Of pigmentocracy and pedagogy

While The Sorcery of Color makes key observations about race in Brazil, Elisa Larkin Nascimento’s book is at times dense and eclectic


The Sorcery of Color: Identity, Race and Gender in Brazil
Elisa Larkin Nascimento
2007, Temple University Press
272 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

TO THE EXTENT that The Sorcery of Color documents the evolution of ideas and attitudes towards race in Brazil at a moment in which this theme has become more pressing than ever before, it is a valuable contribution to an expanding field.

Elisa Larkin Nascimento provideas a compelling overview of how dominant ideas about race – and in particular about Afro-Brazilians – have been shaped by the policy taboos and mores of successive regimes and governments and responses to these.

The author makes a strong and uncontestable case for a re-examination of prevailing notions of Brazilian identity that have justified what in Britain was once called “benign neglect” – the posture that speaking about race was somehow racist, and hence the need to stay silent on the issue for the sake of social harmony.

However, this book is a blizzard of eclectic, and at times incomprehensible, theorising that leave the reader befuddled and – unforgivingly – less clear having read it than before about the single most important issue facing Brazilian, and perhaps Latin American, society. A much more comprehensive and careful edit would have rescued it from becoming what can only be described as a lost opportunity. While we might attribute some of the loss of meaning to the book’s translation – it was originally published in Portuguese in 2003 – there is also an intrinsic weakness of pedagogy here in the style in which it is written that cannot be ignored.


That is not to say that Larkin Nascimento has not been ambitious: she has attempted to incorporate scholarship on Pan-Africanism and Afrocentric philosophy with the writing of Brazilian scholars – an endeavour that is, inevitably, going to clash with the perspectives and intellectual approaches dominant in other worlds. Nor is it to say that what she is arguing is not radical: to suggest that the prevailing anti-racist vision that is subliminally incorporated into the Brazilian world view is a pretence aiming to erase race from the agenda, and so ensure white domination, is nothing short of revolutionary.

The author, the director of the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute in Rio de Janeiro (IPEAFRO), takes as her point of departure the social “sleight of hand” that disguises racial inequalities in a country where about 45 per cent of the population is black or of African descent – the so-called “sorcery of colour”. According to Larkin Nascimento, anyone who speaks of racism – or merely refers to another person as black – has traditionally been seen as racist.

She writes: “… an ideology of antiracist pretense was long successful in obscuring the reality of race discrimination. Through a sort of white magic masked as scientific method, a racial hierarchy composed of a graduated scale of color and prestige – veritably a pigmentocracy – was ideologically transformed into a racially neutral structure.” (p. 17)

She argues that at the top of this pigmentocracy sits, as ever, the white and mixed-white population, and makes a valuable case for an analysis of race as intimately interconnected with issues of gender. She then proceeds to examine the social and cultural movements that have attempted to challenge both racial and gender identities based upon this hierarchy. Finally, she concludes by makes a compelling case for a change in educational policies to address some of the underlying currents that have allowed this state of affairs to persist – a position shared in part by President Lula da Silva’s government.

We cannot find fault with Larkin Nascimento’s motivations – racial discrimination against Afro-Bazilians is real, and a blight on a society that is vying for a place at the top table of the developed world. Yet the author and her colleagues need to work much harder to get across their message in a way that is digestible to an otherwise ambivalent audience: they need, you might say, to employ a “sorcery of language” if they are ever to bring about change.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books