For Affirmative Action, Brazil Sets Up Controversial Boards To Determine Race : Parallels A quota system for public universities and government jobs was meant to increase the number of Afro-Brazilians. But it has been abused, and now a committee will decide an applicant's race.
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For Affirmative Action, Brazil Sets Up Controversial Boards To Determine Race

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For Affirmative Action, Brazil Sets Up Controversial Boards To Determine Race

For Affirmative Action, Brazil Sets Up Controversial Boards To Determine Race

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This next story underlines a big reality of race in the world. Race is a social construct. It's not really a matter of genetics. We're all one species after all, and our ancestries tend to be mixed. Your racial identity is either what you say it is or else what society imposes on you.


And this story is about a society that's changing the rules. In the multiethnic, multiracial nation of Brazil, race was traditionally up to the individual. If a Brazilian said she was black, she was black.

INSKEEP: But that's now changing. In order to meet the conditions of affirmative action, candidates will have to go in front of special race tribunals. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: When the test scores came out, 27-year-old Lucas Siqueira was really excited. His top score in the Foreign Service exam had earned him a coveted position at Brazil's highly competitive Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

LUCAS SIQUEIRA: They hire about 30 diplomats a year and then thousands of people sign up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it was a great day. Siqueira considers himself to be mixed race, known as pardo in Brazil or brown which he was required to write on his application form.

SIQUEIRA: I consider myself to be a very typical Brazilian, and I've always been very proud of it. And in my dad's family, I have - my grandfather is black. My grandmother has Indian and white roots. On my my mother's side, they are mostly white, mostly Portuguese.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How he defines himself matters because of affirmative action rules for spots in government jobs here. The problem came once the announcement was made. People on the Internet started investigating. They got into his Instagram, his Facebook feed, and they sent his personal photos to the government.

SIQUEIRA: A lot of people sent pictures, like, oh, this dude is white. He's a fraud.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People basically said that he was gaming the system, lying about who and what he was to get one of these coveted jobs. The government was getting so much flak that they put Siqueira's offer on hold, and then they set up a race committee which is what it sounds like. He showed up and there was seven diplomats in a room who were there to decide if he really was Afro-Brazilian. They asked him a few questions like...

SIQUEIRA: Since when do you consider yourself to be a person of this color?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then it was over. What they had decided was that he was not pardo or mixed race - no explanation, no discussion. So he decided to sue, and that's when the story gets even more complicated because in order to prove that he was Afro-Brazilian, there needed to be some kind of objective criteria. He went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick's scale that grades skin tone from one, the whitest, to seven, the darkest, The last doctor even had a special machine.

SIQUEIRA: Apparently, on my face I'm type IV, which would be Jennifer Lopez, Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto or John Stamos. And on my limbs, I was being type V which is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Beyonce and Tiger Woods.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like most people, he has different skin tones on different parts of his body, but in none of these tests did he come out as lighter skinned. Despite the controversy, these race tribunals a few weeks ago have been made mandatory for all government jobs. In one state, they've even issued guidelines about how to measure lip size and nose width and hair texture. Leizer Vaz is a coordinator of the NGO Educafro which works to open up access to education for black Brazilians. He, like most black activists here, supports the commissions. The reason, he says, history.

LEIZER VAZ: We are very far from the equality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil imported more enslaved Africans than any other country - some 5 million. The legacy of that period can still be felt today. Even though the majority of the population here is of African descent, 10 years ago only 5 percent of Afro-Brazilians were in higher education. Because of affirmative action, that number is now 15 percent. Vaz says these are hard-won gains, but there is a long way to go.

VAZ: Only 5 percent of executives are black in Brazil, politician, diplomats - all things. So the black people don't access the space of power in my country. This is the real issue we have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says unlike the USA where race is determined by parentage, in Brazil, he says, the criteria is different.

VAZ: Who is more affected by racism? Who has the chance to be affected by this in this country?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ultimately, he says, it is messy, but Brazil is trying to write a historic wrong.

VAZ: 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 this in Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lucas Siqueira, who's still waiting for his case to be resolved, says he understands that there is racism in Brazil, but he says identity is made up of more than just physical characteristics.

SIQUEIRA: I think we're going down a very dangerous path, if we want to institutionalize these kinds of racial tribunals actually.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he sits in the middle - not white, not black, and now not embraced by either side. Lula Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

INSKEEP: Lulu is soon to be the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday.

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