Racial Segregation in Brazil

Content Warning: This paper refers to sexual violence as a result of racism

“To be an oppressor is dehumanizing and anti-human in nature, as it is to be a victim” (hooks, 2015). In this quote, the author bell hooks shows how the subjugation of an individual or a group is a way of excluding them from the condition of being human. The very definition of “the human” has changed throughout history, often being used as a mechanism of maintenance of the status quo, which goes to show that there is no neutral point of view when it comes to the conceptualization of human nature. Taking that into account, this paper will argue that human nature is a social construct often used to support certain political views and forms of domination of one group over another. Racism will be the focus of my analysis as it is one of the possible misconceptions about human nature that can be used by articulations of hegemonic power.

Understanding human nature as a social construct helps comprehend political and social injustices, as well as why and how they were developed and maintained. With that in mind, this paper aims to show that deterministic ideas of human nature might mislead people into thinking that the plurality of human identities is not possible for society. Therefore, reflecting on how humanity is not really doomed to such a determinism helps us understand that overcoming dehumanization is possible once people engage in new articulations and interpretations of identity and knowledge.

Ever since groups started conquering and subduing one another, people have developed theories on race that determine specific groups as inferior. This categorization is not an issue that only influenced past societies — one can see how conceptions of race and gender that were very prominent in the past still play a role in how discrimination takes place nowadays, which will be exemplified in further sections of this text.

With that in mind, this paper will investigate how the domination and racism established in colonial times have shaped Brazilian identity, bringing up consequences that can still be seen in how segregation takes place in present times. Brazil was chosen as the subject of analysis because it was the American country that received the highest number of enslaved people from Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries (Buchholz, 2020). Also, the racist articulations that took —and still take— place in Brazil were developed in a meticulous and well-structured manner, which resulted in disguising the problem of racism and allowing many people to believe the myth that racism is a foreign issue.

The paper will combine different philosophers and their perspectives on ontology, epistemology, and power surrounding colonialism in order to offer alternatives to overcome it. I will first explain how power structures take place to establish domination; then I will cover the different aspects of how racism is articulated in Brazil using the example of domestic workers as the focus of this analysis. I will then conclude by highlighting the relevance of this discussion (of racism and its relations to deterministic conceptions of human nature) for society as a whole.

Power structures, their articulations and the different layers of domination

When conquering other countries, Western European nations that were leading the project of modernity developed their own narratives to justify colonisation by working on concepts of inferior races and the idea of a “true” (white and European) human nature (Waso, 1996). These views were sustained by discourses that were present since the times of Aristotle, who claimed that some people were free and entitled to be rulers while others were naturally born to be enslaved (Levin, 1997). Here one can see an example of how the definitions and categorizations of human essence can be articulated to define inferiority and superiority and therefore sustain systems of oppression. The belief that some people were inferior made their enslavement seen as necessary because they could not do any better — they were incapable of being civilized, closer to animals than to humans, and born to be slaves.

The belief that some people were inferior made their enslavement seen as necessary because they could not do any better — they were incapable of being civilized, closer to animals than to humans, and born to be slaves.

These colonial relations can be observed in Edward Said’s book Orientalism. Said defines Orientalism as a hegemonic discourse that allows Western nations— or the Occident— to exercise their authority and domination of the “Orient”, and as an epistemological and ontological differentiation between “Orient” and “Occident” (Said, 2019). He also explains that Orientalism cannot be fully understood if it is not seen as discourse, meaning a way of constructing knowledge (social, political, cultural) about something. Said’s analysis focuses on the Middle East, but his theory of what constitutes Orientalism can also be applied to other non-Western nations that have been evaluated and objectified by Western nations. From Said’s perspective, the idea of the Orient, or more generally the “outsider”, or ontological  Other, is a Western creation that does not necessarily correspond to reality, and it is created to serve the purpose of Western domination over the “outsider” nations. In understanding this, one begins to notice that colonial power is not only exercised through force but that it also takes place in other dimensions such as the epistemological (through invalidation of knowledge production), and even psychological (self-esteem), as will be shown in further sections of this paper.

In his essay The Subject and Power, published in 1982, Michel Foucault claims that, in order to understand power relations, one has to analyse five aspects:

  1. system of differentiations: which is related to how one acts upon the actions of others to establish some form of superiority, such as status or privilege;
  2.  types of objectives: meaning what drives the oppressors to exert power, which in the case of colonization can be the desire to obtain political hegemony;
  3.  instrumental modes: characterizing how power is going to be imposed — by “the threat of arms, by the effects of speech, through economic disparities” (Foucault, 2020) and so on;
  4.  forms of institutionalization: which relates to the hierarchical structures of society and how they are organized;
  5. degrees of rationalization: constituting the rationale behind the elaboration of power, such as the development of the notions of a superior race.

By describing these components, Foucault shows that power is not a given or fixed entity; it is a well-structured and strategic form of domination that, in order to function, needs to be acted upon in order to create its own narrative to support its basis. With the analysis developed by Foucault on power structures, one can understand the different layers in which the exercise of power can be organized and circumstancially adjusted to satisfy some form of state control (colonialism in this case). These articulations guided colonialism in the definition of the Self —the subject of the discourse, that which constructs notions of identity of one’s own group and foreign ones— and the Other —the object, the foreign existence defined by the Self through exclusion. The denial of the Other’s humanity works as a tool that reaffirms the Self’s identity and legitimises its actions (Aparecida Carneiro, 2005). And while the Self establishes its sovereignty, the Other is deprived of its autonomy, being therefore unable to claim its own identity and ontological resistance.

By analysing structures of racism, one can see that the black person — the Other in this equation — is only defined in relation to white people. As stated by Frantz Fanon: “their metaphysics, or less pretentiously their customs and the agencies to which they refer, were abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilisation that imposed its own” (Fanon, 2021).

Even though a lot of people tend to believe that Brazil’s miscegenation was the result of amicable and loving relationships among those of different races, it actually happened mostly through the rape of black and indigenous women.

The consequences of colonial relations in Brazil

The aforementioned strategies were followed as a “general recipe”, but it would be naïve to assume that racism worked uniformly in formerly colonized nations. The Brazilian philosopher Lélia Gonzalez differentiates between two racism strategies that took place during colonial times: open racism and disguised racism. According to her, the former is the approach taken by Anglo-Saxon colonies, and it is characterized by miscegenation as something inconceivable since the colonizers wanted to maintain their white purity.[It is important, however, to highlight that rape of enslaved women still took place. Sexual violence is, after all, another form of establishing domination and taking away the humanity and autonomy of a being who is objectified on so many levels.1 Here, racism worked via clear segregation of non-white people, while in Latin America, the second strategy —also called racism through abnegation— was predominant (Gonzalez, 2020).

A description of some colonial relationships that were held in Brazil will be performed now to illustrate how racism through abnegation came about. In Brazil, there were different roles an enslaved woman could be forced to perform: for example, some of them worked in the plantations with the men, while others — called mucamas — worked in the house, taking care of chores and raising their master’s children. An additional “job” they often had to take was to be the object of the master’s desires (meaning that they would be raped), which often resulted in them having mixed-race babies that would never be considered white or enjoy the same privilege as the master’s legitimate children.

Even though a lot of people tend to believe that Brazil’s miscegenation was the result of amicable and loving relationships among those of different races, it actually happened mostly through the rape of black and indigenous women. In fact, interracial marriage was not even allowed: Gonzalez writes that a document from the end of the 18th century demanded that a captain had his jobs and privileges taken away by the vice king because he had “stained his blood” by marrying a black woman (Gonzalez, 2020).

Additionally, people tend to think that the mucamas had a privileged position in comparison to the plantation workers based on the assumption that the work done by the mucamas was somehow lighter and less abusive. There was also the belief that the mucamas accepted their fate of raising the master’s kids and being treated as a sexual object, but in reality, they did not have a choice in any of this. They often had their children taken away and in the case that they refused to perform their work, they would be tortured and/or killed (Gonzalez, 2020).

These misguided beliefs that certain enslaved individuals had choices and privileges are related to what Gonzalez calls a historical lie, which comes from the assumption that the enslaved passively accepted their conditions because their masters were thought to be amicable and generous (Gonzalez, 2020). This also led to assuming that miscegenation was a natural process instead of a forced one, which as a whole characterizes the type of segregation that hides behind a mask (racism through abnegation) and also propagates the idea of racial democracy —a term that in this paper will refer to the misguided notion that there is equality among races. In further sections, examples will be shown of how the belief in the overcoming of the hierarchical structures of race present during colonial times contradicts the reality of Brazilian society through the analysis of one of the most marginalized groups in Brazil: the domestic workers.

The information outlined above demonstrates one reason why many people in Brazil believe that racism is a foreign problem. They associate the country’s cultural diversity with equality, but, in reality, even though Brazil was indeed influenced by many countries in Europe, Africa and Asia at different periods in history, that diversity was never reflected in terms of opportunity and quality of life in Brazilian society.

It is important to know that this problem also bears consequences today. In 2019, 36.1% of white Brazilians between 18 and 24 years old had access to university, while only 18.3% of black people in the same age group had the same opportunity. Those are not the only disparities: in 2018, 75.7% of the homicide victims in the country were black (Moreno, 2021).

Death beyond the corporeal: the concept of epistemicide

Coined by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, epistemicide (in Portuguese epistemicídio) is “one of the most efficient instruments of ethnic/racial domination” as it denies the existence of the oppressed as epistemic subjects (Aparecida Carneiro, 2005). It also works by devaluating and eliminating the forms of knowledge produced by such groups. Carneiro considers epistemicide to be the modus operandi  (mode of operating) of the colonial system and explains that it differs from genocide because it is not categorized as the elimination of bodies but rather of their intellectual existence.

Without intellectual work, oppressed people cannot create the mechanisms that will allow them to liberate and decolonize themselves and go from being an object to being subjects.

When Carneiro talks about power, she mentions how colonialism established itself among other things by diminishing the culture of the Other and claiming that they were incapable of possessing knowledge. This would put the colonized in a place of needing tutoring or domestication, a process that would turn them into civilized beings. The epistemicide generated by a Eurocentric model of thinking disqualifies the types of knowledge possessed by the dominated people while also exercising intellectual inferiorization and denying access to quality education that could provide the Other with tools to not only possess but also be a producer of knowledge (Aparecida Carneiro. 2005).

In addition to and as a result of all these factors, epistemicide also works on a psychological level on the individual’s self-esteem. That is because all these conditions influence them to turn their backs on intellectual/academic work since they have been taught to believe that such careers are not “right for them”. The lack of identification with producers of knowledge hinders their interest in engaging with the construction of knowledge (Teixeira, 2021). This is an example of how the deterministic ideas of human nature spread by colonialist practices make people feel like there is no alternative to the current hegemonic ideologies.

As bell hooks and Cornel West said in their book Breaking Bad — Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, “Yearly, I see many brilliant young scholars turn their backs on intellectual work because they feel so diminished in institutions because they feel their voices are not valued in the larger society” (hooks & West, 2017). They also point out that this is not only a loss on a personal level: without intellectual work, oppressed people cannot create the mechanisms that will allow them to liberate and decolonize themselves and go from being an object to being subjects. This all ties back to the aforementioned idea that the colonial definitions of human nature, when assumed to be essential, can mislead people to think that the current ideologically dominant system is the only possible outcome for society and that changing the status quo is impossible.

“She is like part of the family”: analyzing the condition of black women as reflected in the lives of domestic workers

After explaining how hegemonic power is established and the intricacies of its effects, the discussion will now shift to the conditions of the black female workers in Brazil nowadays to illustrate how they constitute consequences that are rooted in the aforementioned aspects of colonialism. This part of the population will be the focus because they suffer from both racism and sexism that resulted from the image that was created to represent their identities during colonial times, which culminated in them being one of the most marginalized and dehumanized groups in Brazilian society.

The abolition of slavery, rather than being a solution, constituted the transition from the condition of formal to informal slavery. Black people, still suffering from the established hierarchy of races that deemed them inferior, were doomed to keep working for their previous masters due to a lack of better opportunities (Teixeira, 2021). After slavery was abolished, between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, 70% of the formerly enslaved women joined the workforce as domestic workers, a type of labor that is often not considered a “real job” and is characterized by having very precarious conditions (da Costa Furno, 2016). Activist Preta Rara stated that Brazil is the country with the highest number of domestic workers in the world, with an average of 3 maids for every 100.000 habitants (Preta-Rara, 2019).

In addition to the inferiorization of the job title, the work relations that domestic workers are subject to are similar— to an extent— to the relationship between master and slave. Many of these women were forced to live in their bosses’ houses, sleeping in a place called the “maid’s bedroom”— a room still present in many residential buildings in Brazil —, which can be as small as three m² (Zaremba, 2018). Living at their boss’ house not only guarantees that they can start working as early as possible and finish only late at night after everyone has had dinner and the boss’ kids are asleep, but it also makes them more vulnerable to sexual assault (Teixeira, 2021).

The “maid’s room”, as well as being incredibly small, is always placed near the kitchen and utility room, displaying another dimension of the hierarchical structures present in the relations: the hierarchization of physical space. The maid’s living area is next to her working space, and the access to the remaining rooms in the house is reduced to her working activities. Another item present in this segregation of physical space is the existence of social and service elevators also present in residential buildings: maids and workers, in general, are only allowed to use the service elevator, whereas residents and visitors are allowed to use the social one (Teixeira, 2021).

The fact that these women have been present in the daily life of the families they work for and that they have lived in the same (although segregated) space since colonial times results in the misguided idea that they are “part of the family”, a sentence often repeated by the families that hire them (Teixeira, 2021). There are two problems with this attitude: 1) the misguided notion that there is affection involved in that relationship contradicts the hierarchical relations present in such environments, and 2) it allows the discrepancy and abuse in those relations to be masked and presented with some level of equality, which relates to Gonzalez’ previous discussion about how racism works through abnegation in Brazil, hiding behind false ideas of equality.

Dehumanization only works through and justifies
itself by the belief that there is a subhuman category.


One can understand how colonial power creates colonized identities and the current consequences for black people in Brazil. It is possible now to recognize that colonialism was not a given but rather a very well-elaborated structure, so much so that people would believe that the abolishment of slavery solved all or most of the problems (since people tend to think that power is exercised only through force and do not take into account its nuances).

Dehumanization only works through and justifies itself by the belief that there is a subhuman category. This paper has shown that these notions of dehumanization are deliberately constructed for the benefit of privileged groups, such as white European males in positions of power. The understanding of racism as a result of misconceptions of human nature that fits into certain articulations of power, rather than as an ontological fact, is crucial for the dismantling of racist practices and beliefs.

The recognition of these power structures, as well as understanding that colonial conceptions of human nature do not have to be the norm, is extremely important, but there is still a long way to go in order to form a strong counter-hegemony that will allow society to establish a more just society where different voices can be heard. Further analysis of how modernity and colonialism have perpetuated dehumanization has yet to be developed, as one of the steps to decolonizing history and politics.

Racism through abnegation and the myth of racial democracy allows people to think that the problem has been overcome while also making it hard for a counter-hegemony to arise because of the consequences of epistemicide. As pointed out by the writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongʼo, “economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relation to others” (Wa Thiongʼo, 1986).

Without the tools for creating their own epistemology, the liberation of black people from the social, political, and psychological consequences of colonialism becomes a much bigger struggle. Society is lucky enough, however, to have the works of Gonzalez, Carneiro, Fanon, and so many others that were capable of identifying the colonial power structures, understanding how they were formed, the harms they have caused and the importance of finding alternative means to achieve a more egalitarian way of living together.


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  1. It is important, however, to highlight that rape of enslaved women still took place. Sexual violence is, after all, another form of establishing domination and taking away the humanity and autonomy of a being who is objectified on so many levels.