Society's racial hierarchies are reproduced in families and interact with feelings, researcher says (photo: Wikimedia)

Study investigates marks of racism in "interracial families"

Society's racial hierarchies are reproduced in families and interact with feelings, researcher says.

Study investigates marks of racism in "interracial families"

Society's racial hierarchies are reproduced in families and interact with feelings, researcher says.


Society's racial hierarchies are reproduced in families and interact with feelings, researcher says (photo: Wikimedia)


By José Tadeu Arantes  |  Agência FAPESP – One hundred and twenty-nine years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, and despite the myth of racial democracy, race-based prejudice is still widespread in Brazilian society – so much so that it can be found even in “interracial families”. This is the conclusion of a study by social psychologist Lia Vainer Schucman.

Schucman undertook the study during her postdoctoral research at the University of São Paulo (USP) with FAPESP’s support and in collaboration with Felipe Fachim. Her supervisor was Belinda Mandelbaum, who heads the Family Studies Laboratory at the university’s Psychology Institute (IP-USP).

“We set out to discover whether and how society’s racial hierarchies are reproduced in families whose members classify themselves differently with regard to ‘race’ – as ‘white’, ‘black’ or ‘mixed-race’ – and how these hierarchies coexist and interact with their emotions or feelings,” Schucman told Agência FAPESP

In addition to performing an exhaustive review of the specialized literature, which took three years, Schucman personally interviewed 13 families from different regions of Brazil. She has written a book about her findings: Famílias Inter-raciais: tensões entre cor e amor (“Interracial Families: Tensions between Color and Love”). The book will be available later in 2017. 

“My interest in researching the topic arose initially from my interaction with people from these families, people who experienced ‘racial contradictions’ in their own skins, as it were,” Schucman said. “It happened when I was finishing up my PhD research, which was on ‘whiteness’. Because of my research, I started to be invited to give lectures quite frequently, and after the lectures, people would often come up to tell me about cases of suffering due to racism in their own families. This happened many times. These conversations led me to realize that families could be a key to understanding ‘interracial’ relationships in the wider context of society.”

Schucman’s starting-point was the conviction that “race” is not a biological given but a social construct. It is a construct based on phenotypes, she argues, which engenders and sustains profound material and symbolic inequality in society and which affects the daily lives of millions of people. 

“Nothing in the life sciences proves the existence of ‘human races’, yet they very clearly exist in the social world, as affirmed by sociologist Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães,” Schucman said. On the basis of this criterion, she chose families for the study with at least one member who acknowledged that the family comprised people of different races. 

“A family can be considered ‘interracial’ by one of its members and not by another. Moreover, a family considered ‘interracial’ in Rio Grande do Sul may be classified as ‘white’ in Bahia. In light of the fluidity of these classifications, I decided I would only consider a family ‘interracial’, and include it in the study, if my subjective impression was corroborated by one of the family members. If someone said to me, “I’m black and my sister is white’, or ‘My father is black and my mother is white’, or any other statement of that kind, the family would fall within the scope of my research,” Schucman said. 

According to the specialized literature, interracial relationships in the private sphere date from the very beginning of colonization – especially owing to rape and other forms of violence committed by Portuguese “white” men against “black” or “native” women. The 1960 census showed that 8% of marriages in that year were “interracial” in Brazil. By 2010, the percentage had increased to 31%. In other words, almost a third of all Brazilian marriages involve people who classify themselves as belonging to “different races”. 

“The phenomenon is very common among the poor but very rare among the rich,” Schucman said. “Today, the predominant configuration is marriage between a ‘black man’ and a ‘white woman’, or a ‘brown man’ [‘pardo’] and a ‘lighter-colored woman’ [‘mais clara’]. Some studies, such as those by Elza Berquó and Ana Claudia Lemos Pacheco, suggest this predominance derives from an overlap of sexism and racism, producing a hierarchy in which ‘white men’ are first choice and ‘black women’ are totally disparaged.”

Schucman points to what she calls “the racism of intimacy” as a unique feature of Brazilian culture arising from its history. In contrast with the segregationist racism that prevailed in South Africa or the South in the United States, what we have in Brazil is a kind of racism that presupposes interaction between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’. This relationship may even be moderated by positive feelings of affection without ceasing to be racist. “My aim was to analyze how ‘interracial families’ experience, negotiate, construct or deconstruct racism in their intimacy,” she said.

In accordance with this approach, her interviews showed that the racial question can take many shapes and forms in the family context, from brutally explicit racism accompanied by physical violence to extremely subtle denial mediated by affection.

Naked, unvarnished racism

“The most shocking story I heard was told by a young woman, a university student who came to see me. Actually, I’d decided the interview stage was over by then. Anyway, she was phenotypically ‘black’ but her mother was ‘white’. She told me that when she was little, her mother would sing a lullaby with these words: ‘Plantei uma cenoura no meu quintal / Nasceu uma negrinha de avental / Dança negrinha / Não sei dançar / Pega no chicote, ela dança já’ [‘I planted a carrot in my backyard. / It sprouted a nigger girl in an apron. / Dance, little nigger girl! / I can’t dance. / Show her the whip, she’ll dance alright.’] Her mother’s lullaby wasn’t just racist, it was a slave owner’s song,” Schucman recalled.

This “white mother” with blue eyes, Schucman added, was a domestic who had come from Recife in the Northeast and had been married several times, always to “black” men. She referred to her former husbands as “monkeys”. The young woman’s father, a bricklayer from Bahia who was classified by her as “pitch black”, was her mother’s second husband. 

“They met in São Paulo. When I interviewed the young university student, they’d been separated for a long time. The father was 80, the mother 70,” Schucman said. The young woman told her “she’d known she was black ever since she was little” because of the violence she had suffered at the hands of her mother. When the mother scolded her, she called her “monkey” and “stinking nigger”. The mother said she had “bad hair” like her father and beat her when she cried while having her hair combed. “I looked at my father, and that man, who had an extremely negative black identity, really was inferior in my eyes,” the interviewee had told Schucman. 

In Schucman’s interpretation, this mother, this ignorant, poor, humiliated woman with very low self-esteem, wielded her “whiteness” as the only thing of value to her and an instrument of power. “Her racism wasn’t the half-disguised, half-facetious kind you see so frequently in Brazil. It was cruel, violent racism, in a context of extreme poverty. When she was out of work and had no husband who could help, the mother and her children became beggars and had to knock on the doors of acquaintances to ask for food. Her ‘whiteness’ was the only thing left to her. She used it in a very crude, very base way,” Schucman said.

“Early last century, one of the progenitors of the research field we now call ‘critical whiteness studies’, the American W. E. B. Du Bois, wrote that white people’s sense of entitlement and access to symbolic privileges, however wretched their social status, was a ‘public and psychological wage’. With this concept in mind, I realized ‘race’ in the family in question was actually a modulator of affective ties. The ‘lighter-skinned’ siblings suffered less. My interviewee was the ‘darkest’. She had to sleep with a clothespin pinching her nose, which her mother thought would get thinner that way,” Schucman said. 

Despite such an adverse childhood, the young woman had managed to go to university and had met the black social movement. She had begun to reconstruct her identity through political activism and rap music. Later on, she also turned to psychotherapy. 

“She told me there were two people inside her: one participated in the movement and was an activist and proud of her frizzy hair; the other was still that outrageously ill-treated child. She said she firmly believed she would find redemption one day, but until then, that child remained in her – and it hurt,” Schucman said. 

The other side of denial

Other interviewees showed Schucman far more subtle forms of denial, thus leading her to conclude that racism was not necessarily a hindrance to affection. “In most cases, ‘black’ people are loved by their family,” she said. “However, because of its love or in order to love them, the family denies their ‘blackness’. Instead of re-elaborating its racism in order to transcend it, the family simply removes the loved one from the stigmatized group. I used the concept of ‘denial’ from Freud to interpret this behavior.”

In one of the families Schucman interviewed, in this case originally from Bahia, the mother saw every family member as “white”. As a result, she thought the interview itself was pointless. However, one of her children considered himself “black, with a white sister”, and hence part of an “interracial family”. For the mother, this son’s idea was “nonsense, something he made up after he went to university”. This child received more affection from the mother, but in order to love him, she somehow had to deny he was “black”. Hence the concept of denial.

By one of those “ironies of fate” that appear to exemplify the psychoanalytical concept of the “return of the repressed”, the young man’s sister, who was born “very light-skinned”, “entirely white”, had an “interracial” affair with a man the family classified as “very black”. She got pregnant. Anxiety about the unborn child’s color caused the worst tension ever in this family’s history. “The mother in this family, then the baby-to-be’s grandmother, said something highly significant to me: ‘We were very nervous. But when my granddaughter was born and we saw she was white, we all fell in love with her,’” Schucman recalled.

When Schucman interviewed this family, the granddaughter was 14 and classified herself either as “colored” [“morena”] or as “chocolate” [“mulata”], saying she was not “black” because “black girls” had frizzy hair and she straightened hers. “Like the other members of her family, she needed to deny her ‘blackness’ in order to legitimize the affection she received,” Schucman said.

In her opinion, the son had probably inherited his phenotype from his father, but the father was a gaping absence, an unknown quantity whose presence no photographs had documented and about whom nothing was said. However, despite her light skin and straight hair, the mother had visible black ancestry, although she acknowledged nothing of the kind. 

In the case of another family Schucman interviewed in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo State, the father was not unknown, missing or absent. The family was in touch with him and loved him, but the mother never admitted her husband was “black”. 

According to Schucman, the couple’s daughter suffered other kinds of denial. When she was little and spent weekends with cousins on her father’s side, she would always return home with a braided African hairstyle. As soon as she came in, her mother would say it was horrible and immediately undo the braids. Even as an adult, whenever she wore large earrings or colorful clothes, her mother would criticize her for “wearing black things”.

“She said to me, ‘My mother used to say I was almost white, but I didn’t have a white nose. When I was little, I always felt I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I felt my body was wrong. Later on, when I had a child of my own, my mother told me to stroke his nose a lot while he was still a baby and the cartilage was soft, so it would become thinner,’” Schucman said.

Her conclusion is that in Brazil, it is possible to be against racism, believe racism is evil and should be combated, marry a “black” person, and nonetheless be a racist in the sense of hierarchizing people according to phenotype, finding “white people’s hair” more sightly, “white noses” prettier, and so on. “However, while the ‘interracial family’ is often the locus of racist experiences, it can also be a privileged space in which to receive and develop strategies to tackle racism in the broader society, as I found in more than one interview,” she said.




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