Who is brown?

Yutaka Takanashi, Tokyo-jin, 1974


Considerations on universal racism and Brazilian racism in particular


The article “Is Brazil brown?”, by Mário Maestri inspired some reflections in me. These are based solely on personal experiences, anecdotes so to speak. So before that, I should clarify that I am not afraid of numbers or statistics about large human groups. I believe that qualitative experiences and quantitative evaluation are completely complementary. After all, although I am a statistical physicist, those who ultimately invented statistics were not natural scientists, but people from the human sciences, so to speak, who needed to calculate mortality rates, birth rates, economic indices, sociology and even history. .

Few know, but physics only began to use statistics in the mid-1926th century, and such use was controversial. After all, physics would be an exact science: the mass of the electron is always the same, there is no variability in it like there is in the weight or height of human beings. It was only much later, from XNUMX onwards, that the concept of probability became incorporated into quantum physics, although Albert Einstein believed until the end of his life that quantum statistical predictions were a sign that the theory was incomplete.

The article “Is Brazil brown?” is based on a discussion about IBGE statistics (and perhaps misdirected identity jingoism, from what I understand). My text is complementary: I report how, despite being middle class (a university professor, civil servant, son of a civil servant, son of an illegal Japanese immigrant), I suffered or at least had contact with instances of racism in my life and in of my family.

I believe that these experiences could broaden the horizon of discussions about universal racism and Brazilian racism in particular. These are anecdotes with no statistical value, they don't prove anything, I'm the first to recognize that! They can illustrate, from a different angle, the point I want to emphasize: racism and miscegenation.

Before continuing, I make a clarification: I use the term black instead of black because Djamila Ribeiro used it in her book Who's Afraid of Black Feminism. The “black” American (black) is correct, but who says we should follow the Americans? If we follow it to the letter, we would have to change the name of Nigeria, which I don't think Nigerians would like. Black Diamond, Black Camaro, Black Steed, Black Beauty, Black Gold, Black Knight are all complimentary terms involving the adjective black and that would look very strange using the term “black”. Aside from the use of “preto” and “preta” used by the racist Monteiro Lobato in his stories. But I don't think I need to continue. A friend informed me that, after great debate, the black movement(s) agreed that you can use either black or black, without any differences.

I once saw in a film a racist white man talking to a black man, both Americans. The white man explained that he had nothing against black people nor did he consider them inferior: both white people and black people had their qualities, like different breeds of horses or dogs. The problem was interracial marriages. In this mixture, the culture specific to each ethnic group, the purity of the race and its qualities, would be lost. The problem was the mestizos (mutts or browns, we would say). I will discuss later whether the term mestizo is offensive or not.

But why would I talk about racism against black people here since this is not my place to speak? A stepdaughter, a fan of Djamila Ribeiro, but curiously very white, reprimanded me for the fact that I had been organizing the celebration of “black consciousness day” in my department at USP for twenty years. This is not my place to speak! I should organize “Japanese-Brazilian awareness day!”

I refuse to do that! The Japanese-Brazilians are fine, thank you. Ok, I don't need to be at the front of the celebration, I can just show a good film about racism at my Cineclube (for example, The great debate, with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, where a communist atheist joins a Methodist pastor for the class struggle and against racism).

My first girlfriend was black (not brown, but really black). I was 17 years old and I faced incredible pressure from my mother to stop the relationship, after all I could get her pregnant and she didn't want grandchildren mixed together. A friend of both families, black, made jokes: “you’re going to have Japanese people!” she joked. In other words, the same argument against mestizos.

But at that time, young PT member, I really participated in the Black Movement because, at the time, the important thing was to join forces from all sources and not just racially (or culturally) pure black people. So, when I started at USP as a professor, I started organizing “Zombie Day” at my college (which I was asked by a full professor during my undergraduate course with the question: “Are you trying to create enmity between white people and black people?”). But why me? It's just that at the time, twenty years ago, there weren't many black professors at USP, at least in the exact ones (in fact, they still don't exist). Those who were there, and the black students, were not willing to expose themselves by organizing the celebration.

One of these celebrations brought together a Japanese-Brazilian physicist, an Italian historian and a Jewish physicist, who was once responsible for UFSC's inclusion policies. We couldn’t get a black or brown organizer. But we managed to invite “Father J.” prominent leader of Candomblé in Ribeirão Preto, who gave a talk.

Unfortunately, I felt a patriarchal, if not sexist, authoritarian tone in his speech in general. When it came time to ask questions, I ventured one:

– Father J., can a black person be an atheist?
- No of course not. In African culture, superior spirits and forces are recognized.
– But Father J., what if he wants to be an atheist?
– Then he will be a false black, as Atheism is a white European Enlightenment philosophy. He won't be a real black man.


Until a few years ago, the IBGE considered every person with two very different ethnic ancestries to be mixed race. Not just blacks with whites, and indigenous people with whites, or blacks with indigenous people, as Mário Maestri reports, but also Asians with whites. As you can see from my name, I'm a mixed race of Japanese and white (redneck from Paraná). So, once, filling out a form to win a USP tutoring scholarship, already in postgraduate studies, I was faced for the first time with the question of indicating my race: white, yellow, black or mixed race. Few options.

I knew that officially, according to IBGE, I was brown. And, actually, I don't like marking “yellow” because after all, I would be at most half Japanese in my DNA (my friends say I look more like a Bolivian than a Japanese). Furthermore, I recognize that I have a certain (pre-)concept against the Japanese, I think they are racist against Chinese and Koreans, against black people – and even worse, against children of Japanese mothers with black American soldiers – again the issue of miscegenation, and against mestizos in general, seen (I don't dispute this) as people who have lost their Japanese language, customs and culture.

I understood that the question about race in the USP questionnaire, which was not normal at the time, aimed to favor (give a few more points in the criteria for scholarships) black people and mixed race black and white people specifically. There was still no talk of indigenous people. Therefore, somewhat reluctantly, I marked “yellow” so as not to take the bag from someone more in need. More recently, a new USP questionnaire included around 16 options for ethnicities. But, again, there was no mestizo option, as if ethnicities did not mix, as if mestizos should be ashamed or become invisible. I had to use the “other options” box and explain that I am mixed race.


In the Japanese community, being mixed race is not exactly a good thing: the status of a sansei e nisei It's one thing, but there's almost no word for mestizos. The old word was Ainoko, which means “similar to the Ainos”, the original people of Hokkaido and other islands to the north dominated and oppressed by the Japanese. The Ainos, unlike the Japanese, wore long beards, had more body hair and eyes more similar to Caucasians, and this may have been the origin of the word to distinguish mixed race Japanese and Westerners. The word fell into disuse because it was offensive and is now used hafu, which comes from English half.

I, perhaps, no longer being brown according to IBGE, could be a hafu. But my children certainly aren't. My children's great-grandfather was a black man who may have been born during slavery, given that he died at the age of 115 in the 2000s. He had a farm in the Ribeira valley region, where he harvested rice when he was still 105 years old. He had two wives, 24 children and a countless number of grandchildren (the family members I know don't know exactly what that number is).

This elder is the refutation (anecdotal, of course!) of any racism of biological origin adopted, for example, by Nazi fascism and Japanese fascism. For the Darwinian success criterion is the fitness biological: the number of descendants capable of reaching maturity and having other descendants. In biology, unfortunately, culture does not count. But the genes of that black great-grandfather, and his wives, spread through the population in a way that no white person today could aspire to. His case would make Richard Dawkins, the author of the selfish gene, sigh with envy. And live 115 years, do you believe you can live that? One of this great-grandfather's sons, grandfather Félix, was also black. Félix married a descendant of Portuguese and indigenous people from the Peruíbe region, his grandmother Irani (indigenous name).

My children's mother is mixed race according to the IBGE classification. She has ten siblings, meaning the Félix-Irani couple was another biological success. In terms of skin color, half of them are very white (one of them has the nickname “White”, in fact) and the other half has some black features. But I believe that everyone suffered much more due to their social class (workers in Marxism old school) than due to his African DNA. After all, how can I ask my White brother-in-law to “embrace the race”?

On the other hand, only one sister had access to University (a pedagogy course). One brother passed the difficult Unicamp entrance exam for the Civil Engineering course without studying, but he did not have the resources to live away from home. Don't tell me that you are poor because your IQ is low, or that your IQ is low because of your ancestral genes. They are all extremely intelligent, quick-witted, sarcastic, at the comedian level. stand-up. But all five sons, due to circumstances, remained in their father's profession, which was a bricklayer, and the women are low-level public servants.

Finally, my four children: the first, called M., has straight hair and white skin; the second has curly hair and a darker skin tone, called J.; the third with more Japanese features, called L. Félix in honor of his black grandfather, learned Japanese (something that not even my father knew) and dates a mixed-race Italian-Japanese woman; and the fourth, a kind of blond Japanese guy, called R. Osame (named after my Nisei father, not me).


I believe that the real problem on the minds of all racists, who value pure race and ancestral culture, is really interracial marriages and mixed race marriages, as this is what really destroys their ideals of purity. Black people could even rise socially, perhaps by a miracle having the same economic status as white people. That's fine, as long as they are segregated. The problem is not exactly black people, but mixed race people. Upper-middle class families place their daughters in elite schools, which do not have black students, precisely to avoid the danger of romantic involvement that could result in a brown grandchild.

In another example, let's imagine that there was a rich and technological Wakanda, made up only of black people. Not only would most whites and Asians continue to think that interracial/intercultural marriages would be wrong, but Wakandans would think the same thing, as mixed-race children would lose their black culture of origin. Perhaps this is why Father J. said that atheism cannot be adopted by a “true” black person.

I believe that the topic of miscegenation would need to be better studied. It is not enough to say that it was a whitening policy used by racists. People feel sexual and romantic attraction for the most diverse reasons. I have a racist friend who is a raving Denzel Washington fan. My two Japanese uncles married people of Italian descent because they lived in Vila Romana, in Lapa, in São Paulo. No whitening policy was involved, but just the chance that my grandfather did not go to live in Bairro da Liberdade. And today, more than half of Nikkei (Japanese descendants) are mixed race.

Why did I advance to my children's generation? First to ask if, in the case of a person having black, indigenous, white and Japanese ancestry at the same time, as is the case with my children, how should they classify themselves in the IBGE and other questionnaires? I believe that it is not DNA that will answer this, but rather the criterion, perfectly reasonable and I believe adopted by the current anti-racist movement, that, if you think that your skin tone is discriminated against by society, in terms of opportunities, stereotypes or sexual partnership, you must recognize yourself as black, brown or indigenous, and fight collectively against this discrimination.

But if your skin tone is not discriminated against, even if you are of African descent or indigenous, you should not try to take advantage of inclusion mechanisms and advancement policies designed for people who are really suffering from racism.

Of my four children, although they all have partial African ancestry (one quarter), something that motivates my anti-racist opinions, only my second daughter J. could suffer any discrimination. At least that's what she felt when she was five years old. Playing with Serginho, the neighbor in front of our house, from an upper middle class family in Ribeirão Preto (it's incredible how racist the Ribeirão Preto middle class is and today, Bolsonarists!), suddenly she comes home crying. Her mother asked what happened and she says:

– It’s just that when I grow up I’m going to be poor!
- What?
– Serginho said that all black people are poor. And you, mother, always call me “my black girl”!

So I conclude that we need to teach how to avoid statistical and logical fallacies to families in Brazil who educate their five-year-old children this way... although I suspect that this will not be enough.

*Osame Kinouchi Filho He is a professor at the Department of Physics at the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters of Ribeirão Preto (USP). Book author Juliana's kiss: four theoretical physicists talk about children, complexity sciences, biology, politics, religion and football… (Multifocus). [https://amzn.to/3NLFRwi]

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