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The Arab Girl and Our Poets: An Essay on Multiculturalism and Brazil

I _ The Arab Girl (1, 2)

The political implications of the cultural relativism launched in the thirties by anthropologists of the Boasian school are unexplored by the history of ideas. Authors such as Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and several others (3) share the idea that all human cultures have the same value and that they always make sense in their historical, sociological, political and geographical context. The work of the anthropologist is to discover this sense.

Philosopher and political scientist Charles Taylor (4) identifies two types of liberalism, drawing from the Canadian example, the differences between the “québécois” and the English-speaking Canadians.

The first type of liberalism assumes that the state must be neutral, that it should just offer the means for individuals to develop their potentialities. This type of state would not carry any type of cultural project, but only the assurances of physical security and social order. The legal system would guarantee equal rights. The state would place its emphasis on formal equality, instead of defining itself by means of a cultural project.

The second type of state would have defined cultural objectives and would be committed to survival or to the building of a nation, a culture, a religion or a cluster of nations, cultures and religions.

The relationship (which Taylor avoids) with economic liberalism is evident. “State 1” would guarantee liberty for social actors (or “economic agents”). “State 2“ would be a little, but not much, more interventionist. This state that houses cultural diversity would be, especially in North American culture, a transformation of traditional political liberalism partially because of the overflow of anthropological ideas from academia to society.

The work of decolonization activists of the fifties was another similar development which possibly was not related in its origins to anthropological relativism. However, it deeply marked contemporary social thought. Of singular importance in this regard was Frantz Fanon’s book Les Damnés de la Terre.

For Fanon, the colonized come to see themselves through the eyes of the colonizer, taking on the racism associated with the exotic and the barbaric in their judgment of themselves. For this reason they are induced to consider themselves as inferiors and this feeling is an essential aspect of the domination process. They accept and justify their situation. The destruction of their self- esteem is not a consequence but an intrinsic component of the colonial domination process. The worst form of domination is the perception of the self by the colonized peoples. This is why the “nation building” cultural projects for the new states that arose from the decolonization process are so important.

An important source for the analysis of the colonization process is the study of the ideology of domination, by the elaboration of the different forms of the “exotic”, as Edward Said has shown in his fine book “Orientalism”. Said’s thesis makes it obvious how important cultural projects are for dominated peoples.

American democratic discourse is today associated with ethnic multiculturalism, gender multiculturalism and other multiculturalisms from other less visible social categories. It influences the whole world, but the contrast with other countries’ national rhetoric remains strong.

A good example is that of the Arab girl.

In France in recent years there has been some dispute about the traditional clothes worn to school by Arab girls. The school required the use of school uniform and not the clothes that Islamic tradition establishes for women. The notion of equality, as originating from the French revolution, implies, among other habits, the use of uniform at school. The most usual justification for its adoption is that by wearing a uniform all are equal at school. Differences in wealth, as expressed by clothes, disappear.

There is no doubt that by recognizing difference we express greater respect and tolerance. However, there is nothing more standardized than American life, where difference is severely punished in daily practice: with or without school uniform, Arab, Black or Latin children will play only with other Arab, Black or Latin peers, because of their ethnic identification. In France, in spite of increasing racism, there is more possibility of dialogue between persons of different origins, as shown in the high rate of interethnic marriages. The school principal’s concern, while defending the uniform and “republican equality”, is that all children should play with the others. That means, in the future, an equal share in the economic and political opportunities offered by the country. The principal is arguing the cause of the laic state and public school against religious criteria in the formation of the child’s personality.

This comparison is highly illuminating because, in the US, (theoretical) respect for difference frequently operates as discourse for covert segregation, and France is a much more equal society than the US when aspects like public health, for example, are considered.

Therefore, the construction of a state where respect for difference would be associated with policies aiming to overcome social inequality is a crucial political question. In other words, what should be done so that the Arab girl will play with other children, while she is dressed in accordance with the Koran? What should be done to ensure that she as an adult will have the same opportunities, even if dressed as prescribed by her religion? Cultural difference must not be the rationale for the exploitation or the marginalization of human beings: shamans must be respected but, at the same time, modern medicines and vaccinations must be used; oral traditions must be revered, but all should learn how to read and write.

The American ethnic quota system in universities and jobs is not the best way to reach that end because it emphasizes internal social differences in each ethnic group and the differentiation between ethnic groups. In practice it increases their distance.

An “equal opportunities” policy based on the quota system may look successful when the economy is booming as it has been in the US for the last two decades. Intense demand for labor over a long period is more important for “equal opportunities” than legal requirements, which effectively reach a small part of the target public. Even so, if we consider ethnic riots, statistics for prison populations, the death sentence and unemployment among blacks, we see clear symptoms that all is not well in the US.

The first long recession in the US will bring with it very serious consequences for the “non-whites”. As American Blacks say about their situation in the job market: they are “the last to be hired, the first to be fired”.

Segregation is alive and well today in the US. Blacks still live in their ghettoes, in spite of various improvements in the country. The idea of endogamous “blood communities” is very strong, deep and traditional in North-American culture. Multiculturalism in the US is associated with the idea of segregation itself. From the North-American viewpoint, respecting difference does not mean interacting with the different in a single society. It can imply different societies with different identities and even the creation of different nations. It may mean plain indifference to what may happen to others, in the name of non-interference and respect for different cultures.

It still may represent the pretext for demarcating the distance from someone who wears different clothes or who has a darker skin, but who lives under the same laws, in the same society, under the same state, and who has their children enrolled in the same school. Here relativism, in the guise of multiculturalism, abandons the function of understanding the anthropological “other” and becomes a way to construct that “other” from the starting point of the very close. Instead of being a communication tool between cultures it becomes a tool for keeping away social groups that share the same culture.

Old US Southern racists had as their motto the expression “separate but equal”, a euphemism to keep Blacks segregated and unequal. Frequently, multiculturalism has become a new and now politically correct way to argue the same cause. Multiculturalism in daily American life is an armistice discourse in an ethnic war that erupts in localized conflicts in which blacks and other minorities fight for self-defense.

The harmonious interaction of different ethnic groups surely represents a value, when one looks at the repetition of ethnic horrors around the world. Today, ethnic conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe are the worst tragedies faced by humanity. Thus, ethnicity must be thought about and politically operated with extreme caution.

Cultural relativism finds its limits in absolute values related to life and human dignity. “Life” comprises, beyond human life, life in general, respect for nature and all living beings; Cultural relativism finds its limit when the Arab girl cannot play with other children, or cannot play with any children; when, once grown up, she cannot work or even get medical assistance (as happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban militia) because she is female; when she cannot marry somebody from another religion or who comes from another ethnic origin; when she cannot, if she wishes, wear different clothes and change religion.

Above her “Arab girl” ethnic and gender identity is her identity as a human being. Rights inherent to all human beings (one could use the expression “Natural Law”) are individual rights. Ethnic identity itself becomes a moral and political value when it is assumed by the individual, becoming essential for his or her self-respect and happiness.

Such considerations do not mean abandoning multiculturalism as a central element in the construction of democracy. It means that multiculturalism is not, by itself, the answer for a fairer society. It is a principle to be associated with several others.

Cultural relativism offers the epistemological bases for the knowledge of distant cultures and for the defense of the so-called “primitive peoples”. However, its application to modern society ruled by nation states, via multiculturalism, is not so direct and immediate as it was in the case of the small society studied by classical anthropology.

II – In Defense of the Brazilian Poets

Multiculturalism is the political expression of cultural relativism. The starting point for all relativisms is the relationship between knowledge and the social and cultural context in which it came about. In the social sciences the most direct way to establish such a tie is by considering knowledge as ideology. (5)

For this reason it is desirable to investigate how studies about ethnicity carried out by Brazilianists reflect different situations experienced by North American political and academic life. This is a relevant problem for the discussion of present day Brazilian ethnicity, because much of the vision that Brazilians have of themselves results from ideas produced in the US.

Brazilians live a situation similar to that of the colonized peoples, as described by Fanon, seeing themselves through North-American eyes. On the other hand, there are also analogies to be made between the Latin-Americanist version of Latin America and Edward Said’s orientalism.

The first Brazilianists, like Donald Pierson and Charles Wagley, and in the field of history, Frank Tannenbaum, were very impressed by what they called “race relations” in Brazil, that is relations between Blacks and Whites. They carried out intensive studies of Indians, but the theoretical tools they used to study Indian populations ignored the problem of interethnic relations. Their studies of Indian groups described autonomous isolated communities. The relationship with the surrounding society was filtered through the concept of acculturation.

Although studies of the Latin-American peasantry from the thirties and forties,such as those of Wagley (6) or Oscar Lewis, emphasized a sympathetic and exotic approach towards Latin America and Brazil – a mild version of what was orientalism for the Arabs – the years during and immediately after the Second World War saw American universities leaning to the left. Then, “liberal” and “radical” political positions were not only a concession to academic liberty. This was the post-depression historical period: World War Two and policies thought up by JM Keynes had opened a new space for a political discussion, which today has disappeared from the North-American academic milieu. The vision of Latin America answered to Roosevelt’s “good neighborhood” politics. Carmem Miranda was spreading her vivacity on American stages and, on the big screen, the Brazilian parrot “Zé Carioca” was having adventures with his friend Donald Duck.

The lynching and hanging of Blacks, as an escape valve for the poverty among part of the White population, was common practice in the US until the thirties. The use of open violence against Blacks, intimidating, segregating and impoverishing them, was a permanent aggression against the ideals of democracy and human solidarity.

In this period, authors such as Tannenbaum and Wagley used what they called the “race system” between Blacks and Whites in Brazil to denounce the North-American system. In fact there was no need to make an open attack against the North-American race system. It was enough to make known the Brazilian system. The contrast was obvious, since here nobody was murdered because of being Black.

The first Brazilianists learned from authors such as Euclides da Cunha,Sylvio Romero and Gilberto Freyre that miscegenation represented the major objective of the Brazilian national/cultural project (7). They perceived miscegenation as the opposite to segregation. They considered the acknowledgement of several intermediary mulatto categories and their incorporation in the social order as positive civilizing values. Notwithstanding this, they pointed to the existence of prejudice and strong attitudes against Blacks.

These Brazilianists assimilated the Brazilian nation project of that period, as a form of “utopian thought” in the sense of Karl Mannheim, that is, as a tool to criticize their own society.

This phase of Latin-American and Brazilian studies was closed by McCarthyism and the ideological terror that then spread among American intellectuals and artists (8).

After McCarthyism, with the Cold War and the sense that the perplexity surrounding the Vietnam War had been overcome, there appeared a progressive awareness of the hegemonic role of the US, which decisively changed social thought and, as a consequence, Latin-Americanism. The exposure of the North-American racial situation was replaced by its concealment or even defense. Latin-American and Brazilian studies played a relevant role in this process, made easier by the bloody US-supported military dictatorships which plagued Latin America.

At this moment the colonized ones took the stage, playing, among their multiple roles, that of the barbarians, wearing the mask of Caliban.

The most remarkable example of such a change in perspective is the book Black into White by Thomas Skidmore. In only three pages he reduces to nothing the family, the church, the intellectuals, the political system and Brazilian literature from the end of the XIX century. A good image is that of a lawyer attacking Brazil to defend the US. At the end he tries to demonstrate that, in the seventies, the situation of Blacks “was better in the US than in Brazil”.

In defense of the Brazilian poets, it must be recalled that Brazilian nineteenth-century poetry was not just a second-class reflection of European poetry, as Skidmore would have it. In fact, Brazilian poets were part of a wider cultural movement. They produced poetry of the first order, and it is an insult to belittle the poets beloved by a people.

If it were not for its impact on Brazilian thought, Skidmore’s book should not deserve attention, because it disdains the Brazilian literature of the period in which Machado de Assis published his masterpieces. He explains the “success” (9) of Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha) for two reasons. The first is that the book deals with the defeat of the army – an institution unpopular among intellectuals - by the rebels. Secondly, he claims that da Cunha depicts the contrast between the ideals of nationality and its real conditions, without making the reader uncomfortable by questioning its basic social premises. This quibbling is the same as saying that Shakespeare “was successful” because Hamlet exhibited to the bourgeoisie the corruption of the royal houses or because Macbeth justified English intervention in Scotland, without putting any of the blame on the English. The explanation for the success of both Shakespeare and Euclides da Cunha is the same as for Greek tragedy, the Iliad, the Odyssey or for African or Polynesian sculptures exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. All have to do with “universals of human culture”. (11)

The focus of Skidmore’s book is race relations in Brazil. Therefore it is fair to ask why a book about race relations opens with a ferocious attack on the cultural identity of a country, including its family structure, its church and its poets. The answer is that the book discusses Brazilian national identity as expressed in its project of nation. It implies that it would be intolerable for any country, especially a Latin-American country, to be proud of any form of identity that would make it superior to the US.

The book introduces the idea of “whitening”, today very popular in the discussion of ethnicity in Brazil. Miscegenation would result from a conspiracy of the elites aiming to “whiten” the country, that is, to make Blacks disappear, as if cross-breeding would be a subtle way to commit genocide. To demonstrate this thesis, Skidmore names the unknown Batista de Lacerda, Director of the National Museum at the beginning of the twentieth century, as an important intellectual whose ideas would be the polished example of Brazilian social thought. Batista de Lacerda argued that due to miscegenation, Brazil would become a White country in a given number of years.

As I have mentioned in another piece (12), several authors in different books took on the thesis that the Brazilian system was “worse” than the American: discriminated Blacks treated cordially would have restrained their organization and political action; Blacks considered members of the social body have denied their existence as a distinct ethnic entity; the absence of biological racism categorically opposing Blacks and Whites has represented a mechanism to avoid Black autonomous life; the blurring of racial differences because of common poverty of Blacks and Whites has prevented the organization of separate Black communities; the absence of residential segregation has frustrated Black political organization.

Acknowledging the operation of very strong attitudes against Blacks in Brazil, attitudes that provide the best reasons for the Black movement, there can be no doubts that the above arguments repeat the absurdity of the “the worse, the better” class of reasoning.

“Whitening” as proposed by Skidmore is a sideline in Brazilian social thought. The cornerstone of Brazilian national ideology is miscegenation. “Whitening” is one of its consequences, not the opposite. The classical problem of Brazilian identity is that of a culturally and racially new Brazilian (using the category “race”, from the beginning of the twentieth century). The essential is the idea of a “Brazilian civilization”, nation building by the affirmation of its differences facing other nations by the formation of a new Mestizo country, as foreseen by SylvioRomero, Euclides da Cunha, or the formation of a new brown ethnic group as Darcy Ribeiro more recently wanted.

Viewpoints that exaggerate the importance of whitening arise from a remarkable conceptual confusion, which dramatizes the semantic difficulties in the communication between distinct cultures. Miscegenation is still a national objective, but “to whiten” in Brazil does not mean “to clean the blood” as it would in the US. Whitening in Brazil means “Browning”, “race crossing”, resulting in a person who has a skin color like former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has; it means “to enter the middle class”, besides moving out of the category called “Black”.

The analysis of multiculturalism in Brazil is highly influenced by its image in American universities. It reflects the wider influence of American culture and ideas on what should be a good society.

III –Jus Sanguini and ethnicity in Brazil (13)

In the past genetics justified social hierarchies. It was believed that nobility was hereditary because honor was inherited by blood. The need for aristocratic purity justified endogamy among aristocrats. In contrast, the mixing of noble and plebeian blood was illegitimate. Thus, we have the literary portrait by Shakespeare of Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, an amoral person always ready to commit the worst villainies. He is contrasted with the noble spirit of Edgar, the legitimate son. Illegitimacy was associated with a deformed personality (14).

Later such relations were projected on to entire communities marked with impurity. The idea of “purity” associated with the idea of “race” would become central to the self-concept of the White race. “Impurity” would become associated with the Black race. This is close to the caste system analyzed by Louis Dumont, in his essay “Homo Hierarchicus”.

Jus sanguini became the basis of the legal framework of whole nationalities, as was the case in Germany until 1999. Until then, the German constitution defined as “Germans” those who had “German” parents. It was an expression of the “blood purity” principle associated with ambiguous attitudes towards “non Germans”. The situation was complicated by the presence of several million Turkish workers in German. Many Turks, hypocritically called “guest workers” (Gastarbeitern), were born in Germany and their parents were born in Germany. The absence of the “jus solis” characteristic of modern democratic societies prevented the concession of German citizenship rights to persons who were born in Germany more than fifty years ago.

There is an obvious relationship between bloodline ideas and German Nazism and its genocidal policies. Besides, the issue of extraterritoriality is ever present: that is, the German citizenship of persons of German descent abroad. The presence of “Germans” outside Germany was Hitler’s main argument for the invasion of the Sudetenland, Poland and of several other regions of Eastern Europe. The ideological system expressed in jus sanguini is the reason, today, for ethnic wars, such as that in the Middle East.

The discarding of jus sanguini from the German Constitution faced severe resistance. It was a concession Germany was forced to make, because of its central role in the European community.

The United States, a country of immigrants, has always adopted jus solis for the definition of nationality in its wider sense. However, discrimination and actual segregation derived from the blood principle still rule in everyday life. Discrimination arises in the legal system as a cultural principle. Equal civil rights and full citizenship are recent historical conquests. The application of such rights, however, makes all the difference because jus sanguini in its common law version keeps creating hierarchies in American society. The idea of “impurity” implies attitudes of repugnance, avoidance and violence towards Blacks and to a lesser degree towards Latinos. Inversely, Blacks and Latinos have adopted reactive racism to defend themselves.

Jus sanguini is felt in the US in the common reference to Indians as a “nation”, to Blacks as another “nation” and so on. The concept of “nation” is associated with racially defined ethnic groups and is not necessarily put before the state.

Cultural difference has been constructed in a reactive form by Blacks ever since their African heritage disappeared. Thus the Black dialect is frequently unintelligible by Whites. English translations of the Koran are read in the Black community and a recent demonstration by Black Muslims in Washington gathered close to a million men (women did not participate).

The American system is “racial”. Popular biology (14) became law, in such a way that in the state of Mississippi, for example, whoever has 1/8 of “Black blood” is considered as “Black”. In other states the rule is ¼. Therefore, to be a Black in the US is a result of genealogical contamination. This characteristic makes it possible to classify blond, blue-eyed, Nordic-looking people as socially and legally Black. There is an absolute opposition between Blacks and Whites. Mulattoes, the intermediate class, are a sociologically non-operational category. Jus sanguini applied to the ethnic classification system cross-cuts the whole society.

Brazilian ethnic categorization is diverse because it results from the appearance of the individuals.

A light person with finely-drawn features will never be classified as “Black” even if he or she has a very close Black ancestor. In traditional Brazilian culture there is no absolute opposition between Blacks and Whites, but a continuum which ranges from the blond White to the “pure Black”, passing through dozens of intermediary categories like light Mulatto, dark Mulatto, “Sarará” Mulatto and several others. Skin color by itself only classifies a person as “Black” if he or she is very dark. Aspects like nose, lips and hair are equally important.

Social position is another important aspect in Brazilian ethnic classification, generating what has been called “social race”. The higher the social position the stronger the tendency to be considered as “White”. Inversely, the poorer, more poorly dressed and less educated the person, the stronger the trend to be classified as “Black”. Miscegenation is stronger among the poor. Thus, jus sanguini does operate for the internal segmentation of Brazilian society.

The ambiguity in the definition of “race categories” in a country where race is not an operational category is reflected in the Brazilian population census that considers three categories: White, Black and Brown (“Pardo”). This classification is used by physicians in public hospitals when they fill in the “patient’s form”. The only criterion is the skin Whites are those who have a very light skin; and Brown is for all who are not ebony or ivory. Any color slightly out of these extremes classifies the person as “Brown”.There can be “Browns” who descend from Blacks, Indians, Arabs, Hindus, North Africans and several other Mediterranean peoples who have a darker skin. Thus, “Brown” (Pardo) puts together intermediate categories that are neither Whites nor Blacks. On the other hand, “Brown” would be the “Brown ethnic group” or the “Brazilian race” of the authors of the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the past, the population census interviewer examined the physical appearance of the interviewee and wrote down one of the three classifications, White, Black or Brown. Today the criterion is self-classification. Some Browns classify themselves as Whites and others as “Browns”.

In accordance with research carried out by the University of Minas Gerais, more than 60% of the Brazilian population that is considered “White” is descended from Indian and Black women and from Portuguese men (15). By the American criterion this population would be “Indian” or Black”, depending on its proximity to an Indian or Black ancestor. Considering how difficult it is to measure that proximity, the only possibility is to classify this population as Metice. In other words, mixing is so pervasive in Brazil that even using a genealogical criterion it is impossible to define race by absolute opposition. On the other hand, following this criterion almost all the Brazilian population would be “Non White” with the exception of some small pockets.

For those who wish to reproduce the North-American model such ambiguity is a serious problem: what is a Black or an Indian in Brazil?

Darcy Ribeiro wrote, in 1957, his article “Brazilian Indigenous languages and Cultures”. In this article, among other fundaments of Brazilian Anthropology and Indian policy, he elaborates the concept of “Indian”, which is even today used by law.

His concern was to create a concept that would enforce a set of rights for a given section of the population. For Ribeiro, an “Indian” is an individual considered to be a member of a community with pre-Columbian origins and who is considered as such by the surrounding society. Recently the Brazilian Anthropological Association suggested a variation on this concept. However, its central idea has been kept, that of a bond with a so-called “indigenous” community.

Therefore, the most important reference is membership in a given community. Millions of descendants of Indians with an Indian appearance are outside the definition. Many of these, especially those who live in the Amazon, suffer the heaviest burden of prejudice, like Blacks do elsewhere in Brazil.

For this reason, the words “Black” and “Indian” denote categories at different levels in current political discourse. What corresponds to “Indians” – populations that have the right to land - are the “Quilombolas” (members of communities founded by runaway slaves) who also live in distinct communities. What corresponds to the category of persons classified as “Blacks” are the descendants of Indians spread all over Brazil.

IV- Multiculturalism and the Brazilian Cultural Project

The tendency of many Brazilian intellectuals to view Brazil through American eyes brings risks and challenges: Brazilian society remains permanently unstable, playing its Caliban role. Its capacity for political resistance, its identity and even the legitimacy of its national state are all threatened.

There are, however, advantages. Criticism or, at least, some kind of criticism is not repressed by hegemonic ways of thinking, as happens today in the US, where it is difficult to develop ideas that escape from the established canon.

Multiculturalism is an essential principle for the construction of a true democracy. It is a powerful tool in the fight for dignity and respect for stigmatized ethnic categories. Thus, the instability brought about by those ideas may represent a factor for the democratic advancement of Brazilian society. It may contribute to redressing injustices committed throughout history against Blacks, Indians and other victimized categories. However, it is absolutely necessary to observe two conditions.

The first is the question of the Arab girl: multiculturalism must be combined with other principles in order for it not to become a panacea or even a justification for morally unacceptable actions undertaken or tolerated on behalf of cultural relativism. Human (individual) rights must always be above collective rights: the latter only make sense as a consequence of the former. The defense of ethnic or any other identity must contribute to human happiness, which is an expression of the feelings, the joys and sorrows of each person.

The second issue is that of a national cultural project. Different ethnic or regional projects should be part of a comprehensive Brazilian national cultural project, among other reasons to ensure its success. Only its implantation will lead to conditions for a more fraternal social life.

The question is how to include diversity in a single national cultural project that is politically democratic. This is a political and intellectual challenge. At the regional level there have been significant developments. Rubem Oliven’s thesis, which claims that in Brazil the national must first pass through the regional, shows that Brazilian culture has found creative solutions for the convergence of plurality and unity.

There is no doubt that Brazilian society has advanced in its relations with Indian populations. The right of Indians to have land and to live in accordance with their traditions is as much acknowledged by the populace in general as by intellectuals.

Traditional Indian communities that keep their traditional cultural ethos have ensured a high level of autonomy. In some cases their isolation is respected. This is accepted not only as the result of a relativistic ethics but also as a condition for their physical survival. Relativism in this regard is much more than an attitude of respect towards peoples with different ways. It is not only a matter of tolerance in the face of diversity.

It is a position in favor of human life because the violent pressures that follow contact between small isolated Indian populations and Western society frequently imply the physical disappearance of the former.

With the ideas of Rondon, the Villas-Boas brothers and Darcy Ribeiro among others, Indian populations recognized their specific identities, and as such, were incorporated in the national cultural project. This process is carried on today under the leadership of the Indians themselves.

The situation of Blacks is much more complicated. They are also stigmatized and discriminated against in different situations. With the exception of “quilombolas”, however, they do not form their own communities with clearly defined limits. They do not live as do the North-American Blacks in urban ghettoes; mixing in Brazil is still a positive value for most Blacks, Whites and Mulattos. Besides, the African cultural matrix is at the center of Brazilian Culture. It is the opposite of what has happened in the US, where African traditions have not been incorporated in the national culture.

In this connection the role played by Afro-Brazilian religions deserves attention, because they are a true national religion followed by people from many different origins. As Roberto Mota has shown, Brazilian identity borrows Black religion, which abandons its role as a mark of Black identity.

Religious syncretism and, mainly, the popularity of African religions are very characteristic Brazilian and Latin-American phenomena. The contrast with the US is very strong. There, what remains of African culture are some musical forms. Eric Hobsbawm identifies in Jazz some minor notes and particular rhythmic structures as being of African origin. And that is all. The specificity of North-American ghettoes is, typically, a recent political “construction” based on a characteristic dialect and on religious forms like Islam. Cultural differences between Blacks and Whites result from segregation and in the US there is no noticeable “African tradition”.

Therefore, the transplant of the dual North-American model based on jus sanguini faces two obstacles: the absence of a basic concrete community and the sharing of Black culture by all Brazilians.

Any right needs an unequivocal identification of its subject. Brazilian culture has no precise concept of “Black”, which makes it difficult to introduce public policies for the Black population. This explains the viewpoint of some who desire to move to the North-American blood criterion.

At best, attempts in this direction would only be naive. However, they could lead to consequences that their sponsors are unable to guess. There are, for example, draft laws in the Brazilian Congress that enforce the use of racial documents. The legislator is, without knowing it, repeating jurisdiction which was common in Germany in the nineteen-thirties and forties, or creating situations such as those that ended in the conflict between Tutsis and Hutus in Africa, which has already cost about three million lives and unbearable suffering.

A very relevant fact on the American scene is the birth of a new ethnic movement, known as “multiracialism”, which values mixing blood and renouncing jus sanguini. Thus, it is ironic that many Brazilian intellectuals insist on importing the traditional American ethnic system.

Newsweek magazine, for example, published a small article by Elis Coose, which states in its title that “The year 2000 will see a greater erosion of the racial barrier: the number of interracial marriages and of Whites that assume their Black roots increase”.

The author states that racial purity is not as appreciated as in the past and that Whites proudly admit their Black and Latino roots. Interracial romances flourish openly.

The article states that between 1960 and 1992 the number of interracial marriages increased more than sevenfold. Black-White inter-marriages are still uncommon, but the color line between Asiatics and Whites is becoming blurred. Besides, the growing number of Latinos brings a different approach to race. The result is a new procedure by the census bureau, allowing self-classification in more than one racial category.

The journalist considers it is improbable that ethnicity will end because even in Brazil where, as she states, miscegenation is accepted and even celebrated, color distinctions have not disappeared.

The journalist acknowledges that health assistance as it is currently provided for North-American Blacks is in a calamitous situation, and that segregation in public schools against Blacks and Latinos is increasing. She perceives, however, a sensible trend towards discarding the dual racial classification system and assuming miscegenation as a national objective. The ideal situation to be reached would be the Brazilian ethnic system.

The change is so significant that it has forced the US government to change racial categories in the population census to include the mixed contingents. This happens at the same time that many Brazilians are proposing only two categories for the population census, associating “Pardos” (Browns”) with Blacks in order to emulate American racism.

Clear evidence of the strength of this proposal can be seen in North-American films. Not long ago, the rule was Black men-Black women and White men-White women couples. The number of “biracial” couples is growing on the screens.

For all these reasons, it is desirable that policies aiming to reduce inequality in Brazil should consider ethnic aspects, but within a comprehensive national cultural project that grants justice to all.

Ethnicity in Brazil must not be dissociated from the fight against injustice and destitution that indiscriminately affects Blacks, Indians and Whites and can only be won by uniting them all.

Nor should we forget our poets.


1. I would like to thank you Susan Casement Moreira for her competent revision of the English version of this paper.

2. A first version of this article was published in Portuguese by the Journal Logos - Faculdade de Comunicação da UERJ (2nd semester, 2000).

3. My supervisor during my doctoral studies (finished in 1975) was Charles Wagley, an American anthropologist of the second generation of Franz Boas.

4. In his Essay “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition”, Princeton: University of Princeton Press 1992.

5. The use of the word “ideology” does not imply a negative connotation, as positivism intends. For positivists the use of this concept disqualifies forms of truth that are different from those they intend to impose. Readers can find a deeper discussion of the issue in my book A Arena Científica,. Campinas: Autores Associados, 1994.

6. Especially in his book Amazon Town.

7. The construction of a future Metis Brazilian ethnicity still is a dominant issue in Brazilian social thought. Darcy Ribeiro, for example, explores it in his book O Povo Brasileiro.

8.This was the time Charles Chaplin had to migrate. I can remember Eduardo Galvão and Charles Wagley talking about the fifties at the University of Columbia: when discussing social theory they had to use the expression “the old man” instead of naming Karl Marx. This was a way to mislead FBI informants watching the classes.

9.In the author’s words.

10. For such reasons it is a serious issue that the most recent versions of Brazilian history were written abroad, and it is even worse that Brazilian researchers perceive Brazilianists not as foreign colleagues but as sort of “cultural heroes”.

11.This lack of intellectual polish may be contrasted, for example, with the sophisticated work of Richard Morse, another American historian who specialized in Brazil.

12.In a conference presented to XXXII National Meeting of the Brazilian Catholic Bishops, in Porto Seguro, Bahia. Edições Loyola, São Paulo, 2001.

13.Giralda Seyferth was the first author who applied the concepts of jus solis and jus sanguini to the anthropological discussion of ethnic segmentation, not by coincidence, in her excellent article on German identity in the South of Brazil. See Zarur, Região e Nação na América Latina, ed. UNB, 2000.

14.From king Lear

“15. popular biology” because, scientifically, race does not exist. What seems to have happened is the survival of scientific values from the nineteenth century. Then, race was a concept scientifically validated by most scholars.

16. The absence of Black or Indigenous male ancestors reflects the brutality of the colonial relation because Black and Indian males were exterminated and women taken as booty.

17. See the public opinion poll in Marcos Santilli’s Os Brasileiros e os Índios. Senace, 2000.

18. See, for example his article published in Etnia e Nação na América Latina, George Zarur (ed.), 1996, OAS.

19.Tutsi and Hutu ethnic distinction was not important at the beginning of the twentieth century. It became important after the German and later the Belgian colonizers imposed the formal separation of the two groups by, among other means, the use of ethnic papers.

20. Translation published in the Brazilian press. O Estado de São Paulo, January, 2nd, 2000.

Linhas de pesquisa para este texto

Etnicidade e Multiculturalismo

Identidade Brasileira

Copyright © 2005-2017, George Zarur. Direitos autorais reservados.