Neymar and the Disappearing Donkey
Achal Prabhala | June 17th, 2014


Leia este em Português aqui.

By the time you read this, it’s possible that every single person on the planet will know who Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior is.

The image above is of Neymar from five days ago.

This is Neymar from one year ago:

neymar cabelo

This is Neymar from three years ago:


This is Neymar from five years ago:


This is little Neymar with his family:


You could come to any number of conclusions from Neymar’s remarkable transformation. For instance, you could conclude that race doesn’t exist in Brazil, which is the favourite line of a specific tribe of Brazilians – impeccable liberals all, who just happen to be upper-class, white and at the top of the heap.

Or you could conclude that everyone in Brazil is indeed mixed – which is, incidentally, the second-favourite line of the selfsame tribe.

Or you could wonder what happened to this boy.


It’s too easy to condemn Neymar for pretending to be white: judging by the images, he is partly white. It’s silly to accuse him of denying his mixed-race ancestry, because the simplest search throws up hundreds of images of him as a child, none of which he seems to be ashamed of. There is this: when asked if he had ever been a victim of racism, he said, “Never. Neither inside nor outside the field. Because I’m not black right?”

Actually, the word he used was preto, which is significant, since, in Brazil, when used as a colour ascribed to people – rather than things, like rice or beans – it is the equivalent of the n-word; negro and negra being the acceptable ways of describing someone who is truly black. (And moreno or morena being standard descriptors for someone dark-skinned, as well as, occasionally, euphemisms for blackness). Technically speaking, however, his logic was faultless – and even kind of interestingly honest: the Neymar who made that statement was an unworldly eighteen-year-old who had never lived outside Brazil. And in Brazil, Neymar is not black.


In 1976, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics ran a household survey that marked a crucial departure from other census exercises. The Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios (PNAD) did not ask Brazilians to choose a race category among pre-determined choices; instead, researchers went out and asked people to describe the colour they thought they were.

This is what was returned:


Acastanhada Somewhat chestnut-coloured
Agalegada Somewhat like a Galician
Alva Snowy white
Alva escura Dark snowy white
Alvarenta (not in dictionary; poss. dialect) Snowy white
Alvarinta Snowy white
Alva rosada Pinkish white
Alvinha Snowy white
Amarela Yellow
Amarelada Yellowish
Amarela-queimada Burnt yellow
Amarelosa Yellowy
Amorenada Somewhat dark-skinned
Avermelhada Reddish
Azul Blue
Azul-marinho Sea blue
Baiano From Bahia
Bem branca Very white
Bem clara Very pale
Bem morena Very dark-skinned
Branca White
Branca-avermelhada White going on for red
Branca-melada Honey-coloured white
Branca-morena White but dark-skinned
Branca-pálida Pale white
Branca-queimada Burnt white
Branca-sardenta Freckled white
Branca-suja Off-white
Branquiça Whitish
Branquinha Very white
Bronze Bronze-coloured
Bronzeada Sun-tanned
Bugrezinha-escura Dark-skinned India
Burro-quando-foge Disappearing donkey (i.e. nondescript) humorous
Cabocla Copper-coloured ( refers to civilized Indians)
Cabo-verde From Cabo Verde (Cape Verde)
Café Coffee-coloured
Café-com-leite Café au lait
Canela Cinnamon
Canelada Somewhat like cinnamon
Cardão Colour of the cardoon, or thistle (blue-violet)
Castanha Chestnut
Castanha-clara Light chestnut
Castanha-escura Dark chestnut
Chocolate Chocolate-coloured
Clara Light-coloured, pale
Clarinha Light-coloured, pale
Cobre Copper-coloured
Corada With a high colour
Cor-de-café Coffee-coloured
Cor-de-canela Cinnamon-coloured
Cor-de-cuia Gourd-coloured
Cor-de-leite Milk-coloured (i.e. milk-white)
Cor-de-ouro Gold-coloured (i.e. golden)
Cor-de-rosa Pink
Cor-firme Steady-coloured
Crioula Creole
Encerada Polished
Enxofrada Pallid
Esbranquecimento Whitening
Escura Dark
Escurinha Very dark
Fogoió Having fiery-coloured hair
Galega Galician or Portuguese
Galegada Somewhat like a Galician or Portuguese
Jambo Light-skinned (the colour of a type of apple)
Laranja Orange
Lilás Lilac
Loira Blonde
Loira-clara Light blonde
Loura Blonde
Lourinha Petite blonde
Malaia Malaysian woman
Marinheira Sailor-woman
Marrom Brown
Meio-amarela Half-yellow
Meio-branca Half-white
Meio-morena Half dark-skinned
Meio-preta Half-black
Melada Honey-coloured
Mestiça Half-caste/mestiza
Miscigenação Miscegenation
Mista Mixed
Morena Dark-skinned, brunette
Morena-bem-chegada Very nearly morena
Morena-bronzeada Sunburnt morena
Morena-canelada Somewhat cinnamon-coloured morena
Morena-castanha Chestnut-coloured morena
Morena-clara Light-skinned morena
Morena-cor-de-canela Cinnamon-coloured morena
Morena-jambo Light-skinned morena
Morenada Somewhat morena
Morena-escura Dark morena
Morena-fechada Dark morena
Morenão Dark-complexioned man
Morena-parda Dark morena
Morena-roxa Purplish morena
Morena-ruiva Red-headed morena
Morena-trigueira Swarthy, dusky morena
Moreninha Petite morena
Mulata Mulatto girl
Mulatinha Little mulatto girl
Negra Negress
Negrota Young negress
Pálida Pale
Paraíba From Paraíba
Parda Brown
Parda-clara Light brown
Parda-morena Brown morena
Parda-preta Black-brown
Polaca Polish woman
Pouco-clara Not very light
Pouco-morena Not very dark-complexioned
Pretinha Black – either young, or small
Puxa-para-branco Somewhat towards white
Quase-negra Almost negro
Queimada Sunburnt
Queimada-de-praia Beach sunburnt
Queimada-de-sol Sunburnt
Regular Regular, normal
Retinta Deep-dyed, very dark
Rosa Rose-coloured (or the rose itself)
Rosada Rosy
Rosa-queimada Sunburnt-rosy
Roxa Purple
Ruiva Redhead
Russo Russian
Sapecada Singed
Sarará Yellow-haired negro
Saraúba (poss. dialect) Untranslatable
Tostada Toasted
Trigo Wheat
Trigueira Brunette
Turva Murky
Verde Green
Vermelha Red


Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, an anthropologist at the University of São Paulo, has a range of astonishing insights around this historic survey; her paper, Not black, not white: just the opposite. Culture, race and national identity in Brazilfrom which the table is reproduced, is a gem. (She also has a book that examines the early history of the subject: The Spectacle of the Races: Scientists, Institutions, and the Race Question in Brazil, 1870-1930).

Schwarcz’s work is filled with thoughtful, original analysis, and is characterised by an unusual fearlessness. (Unusual, that is, for a subject so complicated). Reading her is a revelation; it turns out there is a real place hiding under that avalanche of clichés. If you’ve ever wondered how crushing racism can flourish in a country where, apparently, race itself has been crushed, consider that everything Brazil is defined by – from its “we-are-all-mixed” anthem, to feijoada, capoeira and candomblé, right down to samba and soccer – is the result of an insidious, revisionist, far-sighted political manoeuvre of the 1930s, courtesy the combined skills of popular intellectual Gilberto Freyre and populist dictator Getúlio Vargas. The battered body of slave culture was abducted by national culture in order to renew white culture.

Among the many eye-popping results reported in the PNAD survey, the one I am most drawn to is burro quando foge. You’ll find it up there in the table at No. 34. Google inexplicably translates the phrase as “saddle”, which is awesome, since it means that Lusofonia still keeps some secrets beyond the reach of the behemoth. Burro quando foge is translated by Schwarcz, within the constraints of a column slot, as “the disappearing donkey” and explained as a humorous phrase that denotes a nondescript colour.

Which it is – and then some. The metaphor is unique to Brazil, and signifies a colour. That colour could be nondescript, ill-defined, elusive, or ugly – and, just to make things really clear, also fawn, beige, or a tricky shade of brown. The sentiment conveyed in the phrase is just as interesting. Used between friends, it could pass for a joke. Otherwise, it almost always denotes something unpleasant. It’s usually used an insult, although – oddly enough, given the colours and sentiments – it’s not specifically a racial insult.

Of all the one hundred and thirty six colours of race in Brazil, this is my favourite. It’s flippant and factual and fictional all at once, and as such, suits me perfectly. Race is not a term that has much currency in India, where I live. It is, however, a central feature of Johannesburg and São Paulo, the two cities I occasionally work in, and as much as I’m aware of how privileged I am not to be wholly subject to it, I feel curiously bereft of race in both places. Certainly, I grew up with colour: being a dark-skinned child in a uniformly light-skinned family meant that I had to regularly contend with well-meaning relatives who’d pinch my cheeks and chide me for “losing my colour” – as though my skin tone was something I had brought upon myself in a fit of absent-mindedness. To choose a race then: Indian might work for some people, but it is both my passport and my residence, and that’s quite enough. Brown is too generic, and black, a bit too unbelievable, all things considered. Given that I spent my childhood reading Gerald Durrell and dreaming of donkeys, adopting their colour seems right in so many ways.


And where does that leave our boy wonder?  We might start with the Estado Novo, Vargas’ authoritarian reign between 1937 and 1945. Only a few years earlier, Freyre had published the crowning achievement of his career, Casa-Grande e Senzala, (“The Big House and the Slave Quarters”, released in English as The Masters and the Slaves), and the book was catching fire. Freyre’s central theory was something he called Lusotropicalism. It told a soothing story of the past (by casting the Portuguese as a kinder, gentler breed of imperial slaver), offered a handy solution for the present (by turning the mixing of races into a virtue) and held out an appealing conclusion, namely, the idea that Brazil was a racial democracy.

Upon publication, Freyre’s work immediately attracted the ire of the Portuguese nation for suggesting her citizens were prone to miscegenation. At home, however, it became Vargas’ blueprint for the country he had seized – and his strategy for political survival. Three quarters of a century later, Freyre’s big think remains the enduring idea of Brazil, an idea whose appeal grows in leaps and bounds across the globe and, to be sure, often escapes the clutches of its creators to dazzling effect. Still, consider the irony: the country’s sense of itself as a racial democracy was smuggled in to its soul by an autocracy.

The term Estado Novo refers to a few different periods of dictatorship, and it literally translates as “new state”, which is prophetic, since the words also describe a peculiar duty that is incumbent upon at least half the Brazilian population. That duty, of course, is the business of branqueamento – of whitening – of transforming, quite literally, into a new physical state. (For all his pro-miscegenation advocacy, Schwarcz notes in The Spectacle of the Races, Freyre was as keen as his critics on keeping the structure of Brazil intact: as a hierarchy with whiteness on top). In that sense, Neymar is only the latest in a long line of celebrities and Brazilians of lesser value who get it. Who get the fine print on the contract; who understand that national identity rests on racial harmony, which, in turn, rests on a kind of potential access to opportunity. Not the opportunity to be equal, mind you, but the opportunity to be white. We may gawk at him all we like, but in straightening his hair, extending it out and dyeing it blonde, Neymar was fulfilling his patriotic destiny in exactly as much as confounding the Croats and leading his team to victory last week.


I’ll venture that the disappearing donkey colour fits Neymar to a T. After all, he is both undoubtedly and elusively brown. Yes, there is the matter of his blonde ambition. O burro fugiu, we might well ask: has the donkey left the room? I’d really like to think not. For one thing, the boy’s only twenty two. He’s got a whole lifetime to change his mind – and his hair. For another, I’ve got a whole World Cup to watch. Have a heart. I spend hours every week learning Brazilian Portuguese, I’m devoted to the country, and I come from Bangalore, a city in which Pelé is god. I do not mean this metaphorically. In a neighbourhood called Gowthampura, around the corner from where I live, residents have erected a lovely shrine to four local icons – the Buddha, Dr. Ambedkar, Mother Teresa, and the striker from Santos.


So there you have it: my hands are tied. I’ve got my own patriotic destiny to fulfil, and it involves rooting for Brazil, which means I’m going to need to love Neymar a lot.

I can do it.

Anyway, donkeys are famously stubborn animals. They’re good at waiting.

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Achal Prabhala

A writer and researcher in Bangalore, India.

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79 thoughts on “Neymar and the Disappearing Donkey

  1. The process of chemically straightening one’s hair is very uncomfortable and sometimes painful. It is very unusual to see this among young men, especially athletes, but based on pictures of Neymar and his family from when he was younger, he obviously is straightening his hair as seen in more recent photos. He must have to go to absurd lengths to keep his hair in position when he plays. Kudos to the writer of this article! Many people of African descent in Brazil and in many Latin-American countries choose to “whiten” themselves by straightening their hair and bleaching their skin because of the sense of shame they associate with their African heritage. Instead of pride, they choose to believe the lies that white skin is pretty while black skin is not, straight hair is preferable to the curly or kinky hair of the descendents of African slaves. They deny their cultural heritage instead of embracing it. I choose to embrace my black heritage and work hard to teach my children to be proud of their culture and their beautiful African features which include dark skin and thick, curly hair. Many parents in Brazil have been brainwashed into thinking that there is only one definition of beauty when in fact beauty can come in so many forms. Lupita Nyong’o, Sophia Vegara, Tilda Swinton, Halle Berry are all beautiful women and I’m sure many people would also agree that these are different types of beauties. My mother’s father was white, her hair was straight and her skin was very light but in no way would she ever say she was not black. It’s quite shocking that looking at photos of Neymar, especially the ones before his “make-over” that he would say that he’s not black. The shock is his ignorance of his history given that Brazil received more slaves from Africa that any other place in the New World. This is world history! Most people in the world know this! What does this mean for Brazil? A huge percentage of its citizens are descendents of Africans slaves, hence the reason they look the way they do…darker skin, voluptuous bodies, curly hair…need I go on? A University of Texas website notes that “Brazil has a black and brown population that is larger than the population of every African country except for Nigeria.” In Cuba, there is a saying, “Show me your grandmother and I’ll show you who you are.” I suggest that Neymar take a look at his family tree starting with his father. While he’s at it, he should read a few history books about the Portuguese and the African Slave Trade in Brazil. This is not about being able to choose which racial category you want to belong to as someone mentioned earlier but simply about accepting who you are. Neymar should be proud to be black, multi-racial, or be identified as a descendent of Africans as opposed to being in denial about being black. Finally, does his denial mean that he believes he’s white? And what does this mean for him?

  2. Hair straightening is common amongst soccer players. Mario Balotelli, Kevin Prince Boateng, David Alaba, Keita Balde, and Paul Pogba all immediately come to mind.

  3. My friend, it is common in Brazil that soccer players adopt weird hairs or mustaches, especially during the world cup. I really don’t think Neymar was trying to whiten himself by painting it blonde, he also chose a weird haircut that you did not mention. The question of whether Brazil really is a ratial democracy is more complex, but you chose an unfair example.

  4. Achal
    Are you planning a return of some sorts to these pages and address the many different claims and points that have been raised? Intellectually, that is what I’d expect. Sean, that is a problem to this blog, if it is supposed to foster discussion and bring about suggestions, it is an intellectual necessity that the authors come back to further argument their original point, especially one that is so touchy and brought about so many different claims. If it is good enough for the Atlantic monthly and many magazines of note, it should be good enough for this one. That is a way of vetting your writers, to know that there is a standard to uphold, especially in the case of this piece that claims some social science pedigree. Otherwise it feels like a free-for-all-things-race subjectivity fest that ends up hurting the quality and value of this blog to its subscribers.

    • Hello Po. I appreciate your intense engagement but I fear you’re mistaken about the nature of my role in this enterprise. I wrote words that do their job; I’m neither here to attend to your every query nor provide you with ongoing updates of the 600 year old social history of a country of 200 million people. If you were to read the piece again, read the embedded/linked reference documents in full, read every single one of the comments carefully, I think you’ll find everything you need to come to your own conclusions as to the validity or invalidity of this essay.

      • Thanks, Achal
        Fair enough the idea that you produce the work, let dust up ensue and however it settles, is how it ends. It is actually understandable in some respect that the dominant conclusion resulting from the discussion gets to decide the value of the essay (or not). It is however not that easy for the simple reason that the core claim that the work relies on was challenged continuously throughout the bulk of the comments. After the first few instances, I did wish to hear back from you with some clarification, some previously unstated evidence, some mea culpa about a misunderstanding of a word, some explanation that this specific word indeed does mean such in such areas…Why? Because I liked the essay, and having been intrigued and stimulated enough to comment, I was now curious and wishful to confirm or infirm my conclusion about the essay. Sure, I could have coursed through the evidence you mention (and now that you mention it, I should have) but I suspect it would not have done what a couple of lines from you would have done in terms of reframing the debate and answering the main points of the comments. The refusal to comment, when stated, is sometimes as eloquent as a comment, and in that, it is sufficient.

      • Thanks Po. I didn’t mean to be harsh. What I meant was, let’s say we’re discussing the meaning of the Brazilian PT term preto. There is literally about 600 years of socialization that’s gone into making it what it is. To say that it’s an endearing term for non-white Brazilians is about as helpful as hearing from a 90 year old cotton farmer from Alabama say that the n-word is fine to use. Every idea put forth in this essay is solidly backed by evidence both within and far outside this essay – all of it easily available to the interested reader. It’s fruitless to have an argument with people who have a dim understanding of history and society and furthermore refuse to turn the lights on, and therefore, my reluctance to enter the pit. Take care, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading AIAC.

      • I hear you, Achal. I did not mean to be as forceful as I was. Thanks for indulging me. Looking forward to your next post.

  5. We all know that racism is alive and well right across Latin America and the Caribbean (and just about everywhere else in the world too) – although you claim it’s not important in India, which is why you have so many skin-whitening products, I suppose. Footballers love crazy hairstyles, it’s the way they express themselves. Didier Drogba’s trademark hairstyle is straightened. Anyway, I subscribe to the statement that Salman Rushdie once made: I will be happy when everyone is just brown (like our own son, actually). Although I suppose there will still be dark brown, light brown, etc.

  6. Hmm sad that he is trying to kill his real (African ) Heritage . Another Michael Jackson ? Its soo funny how Niggers trying to get White hahaha , Its not your Skin Colour Neymar its all your hole Package , Brillo Pad Hair , Boxer Nose and Big Forehead .
    Im Indian my self , a north Indian with very European Facial Features and light Brown Skin like all Indians , soo i will never say im not Indian.
    Im soo sick and tired when Blackies saying they are British, French , Italian or German .
    hmm every Human on the earth knows how a typical German would look like .

  7. Daniel you are either joking or an untouchable
    I have seen indians who are blacker than any African on the face of this earth but are still proudly Indian
    Of course there are also Albinos of every race even in the British Royal family
    Let us all lighten up and laugh at this color nonsense. When a surgeon invades your body he does not see the color of your skin; just RED the color of blood
    Peace be with you all.

  8. Can I ask you, what was the purpose of this article? You have gotten many things mixed up and confused. Neymar has never said that he is not of African descent. He has merely stated that the actual color of his skin is not Black. Just because you travel to Brazil a few times a year does not make you an expert on Brazilian culture. Many people in the
    World make changes to their
    Phenotype to gain perceived benefits from white obsessed societies, including Indians. Please don’t try to make it appear that Neymar or Brazilians in general corner a market in this behavior. In your travels to Brazil, what assistance or support do you provide to those groups in that country working to eliminate phenotype prejudice and discrimination? Until you have taken an active role in those endeavors, direct your criticism and critique towards your own country.

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