Becoming a Black Nation? Brazil’s Racial Identity and ‘African’ Foreign Affairs

April 26, 2016

Since the end of the nineteenth century, Brazil has enjoyed international renown as a ‘racial democracy’ and a mixed-race country, due to its mixture of people of European, African and Amerindian descent. Mário de Andrade and Gilberto Freyre were amongst several intellectuals who, from the beginning of the twentieth century, started to positively assess the black and African roots of Brazil. This reading, which took on nationalistic slants, came in reaction to eugenic and scientifically-racist views spreading from the late nineteenth century. Freyre (1961), in particular, celebrated how the Portuguese had managed to create a new civilization in the inhospitable Tropics, appropriating African and indigenous knowledge and mixing with these people to survive in that environment. This fact would explain why Brazil has traditionally enjoyed more harmonious race relations than the United States and South Africa. This history of race relations and reading of national identity is to some extent reflected in the official censuses of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in which Brazilians are conventionally divided into white (branco), brown-skinned (pardo) and black-skinned (preto) groups, in addition to less statistically significant figures for indigenous and yellow people (mostly citizens of Japanese and Chinese ancestry).

Although racial/cultural mixture and the ‘brown’ category have traditionally represented the core of Brazilian identity, Brazil today is increasingly spelling out its blackness, both on the national and international scenes. This is happening at a historical moment when programmes of ‘black’ affirmative action and other differential politics in favour of Afro-descendants are taking off in Brazil. It is also happening at a time when Brazil is expanding its geopolitical and economic interests in Africa, by and large under the name of ‘South-South cooperation’. In this work, I point out how the different stages of race relations in Brazil have intersected with the historical development of Brazil’s foreign affairs with African countries.

It was only from the 1960s when Brazil started to develop a serious African agenda. Seeing Africa as an opportunity for the expansion of the Brazilian economy, Brazilian presidents started opening a number of embassies in West Africa, and intensified diplomatic tours to the African continent. At least until the 1970s Brazilian presidents and diplomats of Itamaraty, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, consistently exploited the image of Brazil’s mixture and ‘racial democracy’ to gather sympathy in Africa. They also used Brazil’s African cultural legacy as a reason to convince African countries of the natural closeness between these two realities. This legacy was emphasised through the common Portuguese language and colonial past with some African countries.

The discourse of mixture and ‘racial democracy’ used for Brazil’s foreign affairs with Africa, nonetheless, was marked by deep contradictions. A first, immediate contradiction is that Brazilian diplomats were white (Dzidzienyo and Turner, 1981), and this colour difference never passed unnoticed among their African counterparts. Another contradiction is that, despite official celebrations of the Brazilian racial paradise, some national and foreign thinkers started consistently criticising the myth of Brazil’s racial democracy from the early 1950s. They showed that racism against black people was present in Brazil and could not be explained simply by the traditional story of class differentials.

The process of decolonisation of Portuguese colonies in Africa in the 1970s opened up new spaces for Brazilian-African relations without the interference of Portugal. In the 1980s and the 1990s, however, there was a substantial decrease in contact between Brazil and Africa, as the international economic crisis marginalised both Africa and Brazil in the international system. This trend continued in part during the presidential administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), when Brazil attempted to strengthen its economy by implementing some neoliberal measures (particularly in terms of privatisation of state capital) and establishing a dialogue with more developed partners. Cardoso’s administration coincided with Brazil’s preparations for the International Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001, where Brazil emerged as an international reference due to its declared commitment to fighting racial prejudice at home. In addition, Cardoso was the first Brazilian president to promote a program of scholarships for promising Afro-descendant students who planned to undertake careers in the diplomatic service.

Brazilian-African relations intensified again during Lula’s presidential administration (2003-2010). From the time of his first administration, Lula explicitly committed to improving relations with the African continent, carrying out an unprecedented number of diplomatic missions, generally followed by the ratification of economic and aid agreements between African countries and Brazil (or South-South cooperation). As diplomat Jorge proudly pointed out to the Brazilian media, Lula visited 25 African countries during the eight years of his administration, while his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Celso Amorim, carried out 60 African missions, visiting 40 countries (in Ortiz, 2011). Some of the foundations of this new trend were in Lula’s official statement that Brazil has a ‘debt’ to Africa (Harsch, 2004), and his apology to Africa for the role that Brazil played in the slave trade.

This new phase, to which the new President Dilma Rousseff remains committed, has coincided with two interlinked phenomena on the international and national levels: the growth of Brazil’s economic and political interests in Africa, and its domestic efforts to fight inequality.

On the international level, the recent emergence of Brazil as a world economic power has turned Africa into a strategic ally for the consolidation of its international leadership. In the context of economic expansion, Africa represents, more than ever, an appealing market for Brazilian products and a crucial reservoir of raw materials and fuel. For this reason, trade between Brazil and African countries tripled in size between 2002 and 2006 alone (Schläger, 2007: 8), and Petrobras, the largest energy company in Brazil, is making massive investments in the African fuel sector, extending its tentacles from Angola to Nigeria, Tanzania, Mozambique and Benin to extract oil and produce bio-fuel. From a different perspective, Africa is increasingly crucial to Brazil in order for Brazil to achieve international prestige and leadership. In fact, while African countries hope to have their interests represented by Brazil at the international level (mainly before the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation), the support of these countries is indispensable for Brazil to establish a permanent place on the United Nations’ Security Council (Captain 2010: 187). These relations between Brazil and African countries have grown in parallel to the intensification of Brazil’s South-South (or ‘horizontal’) cooperation with Africa, in addition to the increased cooperation with other Latin American and ‘southern’ countries.

On the national level, Lula’s presidential administration has coincided with the spread of black affirmative action and other measures in favour of Afro- descendants in Brazil. Amongst these measures, I mention the wider implementation of racial quotas in favour of black university students, in addition to Law 10639/2003, which made African and Afro-Brazilian history and culture a compulsory subject in Brazilian schools, and to the approval of the Statute of Racial Equality in 2010, which has consolidated the legal framework for the expansion of black affirmative action in Brazil (Cicalo, 2012).

While Brazil’s identification with Africa long relied on assumptions about the common cultural heritage between these two contexts, and on discourses of Brazil’s ‘Africanness’ (Saraiva, 1993), aspects of this culturalist discourse remain in the present decades. Lula, in fact, in the opening speech of his second administration in 2007, called Africa ‘one of the cradles of Brazilian civilization’ (Captain, 2010:190; Ortiz, 2011). Having said this, Itamaraty’s discourses about links with Africa now place less emphasis on Brazil’s national miscegenation and racial harmony. Itamaraty, instead, starts foregrounding discourses of historical racial inequality ‘at home’ and affirmation of Brazilian blackness.

From the 1960s until the 1990s, Brazilian authorities had tended to present Brazil as a mixed country holding an African and black, pristine legacy. Lula and his diplomats, in contrast, made a radical language change in their African missions, stating that Brazil is ‘the country of the world that has the largest black (negra) population after Nigeria’ (Ribeiro, 2010: 76). Even more emphatically, Lula’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Celso Amorim (2003), used recent demographic data to push ideas of Brazil’s black identity even further. He declared that ‘with 76 million Afro-descendants (black- and brown-skinned people)… [Brazil is] the biggest blacknation in the world after Nigeria… and [consequently] the government is committed to reflect this reality in its foreign politics’ (my translation). Such statements, more or less directly, convey an official and clearer image of Brazil as a ‘black’ country and not just as a reality with some African background due to genes and culture.

In spite of visible continuities, the Brazilian Africanness (or African legacy) stated in diplomatic missions between the 1960s and the 1990s and the Brazilianblackness profusely championed in more recent decades are somewhat different concepts. In fact, the ‘blackness’ discourse is deeply influenced by the contemporary scenario of Brazilian black politics. More precisely, it relates to the growing tendency (among social scientists, black activists and some governmental institutes) to sum the census’ statistical figures for brown- and black-skinned people into ‘black’ (negros). In other words, the official discourses that are now used in Brazil’s African affairs superpose ‘racial’ slants on those discourses that had been more typically ‘cultural’ in pre-Lula times.

Considering these recent policy and discourse changes in the field of Brazil’s race relations, a crucial question is where Itamaraty will send its black diplomatic trainees. Sending them to Africa may strategically help to reinforce international links with countries on that continent. Having said this, such a choice may also reinforce ideas of a crystallisation and confinement of Brazilian blackness to Africa, instead of consecrating this blackness as an inextricable component of the Brazilian reality. These questions are not completely new. Already in the 1960s, the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, ironically concluded that the real evidence of Brazil’s racial democracy would be the initiative of sending a black ambassador ‘to a white country’ (Saraiva, 1993: 224). In terms of the racial composition of the Itamaraty’s diplomatic staff today, it is pertinent to observe that the first and only black career ambassador (Benedito Fonseca Filho) was promoted by Itamaraty only on the eve of President Lula’s departure from office in December 2010, with the role as the Director of the Department of Scientific and Technological Affairs of Itamaraty. Interestingly, however, the activities of this diplomat have been based in Brazil. In spite of the persistent lack of black diplomats, the introduction of affirmative action in Itamaraty will soon produce ranks of black diplomats and Krumah’s doubts will finally receive an adequate answer. 


This article is based on:   

Cicalo, André. 2014. “From Racial Mixture to Black Nation: Racialising Discourses in Brazil’s African Affairs”. Bulletin of Latin American Research (BLAR), 33 (1): 16-30.  


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About Author(s)

André Cicalo
André Cicalo is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the King’s College of London, and holds a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester (UK). His work has extensively dealt with race, racial inequalities, affirmative action, slavery and black collective memory in Brazil. He authored the ethnographic monograph ‘Urban Encounters: Affirmative Action and Black Identities in Brazil’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) – LASA Prize 2013, and several academic articles on this subject.