Reckoning with Whiteness in Brazil

This post is part of our forum on “Race and Latin America.”

Black Lives Matter Rally in São Paulo, SP/Brazil

In a pivotal scene in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s 2019 film Bacurau, we learn that the motorcycle riding couple that visit the town of the same name have been scoping it out for a group of hunters camping nearby. Led by an older German man with piercing blue eyes and an air of past genocidal military service, the group is composed primarily of white North Americans. The hunters are upset because the motorcyclists had killed two residents of Bacurau in an effort to keep others from finding out about the group’s larger “mission”—to hunt Bacurau’s townspeople for sport. The male motorcyclist—played by Antonio Saboia and known in the film’s credits simply as “male foreigner” (“forasteiro”)—defends their decision by distancing himself from the residents of Bacurau and appealing to the racial similarities between the pair and the hunters: “We come from south of Brazil. It’s a very rich region, with German and Italian colonies. More like you guys.” The hunters immediately become skeptical of this claim. “Like us? They’re not white, are they? How could they be like us? We’re white,” one hunter mockingly replies. Another pulls out his binoculars to inspect the “female foreigner” (“forasteira”—played by Karine Teles): “You know, they kinda look white, but they’re not. Her lips and her nose give it away, you know. More like white Mexicans, really.” The German leader brings the group back to the more pressing matter that although couple had done a great job finding “this little innocent shithole town,” they had overstepped their local contractor role by stealing the group’s kills: “You killed two of your own people.” The scene ends with hunters coming to realize that for their breach of the imperial, racial, and capitalist contract, the foreigners—to both Bacurau and the white hunters—have become possible points in their murderous game.

Blending elements of sci-fi, horror, and westerns, Bacurau is an incisive critique of contemporary Brazil. The fictional town of Bacurau is located somewhere in the sertão, an arid region in Brazil’s North and Northeast, and the town’s lack of water compellingly speaks to the ways that patronage, unequal regional development, and racism have structured the lives of the predominately Black and brown inhabitants of the region through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. However, the scene is revealing for how whiteness and white supremacy have tended to be discussed within the Brazilian social imaginary and, by extension, within a great deal of scholarship on race in Brazil: though racism exists, white supremacy is presumed not to exist because of the supposed ‘impurity’ of white Brazilians themselves. Within this scholarship, Brazilian white supremacy is often posited as derivative and in service of something else: the Cold War, or US and European imperialism, or the US led War on Drugs. Scholarly investigations into São Paulo’s gated communities, the proliferation of Rio’s mafias, and the discrepancies between industrial investment in the South, North, and Northeast may obliquely mention racism, but they do not posit these phenomenon as expressions of Brazilian modes of white exclusion, though Barbara Weinstein’s work is a welcome exception within the US academy. As Rio de Janeiro-based US scholar Liv Sovik states in the opening line of her book Aqui Ninguém É Branco (“Here No One is White”): “That Black people in Brazil exist no one doubts, but with regards to white people, no one can confirm with the same certainty.” White Brazilians, however, have long identified as 40-50% of the population and never needed the US or Europe to police its boundaries.1

Throughout the twentieth century, Black Brazilian scholars and activists—especially feminists and anti-capitalists—have noted the ways in which their white counterparts have dismissed whiteness and white supremacy as categories of analysis. For example, Lélia Gonzalez decried the Brazilian feminist movement’s calls for increased access to the labor market for not recognizing that such increased access for white women depended on the domestic labor of Black women who have never, during the slavocratic period and its aftermath, been confined to their own homes and families but rather to those of wealthy and socially mobile white Brazilians. Similarly, scholars and activists like Abdias do Nascimento, Alberto Guerreiro Ramos, and Beatriz Nascimento have astutely pointed out the ways in which discourses on whitening are foundational to the myth of Brazilian racial democracy and to obscuring whiteness itself. Indeed, Gonzalez proclaimed whitening the most “sophisticated” and “efficient” of Brazilian (and Latin American) ideologies for how it forecloses Black and indigenous mobilization.2It also serves to perpetually displace Brazilian whiteness: if everyone can whiten, then no one is white.

While many North American scholars continue to perceive whiteness through a “no-drop rule,” Brazilians scholars and especially Black Brazilians have made significant contributions to the field of Whiteness Studies in Brazil. For example, Maria Aparecida Silva Bento pioneering research on the psychology of white Brazilians, especially those on the left, reveals the ways in which they at once accept the existence of racism but favor public policy interventions that abscond whiteness—foremost their own.3Similarly, sociologist Luciana Alves has investigated whiteness within schools. Scholars like Jaime Alves, João Costa Vargas,Patricia de Santana Pinho, Jurema Werneck, Lia Vainer Schucman, Willamys da Costa Melo, Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Mauro P. Porto and the slain Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco have explicitly drawn links between Brazil’s rightward turn (starting with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016) and a resurgence of white political activism in favor of heavier policing of Black people and against welfare programs, affirmative action policies, and increased benefits for domestic workers. Their research is part of a turn towards Whiteness Studies in Latin America and among Latinx people in the states and the ways in which the denial of whiteness within Latin America perpetuates anti-Black and anti-indigenous racism.

Discussions of race in Brazil have by and large focused on comparing Black Brazilians to their counterparts in the United States. Brazil’s history of racial mixture created varying degrees of Blackness that shaped their cultural traditions, their experiences of racism, and (throughout much of the twentieth century) their supposed lack of political activism vis-à-vis Black activism in the US. Works like Michael Hanchard’s Orpheus and Power and France Winddance Twine’s Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil point to the dictatorship and the dominance of class as the framework for understanding inequality in Brazil, while scholarship and the media continue waiting for Brazil’s civil rights movement or for Brazil’s Black Lives Matter Movement. This framing misses the extraordinary political gains that Black Brazilians have made—from territorial rights for the descendants of runaway slaves (quilombola communities) to race and socioeconomic-based quotas in university admissions, which have become increasingly codified in Brazil while affirmative action has been dismantled in the US. This comparative framing also misses what this new scholarship in Whiteness Studies brings to the fore: the political activism of those who seek to maintain white supremacy globally. While political commentators frequently noted the similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro, the hegemony of the United States leads many to posit right-wing radicalization in Brazil and elsewhere as a mere copy of the US version. Scholars should abandon the framing of Bolsonaro as the Trump of the Tropics because attentive comparative work must recognize that white supremacy is not foreign to Brazil—just as the motorcyclists are not foreigners in Bacurau—nor to Latin America. Such work could, for example, serve to dispel the shock around the increased appeal of the right wing to racialized groups in the US and recognize the ways in which Latin America has been at the forefront of multiracial fascism.

White supremacy is global, it’s urgent for Whiteness Studies to be as well.

  1. This insight stems from an ongoing conversation with scholar David Mittelman.
  2. Lélia Gonzalez, “Por Un Feminismo Afrolatinoamericano,” Revista Isis International 9 (1988): 133–41.
  3. Bento, Maria Aparecida Silva. “Branqueamento e branquitude no Brasil.” Psicologia social do racismo: estudos sobre branquitude e branqueamento no Brasil. Petrópolis: Vozes (2002): 25-58.
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Stephanie Reist

Stephanie V. Reist is a Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University. She has a PhD in Romance Studies with a focus on Latin American Cultural Studies, a Master’s in Public Policy from Duke University, and a BA in Comparative Literature from Williams College. Reist was also a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Education Department at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. Her research and writing focus on issues of race, public policy, Black feminisms, cultural production, youth, and urban belonging in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her writing has been featured in RioOnWatch, Times Higher Education, The Independent and Jacobin Magazine.