Brazil is Measuring Government Applicants’ Physical Features to Determine Their Blackness

Lead Photo: Photo by ilbusca / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Photo by ilbusca / iStock / Getty Images Plus
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Lucas Siqueira, 27, has a black grandfather, a grandmother with Indian and white roots, as well as Portuguese ancestry. The Brazilian considers himself mixed race. But after he scored a prestigious job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, people blew up his Facebook feed with comments that questioned how he could be anything other than white. “A lot of people sent pictures saying, ‘Oh, this dude is white, he’s a fraud,” Siqueira said, according to NPR.

In 2014, the Brazilian government – working to balance the scales – enacted an affirmative action policy requiring that 20 percent of government positions go to black and mixed race people. As the home of the largest African diaspora and because – unlike the United States – there were no anti-miscegenation laws, race in Brazil isn’t quite as black and white. The Economist describes the country as “not a binary variable but a spectrum.” Yet, the gap between white and mixed-race and black Brazilians doesn’t support Gilberto Freyre’s racial democracy argument – that is, that post-slavery, race didn’t divide its citizens, as it did in other countries. On average, black and mixed-race Brazilians earn 41.8 percent less than whites.

Lucas Siqueira
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Following the backlash to Siqueira’s hiring, the government reviewed his and a few others’ case. A group of seven diplomats asked Siqueira questions – such as “Since when do you consider yourself to be a person of this color?” – to determine whether or not he’s Afro-Brazilian. They decided he wasn’t. Siqueira responded by suing. To build his case, he went to seven dermatologists to see where he falls on the Fitzpatrick scale. The scale assigns skin color a number from one (lightest) to seven (darkest). “Apparently on my face, I’m a Type 4. Which would be like Jennifer Lopez or Dev Patel, Frida Pinto, or John Stamos,” he said. “On my limbs I would be Type 5, which is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Beyoncé, and Tiger Woods.”

Now, the government’s going one step further to ensure that 20 percent of jobs go to the most marginalized groups. On August 2, racial tribunals were set up, which looks past skin color and racial background. The applicants must also appear phenotypically black. In some states, they’re analyzing lip size, nose width, and hair texture to determine someone’s race. According to Telesur, the decree states that judges will assess “apparent physical features in order to check if they are illegally competing for positions reserved for black people.” Naturally, not everyone’s on board with these tribunals.

“It is something terrible,” said Amílcar Pereira, an associate professor at the School of Education in the Federal University of Rio. “I believe this kind of strategy can weaken the support of society for affirmative action policies. These policies have huge support … the majority of Brazilian society supports affirmative action. But this kind of commission can jeopardize the support because it’s so controversial. It’s unacceptable to come back to the 19th century, to determine who is black and who is not.”

But blonde-haired, blue-eyed applicants have previously filled positions meant for people of color after claiming they have African ancestry. So some welcome the race tribunals. Leizer Vaz, coordinator of NGO Educafro, accepts it. He sees it as a way for Brazil to try to right a wrong.

“In my opinion, the value of the commission is to (keep out) white people who intend to make a fraud,” he said. “It’s controversial, but the general result is good. Because we are giving a chance for poor black people to access the space of power that we never had in Brazil.”