Color in Candomblé

The other day I received a message on MySpace from a gentleman who wanted to know if I could refer him to any “all Black houses” of Candomblé in Brazil, preferably in Bahia. My response to him was that if he wanted an “all Black house” that his best bet might be seeking a house in Nigeria that hasn’t yet been infiltrated by non-Nigerians. This man’s request made me wonder about several things, but mainly the way that people are both categorized and how they identify in Brazil, in addition to North American perceptions of color classification and what we project onto others.

I have been traveling to Brazil since 2003 and staying anywhere between 2-6 weeks per visit. Any person of color visiting Brazil will be able to identify racism both on an individual and national/institutional level. It’s no mistake that well-to-do neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are predominantly, if not all, white; the people of color walking through such neighborhoods are usually service workers who live in any one of Rio’s 300+ favelas.

The Brazilian government does a very good job of lip-service when it comes to discrimination and racism; one can actually be arrested in Brazil and charged with a crime if it can be proven that discrimination is taking place. At the same time one can still see actors on television in Blackface! It’s no mistake that in every country in the Western Hemisphere that participated in the African slave-trade darker skinned people have it the worst both economically and socially.

Yes, Brazil, like North America, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, etc…have a long way to go when it comes to rectifying the plague that is racism within the society. However, unlike in North America, Brazilians view race along different lines.

It’s hard for a people in a nation where the one-drop rule exists to be able to view race outside of the North American existence. A few examples:

In Bahia, I met a woman who looked like Selma Hayek, but talked about how hard it was for her being “an African woman in Brazil.”

In Rio de Janeiro, I met a man the complexion of Will Smithwho talked about the racial equality in Brazil and tried to convince me that discrimination did not exist.

In my Ile I sat and watched a conversation between one of my elders, the complexion of Angela Basset, talk to one of the youngsters of the Ile (who is the complexion of Will Smith’s son, and whose mother is Mariah Carey’s complexion) about stating emphatically that, “eu SOU Afro-Brasileiro!” (“I AM Afro-Brazilian!”)

Within my Ile, and others that I’m familiar with, colors range from Miley Sirus to Whoopi Goldberg. Features range from very light skin with thick lips and broad noses, to very dark with slopped noses and thin lips. Hair texture ranges from being very dark skinned with naturally bone-straight hair to being lighter with very kinky hair.

It’s been my experience in Brazil that while there is clearly a difference between “white” and “Black” there is also a HUGE in-between. Within that in-between people may decide to refer to themselves as Black, white or Moreno (brown/tanned, not Black as the term is used in Spanish). It is not at all uncommon for a Brazilian with “white” skin to take pride in being Afro-Brazilian. So, when someone asks about “all Black houses” in Brazil, I have a hard time answering that question.

I do not believe that there is any house in Brazil that would deny a person who isn’t dark enough to be considered Black by American standards entry to the Ile. In fact, I have only heard of that sort of thing happening in the United States of America. We all have a long way to go.