Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperialism in whitening of 21st century Brazil
Imperialism is the “policy of extending a state’s influence over other peoples or territories”. These expansions have historically been conducted by westerners who exert their power over others and establish their own ideals in society. This chapter will analyse to what extent imperialism has resulted in the promotion of ‘whitening’ in Brazil. This claim will be evaluated using an interdisciplinary approach, focusing on the socio-economic hierarchies, immigration policies and the dominance of the media. We will argue that the promotion of whitening in Brazil is due to their imperial legacy.
'Whitening’ can be defined as “the act or process of becoming white”. The concept can be divided into two main categories: biological and symbolic. Symbolical whitening describes the “ideology that emerged from the legacy of European colonialism in Latin America that catered to white dominance”. Biological whitening refers to racial whitening through interracial marriage.
'Whitening' of race, society and ideals in Brazil have roots in the country's imperial past. When slavery was abolished in 1888, Brazil had the greatest population of African descent excluding Nigeria. The Brazilian elites viewed this as a problem as they believed the presence of the ‘inferior’ race would restrict the country’s development. Biological whitening was considered the solution to the ‘Negro problem’ through generational, interracial reproduction. This notion was legitimised by scientific racism, which claimed that the ‘Caucasian' race was genetically and culturally superior to the ‘Negro’ race, and Darwin's theory of natural selection and the ‘survival of the fittest’.
In general, Brazilians regard white as superior. This symbolic whitening can be described by the concept of colourism, which is “the process of discrimination that privileges light-skinned people of color over their dark-skinned counterparts”. Margaret Hunter claims that the reason many are unaware of their ‘white’ preference is "because that dominant aesthetic is so deeply ingrained in our culture”. Latin Americans have thus learned to incorporate these imperial values into their society and glorify European features and light skin tones.
Racial hierarchies and socio-economic class
Imperial prejudices imported from Europe have established racial hierarchies within Brazil, which in the 21st century have had significant socio-economic implications. During the Empire, economic centres developed where white landowners began mass production and exportation of commodities. While some regions grew exponentially, others (populated predominantly by native and black Brazilians) remained in poverty, which has led to vast regional divisions between the ‘progressive’ south and ‘undeveloped’ north. Economic growth was concentrated in white areas because Europeans had the means to accumulate wealth, owning land, slaves and capital, whereas black and native Brazilians did not, due to their historical racial status. This has caused the whitening 'of economically developed areas of Brazil and intensified regional divisions of race since the end of the Empire. A 2015 study on the ancestral distribution of the population supports this, showing that European ancestry is highest in the South (77%) and African is highest in the Northeast (27%). This strengthens the argument that economic and regional inequalities correlate to race in Brazil and have contributed to the whitening of its cities in the South. Although an explicit relationship of causation cannot be established between these modern economic hierarchies and imperialism, the influence of the racism that segregated the non-white population of Brazil during the empire is mirrored in current regional divisions.
Racial hierarchies established during the Empire have also biologically whitened the population of Brazil through miscegenation, enabled by European immigration. Selective immigration policies began in 1890, at the end of imperialism, clearly prohibiting entry of “black and yellows”, preferring white labour to supplement agriculture . Similar discriminatory policies continued into the 20th century, such as nationality quotas set in 1945 with a clear preference for Europeans, illustrating the endurance of racial hierarchies established during the Empire. The growth of the white population accommodated the elites’ desire for an overall whiter demographic. The 'whitening' process was furthered through encouraged miscegenation, believed to have the ability to eradicate ‘blackness’ based on theories of Social Darwinism. Brazil’s immigration policy has greatly contributed to the success of their aims of 'whitening', demonstrated in 1872-2010 census data, showing that between those years the white population increased from 38.14% to 47.73%, while the black population decreased from 19.68% to 7.61%. However, the white population reached its peak in 1940, at 63.47% of the country, before steadily declining . This suggests, therefore, that biological 'whitening' has occurred in Brazil as a result of imperial racism, seen in the demographics of the 21st century population. However, this has not occurred as widely in the 21st century as it did in the early 20th, due to the end of mass European immigration.
Depiction of the white ideal in Brazilian media
The process of 'whitening', initiated by Imperialism, is currently promoted in Brazil by the media. Studies show that 122 million Brazilian people are active on social media and that 81% watch television as their main source of leisure, revealing the influencing power of media on the population. Bill boards depict the ‘good life’, linking their campaigns with the elite in Brazil, commonly Caucasian, suggesting that a lighter appearance opens the pathway to socio-economic progress. This advertising of the ‘white ideal’ reveals an immobilised colonial mentality, persuading Brazilians to invest in their appearance in order to reach these imperial beauty ideals, seen to reward them with monetary success or societal acceptance. The ‘Brazilian Blow Dry’ has been a huge success around the world, developed as a chemical process allowing black woman to straighten their hair permanently to adhere to the white ideal. Furthermore, Brazil currently has the largest black population outside of Africa, yet most famous models, regularly shown in Brazilian advertisements, Giselle, Alessandra Ambrosio, Adriana Lima, are all white. Brazilian news and entertainment industries also fail to represent the black population. Prone to ‘white-washing’, telenovelas have cast white leads in roles of originally black characters of books, such as in ‘Isaura the slave’. The depiction of interracial couples in television has also implicitly contributed to the current biological whitening of Brazi .This representation of what a successful partnership looks like has increased the desire for interracial relationships, whitening the population through miscegenation.
Recently there has been a rise in the number of cases of online racism towards black women. Facebook and Twitter have become modern-day platforms for anonymous racism, many relating to imperial racism. In 2017 there were 63,698 reported cases of cyber hate comments, a third of which were racists comments towards black Brazilians. In order to avoid this, more black people try to 'whiten' their appearance symbolically, or the appearance of their children biologically. Therefore, ideas developed through imperialism are still present in 21st century Brazilian society, through their representation and reproduction in the media.
Imperialism, by creating racial and socio-economic hierarchies, enhanced by immigration policies, has supported the 'whitening' ideology in Brazil. However in the 21st century the media plays the most significant role in the promotion of 'whitening'. Globalisation and capitalism can be seen as a modern form of imperialism, suggesting this is not an issue restricted to Brazil but rather a global phenomena. In the case of Brazil it is evident that Imperialism has ingrained racial disparities into society and continues to influence the promotion of 'whitening' to this day.
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