalism, with its motto of “order and progress” and its message about the dignity of each human being, as well as international pressure, convinced many elites that Brazil needed to emancipate their slaves and thus move forward into the modern era with other countries that had already achieved abolition.

Black into White is essentially a narrative of the Brazilian elite’s responses to political philosophies in Europe and the United States and their adaptations to fit the Brazilian political and social landscapes. The intellectual class throughout Brazilian history studied foreign texts and applied and modified elements of certain schools of thought in their commitments to the development of Brazil. Many Brazilian writers at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries turned to Europe, particularly Paris, for cultural and philosophical direction and blindly accepted the writings of French intellectuals. The belle époque literary movement in Brazil mimicked the works of European writers of the late nineteenth century and fomented feelings of inadequacy among Brazilian elites. Skidmore highlights the anti-nationalist sentiments when he quotes J. Capistrano de Abreu, an early twentieth-century Brazilian historian, who classified the Brazilian population as a “decrepit people.”[3] Clearly, the idolization of European culture at the expense of the Afro-Brazilian population lowered the self-worth of the overall Brazilian population.

Skidmore further identifies the Brazilian elite’s veneration of European society by describing the influence of the European culture in his analysis of Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands). Euclides, in line with Positivist thinking, causally linked race and climate, arguing that both the harsh landscape and racial mixing of the backlands negatively impacted the quality of the Brazilian population. Particularly problematic was racial mixing: the Indian was seen as a positive element, even when miscegenation occurred with white Brazilians, while the African was an unambiguously retarding element. Thus, it was necessary to discourage unions between white and black Brazilians. Skidmore writes that Euclides acknowledged the European hierarchy of the races, as well as sought to explain how to bring about a more advanced nation. Employing the work of Euclides and others, Skidmore explores how both domestic and international politics, as well as literature, shaped ideas about Brazilian nationality, particularly in formulating a plan to achieve progress in a nation with a large African population.

Because of this sizeable non-white population, the Brazilian elites sought to whiten Brazil by promoting European immigration in the various Expositions around the world. In the Paris Exposition of 1889, the Brazilian display intended to fortify European-Brazilian relations and “to encourage all who might be prepared to choose Brazil for their new homeland.”[4] In this way, the Brazilian government used the Exposition as a forum to promote European immigration, and this show of Brazilian nationalism demonstrated the racism of this epoch. The end of the Brazilian Empire and the beginning of the new Republic prompted government efforts to import white migrant workers. According to many Brazilian intellectual elites, “a whiter country would be a land fit for liberalism,”[5] the then accepted political philosophy.

Skidmore argues that “new nationalism” emerged in the mid-twentieth century in this philosophical and diplomatic climate. A changing discourse on race entered the public sphere, and many Brazilian intellectuals no longer looked to Europe but, rather, inward to their own nation. Though Brazilian intellectuals and authorities wanted to portray Brazil as a “European” society, they realized that the European mode of perceiving Brazilian society no longer corresponded to the Brazilian reality. Skidmore writes that in the second decade of the twentieth century, “for the first time the mainstream of Brazilian thought learned how to rebel against the framework with which European ideas had straitjacketed it — most important, to reject the determinism of racist thought.”[6] Brazilians of the intellectual elite class now believed that Brazilians should interpret their own country with their own frames of reference.

Though Brazilian elites came to recognize the value of Afro-Brazilian culture, they did not totally reject the “whitening” ideal. In the 1920s, the debate about which race of migrant workers would be in the best interests of the nation continued. There was even a movement within Congress to prohibit the entrance of Afro-American migrant workers into Brazil. Throughout the twentieth century, lighter skin was valued more, and darker-skinned individuals sought lighter-skinned partners, since “the surest means for a Brazilian of African heritage to gain upward mobility was to possess a whiter skin than his parents.”[7] Such overt expressions of racial prejudice have largely disappeared since the 1950s for the intellectual discourse on race had changed internationally. Nevertheless, as the title of Skidmore’s work suggests, a deliberate national policy to whiten the country has now transformed into a mentality held by many factions of society. The cultural commonsense maintains that individual and societal progress depends upon the possession and cultivation of whiter skin. Black into White tracks the legacy that slavery has left on the minds of contemporary Brazilians.

In sum, Black into White demonstrates how Brazil’s racist thought modified to the evolving, socio-political international landscape. Skidmore’s fine scholarship and sharp analysis of the Brazilian elites’ racist determinism shows that writers during various periods in Brazilian history intended to whiten the Brazilian population in an effort to create a more progressive nation. Skidmore chronicles how the Brazilian motto of “Order and Progress” was interpreted in various moments and with various writers. Arguably, this motto has never fully accepted the large Afro-Brazilian population, and as Skidmore clearly notes throughout his book, white skin and European culture was seen as ideal to the betterment of Brazil. Black into White is an informative, superb text, and Skidmore provides an excellent framework with which to study race relations not only in Brazil, but also in Latin America.

Notes

[1] Thomas E. Skidmore, The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
[2] 12.
[3] 103.
[4] 128.
[5] 137.
[6] 146.
[7] 215.