Brazilians around 1900

I was really looking forward to Black In Latin America, Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s recent four part series on PBS. I lived in Brazil for a couple of years with my inter-racial family, have written about the concept of race in different cultures--especially in Latin America--and I was eager to see how Professor Gates would handle the topic. Two shows devoted an hour each to Cuba and Brazil, while one dealt with Hispaniola--Haiti and the Dominican Republic--and another with Mexico, and Peru. These thoughts are mainly about the Brazil segment, but they apply to the series as a whole.

There was a lot to like in Black In Latin America. Visually, the shows displayed the diversity of the region in its architecture and landscapes, as well as in the faces and clothes of its people. A strong point of the series was its demonstration that the concept of race varies from one culture to another, and that people's race changes when they travel to a place with a different set of cultural categories. Gates illustrates the point by asking people what racial terms they would use to classify themselves and him, and comes up with quite a variety of answers other than black and white.

As one would expect from a literary historian, the series was historically accurate, and it traced the ways the different forms of racial classification and race relations developed from differing historical circumstances. France, Portugal, and Spain conquered differing indigenous populations, imposed varying forms of slavery and imperial rule, were confronted with a variety of slave revolts and revolutions, and bequeathed a variety of social relationships and of ways of thinking about race to subsequent generations.

The segment on Brazil, for example, showed some people in Bahia using a variety of racial terms (from well over a hundred in common use there) to label themselves and Gates. It illustrated the ambiguity among such terms, and the way they blend into one another--for example, different people used different terms to describe the same individual. This variety and ambiguity stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where one is white or black, and does not have an extensive menu of other options.

The show accurately described the Brazilian image of itself as a "racial democracy," and of its people as a blend of Europeans, Africans, and New World peoples (and, more recently, Asians). It even presented some genetic evidence to support the accuracy of this cultural self-image. The show also pointed out how both the racial democracy ideology and the multiplicity and ambiguity of racial categories makes it difficult to fight against racism. If Brazil used American racial categories it would be a majority black country; but given the way Brazilians think about themselves, it is hard to find large numbers of people who consider themselves black.

From my point of view, these are the series' two strong points--showing the varied and differing conceptions of race in Latin America; and describing through American eyes the attendant forms of discrimination and problems in race relations.

This brings me to what I see as the series' major shortcoming--that it is "through American eyes." Gates appears unable suspend his American view of race and race relations when entering Latin American cultures. He views Latin Americans who would be considered black in the United States, but who do not consider themselves black, as in some way denying their blackness or African heritage. One way the series could have overcome this shortcoming would have been to ask Latin Americans what they think of us.

The series omits Latin American perspectives on racial categories and race relations in the United States. Latin Americans do indeed have such views, stemming from their own cultural conceptions of race, and these views can be both thought-provoking and unsettling.

For example, Brazilians say that a proof that Americans are racist is that they call people black who aren't black.

Think about that. What an unexpected idea! On the one hand, it assumes that calling someone black is saying something bad about them--which Americans (myself included) view as racist. On the other hand, it expresses anger that Americans would racially misclassify people in a way that contradicts what Brazilians can see clearly with their own eyes. For example, Americans might condemn people who "pass for white" for denying their blackness. In Brazil, they are white, and the thought that they should be condemned, or should feel guilty for hiding their identity, seems outrageous.

So that is how I see the series--two out of three.

Image Source:

Brazilians around 1900. (Photos by Alberto Henschel, 1827-1882.)
Upper row, left to right: A Portuguese-Brazilian woman, a German-Brazilian boy, an Italo-Brazilian man, an Arab-Brazilian man, and a Japanese-Brazilian woman. Lower row, left to right: an Afro-Brazilian man, a cafuza girl, a mulata woman, a caboclo man and a Brazilian Indian woman.

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About the Author

Jefferson M. Fish Ph.D.

Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at St. John's University. He has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.

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