Passing for Racial Democracy

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2022-01-19 03:00Z by Steven

Passing for Racial Democracy

The Baffler

Stephanie Reist

Detail from A Redenção de Cam (Redemption of Ham), Modesto Brocos, 1895. | Museu Nacional de Belas Artes

The complexities of the color line in the U.S. and Brazil

A CENTRAL POINT OF TENSION between Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) and her husband Dr. Brian Redfield (André Holland) in Rebecca Hall’s Passing, based on the Nella Larsen novel of the same name, is whether their family should remain in the United States. While Irene can pass for white out of convenience, the same is not true of her darker sons and her husband, who routinely informs his children about lynchings and white violence. Irene disapproves of this talk, despite her work for the Negro Welfare League. In one pivotal scene, she drives her tired husband home after a long day of visiting patients, and the couple discuss going to South America, specifically mentioning Brazil. The issue returns when the couple fights over the consuming role that Clare (Ruth Negga)—who has chosen to pass as white to the point of marrying a bigoted white husband and having a daughter with him—exerts in their lives and marriage.

In Larsen’s novel, Brian’s longing for Brazil, which becomes conflated with what Irene perceives as his desire for the effervescent, delightfully dangerous Clare, is even more pronounced: Brazil is the one that got away, Brian’s lost hope for a society where he and other black members of the talented tenth could be judged by their merits, not lynched because they failed to stay in their place. Irene even implicitly sanctions an affair between her husband and Clare to assuage her guilt for denying her family the chance to be truly “happy, or free, or safe”—a state she laments as impossible when speaking to Clare about her choice not to pass…

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Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America (First Edition)

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Law, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, Women on 2018-10-17 18:00Z by Steven

Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America (First Edition)

358 pages
31 B/W Illus.
Paperback: 9781138485303
Hardback: 9781138727021
eBook (VitalSource): 9781315191065

Edited by:

Kwame Dixon, Associate Professor of Political Science
Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Ollie A. Johnson III, Associate Professor of African American Studies
Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan

Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Latin America has a rich and complex social history marked by slavery, colonialism, dictatorships, rebellions, social movements and revolutions. Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America explores the dynamic interplay between racial politics and hegemonic power in the region. It investigates the fluid intersection of social power and racial politics and their impact on the region’s histories, politics, identities and cultures.

Organized thematically with in-depth country case studies and a historical overview of Afro-Latin politics, the volume provides a range of perspectives on Black politics and cutting-edge analyses of Afro-descendant peoples in the region. Regional coverage includes Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti and more. Topics discussed include Afro-Civil Society; antidiscrimination criminal law; legal sanctions; racial identity; racial inequality and labor markets; recent Black electoral participation; Black feminism thought and praxis; comparative Afro-women social movements; the intersection of gender, race and class, immigration and migration; and citizenship and the struggle for human rights. Recognized experts in different disciplinary fields address the depth and complexity of these issues.

Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America contributes to and builds on the study of Black politics in Latin America.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America – Black Politics Matter [Kwame Dixon and Ollie A. Johnson III]
  • Part 1: History
    • 1. Beyond Representation: Rethinking Rights, Alliances and Migrations: Three Historical Themes in Afro-Latin American Political Engagement [Darién J. Davis]
    • 2. Recognition, Reparations, and Political Autonomy of Black and Native Communities in the Americas [Bernd Reiter]
    • 3. Pan-Africanism and Latin America [Elisa Larkin Nascimento]
  • Part 2: The Caribbean
    • 4. Black Activism and the State in Cuba [Danielle Pilar Clealand]
    • 5. Correcting Intellectual Malpractice: Haiti and Latin America [Jean-Germain Gros]
    • 6. Black Feminist Formations in the Dominican Republic since La Sentencia [April J. Mayes]
  • Part 3: South America
    • 7. Afro-Ecuadorian Politics [Carlos de la Torre and Jhon Antón Sánchez]
    • 8. In The Branch of Paradise: Geographies of Privilege and Black Social Suffering in Cali, Colombia [Jaime Amparo Alves and Aurora Vergara-Figueroa]
    • 9. The Impossible Black Argentine Political Subject [Judith M. Anderson]
    • 10. Current Representations of “Black” Citizens: Contentious Visibility within the Multicultural Nation [Laura de la Rosa Solano]
  • Part 4: Comparative Perspectives
    • 11. The Contours and Contexts of Afro-Latin American Women’s Activism [Kia Lilly Caldwell]
    • 12. Race and the Law in Latin America [Tanya Katerí Hernández]
    • 13. The Labyrinth of Ethnic-Racial Inequality: a Picture of Latin America according to the recent Census Rounds [Marcelo Paixão and Irene Rossetto]
    • 14. The Millennium/Sustainable Development Goals and Afro-descendants in the Americas: An (Un)intended Trap [Paula Lezama]
  • Conclusion [Kwame Dixon and Ollie A. Johnson III]
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Negras in Brazil: Re-envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, and the Politics of Identity

Posted in Anthropology, Book/Video Reviews, Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, Women on 2016-06-03 18:38Z by Steven

Negras in Brazil: Re-envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, and the Politics of Identity

Rutgers University Press
December 2006
252 pages
6 x 9
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-3957-7
Web PDF ISBN: 978-0-8135-4132-7

Kia Lilly Caldwell, Associate Professor of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

For most of the twentieth century, Brazil was widely regarded as a “racial democracy“—a country untainted by the scourge of racism and prejudice. In recent decades, however, this image has been severely critiqued, with a growing number of studies highlighting persistent and deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination and inequality. Yet, recent work on race and racism has rarely considered gender as part of its analysis.

In Negras in Brazil, Kia Lilly Caldwell examines the life experiences of Afro-Brazilian women whose stories have until now been largely untold. This pathbreaking study analyzes the links between race and gender and broader processes of social, economic, and political exclusion. Drawing on ethnographic research with social movement organizations and thirty-five life history interviews, Caldwell explores the everyday struggles Afro-Brazilian women face in their efforts to achieve equal rights and full citizenship. She also shows how the black women’s movement, which has emerged in recent decades, has sought to challenge racial and gender discrimination in Brazil. While proposing a broader view of citizenship that includes domains such as popular culture and the body, Negras in Brazil highlights the continuing relevance of identity politics for members of racially marginalized communities. Providing new insights into black women’s social activism and a gendered perspective on Brazilian racial dynamics, this book will be of interest to students and scholars of Latin American Studies, African diaspora studies, women’s studies, politics, and cultural anthropology.


  • Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue
  • Introduction
  • PART ONE: Re-envisioning the Brazilian Nation
    • 1. “A Foot in the Kitchen”: Brazilian Discourses on Race, Hybridity, and National identity
    • 2. Women in and out of Place: Engendering Brazil’s Racial Democracy
  • PART TWO: The Body and Subjectivity
    • 3. “Look at Her Hair”: The Body Politics of Black Womanhood
    • 4. Becoming a Mulher Negra
  • PART THREE: Activism and Resistance
    • 5. “What Citizenship is This?”: Narratives of Marginality and Struggle
    • 6. The Black Women’s Movement: Politicizing and Reconstructing Collective Identities
  • Epilogue: Resenvisioning Racial Essentialism and Identity Politics
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index
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“Look at Her Hair”: The Body Politics of Black Womanhood in Brazil

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Social Science, Women on 2013-03-31 02:50Z by Steven

“Look at Her Hair”: The Body Politics of Black Womanhood in Brazil

Transforming Anthropology
Volume 11, Issue 2 (July 2003)
pages 18–29
DOI: 10.1525/tran.2003.11.2.18

Kia Lilly Caldwell, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This article examines Brazilian ideals of female beauty and explores their impact on Black women’s subjective experiences. The analysis focuses on hair as a key site for investigating how Black women’s bodies and identities are marked by Brazilian discourses on race and gender. Despite Brazil’s image as a “racial democracy,” derogatory images of Black women in Brazilian popular culture highlight the prevalence of anti-Black aesthetic standards in the country. Through analysis of Black women’s personal narratives, this article examines how individual women attempt to reconstruct their subjectivities by contesting dominant aesthetic norms. The analysis provides insight into the gendered dimensions of Brazilian racism by demonstrating the ways in which Black women’s views of, and experiences with, their hair highlight the complex relationship among race, gender, sexuality, and beauty.

“Otherness” is constructed on bodies. Racism uses the physicality of bodies to punish, to expunge and isolate certain bodies and construct them as outsiders.
—Zillah Eisenstein


This article examines Brazilian ideals of female beauty and explores their impact on Black women’s processes of identity construction. Given Brazil’s longstanding image as a “racial democracy,” examining the racialized and gendered significance of hair provides key insights into the ways in which Black women’s bodies are marked by larger political and social forces. My analysis focuses on hair as a key site for investigating how Black women’s identities are circumscribed by dominant discourses on race and gender. I examine the pervasiveness of anti-Black aesthetic standards in Brazilian popular culture and explore Black women’s attempts to reinvest their bodies with positive significance.

The racial implications of hair and beauty have received scant attention in most research on race in Brazil (Burdick 1998). This tendency is largely due to the lack of research on the intersection of race and gender and the near invisibility of Afro-Brazilian women as a focus of scholarly inquiry (Caldwell 2000). Nonetheless, examining the social construction of beauty provides crucial insights into the intersection of race, gender, and power in contemporary Brazil. As a key marker of racial difference, hair assumes a central role in the racial politics of everyday life in Brazil. Most Brazilians are keenly aware of the social and racial significance of gradations in hair texture and use this knowledge as a standard for categorizing individuals into racial and color groups. The racial implications of hair texture take on added significance for Black women, given the central role accorded to hair in racialized constructions of femininity and female beauty.

This article forms part of a larger study that explores Afro-Brazilian women’s struggles for cultural citizenship through analysis of women’s life histories and practices of social activism. Field research was conducted in the city of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, in 1997. The research participants included activists in the Black movement, women’s movement, and Black women’s movement, as well as non-activists. My field research and ethnographic analysis examine how women who self-identify as negra (Black) develop critical consciousness about issues of race and gender, and how this consciousness translates into social and political activism. Excerpts from my interview data are used in this article to explore Afro-Brazilian women’s views of hair and beauty. My analysis places dominant constructions of female beauty in dialogue with Black women’s critical reflections on the psycho-subjective dimensions of beauty and their role in processes of identity formation…

…Brazil’s now widely disputed image as a “racial democracy” also played a central role in constructing official and popular understandings of gender during most of the twentieth century (Caldwell 1999). In an attempt to reinterpret Brazil’s national past of colonial slavery, nationalist ideologues, such as Gilberto Freyre (1986[1946]), promoted constructions of Black womanhood that legitimized colonial gender norms. These gender norms continue to buttress and perpetuate colonial hierarchies of gender, race, and class by constructing the social identities of White women as the standard of womanhood and female beauty, and the social terms of sexual and manual labor. In contemporary Brazil, the social identities of Black, Mulata and White women demonstrate how physical differences are linked to gendered notions of racial superiority. While Black and Mulata women have long been regarded as being more sexually desirable, White women have traditionally been considered to be more beautiful. In many ways, the distinctions made between White, Mulata and Black women draw upon a virgin/whore dichotomy that classifies women into different categories based on their presumed suitability for sex or marriage. These forms of differentiation are succinctly expressed in the Brazilian adage: “A white woman to marry, a mulata to fornicate, a black woman to cook.”

In Brazil, racialized gender hierarchies also classify women by dissecting their bodies and attributing certain physical features either to the category of sex or beauty. This dissection process assigns features such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape and size of the nose and lips to the category of beauty, while features such as the breasts, hips, and buttocks are assigned to the sexual category. Given the Eurocentric aesthetic standards that prevail in Brazilian society, Black women have traditionally been defined as being sexual, rather than beautiful. Ironically, however, Black and Mulata women’s association with sensuality and sexuality has been lauded as evidence of racial democracy in Brazil (Caldwell 1999; Gilliam 1998).

Representations of mixed-race or Mulata women in Brazilian popular culture reveal the complexities of Brazilian discourses on race, gender and beauty. A carnival song from 1932, “Teu Cabelo Nao Nega” (Your Hair Gives You Away), highlights the ambivalent portrayal of Mulata women in Brazilian popular culture. As the song states:

In these lands of Brazil
You don’t even have to cultivate it
The land gives
Black beans, many learned men, and giribita
A lot of beautiful mulatas

The hair gives you away.
You are mulata in color
But since color doesn’t rub off, mulata,
Mulata, I want your love. (Davis 1999:155)

“Your Hair Gives You Away” was the carnival success of 1932 and became one of the most successful carnival songs of all time (Davis 1999). The portrayal of Mulata women in the song reinforces Brazil’s nationalist image as a racial democracy and racial-sexual paradise. The lyrics portray Mulata women as being quintessentially Brazilian. Like black beans, they seem to spring from the land in large quantities. However, on closer observation, the lyrics also reveal racist beliefs premised on anti-Black aesthetic values. Both the title of the song and the lyrics contain the phrase, “hair gives you away.” When analyzed in the context of Brazilian racial beliefs, this phrase can be seen as an expression of racial “outing.” By referring to the Mulata’s hair, the narrator of the song states his belief that this desirable woman has African ancestry. Her hair texture is the marker that reveals this ancestry. The narrator then goes on to describe the Mulata as being Mulata in color. This statement reinforces the Mulata’s phenotypic characteristics and the fact that she is not negra or black in color. The narrator further states that the Mulata’s color is inconsequential since it will not “stick” to him. His desire to have the mulata’s love, or more accurately her sexual favors (Carvalho 1999), is unchanged and he continues to sing her praises, albeit with a double-voiced message of attraction and revulsion.

The process of racial outing performed in “Your Hair Gives Away” demonstrates how Afro-Brazilian women’s bodies are marked and categorized by Brazilian practices of racialization. Despite the prevalence of official and popular discourses, which emphasize the importance of racial miscegenation, practices of racial differentiation and categorization are pervasive in Brazil. As recent work by Antonio Guimaraes (1995) and Robin Sheriff (2001) has shown, the much acclaimed Brazilian color continuum coexists with practices of racialization that center on categorizing individuals into bipolar categories of Whiteness and Blackness. These practices of racialization reflect a decidedly anti-Black bias, which privileges Whiteness as an unmarked and universal identity. Lewis R. Gordon’s (1997) work on anti-Blackness provides significant insights into these processes. As Gordon provocatively argues,

in an antiblack world, race is only designated by those who signify racial identification. A clue to that identification is the notion of being “colored.” Not being colored signifies being white, and, as a consequence, being raceless, whereas being colored signifies being a race. Thus, although the human race is normatively white, racialized human beings, in other words, a subspecies of humanity, are nonwhite…. In effect, then, in the antiblack world there is but one race, and that race is black. Thus to be racialized is to be pushed “down” toward blackness, and to be deracialized is to be pushed “up” toward whiteness. (1997:76)

“Your Hair Gives You Away” demonstrates how a national preference for Whiteness and a concomitant devaluation of Blackness circumscribe the social identities of Afro-Brazilian women. The anti-Black aesthetic values articulated in “The Hair Gives You Away” describe the Mulata’s hair texture and skin color as being unappealing. These physical attributes were considered to be undesirable largely because they were associated with the Mulata’s African ancestry. Furthermore, while not explicitly stated, Brazilian notions of “good” and “bad” hair are present in the narrator’s evaluation of the woman described in the song. By stating, “the hair gives you away,” the narrator indicates that she does not have “good” hair and thus has not completely escaped the “stain” of Blackness…

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