One Woman’s Fight to Claim Her ‘Blackness’ in Brazil

The experience of a young lawyer raises difficult questions about race, belonging, and the bureaucracy of affirmative action in a country lauded for its egalitarian history.


When Maíra Mutti Araújo speaks, she draws out her vowels and pronounces them with a distinctively sharp tone. Her accent is immediately recognizable to Brazilians as typical of Salvador, a coastal city in the country’s northeast that is as famous for its beaches as its rich African heritage. Araújo grew up in Salvador, just like her mom. Her dad, who grew up in a rural town eight hours away, has lived there since college. She has her mom’s features — a broad nose, full lips — and her dad’s nut-brown complexion.

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Araújo comes from a bookish family. Her parents met when they were both chemistry majors at a local university — they now work as middle school chemistry teachers. She got her law degree at the Federal University of Bahia, one of the country’s most prestigious. During her time in law school, Araújo began to consider a career in the civil service. She interned at the Federal Attorney General’s Office in Salvador while still a student and took a job as an analyst at the government accountability office in Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, after graduation. Her goal was to eventually become a prosecutor. “I love arguing cases,” Araújo says, “that whole process of taking a case and finding a solution for it.” As a prosecutor, she says, “you’re responsible for propelling the case forward. The outcome depends on your approach.”

In late 2015, Araújo set her sights on an attractive job opening for a prosecutor back in her hometown, in the Salvador municipal department. Everyone encouraged her to apply using a relatively new affirmative action option. “You of all people! You have to do it,” Araújo’s boss at the time told her. “If I had the chance to apply as a quotas candidate, I would totally go for it,” her friends said. “And you do! So apply!”

Since 2011, lawmakers in the state of Bahia and in Salvador, its capital, have enacted a series of measures aimed at tackling racial inequality. These include legal measures banning discrimination against followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, the creation of a committee to combat institutional racism, and racial quotas for government jobs. The policy efforts in Bahia reflected a national wave of legislation spurred by the landmark Statute of Racial Equality signed in 2010 by then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After decades of fighting to be heard, Brazil’s black activist movements saw the concerns of the country’s black population — the largest, by some measures, of any country outside of Africa — become a political priority.

In 2012, the same year Araújo graduated from law school, Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court unanimously ruled that race-based quotas in universities were constitutional. Two years later, then-President Dilma Rousseff signed a law that guaranteed 20 percent of public sector jobs at the federal level for candidates who identified as negro — the Portuguese term used by the census department and embraced by black rights activists to denote African heritage and which encompasses the identities of preto (black) and pardo (brown or mixed-race). Bahia lawmakers went even further, reserving 30 percent of jobs in state and municipal departments for negro candidates. Like many such laws in Brazil, it will come up for review in 10 years.

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That Bahia now provides the most extensive affirmative action mandates out of all Brazilian states is demographically fitting. Since the 1940s, Salvador has held a cherished reputation among locals and international visitors as the “Black Rome” of the Americas. Currently, more than three-quarters of baianos, as people from the state are called, identify as black or brown. According to the most recent census, Salvador is the blackest state capital in the country.

Bahia’s most prominent black leaders have celebrated recent equality measures — such as the decree in Salvador that formalized racial quotas for municipal jobs, like the prosecutor position that piqued Araújo’s interest. “Thank God! This measure couldn’t be more appropriate,” Luislinda Valois, Brazil’s current human rights minister and the country’s first black woman to become a judge, said in a statement. “Bahia, the cradle of black culture, has set an example through Salvador.”

Araújo felt apprehensive about using the quotas option, despite its public embrace, to apply to the prosecutor job. Wary of the stigma she knew was attached to it, she feared that her future co-workers would think less of her and assume she hadn’t scored high enough to get the job through regular hiring channels. It was a stereotype she had encountered before: After learning that she had a law degree from a federal university, an acquaintance had reacted by saying, “Oh, so you’re a cotista” — the Portuguese word to describe affirmative action students and hires, which can be neutral or carry negative connotations depending on the context. She hadn’t, in fact, used the quotas option to apply to college.

“But I learned from that experience,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if I apply as an affirmative action candidate or not. People will assume that I’m a cotista anyway, because they judge you based on the color of your skin.” So she heeded her friends’ advice. In 2015, she applied to become a prosecutor at the Salvador municipal department. On her application form, she put her race down as pardo.

What Araújo did not anticipate was that specifying her racial identity would, within a year, see her disqualified as a job candidate, facing the possibility of criminal charges for fraud, and vilified by the community of black activists in her hometown.

Brazil’s most recent census came out in 2010. Over a three-month period, from August to October of that year, census workers interviewed members of 67.6 million households across all 5,565 of the country’s municipalities at the time, gathering data on marital status, living standards, education, employment, and racial identity, among other topics. The results revealed something remarkable: For the first time since the 19th century, Brazil had more nonwhite citizens than white ones. In no other racial category was this surge more pronounced than among pardos — those who think of themselves as brown or mixed-race. While the numbers for white and preto people barely shifted, that of pardos swelled from 38.5 to 43.1 percent of the population between 2000 and 2010 — a shift for which birth and death records alone cannot account.

The demographic change became headline news. For the census department, and several academics, it suggested that millions of Brazilians who had previously gone to great lengths to be seen as white now took pride in being pardo. “The sense among scholars is that black identity went through a process of destigmatization,” says Verônica Toste Daflon, a sociologist and the author of So Far, So Close: Identity, Discrimination and Stereotypes of Black and Brown Brazilians.

The uptick in pardo identification coincided with heightened media and political attention to the Afro-Brazilian experience. For years, conversations about black identity and pride, and the need for reparative measures to make up for historical injustices, had steadily become mainstream. In June 2010, just before census data collection began, Brazil passed the Statute of Racial Equality. Among other things, the statute added an Afro-Brazilian history requirement to the public school curriculum and ordered government departments to come up with diversity-boosting initiatives. Although it stopped short of setting up racial quotas, the statute laid the groundwork for the monumental legal decisions that would eventually lead to their establishment across public universities and the civil service. “I don’t know if we can uncouple measures like the racial quotas from the recent increased sense of worth felt by nonwhite Brazilians,” Daflon says. At their root, she explains, “quotas are an admission of past injustice.” They engender pride of specific struggles.

Brazil is well known for its ethnic diversity, and people often speak about its racially mixed population in celebratory terms. In a 2012 interview with Live Science, Stephen Stearns, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, sought to illustrate how humanity will become more genetically homogenous over time. A few centuries from now, we’re all going to look like Brazilians, he said. In the 1940s, some of Brazil’s leading sociologists advanced the theory that the country was a “racial democracy” — truer to the melting pot ideal than the United States was. But the national pride for the country’s comparatively harmonious relations obscured the brutal history that forged its multiracial people.

Brazil trafficked and enslaved 11 times as many Africans as colonial North America. It was also the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. Compared with the nearly 5 million Africans who arrived on Brazilian shores as slaves, Portuguese settlers comprised a small fraction of the colonial population. The vast majority were men, who often took up with indigenous and black slaves — usually by force. As the sociologist Edward Telles writes in Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, “[M]ixed-race Brazilians were largely spawned through sexual violence throughout the period of slavery.”

Even before slavery was abolished, the mixed-race Brazilians who resulted from these unions enjoyed freedoms not available to those with darker skin tones. Many thrived as small-scale farmers, for instance, and a few reached stratospheric heights: André Rebouças, whose grandmother had been a slave, rose to become one of Brazil’s most important engineers in the late 19th century. By the turn of the century, a complex hierarchy based on skin color, facial features, hair texture, education, and elocution, among other qualities, came to dominate the Brazilian social contract.

Unlike the United States, post-abolition Brazil did not enact “anti-miscegenation” or “separate but equal” laws, so race relations evolved with relative fluidity. The end result was that, contrary to America, where even a single black ancestor several generations removed marked a person as legally black, Brazilians came to define blackness as a matter of physical appearance. According to the late sociologist Oracy Nogueira — arguably the most influential scholar of Brazilian constructions of race — the American concept of “passing” as white is a moot one in Brazil, where simply looking white makes one so.

The quotas implemented in universities and government departments were born of attempts to push back against this pervasive colorism — the privileging of light skin over dark. Activists stress the importance of black representation in positions of power — particularly by those who, on account of having a darker complexion or markedly black features, do not benefit from a fluid racial identity that could otherwise see them classified as white. Which is why activists’ frustrations have grown over what they argue are light-skinned pardos taking advantage of hard-won affirmative action policies that were not fought for with them in mind.

Maíra Mutti Araújo at her parents’ home in Salvador, Bahia, in June. (Photo credit: EDGAR AZEVEDO for Foreign Policy)

“I’ve always suspected that it had to do with my hair,” Araújo says, about what she calls the “racial soap opera” that she has endured since applying to the prosecutor job. In the photograph she submitted with her questionnaire — a requirement for all candidates who identified themselves as preto or pardo — her hair falls primly behind her shoulders in a fine, black sheet. But the flat style is nothing like her natural hair. Photos from her teenage years reveal a thick mane of densely packed ringlets. “I wear my hair like this as a personal choice,” she says. “It’s just easier to deal with.”

Araújo is now 28 years old. When she was growing up, she could tell that she was one of the darker-skinned members of her family. “My sister’s skin tone is slightly lighter than mine,” she says. “Many of my cousins are blonde. And so I’ve always been seen as the pretinha of the family.” (The Portuguese word pretinha translates loosely as “little black girl.” It is a term of endearment within a tight kinship.) “I’ve always looked different,” Araújo says, “and so my mom raised me specifically in a way so that I never felt inferior because of the color of skin.”

Pregnant with her first child, she lives with her fiancé, who is also a lawyer, in a sparsely furnished apartment in Santarém, in the state of Pará. They both moved there recently after getting jobs in the state’s justice department. (Pará, unlike Bahia, does not have racial quotas for state-level government jobs; she got the job through the one and only general admissions process.)

The job she wanted, of course, was the one back in Salvador, in the municipal department. She had thrown herself into the grueling first round of the application process, which consisted of three lengthy exams. In March, the department posted online a list of candidates who had scored high enough to qualify for the second round — résumé assessment.

She knew that a race check would come next. The official document detailing the application process specified that quota candidates who got through the first round would be submitted to a verification exam, “which may take the form of a photo examination or some other means,” it read. The instructions mirrored similar verification requirements in place in government departments across the country and have steadily gained legitimacy in the eyes of the Brazilian judiciary. In August 2016, the Civil Service Department, stressing the urgent need to combat race fraud, issued monitoring instructions to all governmental bodies, recommending the implementation of “verification committees comprised of members distributed by gender, race, and geographic origin.” But these directives are not standardized, and individual verification strategies vary across the country.

In the case of the prosecutor position in the Salvador municipal department, this comprised a photo submission and a one-page questionnaire. “Back then, the idea of a verification process made sense to me,” Araújo says. But the questions — like “Are you currently dating or have you previously dated a black or brown person?” and “Are most of your idols black or brown?” — took her by surprise. “I found them offensive,” she says. “I don’t think they have any bearing on how a person defines their racial identity.”

Even among prominent black rights activists who have led the discussion about the need for verification panels, views diverge over the most appropriate methods for implementing them. Lívia Sant’Anna Vaz, a prosecutor and the coordinator of a human rights and anti-discrimination group operating out of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, objects to the questionnaire Araújo had to fill out. “Having black idols doesn’t tell you whether a person is black,” she says. For Vaz, the primary test should be the candidates’ phenotypical characteristics: their facial features, hair type, and skin tone. “What prevails in Brazil is the kind of racism based on physical traits, not ancestry,” Vaz says.

For Friar David Santos, the head of the nonprofit Educafro and arguably the country’s most prominent black rights activist, admissions committees should adopt a gradient-based elimination process for nonwhite candidates. “Pretos should gain immediate admission, followed by darker-hued pardos,” he told me. “Mid-range pardos? Only if there are spaces left. And under no circumstances are light-skinned pardos to gain admission through quotas.”

Members of Educafro protest in silence in front of the Brazil's presidential palace in Brasilia in support of the racial quota policies on June 27, 2012. (Photo credit: PETER FRANCIA/News Free/LatinContent/Getty Images)

The anonymous three-person verification committee that assessed Araújo’s questionnaire answers and scrutinized her photograph delivered its verdict in May: Araújo did not display the required “Afro-descendant phenotype” to qualify as pardo. The panel did not elaborate any further.

Nor was it required to. The secrecy under which these committees tend to operate has been a source of consternation since the Federal Supreme Court ruled racial quotas constitutional in 2012. Justice Gilmar Mendes, who delivered a favorable vote in the 2012 decision, nonetheless called verification systems “hard to justify” and “far from being fool-proof.”

“We appear to have granted this supposedly enlightened group a power that nobody wants to possess,” Mendes wrote in his opinion, “to determine who is white and who is black in a highly mixed society.” He warned that such an approach could lend itself to “eventual involuntary distortions,” but also “entirely voluntary distortions of character,” and concluded by writing that “the idea of a racial tribunal evokes the memory of sinister things.”

Shocked at the panel’s decision, Araújo filed an appeal. “Perhaps the ‘racial rigor’ utilized by the panel takes inspiration from the standards of Nazi Germany’s Aryan racial courts!” she wrote. The anonymous panelists revisited their decision and issued a new ruling: She qualified for the quota system after all. “After careful consideration of the photograph at hand,” wrote one panelist, “I am of the opinion that the candidate is negro (preto or pardo).”

Araújo was back in the running for a Salvador municipal department prosecutor position. On May 18, 2016, almost nine months after she started applying for the job, the department posted the final results online: She had placed third out of more than 1,000 lawyers who had initially signed up as quota candidates.

The candidates, who had applied for the job from all over the country, had five days from the electronic summons to arrive in Salvador. Araújo lived in the state of Amazonas at the time and says she had no choice but to pay for an “extremely expensive last-minute flight.” Erick Magalhães Santos, a dark-skinned candidate who lived in Brasília, more than 600 miles away from Salvador, chose not to incur the cost. “I didn’t think I scored high enough on the tests to get the job in the end,” he told me. Candidates like Santos who did not show up were disqualified.

The group verification session, held on a Wednesday during regular work hours, was open to the public. A few people came to observe the proceedings, but most of those present were the candidates about to be inspected. “We all just kept looking around, sizing each other up,” Araújo says. “Everyone seemed incredibly embarrassed to be there.” One by one, they were called to the front, where five experts — “all of them preto, none of them pardo” — sat in a row on a raised platform. Araújo, like those who went before and after her, handed the panelists her ID and took her place on a chair in front of them. “I felt like a zoo animal,” she says, as they examined her appearance while whispering among themselves. According to Araújo, the session took no more than three minutes. The only time they addressed her directly was to confirm her last name.

The results were posted on the job application website: Thirteen candidates were officially recognized as black or brown, while nine had their racial self-identification rejected. Araújo featured among the latter group. The result meant that this time, Araújo had not only been excluded from applying through the quotas system but disqualified as a job candidate altogether.

Of the nine who had their racial identities rejected, eight appealed the decision. The Salvador municipal department not only rejected these appeals but also referred the cases to the Public Prosecutor’s Office so it could determine whether or not to file criminal charges of fraud against all eight candidates on the grounds that they had purposefully misrepresented their identities, which is against the law. Six of the eight candidates — Araújo among them — then filed preliminary injunctions to have their names back on the list of quota candidates. On Aug. 15, 2016, almost a year to the day that the municipal department announced the prosecutor job opening, Bahia’s justice department granted Araújo’s injunction.

Notably, in a 40-page counterinjunction seeking to block Araújo’s re-entry into the quotas list, the Salvador municipal department acknowledged that Araújo was, in fact, pardo — but argued that her skin color was not dark enough to subject her to discrimination. “It is undeniable: When it comes to affirmative action policies whose principal aim is to achieve equality, the slots reserved for racial quota candidates should not be taken up indiscriminately by any and all pardos,” the text read. “There should, indeed, be a consideration of the candidates’ skin tone and phenotypical characteristics.” The counterinjunction also stated that in addition to not possessing the appropriate skin tone, Araújo did not display the “aesthetic and cultural ingredients” characteristic of negro Brazilians. It concluded that it would otherwise be inappropriate for “individuals without a true identification with the racial cause” to assume positions of leadership within the Salvador municipal department.

The original job application, posted in August 2015, never made a distinction between all pardos and pardos most likely to suffer discrimination. Rather, it instructed prospective quota candidates to indicate their race by identifying themselves as either preto or pardo, in accordance with the definitions provided by the Brazilian census department. IBGE, the acronym by which the department is most commonly known, defines preto and pardo as the two nonwhite categories under the negro umbrella. As such, the definition in the job application mirrors the definition of the negro identity established in the landmark Statute of Racial Equality from 2010, as well as all race-based affirmative action legislation that has since passed in Brazil.

Like IBGE, black rights activist groups’ definition of negros includes both pretos and pardos, and they count the two groups as one when discussing inequality rates between whites and nonwhites. “Brazil’s racial equality laws have been designed with this very sizable group in mind,” says Daflon, the sociologist who has written extensively about pardo identity. “Now with the laws being put into practice, who gets to benefit from them?”

Activists demonstrate against race fraud in the quota system at the Court of Justice in Salvador, Bahia, on March 23. (Photo credit: MAURO AKIN NASSOR/Correio-Ba)

In what became a yearlong journey through the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of race verification in Salvador, ultimately Araújo’s experience exposes an unresolved conflict at the heart of Brazilian identity, raising difficult questions about blackness, belonging, and discrimination in a country famous for its ethnic diversity.

On April 27, 2017, Araújo’s injunction — to overturn the in-person verification panel’s decision that she did not qualify as negro — went on trial (along with another candidate’s injunction filed for the same reason). The court session attracted dozens of protesters, including college professors and even a city councilman. The lawsuit against the department has drawn sit-ins and protests by black rights activists who oppose Araújo — a race fraud in their eyes — and her legal attempt to reclaim a pardo identity. Araújo’s lawyer, Vivian Vasconcelos, recommended that she not show up, since her presence was not required in court, so as not to risk an ugly confrontation with the crowd. Araújo decided not to attend.

“I want to protect myself,” she says, “especially since I’m pregnant.” Vasconcelos, who is black, had come under fire for taking on Araújo’s case. “They’ve said to me, ‘You’re black. How can you defend someone who isn’t?’” she tells me. “But [Araújo] is pardo. She is entitled to make use of affirmative action measures.”

The verdict came that same afternoon: The presiding judge maintained Araújo’s removal from the quota candidates list but allowed her name back into the general admissions category. She would also not face criminal fraud charges. But Araújo does not consider this a victory. She is, once again, appealing the decision, even if she no longer has any desire to work at the Salvador municipal department. “It’s a matter of personal dignity,” she says. “I have to take back my professional reputation.” For as long as the rejection of her pardo identity stands, she will have officially committed race fraud.

The Salvador municipal department, meanwhile, does not consider the verdict a victory either. In an email to Foreign Policy, the department said it would appeal the decision to ensure that Araújo is removed from the general admissions list, as well as the list for quota candidates, “as anticipated in the original job announcement.” (The announcement, from August 2015, stipulated that “candidates found to have committed fraud will be disqualified from the running.”) The department plans to lodge “the same appeal against all other candidates who declared themselves afrodescendants, but who were found to be ineligible for racial quotas following a verification by committee.”

“I spent my entire life seeing myself a certain way,” Araújo says, “and now I’ve been told that that’s not who I am.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.

Cleuci de Oliveira is a journalist based in Brasília, Brazil. (@CLEUCl)