The results of two national surveys: the 1976 PNADFootnote 1 and the 1998 PME,Footnote 2 counterbalance the arguments of uncertainty concerning racial categorization in Brazilian society. Both surveys included two questions on colour or race and two on origin, an open-ended one, of spontaneous response, and a pre-codified one. The results obtained promoted the notorious debate on how many categories of colour occur in the country. Both surveys found, in terms of number of answers, more than a hundred different terms. This initially perceived multiplicity of categories supported the idea of the supposedly enormous complexity of the Brazilian classification system. Ideologically pushing a bit further, the conclusion was that it is not possible to know who black is and who is not. However, among such terminological variety, just a few terms appear as statistically significant. Thus, of the 143 terms found in the PME-98, 77, more than half of them, appear only once in the sample and 12 other identifications are related to nationality or state of origin or birth. Furthermore, variations of basic categories found may compose single groups and, finally, 16 categories complement or modify ‘white’ with some particular name or adjective, seeming to relate to a hierarchic differentiation with the ‘pure’ white. Therefore, a small set of denominations of spontaneous use cover almost the entire range of identifications collected, just 7 categories – including white, brown, black, Moreno and yellow – incorporate 97 % of the answers and only 10 categories cover 99 % of them (Petruccelli 2004). However, this is commonly omitted in the studies and papers that dogmatically indicate supposed insurmountable difficulties concerning the Brazilian ethnoracial identification, such as the exaggerated heading of a newspaper’s article ‘The 300 colours of Brazilians’. In consequence, it deserves to be outlined that almost all Brazilians identify themselves according to a well-restricted set of colour categories.
4.1 Polysemy and Ambiguity of the Brown Category
Nevertheless, an important ambiguity persists – in the intention to improve the system of racial classification as in the elaboration of affirmative action policies – concerning the pertinence of the brown category at the national level and particularly in the Centre-West and North regions of the country. ‘What it is classified in each region as brown has a historical origin and a distinct and absolutely singular ethnic reality’ (Oliveira 1997). As was already pointed out, the term designates in fact a residual category in the system of colour classification, within which can be distinguished at least three types of ethnic groups: firstly, the group that identifies itself in this way for its phenotype perceived as from African ancestry, which is, without any doubt, the majority of this category. Secondly, a group that can be identified as predominantly Indian-descendant, characteristic of the regions mentioned above, that identifies himself with the brown colour and that refers historically to the caboclo figure. Finally, a population group found basically in the Federal District, but also in other cities and that, as Carvalho (2005) points out, represents ‘a way to express an adhesion to a specific historic-geographic condition’ and not an identification of colour in the sense of physical appearance, since they are, in the practice of social relations, perceived as whites.
The studies on racial inequalities and discrimination at the national level are fully justified placing together black and brown categories into a single category, because of their enormous similitude of behaviour and the significant separateness with the white group. Nonetheless, it is also methodologically relevant to try the possibility of better identifying and differentiating socio-racial categories, such as the mentioned above, that present secular persistence and sociological consistency in specific regions. In consequence, instruments and information should be improved in order to fit better to the social reality, in the understanding that the ethnoracial identification aims to allow the free expression of identities as well as to promote the correct formulation of laws and anti-discriminatory measures. ‘The statistic classification presents a normativity that points out to two contingent registers: that of description and knowledge, related to science, and that of description and action, related to politics’ (Simon 2005a). The possibility of joining any categories would be sustained, preserving their double justification: ‘Statistically, for the uniformity of socio-economic characteristics of both groups and theoretically, for the fact that discriminations, potentials or effective, suffered by both groups, are of the same nature’ (Osorio 2003).
4.2 Racial Classification: Its Relational Nature
The former reflections led to the following questions: Which would be the proper number of ethnoracial categories? Moreover, what would be the best form to take account of the mentioned specificities, granting the necessary recognition to the expression of socially distinct identities and regional differences? According to Melissa Nobles, currently ‘there are no laws, social mores, intellectual agreements or general consensus about what constitutes a racial identity’ (quoted by Prewitt 2005). However, Brazilian society demonstrates a forceful racial polarization, suggesting that race is a variable that profoundly structures society. What expresses this reality is the recurrent socio-economic inequalities present in every social research report. The most diverse information converges to show that ethnoracial group membership is a determinant for social exclusion. Among the reasons underlined for this reality figures the ‘permanence, along the twentieth century, of diverse discriminatory practices in the repressive apparatus, the judiciary system and other state and civil institutions… against the Afro-descendant population, hindering its physical and social mobility’ (Paixão 2003). Discrimination exists as a current practice suffered by people according to appearance or colour, among other characteristics, like those perceived as of aboriginal origin or darker skin. It ‘is very frequent, in the world and in Brazil, that the origin of an individual, his physical appearance, his culture and other traces of identification (religion, way to dress, accents and used dialects), is still today, used as a way to establish hierarchical relations between people and collectives’ (Paixão 2004). Furthermore, racial categorization – the output of an operation of perception and attribution of a ‘score’ in a scale of colour classification – works as a contextual phenomenon, meaning that the same person can be perceived and classified differently according to context, the group and the region of reference. However, this is not an obstacle to the feasibility of a classification system in surveys, since the ultimate goal is that each person should be identified in agreement with how he/she is perceived and self-identified in his/her context. ‘Being the border lines that separate the three most conspicuous zones of colour – black, brown and white – fluid, the classification gains the capacity to apprehend the situation of the individual classified in his social microcosm, in the relational context that effectively counts in the definition of pertaining to the discriminating group or the discriminated one’ (Osorio 2003).