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Complications of Identity (2:53) Excerpt from film "Brazil in Black and White", September 2007
The story of two identical twins - one of whom was classified white and the other as black - highlights the difficulty in defining "black" and "white" in Brazilian society.

Country: Brazil

South America Brazil map

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Guiding Questions
  1. Why is the story of the twins important in revealing the complexities of Brazil's racial heritage?

  2. What concerns or doubts do students express about affirmative action quotas?

  3. To what degree does affirmative action damage individual blacks at the same time as it improves the overall opportunities for blacks?
Background Essay
Students who apply to qualify for the affirmative action quota in Brazil's universities are photographed, all against the same background and wearing the same blue smock. The photographs are then evaluated by a committee to judge if the applicants are "black enough" to be included in the affirmative action program. The experience of two identical twin applicants indicates that such a system may not be all that reliable. Substantial doubts about the validity and value of affirmative action quotas are also revealed by student comments at a public school meeting.

Black Brazilians and African Americans in the United States face many similar challenges. For example, Afro-Brazilians are not equally represented with other Brazilians in higher education, law, medicine, government, and business leadership. To remedy this pattern of injustice, Brazil adopted the use of affirmative action. Affirmative action is the encouragement of increased representation of women and minorities in schools and jobs.

Racial inequality in Brazil is centuries old. Between 1551 and 1830, Brazil imported more slaves than any other South American country (4.5 million) and only abolished slavery in 1888, later than any other country in the Western hemisphere. Slavery defined Brazil in many ways:

  • Slaves maintained African religions, cultures, and languages, forging a unique Afro-Brazilian culture.

  • Most white settlers immigrated alone, leading to substantial, generally tolerated interracial relationships and a high proportion of mixed-race children.

  • After slavery was abolished, racial segregation was not legally imposed. However, emancipated slaves faced stiff competition for jobs from European and Asian immigrants.

  • Brazil became a highly diverse mixture of people of various European, native, African, and Asian origins.

Until recently, Brazil prided itself on being a "racial democracy." However, advocates of affirmative action argue that this "racial democracy" is a myth. Afro-Brazilians have typically attended lower-quality public schools, where they were poorly prepared for the national university admission exam. They generally have poorer health and housing, lower wages, and fewer years of schooling, than white Brazilians.

Affirmative action in Brazil's universities began in 2003 when the prestigious Universidade do Estato do Rio de Janeiro announced it would reserve a specified number of its places for black students; other universities and national legislation soon followed suit. As of 2007, the racial quota system for Brazil's universities specified that 20% of places for incoming freshmen would be reserved for Afro-Brazilians. Overall, the beneficiaries of these policies have outperformed the low expectations of affirmative action opponents.

Since 2003, affirmative action programs have expanded to include quotas for Afro-Brazilians, indigenous people, and women in politics and economic life in Brazil. Despite these developments, affirmative action is still highly controversial.

Look at the difference between them, none!

They've been mistaken for each other their whole lives.

Another news story is the talk of Brasilia: two brothers applied to the university as blacks under the quota system.

One was classified as Afro-Brazilian, while the other brother, his twin, was not.

For every newspaper article in favor of the quotas, there are twenty against them. It's totally uneven.

And this is true of all the media in Brazil, with a few rare exceptions.

Imagine the effect of hearing day in and day out that quotas are bad for you.

It is a confusing time for many Brazilians. At public high schools like Ceilandia Educafro Organizes a series of meetings to help young people sort out the complex issues that have arisen with the advent of racial quotas.

People are looking at their color and asking,

"Am I Afro? Am I yellow, white?

Am I just a little brown?"

If you signed up and declared yourself to be black, but they look at you and say, "Well, you're a little yellow," and someone really dark is after you line, but who declares himself white, this can also confuse them.

I'm trying to understand the criteria they use.

I'm "white," but I have black relatives.

But there are white people like me who are just as poor as blacks.

I consider myself black.

What are the criteria they will use to decide if I'm Afro or not?

There are guys as white as Felipe there who will get in as black, but this girl here won't. Why?

OK. Both of them can feel that they are Afro-Brazilian.

We have a big mixture here in Brazil.

But when it comes time to look for a job, or even being allowed into a store, racism comes into play.

Don't you think that it would be more fair if the quotas were for the poor, or for women...

"Oh, she's black, so she needs help because she's black?"

You think I want to be analyzed like this?

You have people now who aren't black, and don't even like blacks, but they want to take advantage of the situation.

I don't think this system solves anything.

Related Links
Brazil in Black & White on PBS.org

CIA World Factbook: Brazil

Library of Congress Country Study - Brazil

IBASE - Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses http://www.ibase.br/modules.php?name=Conteudo&pid=379

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