Racial whitening

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Racial whitening, or "whitening" (branqueamento), is an ideology that was widely accepted in Brazil between 1889 and 1914, as the solution to the "Negro problem."[1] However, racial whitening specific to Brazil also encompasses the perception of individuals as being white in relation to their position in the class system.[2] Supporters of the Whitening ideology believed that the Negro race would advance culturally and genetically, or even disappear totally, within several generations of mixed breeding between whites and blacks. This ideology gained its support from two scientific racism beliefs that were prominent during this time. One being social Darwinism, which applied Darwin's theory of natural selection to a society or race, and the other being Aryanism, the belief that the "white" "Aryan" race was superior to all other cultures. By combining these two ideas, the white elites of the time believed that because "white" blood was superior it would inevitably "whiten" the inferior races' blood.

Use of the whitening ideology

The actual use of the Whitening ideology seems to be peculiar to Brazil, and was not seen in Europe or the United States.[1] Many Europeans believed that the mixing of races would produce degenerate offspring and they feared mixing could become a threat to the white race. In the United States a barrier between blacks and whites was formed by segregation, which forbade the mixing of the two races. In the 1910s and 1920s, many states in the Southern United States passed the one drop rule, which classified a person with any African ancestry, no matter how small or remote, as black.

Brazil on the other hand did not have the barrier of segregation, and the Portuguese were more accepting of miscegenation. Also Brazil was already a multicultural society that already had a mixed-class. When scientific racist beliefs and ideas became more prominent in the 1850s, Brazil's society felt they needed to find their place in the social order and to do this they needed to solve their problem with the supposedly inferior races. Because they already were a multicultural society, the Whitening ideology was a perfect solution. Most Brazilians thought this approach was a far better one than what the United States had done. A Brazilian statesman compared the United States and Brazil by saying,

Result of Brazil's whitening

A Redenção de Cam (Redemption of Ham), Modesto Brocos, 1895, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. The painting depicts a black grandmother, mulatta mother, white father and their quadroon child, hence three generations of racial hypergamy though whitening.

Around the late 1920s, scientific racism gave way to environmentalist theories.[1] Gilberto Freyre, a student of anthropologist Franz Boas, was a prominent figure of the conversion.

Perception of whiteness in Brazil

Whitening in Brazil is a sociological term to explain the change in perception of one's race as a black or mixed race person rises in the class structure of Brazil. Racial whitening in Brazil is a social concept that is deeply rooted in the history of the nation.[3] Similar to that of the United States, Brazil experienced massive colonization by Europeans and importation of Africans in the 18th and 19th century.[3] This type of political and social climate inherently represses a group of people while one group dominated the other. In the case of Brazil, the white man rose to the top of the social ladder, which left the African slaves and the future Afro-Brazilians repressed for generations to come.

Whiteness in Brazil is often defined at the intersection between race and class. In Brazil, one's racial classification is not only dependent on skin color, but is also influenced by the perception of self and the perception from others.[3] Compared to the United States, race in Brazil is not often defined based on the biological make-up of a person. As described by Omni and Winant, racial formation is "the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings".[4] This suggests that race is defined by social forces and the individual. In Brazil it has been said that race exists on a spectrum and can change based on a number of factors such as social class and educational attainment.[5]

Class and education have an influence on the perceived whiteness of an individual. The Brazilian class system is heavily influenced from the history of slavery and colonization. This puts people who identify as white at the top of class system and those who identify as black at the bottom of the class system. Upward mobility is possible in Brazil, but very rare.[3] An aspect that influences the upward mobility of individuals is education. According to Telles, greater education leads to greater whitening.[3] This suggests that one who achieves higher education can be perceived as whiter.

It is important to note that this concept of racial whitening is unique to Brazil. Brazil's flexibility in racial classification system and their unique interpretation of race allows for this idea to exist.[3] Future research ought to be done elsewhere to see where else this idea of racial whitening exists.

People who have made reference to whitening in Brazil

  • João Batista de Lacerda: Director of the Museu Nacional, wrote a paper named "Half-Breeds of Brazil".[6] In it he describes the differences in the different races. He also predicted that by the third generation of mixed breeding there are predominantly white characteristics.
  • Theodore Roosevelt: After visiting Brazil in 1913 he wrote an article in Outlook magazine. In his article he talks about how the Brazilian Negro is disappearing.[7]
  • Thomas Skidmore: Wrote the book Black into White which covers many of the aspects dealing with Whitening. Also gives his own theories and insights.
  • Samuel Alexson: Wrote an informative pamphlet in New York explaining whitening to the common man.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d Skidmore, Thomas. Black Into White Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought, Oxford University Press. NY, 1974.
  2. ^ NOGUEIRA, Oracy. "Tanto preto quanto branco: estudo de relações raciais no Brasil." São Paulo: TA Queiróz, Série 1 (1985).
  3. ^ a b c d e f Hier, Sean P.; Greenberg, Joshua L. (2002-01-01). "Constructing a discursive crisis: risk, problematization and illegal Chinese in Canada". Ethnic and Racial Studies. 25 (3): 490–513. doi:10.1080/01419870020036701. ISSN 0141-9870. 
  4. ^ Omi, M. and H. Winant. 1994. Racial Formations in the United States. New York: Routledge.
  5. ^ Harris, Marvin D. (1964-01-01). "Racial Identity in Brazil". Luso-Brazilian Review 1 (2): 21–28.
  6. ^ "The Metis, or Half-Breeds, of Brazil" (PDF). Children of metis have been found, in the third generation, to present all the physical characters of the white race, although some of them retain a few traces of their black ancestry through the influence of atavism. The influence of sexual selection, however, tends to neutralise that of atavism, and removes from the descendants of the metis all the characteristic features of the black race. In virtue of this process of ethnic reduction, it is logical to expect that in the course of another century the metis will have disappeared from Brazil. 
  7. ^ Roosevelt, Theodore (21 February 1914). "Brazil and the Negro". Outlook. New York: Outlook Publishing Company, Incorporated. Retrieved 9 May 2017. 
  8. ^ Alexson, Samuel. On the Whitening of the Brazilian Negro, Nonsensical Press. NY, 1967.
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