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Seeing Like Citizens: Unofficial Understandings of Official Racial Categories in a Brazilian University*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 June 2009

Luisa Farah Swartzman is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In July she will hold the position of Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. Email:


This paper investigates how students at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), one of the first Brazilian universities to adopt race-based quotas for admissions, interpret racial categories used as eligibility criteria. Considering the perspectives of students is important to understand the workings of affirmative action policies because UERJ's quotas require applicants to classify themselves. Students' interpretations of those categories often diverge from the interpretations intended by people who shaped the policy. Students' perspectives are formed by everyday experiences with categorisation and by their self-assessment as legitimate beneficiaries of quotas. In contrast, the policies were designed according to a new racial project, where black consciousness-raising and statistics played an important role.

Este artículo investiga cómo los estudiantes de la Universidad Estatal de Río de Janeiro (UERJ), una de las primeras universidades brasileñas en adoptar cuotas para la admisión basadas en raza, interpretan las categorías raciales utilizadas como criterios de elegibilidad. El considerar que las perspectivas de los estudiantes es importante para entender cómo funcionan las políticas de acción afirmativa se debe a que las cuotas de la UERJ requieren que los solicitantes se clasifiquen a sí mismos. Las interpretaciones de los estudiantes de tales categorías con frecuencia divergen de las interpretaciones de las personas que configuran dichas políticas. Las perspectivas de los estudiantes se forman por las experiencias cotidianas de categorización y de su propia autoevaluación como beneficiarios legítimos de las cuotas. En contraste, las políticas fueron diseñadas de acuerdo a un nuevo proyecto racial, donde el incremento de una conciencia negra y las estadísticas han jugado un papel importante.

Este artigo investiga como alunos da Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), umas das primeiras universidades brasileiras a adotar o sistema de cotas raciais, interpretam categorias raciais utilizadas como critérios para acesso à vagas. Considerar as perspectivas dos estudantes é importante para que o funcionamento das políticas de ações afirmativas seja compreendido, já que o direito às as cotas da UERJ depende da autoidentificação dos candidatos. As interpretações dos estudantes pertencentes às categorias consideradas pelos programas de cotas frequentemente divergem das interpretações daqueles que formularam a política. As perspectivas dos alunos são influenciadas por experiências cotidianas e pela sua autoavaliação como legítimos beneficiários das cotas. Por outro lado, as políticas foram pensadas de acordo com um novo projeto racial no qual um papel importante foi desempenhado pelo estímulo à consciência negra e pelas estatísticas.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 See Edward Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Colour in Brazil (Princeton and Oxford, 2004).

2 As far as I know, all Brazilian institutions that have implemented affirmative action require self-classification. The University of Brasília has until recently ‘verified’ eligibility by having students' photographs analysed by a committee, but students could still opt out of qualifying for quotas.

3 I borrow the term ‘racial project’ from Winant, Howard, ‘Rethinking Race in Brazil’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 24, no. 1 (1992), pp. 173–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (New York, 1994).

4 James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven and London, 1998). For a discussion on the bureaucratic and social uses of statistics and how they simplify and sometimes shape social reality, see also Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton, 1995).

5 Most students I interviewed entered the university after the implementation of racial quotas. Of those, 14 studied Law, four studied Education (Pedagogia), four studied Social Work, four studied Nursing and two studied Medicine. The students' ages varied from 18 to 44 years. Before the interview I gave all but one of them a questionnaire, where they had to fill out their ‘cor ou raça’ (colour or race) using the same options as those in the census, nine classified themselves as branco, seven as preto, nine as pardo and two students refused to answer. Fifteen were male and 13 were female. Most lived in lower-middle class neighbourhoods of Rio (in Zona Norte and Zona Oeste).

6 Giddens's account of the reflexivity in modern social life suggests that social practices are constantly informed by new knowledge about those very practices. This includes ‘expert’ knowledge about social life, part of which is generated by social science. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, 1990).

7 One could say that racial projects influence the cultural resources available for students to understand racial categories and colour-coded life experiences. Students' use of those resources is consistent with Swidler's description of ‘culture as a “tool kit” of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems.’ Consistent with Swidler's account, only in specific circumstances (usually in times of cultural change and when involved with social movements that seek to promote this change) do people use those ‘tools’ as a coherent system of meaning, or ‘ideology’. Swidler, Ann, ‘Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies’, American Sociological Review, no. 20 (1986), pp. 305–9.Google Scholar

8 Winant, ‘Rethinking Race in Brazil’.

9 Thomas Skidmore, Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (New York, 1995); Melissa Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford, 2000); and Reginald Daniel, Race and Multiraciality in Brazil and the United States (University Park, 2006).

10 Dias da Silva, Graziella Moraes, ‘Ações afirmativas no Brasil e na África do Sul’, Tempo Social, Revista de Sociologia da USP, vol. 18, no. 2 (2006), pp. 131165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Michael Mitchell, ‘Racial Consciousness and the Political Attitudes and Behaviour of Blacks in São Paulo, Brazil’, unpubl Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1977; Kim D. Butler, Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador (New Brunswick, 1998); and Antônio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães, ‘Intelectuais negros e modernidade no Brasil.’ Working Paper CBS-52-04, Centre for Brazilian Studies, Oxford University, 2003.

12 See Fry, Peter, ‘Politics, Nationality and the Meanings of ‘Race’ in Brazil.Daedalus, vol. 129, no. 2 (2000), pp. 83118Google Scholar; and Telles, Race in Another America.

13 Michael Mitchell, ‘Blacks and the Abertura Democrática’, in Fontaine, Pierre Michel (ed.), Race, Class and Power in Brazil (Los Angeles, 1985), pp. 95–119.

14 Ollie Johnson III, 2005 ‘Black Politics in Latin America: An Analysis of National and Transnational Politics’, in Wilbur C. Rich (ed.), The State of the Political Science Discipline: An African American Perspective (2005).

15 Michael George Hanchard, Orpheus and Power: the Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1945–1988 (Princeton, 1994); Laura Moutinho, ‘Negociando Discursos: Análise das Relações entre a Fundação Ford, os Movimentos Negros e a Academia na Década de 80’, unpubl. Ph.D. diss, UFRJ, 1996; Htun, Mala, ‘From “Racial Democracy” to Affirmative Action.’ ‘Changing State Policy on Race in Brazil’, Latin American Research Review, vol. 29, no. 1 (2004), pp. 6089CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Marcio André de Oliveira dos Santos, ‘A Persistência Política dos Movimentos Negros Brasileiros: Processo de Mobilização à 3a Conferência Mundial das Nações Unidas Contra o Racismo.’ unpubl. Masters Thesis, UERJ, 2005.

16 Nelson do Valle Silva, ‘White-Nonwhite Income Differentials: Brazil,’ unpubl. PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1978; and Carlos Hasenbalg, ‘Race Relations in Post-Abolition Brazil: The Smooth Preservation of Racial Inequalities,’ PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1979.

17 See Fry, ‘Politics, Nationality and the Meanings of “Race” in Brazil'; and Telles, Race in Another America.

18 Bailey, Stanley, ‘Unmixing for Race-Making in Brazil’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 114, no. 3 (2008), pp. 577614.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Guimarães, ‘Intelectuais Negros e Modernidade no Brasil’.

20 The new interpretation of the label negro as a statistical category also allowed for Black Movement activists to attach a ‘scientific’ legitimacy to both the broader definition of the term ‘negro’ and to claims about the existence of race-specific disadvantages in Brazilian society (i.e., controlling for class). The new use of statistics encouraged activists to become involved in pressuring government agencies such as the Brazilian census office (IBGE) to persist in and expand its collection racial statistics. See Nobles, Shades of Citizenship.

21 Michelle Peria, ‘Ação Afirmativa: Um Estudo sobre Reserva de Vagas para os Negros nas Universidades Públicas Brasileiras: o Caso do Estado do Rio de Janeiro’, unpubl. Masters Thesis, UFRJ, 2004; Telles, Race in Another America; Htun, ‘From “Racial Democracy” to Affirmative Action’; and Elielma Ayres Machado, ‘Desigualdades “Raciais” e Ensino Superior: Um Estudo sobre a Introdução das “Leis de reserva de vagas para egressos de escola públicas e cotas para negros, pardos e carentes” na Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (2000–2004)', unpubl. PhD thesis, UFRJ, 2004.

22 Peria, ‘Ação Afirmativa’; Carla Ramos ‘“Nem tão pobres, nem tão negros”. Um estudo de caso sobre os alunos indeferidos no vestibular/2004 da UERJ', unpubl. Masters Thesis, UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, 2005; Lília Gonçalves Magalhães Tavolaro, ‘Race and Quotas, “Race” In Quotes: The Struggle over Racial Meanings in Two Brazilian Public Universities', unpubl. PhD thesis, New School for Social Research, 2006.

23 Silva, ‘Ações Afirmativas no Brasil e na África do Sul.’ Public universities in Brazil have more competitive admissions than private universities. People who can afford to go to private schools have a better chance of getting into public universities.

24 Htun, ‘From “Racial Democracy” to Affirmative Action’.

25 Peria, ‘Ação Afirmativa’; Ramos ‘Nem tão pobres, nem tão negros’; and Machado, ‘Desigualdades “Raciais” no Ensino Superior’. Many Movement activists were at the Durban conference during the approval of the law and were caught by surprise when the law was approved.

26 Here what is meant is a public high school, which refers to a government-run, tuition-free schools (as opposed to private schools). In this sense they are more equivalent to US public schools than to British public schools.

27 Machado, ‘Desigualdades “Raciais” no Ensino Superior’. Students apply to specific undergraduate programmes and do most of their coursework in the departments responsible for the programmes.

28 Peria, ‘Ação Afirmativa.

29 Ramos, ‘Nem tão Pobres, nem tão Negros’.

30 Cezar Benjamin, ‘Tortuosos Caminhos’, in Peter Fry, Yvonne Maggie, Marcos Chor Maio, Simone Monteiro and Ricardo Ventura Santos (eds.), Divisões Perigosas: Políticas Raciais no Brasil Contemporâneo (Rio de Janeiro, 2007), pp. 27–34, my translation. Here I present a more simple anti-quota argument, based on a descriptive account of today's Brazilian reality. A more sophisticated argument is that making identities more salient can result in racial conflict, and that the racial democracy, though not a reality, is a useful myth. See, for example, Peter Fry, A Persistência da Raça. Ensaios Etnográficos sobre o Brasil e a África Austral (Rio de Janeiro, 2005).

31 See João Feres Júnior, ‘Aspectos Normativos e Legais das Políticas de Ação Afirmativa.’ In João Feres Júnior e Jonas Zoninstein (ed.), Ação afirmativa e universidade: experiências nacionais comparadas (Brasília, 2006).

32 Lívio Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil (New York, 2003); Valle Silva, Nelson do, ‘Uma Nota Sobre “Raça Social” no Brasil’, Estudos Afro-Asiáticos, vol. 26 (1994), pp. 6780Google Scholar; Telles, Race in Another America.

33 Carlos Alberto Medeiros, Na Lei e na Raça: Legislação e Relações Raciais, Brasil-Estados Unidos (Rio de Janeiro, 2004), my translation. Medeiros recognises that sometimes there may be difficulty in identification. However, he argues that imprecision does not in itself justify the elimination of race-targeted policies, since imprecision is common to any policy that targets specific categories of people (income or age are also imprecise measures of being ‘old’ or ‘poor’). I agree with him on this point, and would add that the risk of essentialisation of categories and their stigmatisation is not exclusive of racial categories. However, I think it is still worth investigating the potential limitations and challenges of particular methods of selection according to race.

34 Medeiros's solution is to require some kind of official documentation (such as a birth certificate) where colour is marked. For those without such documents, there would be the option to include racial status on their birth certificate, which would prevent opportunism by forcing candidates to commit long-term to stigmatised racial labels. As I argue in the conclusion, such measures may exclude more legitimate beneficiaries than illegitimate ones.

35 To ensure confidentiality the names of all students mentioned in this paper are pseudonyms. I drew my sample from a combination of e-mailing class lists (in the case of law students), announcing my project in lectures (for education students), and trying to convince people in the corridor to talk to me (for students of Medicine, Social Service and Nursing) and also through some limited snowballing. I told them that I was interested in knowing how students at UERJ viewed the quotas. Self-selection meant that the full range of perspectives may not be represented in my sample, though I obtained a variety of views on the policy and on race in general. Few white, upper-middle-class students were included since my sample was generally biased toward students incorporated by the quota.

36 Cited in Peria, ‘Ação Afirmativa’, my translation.

37 I build here on the concept of ‘ethnic options’ from Mary Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990).

38 Robin E. Sheriff, Dreaming Equality: Color, Race and Racism in Urban Brazil (New Brunswick, 2001); Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity; Yvonne Maggie, ‘A Ilusão do Concreto: Análise do Sistema de Classificação Racial no Brasil’, Tese de Professor Titular, UFRJ, 1991.

39 Brazilians' use of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ racial terms has been identified by Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity.

40 See Telles, Race in Another America.

41 Ramos, ‘“Nem tão pobres, nem tão negros”’; Fry, A Persistência da Raça.

42 Silva, ‘Ações Afirmativas no Brasil e na África do Sul.’

43 Black Movement activists also deduce discrimination from their life experience, but statistical research is powerful tool for legitimising the movement.

44 See Telles, Race in Another America. Telles explains this difference in terms of ‘vertical’ versus ‘horizontal’ relationships. France Winddance Twine notes that Brazilians were more likely to perceive interpersonal than institutional discrimination in her ethnography in Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil (Rutgers, 1994). In Blackness Without Ethnicity, Sansone describes ‘hard’ (more formal and distant relationships) and ‘soft’ areas of life (more intimate relationships) where race is experienced differently.

45 See Bailey, ‘Unmixing for Race-Making in Brazil’.

46 I use the term ‘ideology’ to refer to a coherent and highly rationalised system of ideas. I do not use it to mean ‘false consciousness’, and do not attempt to discern the extent to which different ideologies correspond to reality.

47 This contradicts with Frei David's discussion of ‘fraud’ in racial quotas, where skin colour starts to matter again.

48 See Swidler's definition of ‘common sense’ and its relationship with ‘ideology’ and the ‘culture as a toolkit’ metaphor.

49 PVNC was already a compromise between race-centered and class-centered views of its members and students, reflected in the name ‘negros e carentes’. See Maggie, Yvonne, ‘Os Novos Bacharéis: A Experiência do Pré-Vestibular para Negros e Carentes’, Novos Estudos CEBRAP, no. 59 (2001), pp. 193202.Google Scholar It is likely that Educafro also inherited some of this perspective.

50 See Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity, Maggie, ‘A Ilusão do Concreto’; and Telles, Race in Another America. Some recent ethnographic literature claims that bi-racial discourse resonates with everyday experience of discrimination and of class divisions between brancos and negros. For example, Sheriff, ‘Dreaming Equality’; McCallum, Cecília, ‘Racialized Bodies, Naturalized Classes: Moving through the City of Salvador da Bahia’, American Ethnologist, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 100–17 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Women out of Place? A Micro-historical Perspective on the Black Feminist Movement in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 39, (2007), pp. 55–80. Although bi-racial categories and the black movements' ideology resonate with some students' experiences, alternative cultural frameworks resonate with other students' experiences – such as being from ‘mixed’ families. In addition, the experiences that this framework resonates with are not necessarily those intended by activists (e.g., the broader interpretation of negro may resonate with common ancestry or common class background and not common discrimination).

51 Certainly, the UERJ policy was the result of a conjunction of expert and non-expert views. However, the ‘racial’ criteria that were adopted in the end were consistent with the views of ‘race experts’ (activists and social scientists), while non-experts influenced ‘class’-based criteria, such as the public school quotas or the additional income limit.

52 Maio, Marcos Chor and Santos, Ricardo Ventura, ‘Políticas de cotas raciais, os “olhos da sociedade” e os usos da antropologia: o caso do vestibular da Universidade de Brasília (UnB)’, Horizontes Antropológicos, vol. 11, no. 23 (2005), pp. 181214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Though Maio and Santos's article focused specifically on UnB, they have publicly opposed racial quotas more broadly for the same reasons.

53 Guimarães, Antônio Sérgio, ‘Entre o Medo de Fraudes e o Fantasma das Raças’, Horizontes Antropológicos, vol. 11, no. 23 (2005), pp. 215–7.Google Scholarde Carvalho, José JorgeUsos e abusos da antropologia em um contexto de tensão racial: o caso das cotas para negros na UnB’, Horizontes Antropológicos, vol. 11, no. 23 (2005), pp. 237–46.Google Scholar

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