Multi-racial Brazil through skin colour adjectives

4 Dec 2012

Over the summer we spent 6 weeks in Brazil. It is a country that has always fascinated me for various personal reasons. One thing I was not really aware of is that Brazilian society is a great example of a multi-racial society. This is evident from the moment you step out in the street especially in cities  like São Paulo. While Brazilian society may be battling many challenges, its multi-racial character struck us in a good way.

In a recent documentary, by the BBC, about Brazil, Michael Palin described Brazilian society as the ultimate melting pot. According to some, ethnic minorities in Brazil are more integrated than in any other country in the world.
Brazilian society is made up of people of several different origins, from the original Native Americans, with the influx of Portuguese colonizers, Black African slaves, and recent European, Arab and Japanese immigration. Other significant groups include Koreans, Chinese, Paraguayans and Bolivians.
This is evident in many aspects of daily life and none more so than in language. Did you know, for example, that Brazilian Portuguese has at least 14 different adjectives for describing skin colour?
The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), that conducts censuses in Brazil racially classifies the Brazilian population in five categories: branco (white), pardo (brown), preto (black), amarelo (yellow), and indigenous.  Individuals are asked to self identify within these categories.
However, most Brazilians, apparently, strongly object to these categories and find it difficult to identify with them.
Instead they like to use some of the words below (non-exhaustive list). Some of these are, as you can see, very imaginative and colourful using fruits, wood, or spices as the basis for comparison.

  • branca (white)
  • loira (llond hair and white skin)
  • clara (literaly clear - light)
  • castanha (literaly a chestnut - cashew-like brown)
  • jambo (after a deep red fruit)
  • morena (tan)
  • parda (dark brown)
  • sarará (mixture of white and black with red hair)
  • canela (of the colour of cinammon)
  • mulata (mixture of white and black)
  • marrom (chocolate brown)
  • escura (dark)
  • preta (black)

There is an even fuller list for the whole of South America here.

And this is not just for census forms. These words are used everyday. Check out the sign above spotted on Copacabana beach which indicates the SPF factor to use depending on your skin colour. I have never seen anything like this (in Europe, at least). 

One more reason to love Brazil (as if I needed more)!

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