Class Notes 2/13

Brazilian History & Culture Post

Tommy gave a discussion on deforestation in Brazil. Brazil stated last fall that the country would plant 73 million trees in the Amazon, the largest replanting in history. This goes along with Brazil’s agreement to replace 12 million hectares of trees, which is roughly the size of Pennsylvania. This promise will prove costly, however. It is very expensive to move and plant 73 million trees. Therefore, the country will use Muvuca, the collecting of seeds from already present trees and planting them elsewhere.

The country had resorted to deforestation in the past to open up lands for agriculture and farm work: soybeans, beef, etc. In 2010, the government forbade the practice of burning trees, but this was easily worked around by farmers and not heavily enforced. The country still removes roughly 25 million trees annually. However, environmental activism is becoming stronger in Brazil, leading to the country’s promise. The completion of this promise will decrease carbon emissions by 37%.


For the past several nights, Brazil has been celebrating Carnaval. Most residents of Brazil will be honoring Lent for the next 40 days (as February 14 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent), and therefore, for the past several decades, has celebrated Carnaval, a weeklong celebration of Brazilian culture, the week before. In some cases, local governments shut down for the week of the celebrations.

Each celebration, each country, is different from the other. In class, we focused on Rio’s parades as they are more strictly dictated by the government. Parades here are usually ran through favelas and each has a different theme. We watched parades from Tuiuti and Salgueiro. In Tuiuti, the theme was a celebration of 130 years since the Golden Law that we learned about last week. More specifically, the parade was to discuss whether slavery truly ended with the Golden Law. Each parade has a samba enredo written for it; the song is then distributed before so that the attendees can sing along. For Tuiuti, the song was titled: “My God, my God, is slavery extinct?”, showing more clearly the parade’s theme. The parade is led by abre alas which is used by dancers who do a choreographed piece on the parade’s theme. The abrialis is followed by huge floats and thousands of dancers dressed to fit the theme.

Parades in Rio are also judged. Each parade must fit into a certain time period, with enough dancers in the parade. Songs, costumes, and movements are all also judged. The top two parades of the entrance competition are then moved up and televised the next year; the bottom two of the main competition are moved down the next year as well.

After we finished watching the parades, a question was asked about the evident blackface worn by different groups in the parade. At the time, there were only two articles with a small mention of opposition to the practice, both using the same tweet as evidence. Therefore, several theories of the practice were discussed in class: colourism is becoming an issue that is discussed more often, and blackface may have been a way to bring that issue to light; along with that, the parades are televised by Globo, an extremely popular channel in Brazil, who often remove darker-skinned peoples, and therefore, the use may have been a protest against the channel; and finally, similarity of the group is an important aspect of the judging, which means that blackface was the best way to ensure that homogeny.

Race Relations

After finishing our discussion on Brazilian deforestation and Carnaval, we moved onto the Telles article about race and race theory. We broke into small groups to discuss the questions: How do contemporary scholars think about race and what it means? How is race defined? How are ideas about race are different in Brazil vs. U.S. and how do they change throughout time?

How do contemporary scholars think about race and what it means?

Dr. Holt read a quote from the American Anthropological Association: “race: a recent idea created by western Europeans following exploration across the world to account for differences among people and justify colonization, conquest, enslavement, and social hierarchy among humans. The term is used to refer to groupings of people according to common origin or background and associated with perceived biological markers. Among humans there are no races except the human race. In biology, the term has limited use, usually associated with organisms or populations that are able to interbreed. Ideas about race are culturally and socially transmitted and form the basis of racism, racial classification and often complex racial identities.” This fit into our discussion that we had been having about race being a social construct. A difference in skin color means absolutely nothing. However, society has placed a meaning onto it through laws and treatments of people with “other” skin tones. In this context, the “other” is any non-white skin tone. Race is arbitrarily placed and historically constructed. Because, historically, white people had more manpower, more violent technology, and a sense of group pride and superiority, they were able to oppress other racial categories.

How is race defined?

Race is defined differently in different societies. In the U.S., genotype determines a person’s race. Here, the “one-drop” theory exists: if one person in your immediate ancestry is black, you are then black. However, in Brazil, your phenotype determines your race. This means that there are significantly more races in Brazil. Darker-skinned persons are negro, but lighter-skinned brown persons are pardo, or even can be blanco.

How are ideas about race are different in Brazil vs. U.S. and how do they change throughout time?

Both the U.S. and Brazil believed in a pseudoscientific idea of race; that the white race was somehow scientifically superior; however, the two countries had vastly different ideas on how to apply this theory to society. In the U.S., segregation—Jim Crowe laws—was legalized in order to keep the races separate and to keep black people from gaining power. Although segregation is no longer legalized, separation of the races is still prevalent through the class system. Lynching, while not legal, was practiced throughout the nation and was barely ever prosecuted. This was very different from Brazil, where nothing was legalized to separate the races from interacting. Elite Brazilians believed in the exact opposite of separation; there existed the theory of “whitening”, meaning that the “mixing” of races—interracial relations—would lead to a whiter population because white genes would win out over lesser, or nonwhite, genes. Because of this ideal, people in Brazil believed that they were more modern or progressive than the U.S. However, Brazil also practiced social “exclusion” which was in reality, nonlegal segregation.

These divulsions from a common practice may have been caused by several elements. First, abolition was a national consensus in Brazil. After the passing of the Golden Law, people celebrated. People had also begun to realize that slavery would be done soon, meaning that they prepared. However, in the States, there was a war over abolition. American citizens were not in any way prepared for emancipation. Secondly, because of the condemnation of interracial relations between white and black people, it made it difficult to move away from segregation. Secondly, the U.S. began as a colony whereas Brazil began as a place solely to farm. Therefore, the U.S. came with their families and Portuguese men did not. This made racial mixing easier in Brazil than U.S.

Key Words

Abre alas: The lead float in a Carnaval parade; often interactive with the dancers

Blackface: The makeup used by a nonblack performer playing a black role; used in U.S. minstrel shows; has a racist connotation as it was used to stereotype black people

Colourism: Discrimination based on skin colour of a person, not race

Favelas: Low-income towns of Brazil

Golden Law: 1888 decree by Princess Isabel declaring emancipation of all slaves

Muvuca: Collecting of seeds from trees and planting them in other areas

Samba enredo: “Samba that tells a story”; song written for a certain parade in Carnaval

Whitening: Social concept that persons could become white through raising of social class, interracial relations

Further Reading:

Beija Flor, Brazil is a Monster:

Use of Blackface in Carnaval

sex and violence in Brazil: carnaval, capoeira, and the problem of everyday life

Examination Questions

  • What exactly does it mean to be Brazilian? In a multiracial society?
  • How does literature perpetuate pseudoscientific fact? eg. Heart of Darkness, True History
  • If race is a social construct, why can we not get rid of racism by simply acknowledging that fact?