Thursday, November 1, 2012

Portugal is race blind, but not for the right reasons

Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho accompanied by his wife, their daughter (in his arms) and his stepdaughter (right)
Some would like to think race is not an issue in Portugal, but by failing to collect data we are burying our heads in the sand, writes Joana Gorjão Henriques in The Guardian (2011). The recently appointed prime minister, the conservative Pedro Passos Coelho, is married to a black woman. Will that make him more sensitive to questions around race?

What they miss is that migration to Portuguese-speaking Africa is hardly a new trend. Over the past few years, these countries have witnessed a significant surge in Portuguese arrivals, with the inflow of remittances from Africa rising sharply. According to the economist and now minister of economy Álvaro Santos Pereira, it increased 254-fold between 1996 and 2009.

Angola is now one of the favourite destinations for Portuguese migrants: about 100,000 Portuguese live there, whereas in Mozambique the estimates point to 20,000. In both cases the trend is the same: officially, there are now more Portuguese living in those countries than Angolans and Mozambicans living in Portugal (about 26,000 and 3,000 respectively). The trend can also be explained by the increase of Portuguese investment in these countries. Angola, for one, is the main importer of Portuguese products outside Europe.

In Portugal, the mainstream media has reported the new migration wave as a kind of new El Dorado. In glossy magazines, successful migrants are pictured wandering around big villas, bossing around teams of servants. But, particularly in the Angola case, there's another part of the picture that you'll only get if you chat with some of the Portuguese who flee there to live in a non-democratic country which now dictates economic rules to its former colonisers. The reversal of power relations between the former colonised and former colonisers may finally force Portugal to confront the issue of race.

This represent a considerable cultural shift. For years, modern Portugal has been struggling to find a way of talking about national identity and race. Even though Portugal has racial profiling, race crime and the daily subordination of black people by whites, most Portuguese would deny that their country has significant "racial problems" – that's what they have in America, France or the UK. Such attitudes are a hangover from the dictatorship years and the "luso-tropicalism" ideology created by the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre in the 1950s, which spread the idea that the Portuguese were better colonisers – and that ongoing British or French soul-searching over race was a result of "bad colonising".

Unlike America, Portugal has never got its head around hyphenated identities. There are luso-africanos, but you'd be pushed to hear anyone use that compound on the street, and it's even controversial in an institutional context. The term "black-Portuguese" is unheard of; the word "race" itself so rarely mentioned that it sounds strange and foreign. The terms you do hear people use are "second-generation immigrants", "immigrants' offspring" or, with cosmopolitan pretension, "new Portuguese". It sends out a clear message to non-white Portuguese: however hard you try, you'll always be newbies in this country (conveniently ignoring the fact that a black presence in Portugal dates back to the 15th century).

There are ideological reasons behind this attitude too. Some argue that identifying people by their race is discriminatory. There seems to be a similar logic behind the fact that Portuguese authorities keep no data on ethnicity or race. Take the recently released census data, which confidently predicts the population is now heading for more than 10 million, but remains completely race blind. Unofficial figures are contradictory and unreliable. (There could be 300,000 black Portuguese, I was told a year ago by one researcher. Another said there were 500,000. Another thought the number was much higher.)

You might argue that none of this should matter, of course. And yet, without appropriate data, can you honestly argue that the lack of social mobility in poorer communities has more to do with class than race, as some argue? Ignoring race completely means burying your head in the sand, and accepting Portugal as a country that is uniformly white. We are race blind, but not for the right reasons.

The recently appointed prime minister, the conservative Pedro Passos Coelho, is married to a black woman. In contemporary Portuguese politics, this is still a novelty. Will that make him more sensitive to questions around race? Will it make us talk more openly about race? Until now, nothing on his agenda makes us think so.  Source: Guardian 


His wife Laura Maria Garcês Ferreira was born (1974) in Guinea-Bissau and is a Physiotherapist. Her father is mixed  Portuguese and Cape verdean and her mother is mixed  Portuguese and Bissau-Guinean. She is married to Passos Coelho since 2004. 

A video (2006) of Amnesty International made for an anti-racism campaign to combat the Portuguese intolerance against African, Brazilian and Chinese immigrants

Angolan-born Francisca Van Dunem is Portugal's first black minister


  1. From friends and family members who have visited Portugal I have heard that that country has one of the largest urban Black populations of any country in Europe. The guesstimate mentioned in the article of 500,000 Afro-Portuguese sounds kind of slim to me, when one takes into account that the immigration of Africans from Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau has not ceased since these countries gained their independence in the 1970s. By 1976 there were so many thousands of Blacks who had immigrated to Portugal they had formed their own shantytown communities surrounding Lisbon, Amadora and the entire Lisbon metro area, which remain to this day.

    I didn't know that the prime minister's wife is of black African descent; Guinea Bissau. I definitely believe this fact will open up some type of dialogue about the country's diverse Black communities composed, mainly, from 5 different Portuguese-speaking nations: Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and since the 1980s, many Afro-Brazilians.

  2. Portuguese here. This PM's wife thing is hardly news. We have Black members of the Parliament (see Nilza Sena or Hélder Amaral), an Asian-descent Lisbon Mayor who is tipped to become PM someday (see António Costa), and there's loads of politicians or public figures of African / Asian descent or are married to someone who's not white. Come to think of it, I've dated both Black and Asian and my current girlfriend has dated Black, none of us had any problem with it. What I'm saying here is that non-white politicians or interracial marriages are no novelty in Portugal, nor are they an issue. Now, does racism exist in Portugal despite that so-called head in the sand attitude? Yes, it does. But I'd say it's far less of a problem than in the rest of Europe, really. And the fact that there's more and more successful black businessmen in Portugal is definitely changing perceptions for better. I'm definitely for this blend-in attitude of not splitting the Portuguese between races. Plus, you have to keep in mind that everytime we counted heads on the basis of colour or religion here, things went really wrong (Inquisition, slavery, deportations, etc). I prefer it this way.

  3. Pedro, John, thanks for the comments. And Pedro thanks for explaining Portugal to us.

  4. I am a half-Portuguese person whose mother is mixed-race from Mozambique, and we have lived in Portugal. I do think that a much larger percentage of the Portuguese population is black than say the UK's population (where I was born and live again now). Even in small Portuguese towns I see more black people than I do in small British towns.

    I don't think that there is more racism in Portugal than the UK, but that it's more open in Portugal, I have heard comments there which I hope I never will in the UK, but what people privately think is another matter. And certainly there are less non-white newsreaders, doctors etc in Portugal than in the UK.I never had a non-white teacher in Portugal in the 6 years that I was there, for example. (Although, in fairness, I am comparing London to a medium sized town- whether the situation in say Lisbon is any different or not I'm not sure, but I've never seen a non-white policeman, not even in Lisbon. Not saying there aren't any but I've never seen one)

    I have mixed-feelings about counting racial categories as happens in the UK, whilst the results would be very interesting, I share Pedro's reservations, it might well open a Pandora's box, and indeed, every time it happened in the past, it didn't go well.

    Whether or not racism is less of a problem in Portugal than in the rest of Europe, I'm not sure. On the one hand, Portuguese racism is more open and causal, and therefore perhaps worse, but on the other hand it's more visible and therefore perhaps it can be fought against more easily.

  5. The prime minister's wife is NOT A BLACK WOMAN.. she is a mulatto born from mulatto parents.

    1. Anonymous, I understand what you mean, but the reality is that in Europe, even Turkish people were called "black" people. Mulatto is a just description of a percentage of black and white. The question is to what ethic group she belongs in Europe.

    2. Mulatto isn't a race.


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