The Language of Racism in Brazil

On any given day, there are about 100 topics about which to write on the subject of racism in the US. But what about racism around the world? How do racial hatred, prejudice, and injustice manifest themselves in other countries?

In this article I will skim the surface of Brazilian racism, since that is where I am from. As a light-skinned Brazilian, I have never suffered for the melanin content in my cells. On the contrary–almost every day some family member sees fit to compliment me by saying how my skin looks like porcelain, my hair is so sleek, my body is so skinny.

Now, many people would accuse me of overreacting if I tell them I have reached a point at which I overtly reject any compliment centered upon my whiteness. There is nothing special about my whiteness. There is nothing inherently beautiful or superior about whiteness. When someone compliments me on the whiteness of my skin, they are also indirectly disparaging the darker skins of 54% of Brazil’s population*.

So in Brazil’s 500 year old tree of racism and prejudice and anti-blackness, these stupid Eurocentric compliments are endless twigs and leaves. What are others twigs and leaves that more White and light-skinned Brazilians should seek to burn? Let’s keep true to the theme of language, otherwise we would be here all day. The following are popular and ancient sayings that originated in times of slavery (speaking of which, did you know Brazil was the last country on Earth to abolish slavery? 1888. That’s one historical fact I find hard to forget):

“Da cor do pecado”– This literally means “of the color of sin,” and is used to describe someone with dark skin. As in, oh look, that woman is the color of sin. The saying has a sensual connotation, and is generally used in a flattering sense. However, the associations here are obvious: dark skin and wrongdoing, dark skin and shame, dark skin and sin. If dark skin is sin, then White skin must be purity. Now, this is not a trivial association. Purity and virtue mean a great deal to Brazilians. We must realize that Brazil is one of the most Christian nations in the world. 64% of our population identify as Catholic, making Brazil the nation with the highest population of Catholics in the world. Furthermore, 20% of our population identifies as Evangelical or protestant. So not only do 112,158,000 people identify as brown or black, but more than 80% identify as  Christian. Imagine what it is like to be dark skinned in a country that views dark skin as sinful. Brazil has yet to resolve these cultural dissonances. Hopefully by then this disrespectful saying will have died out.

“Com um pé na cozinha” — This saying means “With one foot in the kitchen,” as in “Oh yea, my family has one foot in the kitchen.” It is used to refer to the lineage of someone who has Black roots or ancestry. Generally the person in question will present as mixed race, sometimes White passing, hence the euphemistic tone of this saying. Like I stated before, Brazilians have a habit of thinking Black skin=bad. So why would anyone want to own up to having Black blood in their ancestry? This saying originates from the era of slavery, when Black women would be in the kitchen cooking for White families. Not only does this saying perpetuate racist imagery, but it is exceedingly sexist and disparaging.

“Feito nas coxas” — Finally, this saying means “done on the thighs.” We use it to refer to poorly executed job. This saying originated, again, from the era of slavery (not surprising). In order to make roof tiles for houses, slave owners would take the fattest or curviest slave and put clay or mud on their thighs and then allow it to dry, thus creating the shape they wanted for the tiles. This was not an ideal method, as it often created tiles that were irregular or sloppy. And so now we describe shoddy work as work that has been done “on the thighs.” Given the inhuman and abusive conditions that inspired this saying, we would do well to remember that A) the idea of making shitty tiles using another human’s body was most definitely NOT the slaves’ and B) there are plenty of other ways we can describe someone’s shitty work. For example, we could just say, this is shitty. Do better.

There are countless other examples of how White supremacist ideals and sentiments of anti-blackness run rife through Brazilian society. I want to point out that you don’t need to be a bad person to necessarily say these things. You don’t need to harbor explicit racial hatred to perpetruate White supremacist ideals. But you WILL continue the cycle of harm if you use sayings such as the ones above, and no amount of good intentions, contextual justifications, or assertions of innocence will prevent that harm. The only thing that prevents this harm is to STOP USING RACIST LANGUAGE. Language shapes our thoughts and who we are, and we in turn shape our societies. So let’s start with ourselves.


Sources for the statistics:

(note: these are in Portuguese)


O tamanho da desigualdade racial no Brasil em um gráfico

2010 Brazilian census

Image by the artist Jacques Etienne Arago, titled Punishment of the Slave







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