Skip to content

Passing for Racial Democracy

The complexities of the color line in the U.S. and Brazil
Art for Passing for Racial Democracy.


A central point of tension between Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) and her husband Dr. Brian Redfield (André Holland) in Rebecca Hall’s Passing, based on the Nella Larsen novel of the same name, is whether their family should remain in the United States. While Irene can pass for white out of convenience, the same is not true of her darker sons and her husband, who routinely informs his children about lynchings and white violence. Irene disapproves of this talk, despite her work for the Negro Welfare League. In one pivotal scene, she drives her tired husband home after a long day of visiting patients, and the couple discuss going to South America, specifically mentioning Brazil. The issue returns when the couple fights over the consuming role that Clare (Ruth Negga)—who has chosen to pass as white to the point of marrying a bigoted white husband and having a daughter with him—exerts in their lives and marriage.

In Larsen’s novel, Brian’s longing for Brazil, which becomes conflated with what Irene perceives as his desire for the effervescent, delightfully dangerous Clare, is even more pronounced: Brazil is the one that got away, Brian’s lost hope for a society where he and other black members of the talented tenth could be judged by their merits, not lynched because they failed to stay in their place. Irene even implicitly sanctions an affair between her husband and Clare to assuage her guilt for denying her family the chance to be truly “happy, or free, or safe”—a state she laments as impossible when speaking to Clare about her choice not to pass.

Brazil and the United States have long looked to each other when it comes to the question of where to draw the color line.

Hall captures the tension between the two women—a tension composed simultaneously of curiosity, revulsion, sexual desire, longing, envy, friendship, and even kinship—in a tight 4:3 frame that often lingers for too long on the characters’ faces. While we contemplate Irene and Clare’s faces, perhaps wondering if they really could pass (as many did on Twitter after seeing the film’s trailer), they are typically gazing at each other in order to contemplate their own choices. Just as Irene and Clare see each other as both distorting and clarifying reflections of themselves, Brazil and the United States have long looked to each other when it comes to the question of where to draw the color line.

While the film is clearly a period piece—the black and white cinematography not only “make[s] a mockery of [racial] categorizations” as Hall intended but also clearly situates us in the late 1920s of Larsen’s novel—it has already generated discussions about race in the present. Yet despite the characters’ own internationalist fantasies, those discussions remain bound to U.S. interpretations of race that stress how noxious and retrograde it is to understand race through phenotype. This argument is far from universal. In Brazilian universities right now, the Black Movement (o Movimento Negro) is fiercely defending the need to ask whether Clare or Irene could pass as black.

A 2008 article in Brazil’s newspaper of record, Folha De S. Paulo, declared former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso the “Champion of Whiteness.” A survey conducted by DataFolha, part of the same Grupo Folha media conglomerate as the newspaper, had asked nearly three thousand Brazilians to assign a color to several Brazilian celebrities. The survey limited the options to branco (white), preto (literally black, but more like dark skinned), pardo (essentially any shade between branco and preto), amarelo (literally yellow, used primarily for Brazil’s large Japanese population, especially in São Paulo, and its growing Chinese population), and indigenous (the only color that is explicitly an ethnic category). Seventy percent of participants considered Fernando Henrique Cardoso white, with his successor Lula da Silva coming in as what one can only presume is the runner-up of whiteness, with 45 percent of respondents identifying him that way. (Nearly 80 percent of respondents deemed the Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil preto, but this was neither discussed in the Folha article nor, apparently, worthy of a championship.) In explaining why Cardoso had “beat out” Lula, Brazilian anthropologist Antônio Risério insisted that “if people didn’t know that it was FHC, probably, just judging by his skin color, they would say he is a mulatto. But since it’s FHC, an intellectual, he passes as white.”

As the categories themselves, and Risério’s explanation, reveal, “color” and race are not always synonymous in the Brazilian context. Features like hair texture, education, place of origin and address, and social class all factor into how people conceive of color, resulting in what researcher Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman calls a traitocracy that is more complex than a pigmentocracy or simple colorism. Just as the Brazilian footballer Neymar has previously denied he is black, Ronaldo the Phenomenon famously insisted that he was ignorant of the racism that other players face because he’s white. But according to Ronaldo Vainfas, another academic interviewed by Folha, Ronaldo’s “hair gives him away.” In the case of Lula, respondents may have viewed him primarily as a “nordestino,” someone from Brazil’s Northeast. Nordestinos’ blackness and indigeneity—or proximity thereto, regardless of color—is believed to be the source of the region’s underdevelopment, and their accents and rural cultural habits are portrayed in films and television as the antithesis to Risério’s usually southern “intellectual.” Yet people can shave or straighten their hair, or hide where they are from and live, whereas race is generally more a question of ancestry, which may or may not be factored into color.

The editorial staff at Folha, and, unsurprisingly, a large segment of the Brazilian establishment, have long been opposed to race-based quotas for university admissions. Both Vainfas and Risério, along with a hundred some academics and media personalities (including more problematic national treasure Caetano Veloso), signed an anti-quota manifesto published by Folha a few months after being interviewed by the paper. The self-declared “anti-racist citizens against racial laws” acknowledged that “racial prejudice and racism” exist in Brazil but insisted that “Brazil is not a racist country” because it does not have a “one drop rule” and had instead adopted a national identity founded on mestiçagem (miscegenation). A particular affront for these self-proclaimed anti-racists was the “intellectual violence” of uniting the census categories of pardo and preto under the banner of negro, something that the Brazilian Black Movement has advocated for for decades. (Preto and pardo are colors; negro is afro-descendant.)

Ever the stewards of rational, scientific thought, they contended that due to DNA evidence, “it is not legitimate to associate skin color with ancestrality” and “the operation of identifying negros with the descendants of slaves and with afro-descendants are just mere exercises of ideological imagination.” The manifesto insisted that this way of thinking about race, and indeed the very idea of race-based affirmative action, was an importation from the United States, a perversion of Brazil’s celebrated many shades of brown. Since the Brazilian state had never institutionalized segregation or apartheid, unlike in the United States and South Africa, the signatories argued, quotas and commissions to determine candidates’ color would inaugurate a racist Brazilian state. Since a large percentage of the nation’s poor are white, they wrote, quotas should only be based on income. Something material, something measurable.

Quotas have been a demand of various black Brazilian movements at least since the 1950s, when poet, scholar, and founder of the Black Experimental Theater, Abdias do Nascimento, advocated for them in military schools in his short-lived periodical Quilombismo—the title being a nod to runaway slave communities. The lack of black Brazilians in higher education and subsequently in high-paying fields like medicine, law, and public sector jobs has long been an open secret, even though formal segregation was never on the books. In 1992, only 2 percent of university-aged pretos and pardos were enrolled in public universities, and in 2005, less than 6 percent attended any type of university. Due to the mobilization of the Black Movement, the State University of Rio de Janeiro was the first to adopt race-based quotas in 2003. A number of other universities followed suit, with some adopting race-based quotas and others strictly income-based systems. But ever since racial quotas became a topic of national conversation in Brazil, particularly after the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, a common critique of their fairness from across the political spectrum has been the supposed impossibility of determining who is black. The University of Brasília took what many saw to be a more extreme approach to this complaint: to ensure against fraud, they established a commission made up of a social scientists, students, and black activists to evaluate the race of candidates seeking admissions through its race-based quota system.

Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party signed the current quota system in federal universities, since adopted by several state universities, into law in 2012. However, it will go into legislative review following ten years of implementation next year—when Bolsonaro will also be up for reelection. First and foremost, quotas in federal universities are socioeconomic: 50 percent of enrollment in any discipline is reserved for students that attended a public high school for all three years. Within that 50 percent, half the slots must be reserved for students from households with per capita monthly incomes below R$1650, or less than $300. Finally, the racial demographics of all reserved seats must match those of the preto, pardo, and indigenous populations in the state where the federal university is located.

This very structure emerged from the Black Movement, particularly out of college exam prep courses open to “blacks and the needy” that were pioneered by education activist and liberation theologist Friar David Santos. Quotas have resulted in the first majority black and working-class undergraduate cohorts in federal universities: in 2018, over 50 percent of undergraduate self-identified as black and over 70 percent came from low-income households. As the headline of a 2020 Folha article highlighting the increased access of black students in universities thanks to quotas somewhat knowingly put it, “Blacks are in the university, and not (just) to clean.”

Supporters of the commissions assert that their mandate is to identify cases of fraud, not to declare somebody’s race.

Universities’ use of commissions to determine eligibility is not stipulated by the law, and in fact the Black Movement believes they are necessary because public officials have done little to curb fraud (so take the numbers above with a grain of salt). In some egregious cases, candidates have relaxed and dyed their hair and even used artificial tanner to darken themselves. As such, supporters of the commissions assert that their mandate is to identify cases of fraud, not to declare somebody’s race. As labor historian and black activist Álvaro Nascimento told me, the question of fraud has always been one of “securing a right for black students in the face of students who would never be considered black seeking a privilege,” especially given the fact that they already have access to two of the three quotas.

Before the implementation of quotas, Brazil’s free public universities had been captured by the white elite and aspiring middle class, who could afford to send their children to private high schools or at least pay for entrance exam prep courses. The vast majority of Brazilian public secondary schools that serve poor and black students are chronically under-staffed and under-funded by the state and municipal governments that operate them, and Brazil’s high school drop- and push-out rates have long been higher than in Argentina and Colombia. Opponents of racial quotas like the Folha manifesto signatories contend that the federal government should have addressed secondary education instead of stirring up racial animosity, but quotas are a much lower cost—both economically and politically—means of democratizing access to public institutions.

Other opponents propose solely socioeconomic quotas, insisting simultaneously that the plight of poor white Brazilians is the same as that of black Brazilians and that these quotas will ultimately benefit more black Brazilians since they are disproportionately poor—ignoring that it was the Black Movement that brought the question of any quotas to the national stage. Social quotas are, at the least, a tacit admission of deep structures that maintain systems of inequality, if not exploitation. The admission that something has happened to black Brazilians in virtue of their blackness, however, must be avoided at all costs, because then one would have to admit that there are white Brazilians well-off by virtue of their whiteness. That Brazil, like the United States, is white supremacist. In an extreme example of this denial, Bolsonaro argued against quotas by insisting that the Portuguese “never stepped foot in Africa” and that “blacks handed each other over [to slave traders].”

At the turn of the century, as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow in the South and residential segregation in the North, Black Americans like Larsen’s Redfields looked to Brazil as a haven from racism for many of the same reasons espoused by the anti-quota manifesto signatories. Though they knew that Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, they were also aware of figures like President Nilo Peçanha —who appeared nonwhite, but whose family continues to assert that his political opponents called him a mulatto as an insult. In fact, the Associated Negro Press, in uncritically quoting a black businessman who had traveled to Brazil, attributed Brazilian racial harmony to a more benevolent form of slavery and to an emancipation that occurred without divisive war. (In actuality, decades of increasing revolts and runaways ultimately forced emancipation). Even W.E.B. Du Bois asserted in The Crisis that in Brazil “there is no color bar to advancement,” whereas in the United States, “scientific lies and social insult” were employed to outlaw miscegenation and interracial marriage. Perhaps the greatest advocate for black middle-class migration to Brazil was Robert Sengstacke Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender. In a series of articles detailing his travels to Brazil in 1923, he assured his readers, “Negro people are evident on every hand, enjoying with inconceivable ease the entire facilities of a present-day democracy.”

But it was Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1914 account of his trip to Brazil, who was perhaps the keener observer of how Brazil approached its “negro problem”: “The idea looked forward to [in Brazil] is the disappearance of the Negro question through the disappearance of the Negro himself—that is through his gradual absorption into the white race.” Where some affluent Black Americans saw a racial paradise, Roosevelt had hit on what black Brazilian feminist Lélia Gonzalez would later deem the source of why “Latin-American racism is sufficiently sophisticated”—its “ideology of whitening.”

Prior to emancipation, this ideology manifested in the social ascension of the children of white male slave masters and enslaved black women who were unable to consent. Ascension was not the rule, but due to demographic factors and different legal traditions, free mixed and black Brazilians were not uncommon—and some even owned slaves. Historian Carl Degler dubbed this the “mulatto escape hatch,” but the price of an always-precarious legal and economic freedom depended on assimilation into a no-less violent white supremacist and slavocratic society. Indeed, mulattos and free blacks often served as this order’s very enforcers, working as overseers and the infamous capitães-do-mato (slave patrollers), or as its caregivers, as wet-nurses, nannies, and concubines. 

With the emergent scientific racism and eugenics of the late nineteenth century, Brazilian elites worried that they wouldn’t join the ranks of civilized nations given the country’s predominately “mongrel” black and indigenous population. So European immigrants received land, stipends, and preferential access to employment to purify Brazilian blood, pushing black and mixed raced people to the fringes of a labor market in which they had once worked as porters, sailors, artisans, seamstresses, and merchants. While the Redfields may have been able to eke out a relatively middle-class lifestyle in 1920s Brazil, the same could not have been said of their darker, presumably less educated maid Zu. Most domestic workers in Brazil continue to be black women.

White Americans were also incentivized to emigrate to Brazil. After the Civil War, thousands of Confederates who wanted nothing more than to continue owning enslaved black people settled in Brazil, and the city of Americana near São Paulo still proudly waves the rebel flag at festivals. As Zita Nunes points out in her reading of Larsen’s Passing in her seminal book Cannibal Democracy, South America held promise not only for families like the Redfields but also for Clare’s white supremacist husband Jack (John in the film, played by Alexander Skarsgård), who amassed “untold gold” there; however, he insisted he would only return if “they ever get the n—s out of it.”  The proximity and intimacy, both real and perceived, between blacks and whites in South America, Nunes reminds us, is even evident in Jack’s shocking nickname for Clare in the book—Nig. Minha nega/mi negra in Portuguese and Spanish are “common term[s] of endearment, frequently, if not necessarily, detached from any direct identification of race.” These terms of endearment also point to the gendered dynamics of whitening, a process to always be carried out on and through black women to preserve the sanctity of white women. 

Black Brazilians, for their part, fought not only to dispel American misconceptions of Brazil’s racial harmony but also against the policy of whitening itself. In 1923, Abilio Rodrigues wrote a pointed response to Abbott’s articles in the Brazilian black press: This equality [that Abbott says] exists for blacks here—fantastical—purely fantastical. One sees in every walk of life that the black requires three times the effort to achieve a better position. Mediocrity is not tolerated from him and his value is challenged at every step in the desire to make him disappear.”

The official policy of whitening is one that today’s “anti-racist” opponents of quotas conveniently ignore in upholding the innocence of the Brazilian state. Not only did it drastically alter the life chances of the recently emancipated, it also promoted disidentifying as black. The manifesto signatories contend that the category of negro is “intellectual violence.” Yet many Brazilians say they only discovered themselves as negro within the university. While critics may attribute this identification to opportunism or ideology, these students attribute it to merely learning history and unlearning the social and even family dictates to fix their hair or marry lighter. As pedagogue, activist, and the first black woman rector of a federal university, Nilma Lino Gomes, asserts, the Black Movement has not only advocated for education but has itself been an educator.

The true intellectual violence lies in the denial of this history of state-sanctioned whitening and the subsequent denial of the existence of white(ned) Brazilians and white supremacy. Opposition to quotas depends on what anthropologist Kia Lilly Caldwell refers to as a “mestiço essentialism”: the idea that all Brazilians are neutrally mixed, without consideration for “passing”—something that even the U.S. category of Latino has long served to reproduce. Despite what the Folha survey respondents believe, Fernando Henrique Cardoso self-identifies as a mulatto. Yet he’s done so not by affirming blackness and a specific black ancestor, but by saying he has a “foot in the kitchen,” a clear allusion to the often non-consensual sexual and labor exploitation of black women. As Risério’s and Vainfa’s readings of Cardoso and Ronaldo demonstrate, opponents of quotas do not rebuke nineteenth century race science but instead rely on it.

The official policy of whitening is one that today’s “anti-racist” opponents of quotas conveniently ignore in upholding the innocence of the Brazilian state.

There is also intellectual violence in ignoring the material violence that black Brazilians continue to face. Though the public lynching of George Floyd and the judicial innocence of vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse seemingly point to the uniqueness of U.S. white supremacy, Brazilian police and paramilitary forces kill black Brazilians at rates that are an order of magnitude greater than their U.S. counterparts. That many of these police are themselves negro (though they may not identify as such) speaks to the enduring assimilationism of mistaking representation for systemic change, obfuscating what a Brazilian congressional commission itself has called a slow genocide of black Brazilians. The state, activists maintain, already knows the answer to the question of who is black, of who it can disappear.

Part of the reason the Black Movement has pushed for the census to combine the categories of pardo and preto into negro is that they assume that fewer white Brazilians would fraud quota systems if they had to choose a term associated with African descent rather than color. As members of the black student movement frequently ask, were they to identify as white due to a white grandparent, would their claim be accepted? The educational role of the Black Movement, including fraud commissions, is not to “punish” white-passing negros—again, all public school graduates are eligible for quotas—but to underscore quotas as a systemic reform that may not benefit them individually because of the way color and race have been socially constructed.  “Of course, the commissions are political,” Álvaro Nascimento insisted. While he admits that the work of quota commissions can be difficult, even devastating, he contends that their aim is to award spots to students who are “undisguisably black.” To those who cannot pass.

Baffler Newsletter

New email subscribers receive a free copy of our current issue.