AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

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

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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:

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This is Neymar from five years ago:

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This is little Neymar with his family:

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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.

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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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80 thoughts on “Neymar and the Disappearing Donkey

  1. Obsessing with skin colour again, are we.
    U know what – nothing good will ever come out of it.

  2. Great piece, highlights the racial politics of Brazil effectively through the prism of Nemar’s hair, but more damning, his statement of not being black. That list of racial colors is a gem.
    It leaves me with some questions however, and those come in relation to other countries, other soccer players, different skin tones but the same focus.
    This essay brought to mind Didier Drogba, with his permed ponytail, ElHadj Cisse/Diouf, who both turned blond for several years, though they unmistakably remained black. The blond look is as popular in international black soccer quarters as the mohawk, and though Drogba stands out now as perhaps one of the few to sport one, a permed mane was not that rare of a sight years ago. We can read many social effects into it, mainly that these blacks players from colonized lands are just externalizing their racial discomfort with being black and attached white aspirations of looking like their former masters. Which leads us to the multi decades long scourge of skin lightening/whitening that makes of black African women the living canvas upon which is displayed all the hues that characterize the Brazilian color chart.
    I realize as I go that it is less of a question but more of a wondering whether Nemar’s physical changes, though perhaps reflective of some inner racial tension, are a lesser extension of the global struggles of black people with their skin, or simply a youthful and normal experiment with identity and aesthetic image.

  3. Just a correction: “agalegada”, “galega” and “galegada” are regional expressions that are equivalent to “loura” (blonde).

  4. You’re right, of course, Anderson. And the article has many other problems related to an insufficient understanding of Portuguese. For instance, “preto” is not even close to the derogatory meaning of the “n word” in English.

  5. Great article! The highlight of the historical context and all the different ways used to describe brazilians’ race/color was really good. I do have some problems with the introducing premise “Neymar is trying to become white” though, as does some other brazilians I talked about this article with. I guess it all comes down to the fact that the race problem in Brazil can’t in any way be compared to USA’s, where you just have black or white; where you can be light-skinned but still be black, or tanned but still be white. It’s not like that here. Just like this article points out, there are many “skin colors”, and they’re all considered different things. Being negro/preto is different from being mulato, different from cabloco, different from mestiço, etc etc. Neymar saying he doesn’t consider himself black doesn’t mean he’s trying to be white; it means he considers himself to be in the nebulous area between those two, hard to describe but bery real for brazilians.

    Also, just a portuguese tip: preto is not even comparable to the n-word. It can have derogatory connotations (though not even /close/ to the n-word), but it also can be just a neutral word describing the color black, and can ALSO be affectionate; just like everything else when it comes to race in Brazil, it’s in a weird in-between hard to explain, a word that depends very much in the context, tone of voice, etc. The n-word is a very hard word full of very specific connotations. Brazil didn’t go through USA’s history of segregation (this is isn’t to say we /didn’t/ go through of a history of segregation; it’s just that it was a different one from America’s), so we don’t really have anything comparable to it here.

  6. Brazil in a lot of ways is similar to Trinidad and Tobago…and from this perspective I can say I understand Neymar’s comment: he IS NOT BLACK. but, unlike your underlying premise…he is also possibly saying NEITHER is he WHITE.
    in the US it’s a black vs white dilema…in countries like T&T and Brazil and in many parts of Latin America, that line is very blurred, with many stops in between that are as culturally and socially relevant as the extremes.
    being black in Brazil, the Caribbean and Latin America, is no where near the same thing as being black in the US.
    i like the depth of your analysis, however, I tend to disagree with both the original, underlying premise and the resulting conclusions.

  7. I should have known that a Trinidadian would speak up and defend the overt racism and segregation that is firmly instilled in Trini politics, business and overall disparity. Trinis love nothing better than to continue the illusion of being some sort of Brazilian state in the Caribbean.

    Ok well go ahead and defend the ridiculous distinctions of “red” vs. “black”, try and consolidate “darkie” as some sort of term of endearment and continue to attempt to compare a small racialized society to a massive and culturally complex country such as Brazil.

    I would like to point out that it appears to me that in Brazil you are Brazilian first and you handle your racial distinctions second. I doubt that any Trini with any semblance of awareness can say that this is also the case in Trinidad.

    Fact is, all you Trinis with African roots but who enjoy nothing better than to speak of their Portuguese grandfather or their “Chinee” blood before ever daring to acknowledge any semblance of blackness, well you’re all cowards. The Indo-Trini vs, Afro-Trini situation is nothing less than embarrassing, and all the “Creoles” (let’s be honest Creole in T&T = white ppl) who only entertain darker ppl in their homes if they went to an international school together couldn’t be bothered as long as the old money keeps rolling in.

    Trinidad is not like Brazil. Take yuh time.

  8. Since we are bringing up the US here I would say that latin countries those that were colonized by France Spain and Portugal are more raced obsessed than Anglo countries former English colonies save for T&T and Jamaica. black anglos don’t have those elaborate names for the different shades of brown among our black population like their latino counterparts. In our minds black is black no matter what shade you are. Which I would say is a good thing because we are not as divided. Latin America has yet to have a civil rights movement and there are more blacks who speak Spanish or Portuguese in the Americas than those who speak English.

  9. @frederick de dougla et al

    I too found it interesting that an Indian would make the premise and conclusions mentioned in the article. That said (unfortunately) India is yet another place where the class lines tend to fall along the colour lines, and as a result where most of the whitening creams in the world are sold.

    Trinbagonians- try telling a dark skinned Indo-Trini woman cowering in the shade that ‘black is beautiful’, and she’ll look at you like you’re mad. South Africans- try the same. Even the darkest skinned Indians never look at themselves as black- that is another, lower race….and the term dougla (interestingly one that started as wholly perforative, a corruption of a Hindi word meaning ‘to date below ones caste’) is a perfect example of this engrained prejudice….even though the term is now generally acceptable term describing a mixed black/indian person in T&T. But gyul from Penal Rock Road bring home a black boy is presha (even licks if she’s young enough), but come home with a french creole/white boy she met at a fete, and watch mamoo’s eyes twinkle with delight.

    Regarding the red/black spectrum in the same country- what’s that they say about red people? ‘nutting red good but ah dollar’…yeah, that’s it. Being able to move amongst the races (and by extension the classes) isn’t always regarded with admiration.

    Anyway, Neymar is young- maybe year after next is dreads and dashiki….but I doubt it. The truth of the article is that even in ‘raceless’ Brazil, the hierarchical colour spectrum is well entrenched- and which ‘costume’ you feel will serve him better at club level in Europe? I think that an interesting follow-up study to the one mentioned would add a second question- which colour/ shade/hue do you want to be? Only then will we be able to see whether this array of responses is truly a blessing, or a nuanced repercussion of the Brazilian brand of thought control.

    “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” a famous red man once said…or maybe it was a black man ;-) Either way, I think we should focus on the message. We have to emancipate ourselves…ourselves.

  10. This is a really interesting article, with some interesting historical context about Brazil’s race attitude.

    Technically Neymar was 100% correct when he said he’s not black, that’s not him denying his Black heritage (from his father) he’s merely embracing his mother in his genetic and racial make up.

    I think it’s interesting that his article is written (to the best of my knowledge) by someone who is NOT mixed race. We need mixed race people to contribute more about their self-identity rather than have other races try to claim us or define us.

    I am mixed race -like Neymar- I’m half white half black – my skin tone is exactly like his, growing up some Black teens in high school would ask me “are you Black?” – that question is their way of saying we think you’re one us but we want to see if you want to be one of us! As a new kid in a new city and school with no understanding of “cliques” I honestly but naively answered “no”.

    Like Neymar I was ridiculed and bullied (though not in the same scale) for trying to be white!
    That by refusing to deny my white heritage I’m automatically and ashamedly rejecting my Black side.

    The problem for many of us mixed race people is that we are forced to deny an aspect of who we are to be accepted into one fold or another.

    The right to self-identity is stripped of mixed race people, instead society dictates which race bracket we belong to based on what shade of Black or White we are.

    I want to ask the writer of this piece on question would he/she have launched this piece if Neymar embraced more his Black heritage and less of his white? Would he have been accused of being brainwashed if sported a cornrow hairstyle instead of bleached and straightened?

    Would anyone bat an eyelid if he dated only Black girl’s? Would he have been dubbed a traitor to his white heritage? No, the simple reason being is that this young man looks more Black/African than white although genetically he is mixed – his shade of Blackness/Whiteness is dictating which side of the fence he should rest on!

    Neymar spoke for many mixed race people when he answered no he’s not Black because we’re mixed race and proud of it!

  11. A tremendous piece. I’ve heard and or read this or similar arguments for a dozen years, but none were so eloquent and none used such a great example and the prism of football in a country where football matters.

    Thank you so much for writing.

  12. This kind of non-sense article happens when you try to apply US segregationist and prejudiced views to another country. In the US when a white person dyes their hair let’s say black, nobody freaking thinks that they are trying to become black. But if a black person dyes blonde, OH HE IS TRYING TO BECOME WHITE, HE PROBABLY HATES HIMSELF AND HIS OWN RACE. And the only reason that people in Brasil describe their own skin color in so many interesting ways is because nobody is trying to mindlessly label them as black/white/latino/asian. It does not mean that there more a hundred “races” in Brasil. And the reason this kid is changing his style is just vanity, I bet in a couple years in the future he will go black hair again, his only concern is fashion not race.

  13. Very compelling read, but like others have expressed in previous comments, I don’t agree with the author’s statement that “preto” is the equivalent of the “n-word.” I wonder where he got the translations of the colours, because as others have pointed out, some of them are wonky.

    I don’t know if I like to use Neymar’s hairstyle choices as a prism for racial politics. I think for many football superstars, part of the gig includes creating their own strong-statement of a look. Dani Alves also died his hair – though his looked kind of greyish that couldn’t make it to blonde. Remember young Beckham’s hairstyles? Nigeria’s Taribo West who before going green, also went blonde? Cristiano Ronaldo also had a sort of blonde phase (he died the just the front part, but still). And other football players who died their hair this week too are the South Koreans who played against Russia (although some of them ended up with orange hair. Clumsy hair dressers, I guess?) I could go on, but I think you get the point.

    What I found was the most interesting part of this article was the fact that “researchers went out and asked people to describe the colour they thought they were”. I bet that if this question were asked in other countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, we would have a wide range of interesting, Pantonesque responses. It’s fascinating that the in the U.S. many are shocked that many within the Latin America and Caribbean diaspora groups living there are identifying as “whites.” Well, maybe if they asked open ended questions, like in the study quoted in this article, they’d get this wide range of responses. “Hispanic” or “Latino” IS NOT a race. And humans aren’t absolutely white or absolutely black and the problem in Brazil, the U.S. and many other countries is that certain political and/or social elites want to classify people in those categories.

  14. Again this skin colour thing!!!! this kind of obsession is what will keep it coming up over and over again. Im light skinned with kinky hair ive dreaded about 80% of it and straightened a fringe in the front, does that mean I hate myself or does that mean im stylish?.
    if a black person alters there physical appearance, they hate them self/ want to be white. but white people can do whatever the heck they want to do because they wont get a journalist with identity issues writing about it. im sorry i get where you are coming from I do and I think alot of people get where you are coming from but really highlighting an individual’s fashion choices and telling everybody they want to be white, really?

  15. Interesting. I’d have translated not as a “Disappearing Donkey” which denotes wanting to not exist, but as “A donkey when fleeing/running away/wanders off” which if you think about in farm terms, is actual real thing – when your donkey (or any animal) flees it comes back dirty or muddy from jumping into the brush or the rivers or the high grass of the field. Another way to look at that phrase, In the more vulgar sense, and perhaps even more closer to it’s meaning, is when your donkey “wanders off” it may come back pregnant, having mated with who know’s what out in the world, to give birth to a mix of a mix, etc. So it is less about the donkey “disappearing” about more about “What you get when your donkey wanders off.” This would make the author’s comment about it being a joke/insult among friends more plausible. If you extrapolate that to “skin color,” I’d have used the English word “Muddled-” meaning a not-quite describable color, a little of this, a little of that, mixed together to form something not really discernable, and barely traceable. This would fit very well within the categories of how folks would see themselves relative to the other terms on the author’s list. My point? Not much, just that we should always be careful when imposing Americans view of “color” on other countries. Sometimes, it just isn’t the same.

  16. @miguada98 has got it, exactly! Thanks for this concise contribution! The author of this article has mis-translated a colloquial term (as a foreigner that’s pardonable), and the ensuing debate has been ‘coloured’ by Americans viewing it through their typically less nuanced prism.

  17. I disagree with throwing all Americans in one boat on skin color. I grow up in this country and have what they call olive skin meaning by Americans not white. I get what you are talking about because as a child America was very white and I was constantly asked “what are you”. When I went to Europe I was asked if I was mulatto?? We in America are from many different countries and now obsessed with being non white. Our president is not black he is white too but he chooses to identify with black it’s politically correct.

  18. I have been thinking about this essay since it appeared, for 2 reasons. One because I believe its premise to be factual and therefore “right”, but also because it feels wrong to some extent.
    Reading the comments helped crystallize that feeling, and it is this: the author used Neymar and his hair (fact 3) to discuss the bigger issue of “Race” in Brazil, and the hidden racial tensions inherent to any society where the default standard for societal and economical success is a lessened melamine count (fact 1).
    The problem is that while we have two undeniable facts, the structure of linking the two facts and establishing a causal relationship from one to the other is flawed because it erects as fact 2 the unknowable cause of Neymar’s stylistic changes. Arbitrarily, the author just decides to assume a personal suspicion as factual, therefore creating a strong narrative of because A is (racial discomfort) and B is (Neymar adopting whitish features) then C also is (Neymar’s changes due to racial discomfort.)
    The problem and the interesting part is that it is neither right (for we don’t know Neymar’s intent, consciously or unconsciously) nor wrong( for we don’t know Neymar’s intent, consciously or unconsciously).
    It is like when someone claims racism or sexism, no one can factually refute that claim because the conclusion is subjective by nature, and it may be true that it was indeed a valid claim, or not. So all the comments that disagree with the author’s conclusions may legitimately question an aspect or two of his whole, his qualifications, his scholarship, but are unable to factually disprove it because they, as the author, do not know fact 2, the direct causal factor of Neymar’s changes.
    For that alone, I think this will be one of the most contentious essays on this blog.

    it would be nice to have the author respond to some of the comments. The frustrating thing about this blog is my usual complaint that posts are orphaned from birth. Only a couple of contributors make it a point to come back and support their original argument, which is the most basic, and honest part, of the intellectual process.

  19. Do you people even know what the One Drop Rule is? Do you ever think or talk about it? Since you are obsessed with skin colour?
    I have never seen it discussed here, or referred to. It is just universally accepted, as weird as it is.

  20. I think you’d find that your President sees himself as black as a function of the environment in which he has been raised- primarily because of the American ‘one drop rule’, which is unique to the USA, but bleeds (pun not intended) into Canada as well. Obama would not be considered ‘black’ in nearby countries with majority black populations (e.g. most of the Caribbean, where he’d be mixed-race, mulatto, brown, red, etc), or alternative definitions of race- like Brazil, the country being discussed. This is not to say that he is not correct in identifying himself as black- he most assuredly is- but only by the North American definition of the term. As per my earlier comment, I would hazard that some Americans (like you) do have different perceptions/definitions of racial background, but I prefer to argue the rule, rather than the exception.

    I am sure though you will find even in this discussion Americans who feel that their way of viewing the world is ‘the way everyone does’…a common trait of that nation. I blame tv, because everything they see on it is created by them, for their consumption, whereas those of us in the rest of the globe see their media, and our own as well.

  21. @lionda you said “It is just universally accepted….” ….but only if your ‘universe’ consists of North America alone.

    Black is beautiful, and so is every other shade. I think that the ‘one drop rule’ is a rare example of a positive coming from something negative. What was meant as an American racial ‘rule’ to support apartheid and denial of basic rights (particularly voting) against as many people as possible, has evolved into a concept of solidarity for American black people.

  22. I could be wrong, but I do not recall Obama self-identifying as Black. He was assumed and called black near universally, which he never overtly disputed (how could he) though he took pains in highlighting his white side as often as he could without seeming to reject his black side. I remember because I took offense to that for fear that my kids, who share his skin tone, and one of whom does look like him, might feel that one half of their being is being discounted or denied.

  23. Your article is the typical crap of a foreigner trying to understand another country. You start by making the stupid remark that “preto” is the same as the n-word. You have no idea of what you are talking about. Your article sucks.

  24. Sorry but you are wrong Obama identified himself as black I saw him as multicultural. He grow up in Hawaii went to a white prep school But his run for president was based on his identification as being black. All of us are mixed and I’m proud if it. Better looking people

  25. Agree on the “better looking people”, Jacque :) Are you sure Obama actively identified himself as black though? I don’t recall actually hearing him ever make that claim. Have you?

  26. “Better looking people” <– there in lies A problem. Well as long as it is understood as an opinion and not a universal or generalized fact of some sort then I suppose the rest of us can endure the two of you racially coddling each other. Stay calm folks, give them room to hug.

  27. Come on, De Se, bring in your sense of humor!
    And you are right, it is merely an opinion that mixed people tend to be good looking people. It does not mean that non-mixed people aren’t (I am 110% black african and I am supremely handsome), it only means, once again that mixed people, of whatever locale, hue, gender, ethic mix, yes, tend to be, as general rule, pretty good looking; it is solely a matter of balance between the extremes of each ethnicity. One can extend that rule to everything else, every other system beside the ethnic one, where modernity balances tradition, men and women balance each other, tall balances short…etc.

  28. Obama said when he was in school he identified with the blacks when he was looking for his identity. America was very proud “first black president” but I saw him as white and black but in this country if you have one black parent you are black. Stupid. It isn’t about color is it? Why do all the white people want a tan?

  29. I do remember that, but I thought that it is was just a political move of claiming blackness retroactively, which enables him to still claim both sides. He did not claim though: I am black, or I do identify as black, it is more like: I once saw myself as black…

  30. what’s the point here? I don’t get it. Neymar is mixed race. not white not black. like most of brazil

  31. I don’t agree with you. I’m of mixed racial parentage and a South African, however I identify as black not Coloured (which is the term for mixed race people in SA) and thats because I identify with being black and the experiences and history of black people. In South Africa issues pertaining to race are different but also similar to Brazil, your race plays a huge in your economic and class standing which as far as I know is the same in Brazil. Brazil like the US and SA has a complex racial history dating back to the founding of these particular states and white as a racial term comes with attachments of power,success and privilege in these societies, if not the entire world.

    So what if the writer is Indian or whatever, he/she can still make a valid point particular when it comes to identifying racial issues not merely as issues about colour but the politics of race and power, which is what any black person (of which Indians are) are exposed to on a daily basis. When you straighten your hair or dye it blonde you may think that this is a personal decision or whatever but you are subconsciously tapping into these racial politics. When you reject the idea of blackness you are being ignorant of the world that has made your preferences and desires.

    I want to live in non-racial world but not one where that non-racialism as espoused by Brazil is a construct based on a political and economic hierarchy.

    Also, the Brazilians on this page are acting like the Dutch whenever a post is about sinterklass or zwarte piet. Your societies are not perfect, this does not mean you are terrible people or racists just that you should you look more closely at the things you consider to be norms.

  32. “Preto” is not the equivalent of the “nigger”. The best equivalent of “nigger” in Brazilian portuguese is “criolo”. “Preto” is acepeted in some situations as non offensive and is a official category in the Brazilian Census. Usually, “preto” is used to designated “pure” blacks, and “negro” also include mixed-race, but this classifications has many regionals variations.
    Othwerwise, good article.

  33. Nope, denying your heritage is not a good idea, regardless of colour or nuance. If you say that someone with just one drop of African blood (let’s say 1/16 or 1/32) is African and belongs solely in the solidarity of the black community, then you are keeping alive the torments and divisions that slavery brought to America.
    One story I enjoyed was white family in an east coast city with an unusual family name, The woman in the family was well aware that there was a black family in a neighbouring city with the same unusual family name. One day she started doing research. After a while, she called the other family, where the mother picked up the phone. And the white woman said: “”hello cousin”.
    Baby steps maybe, but you have a long way to go, black, brown, white or whatever.
    A man or a woman is NOT defined by the colour of his or her skin.

  34. “A man or woman should not be defined by the color of their skin” but by their character. We have that tribal mentality when in reality we are all just humans. To Egyptians cleopatra was black and considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Let’s get over this skin thing and judge people individually.

  35. There’s sometime confusion about “preto” being offensive in brasil. In fact, that’s the case in portugal (and other portuguese speaking countries), where is the equivalent to “nigger”, and “negro” equivalent to “black”, the non-offensive term. This is related, as in the english version, to how the slavers (white portuguese) used to refer to black people (in africa and in brasil), as, obviously, a derrogatory term, transforming the word, in time, in to a racist one, that shouldn’t be used (except for black people, in my opinion, but that’s another matter). Overall, it’s a curious article about the “elusive” skin color (he could say the same about the lack of neymar’s “carapinha” – a subject with extensive literature I gather).

  36. In other words, Neymar (and Dani Alves, too) is quite content with playing into/maintaining white supremacy. Associating whiteness/white skin with success, wealth, beauty, acceptance, etc. He should take a page from Camille Patanga’s notebook.

  37. That’s an interesting article. The question of race and identity is always ever present whether we admit it or not. Even more so in a world where races and cultures are mingling, interrelating and connecting more and more.

  38. ‘preto’ is not the equivalent of ‘nigger’ by ANY stretch of the imagination. It is a word that conjures images of lightness and tenderness (as it is frequently used in poetry) more often than that of hatred. The author either lacks in linguistic knowledge or chooses to ignore a very important factor.

  39. This guy from India is the last person I would like to have lecture me on Color. India is not a place where people of dark complexion could thrive. The cast system is well known and is a abomination.

  40. Really? With his original woolly hair? R u kidding me? I’m from Ivory Coast btw.

  41. Interesting article. I don’t care what some delusional supposedly “color-blind” people might write: the truth is that in 2013, people are still judged by their phenotype and the darker they are, the more they’re discriminated or vilified hence the need for some people to try to be as white they can. Skin bleaching, hair straightening, plastic surgery, you name it, they’ll do it because they have absorbed the fact that anything other than white, isn’t beautiful. For those of you who stress on Brazil’s being a racially-mixed country where the skin color doesn’t matter, please let me direct the UPR reports of your country to the UNHCHR. Also read the reports of the special rapporteur for people of African descent and the historical evolution of race relationships in Brazil; pick up Brazilian authors if you think an Indian man’s POV on the matter is irrelevant. My point: Don’t try to make me think that Neymar’s deliberate progressive whitening process is due to the fact that his mom has a pale complexion, let’s call a spade a spade: the guy knows for a fact that in Brazil, it’s better to be anything than black or indigenous (but the latter is a whole different topic).

  42. Martin Luther king said his dream would be that a man would not be judged by the color of his skin but by his character.

  43. oh god so what .. is my response to this article .. humans are infinitely varied and love to play with appearance .. get over it

  44. Judge him by the content of his character. Don’t be so obsessed with the color of his skin.

  45. He is whatever he wants to look like, and the fact that he coloured his hair blonde doesn’t make him any whiter (if there is such a term).

    Of course there is racism in Brazil (I’m Brazilian, by the way), just like all over the world, but to deliberately link Neymar’s change of appearance to a supposed willingness not to be black demonstrates at least lack of commitment to a resposible opinion.

    Actually, his esthetical choices are not the most wanted among Brazilian white elites, so it is impossible to take any serious conclusions on them.

    I’m not saying he is or is not regarded as white by the elite, but that he is not intending to “change his colour” so that he could be accepted. To me, we should look at him for his ability as a footballer – as this is what makes him a public person. His looks are his own business and his ethnic identity lies where he feels he belongs.

  46. Changing your hair style is one thing. But did he get a nose job to look more “white” ?

  47. He did not bleach his skin. You only have to google recent pictures of him at the WC or just watch videos of him there to see that. You chose a picture in which his hair is bleached white which makes his complexion appear lighter.

    He did obviously get a nose job and that he doesn’t consider himself black is sad but not surprising. A lot of latinos who are obviously of African descent, mixed or not, refuse to acknowledge it because that white supremacist ideology still thrives here.

  48. “Race is not a term that has much currency in India, where I live.”

    Indians, as well as Latin Americans, consume vast amounts of skin-lighteners.

    Generally speaking, all over the world women want to look fairer. That’s because there is a modest sex difference that makes women about 10% fairer in skin color (measured under the arm where tanning doesn’t happen) than their own brothers.

    To North Americans, however, it looks kind of gay for a man to try to become fairer: e.g., retired baseball player Sammy Sosa’s much-derided attempt at lightening his skin a few years ago:

    https://www.vdare.com/articles/jim-webb-the-gop-and-the-sammy-sosa-solution

  49. People (understandably) tend to bring in their own definitions of race and ethnicity and apply it to other people’s opinions when analyzing them. Coming from a West African who was born and raised in America, I always thought that Black and African – American were too different things. Though most of my African American friends disagreed. I never considered myself African American, but just Black. Regardless of what is considered the correct term in your country, I believe that many factors can skew how we define ourselves and others and no situation is the same. Its almost nearly impossible for us to interpret what Neymar meant by his comment. Especially if you’re not Brazilian.

    Also I have very dark skin, but I have extremely curly hair. By curly I mean very similar to David Luiz from the Brazil NT. Yet my family has not been mixed for thousands of years. That “mixing” ( sorry I don’t know what term to use) that occurred soo long ago is still present in my hair. I consider myself 100% Black African. Everyday i go out and get asked if im mixed because I assume people rarely see curly hair on black people and definitely not on African I’d say about 10% of my family (brother sister aunts uncles and cousins) have curly hair with the rest having the more common texture that is course. I say this because sometimes genetics work in a weird way and we question the outcome of the appearances of our Family members. Take a look at Neymar’s son. Based on what I was taught and my experiences, I cannot understand how his son has white blonde hair and extremely pale skin, knowing that the child’s mother is white, or Brazilian white im not sure. Neymar is noticeably darker than his sister. Also when I look at Neymar’s father I think of him as mixed too without once considering him as black. Basically what I am saying is I think it may be inaccurate to say he is trying to be white or wants to change because in all honesty mixed kids have a really wide range of what they can look like. I mean seriously, you can’t look at Neymar’s son and even consider him being mixed even though he is.

    Also dying your hair makes you want to be white?? Seriously? ? Footballers have always had creative ideas for hairstyles. I did a paper on race in Brazil once for a class and I know its much different than most places in the world so I understand that it can be interpreted in many ways. Im not saying you are wrong, just that I disagree.

  50. Nice, except this particular donkey has really disappeared, due to broken vertebra.

  51. A lot of people seem to have a problem with this (non-Brazilian) man translating “preto” as “nigger.” Yes, we need some context, but in my experience (current-day Southern Brazil) it is derrogatory in most contexts except literature and extremely low-key, inner-circle type conversations with friends. My mother, a foreigner, use to trip up and say “preto” instead of “negro” sometimes, and I could see people cringing right along with me. It’s just not done. It’s not something you blurt out in an interview on national television, even if you are just a teenager – that’s why it stands out as a moment of such candor.The South is not only the part of the country I’m from, which is why I’m qualified to say this, it’s where Neymar is from – Neymar’s home being in what is arguably the worst part of the South to be a person of color, since there’s so much paranoia in Sao Paulo about (brown and black) Northern migrants coming down to seek work. It’s true that in poetry, especially the poetry of the Estado Novo era (like that of Manuel Bandeira or Vinicius de Moraes) “preto” can be used as a gentle term of endearment – but in my experience it’s almost always used that way by white poets such as those two, and as wonderful as they were in a lot of ways, I think their approach ended up having the effect Chinua Achebe describes “Heart of Darkness” as having (http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html). Try reading Cruz e Souza or Solano Trindade and see how they use it – if they use it in a positive context, it’s not in a gentle, comforting way but in a way that is exultant and strong and proud to be fully black, and if they use it in a negative context it’s with all the heartache of someone who’s had it used against them.

  52. 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?

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

  54. 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.

  55. The Blonde Neymar picture is from one year ago, not from the World Cup. And given Neymar’s own declaration of not being “preto”, the example was perfectly chosen.

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

  62. 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 .

  63. 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.

  64. 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.

  65. V Brown : You are Plain stupid idiot , go to school for education .
    im not a racist or trying to make the Blacks / Africans down under , im only sick and tired of their cheap behaviour . Im Proud Indian and yes its true there are dark skinned Indians
    in the south especialy but they are not looking like typical Afro Blacks . We north Indians are very different kind and we belongs 80% to Aryans so please don´t talk bullshit with me.
    Truth is hard to believe but truth is truth : 90 % of Afro´s are obsessed with race mix and they are deep inside inferior and yes i know 100% what i am talking here .
    Oh i forget V Brown : Indians are Caucasian People only with dark Skin .

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