- Interview by
- Margot Luyckfasseel
In October 2022, Brazil will choose a new president. By all odds, we are facing a polarized battle between current conservative president Jair Bolsonaro and leftist veteran Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ruled the country between 2003 and 2011. For Black Brazilians, a lot is at stake. The election serves as an opportune time for a conversation with Professor Kabengele Munanga about the past, present, and future of the antiracist movement in Brazil.
Born in 1940 in Belgian Congo, Professor Kabengele became the first anthropologist trained at what is today the University of Lumumbashi in Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After some time in Belgium, Kabengele fled the Mobutist regime in Zaire (as DRC was known at the time) in 1975 and was offered the opportunity to continue his career at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) in Brazil, where he dedicated himself to the study of Brazil’s Black population. Now retired, Kabengele remains a highly respected voice about matters of Blackness in Brazil, as evidenced by his many awards and titles, including his recognition with the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit in 2002.
(A quick note on the translation from Portuguese to English in this interview: “preto,” the Portuguese word for people with dark skin, is translated as “black” with a lowercase B, while “negro,” the Portuguese word for all black people, including light-skinned Brazilians, is translated as “Black” with a capital B. Professor Kabengele insists on the political usage of the latter term to create a united antiracist struggle in which black and mixed-race Brazilians can find common ground.)
Could you start by explaining the myth of the so-called Brazilian racial democracy?
The ideal of Brazilian racial democracy refers to the idea that Brazil is a racial paradise without racial discrimination between whites and non-whites. For a long time, it was considered a reality by generations of Brazilians. But from the 1930s on, the Black movement called Frente Negra Brasileira (or Black Brazilian Front) was the first to show that this democracy did not really exist and that it was just a myth—because even when educated, Black people encountered racial barriers to their social ascension in a capitalist society. In the 1950s and 1960s, UNESCO proposed a research project in Brazil to find out if this model of Brazilian racial democracy existed and, if so, whether it could serve as an example to other countries in the world that lived with racist practices. The University of São Paulo and other universities in the Northeast of Brazil participated in this project together with Roger Bastide, a French professor at USP. Based on the results of their research, they had to conclude that this so-called Brazilian racial democracy, based among others on Gilberto Freyre’s book Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), did not really exist and, therefore, was a myth with undeniable ideological content. In other words, the model of Brazilian racial democracy was built on the denial of racism and the affirmation of harmony among different racialized groups. It was argued that the only discrimination that existed related to socioeconomic differences, not racial ones.
How does this myth still define the position of Black people in the country?
The myth has been debunked, but its inertia persists until today. And, despite the constant denunciations of the Black movement and scientific research, there are people who still believe in Brazilian racial democracy, because Brazilian racism was not institutionalized by laws as it was in the Jim Crow system in the southern United States, the apartheid regime, or the Nazi regime. It is a racism indeed, but one that is less tangible than other models in recent human history, precisely because of its denial. This inertia of the myth of racial democracy certainly hinders the mobilization of many Brazilians in the fight against racism and in the search for equity and equality between whites and non-whites. The classic paths of this fight are well known: the laws at work, a plural and anti-racist education, and affirmative public policies for the inclusion of Black and indigenous people. What is lacking is political will and, through it, a social project for the profound transformation of a society where today Blacks (negros)—that is, black (pretos) and mixed-race people (pardos)—constitute 56% of the Brazilian population but are not represented in all sectors of national life.
In your book, Rediscutindo a mestiçagem no Brasil (Rediscussing Miscegenation in Brazil), you argue that the saying “union in strength” is not accessible to the Black movement in Brazil because, from the end of the 19th century on, Brazilian elites installed a racial ideology of whitening (branqueamento) that separated black and mixed-race people. Can you explain?
In this book, my proposal is to elaborate on the political-ideological use of miscegenation (mestiçagem), which is a natural phenomenon genetically speaking and is part of the history of humanity. But in Brazil, it was transformed into a particular founding characteristic of Brazil that did not exist in other countries of the world, in order to conceal the social problems due to discrimination of non-whites. On the other hand, the Brazilian ruling elite had a clear proposal to whiten Brazilian society. This whitening was to be achieved through miscegenation and the mass arrival of European immigrants, whose economic motives were embedded in the whitening ideal. The aim was to avoid racial conflicts such as in the United States and to prevent Brazil from becoming a country with a Black demographic majority that risked following the model of Haiti, which gained its independence in 1804 by defeating Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops. By separating black and mixed-race people, instead of uniting them in a single category of “Black” as in the United States, the Brazilian model weakened the union of all racially oppressed. The result was that people of mixed race did not consider themselves Black, but on the path of whitening to escape the condition reserved for blacks. This certainly divided the struggle of the oppressed black and mixed-race people who were supposed to be in the same boat to fight against the common oppressor. Today, if the fight against racism has gained momentum in the last twenty or thirty years, it is thanks to the adhesion of the mixed-race population that today assumes its Blackness, despite their awareness of also being descendants of white parents.
The mechanism of mestiçagem is also at play in Brazil’s cultural production. Perhaps nodes of Black resistance (carnival, samba, etc.) have been too easily adopted into Brazilian national culture?
Black Africans contributed to the construction of all countries that benefited from the Atlantic slave trade. It is not about influences, as some people say, but about participation and concrete (cultural) contributions. In some cases, there was continuity, such as the resistance of the religions of African origin in Brazil; in others, new cultures of resistance were created, such as in music, arts, dance, cooking, and sports. Some cultures have been Africanized, such as carnival in Brazil, which has its origins in the West in the Middle Ages, but which Black people Africanized with their music, rhythm, and dance, in the same way that they introduced the ginga in the way soccer—which is an English invention—is played. Certain aspects of Black cultural resistance that have become symbols of national identity, such as music, dance, cooking, and especially religion, are also manipulated by the myth of racial democracy to affirm the harmony between groups, the absence of prejudice and racial discrimination. The myth will say that Brazilians are a mixed people—that is, neither white, black, nor indigenous, but a new mixed Brazilian race. Who will discriminate against whom if we are all mixed? If Brazil accepts religions of African origin such as Candomblé, this is proof that it is not racist. If you like Black music that is already Brazilian, this is all proof that Brazil is not racist. Mythical black personalities like the soccer star Pelé are always cited to show that it is enough to have money to open doors in Brazil. These reasonings have also been internalized and accepted by some Black people, including those mythical personalities that have ascended economically.
Who benefits from the fact that these cultural forms of Black resistance have become lucrative “national” commodities?
It is evident that these cultures of resistance, massively consumed by both whites and Blacks, became part of the cultural industry in a capitalist society. But those who make the most money from this cultural industry are not Blacks but whites, who have dominated all sectors of the Brazilian economy. The important question is: where are the Black men and women who created these cultures? Among the poor, they are the poorest. Among the illiterate, they are the most illiterate. They are invisible in all sectors of the country’s life: industry, commerce, politics (legislative, judiciary, executive). They are the most numerous in the Brazilian prison system: out of three young victims of police violence, two of them are Black. Thanks to affirmative action policies in the last twenty years, they have begun to gain access to university and higher education in general, but they are still underrepresented.
Professor Nilda Lino Gomes identifies the period from 2003 to 2016—the years of the Lula and Dilma governments—as a victory for the Black movement in Brazil. How do you evaluate this period and the period that followed?
During the mandates of President Lula and President Dilma (2003-2016), we have facts that leave no doubt about the political will of these two leaders to promote policies to promote equity and racial equality. First, there is the creation in 2003 of the Special Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality (SEPPIR), which had the status of a ministry. There is the enactment of laws 10.639/03 and 11.645/08, which made mandatory the teaching of African and indigenous culture and history in elementary schools, and the enactment of law 12.711 of 2012, which made it mandatory to reserve spaces for Black and indigenous people in federal public universities. The first Black judge in the Federal Supreme Court was appointed during this period, and, for the first time in the history of Brazil, five Black people were appointed ministers (of culture, sports, environment, SEPPIR, and social action). Unfortunately, there was a major setback after the coup against President Dilma Rousseff, and the position of Black people has worsened under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.
What is the future of the antiracist movement in Brazil?
The future will depend on the growth of political consciousness about racism among all Brazilians, Black and white, and on the strength of the pressure that they will exert through social movements on the leaders, the public and private sectors that dominate the power structure in society. Discourse and rhetoric are growing everywhere, but they are not enough to overthrow racist practices and promote policies of inclusion of African descendants and native peoples in Brazilian society. Laws that work, education, and affirmative policies are possible ways to fight against structural racism in a capitalist society.