Racism in Portugal against African descendants

Portugal's colonial legacy continues to challenge the acceptance and integration of African Portuguese in the country

This article is the first in a 4-part series about racial discrimination in Portugal and Brazil.

On 13 April 2017, Portugal’s President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, travelled to Senegal. He visited the House of Slaves in Gorée Island and took advantage of the opportunity to condemn slavery. He stated a popular myth about Portuguese identity: that we were somehow the exception of the Portuguese colonizers; that we recognized the inhumanity of our actions early on, and that is why slavery was abolished in parts of Portuguese controlled territory (in Continental Portugal and Portuguese India – Goa, Daman and Diu) in 1761, and then the abolition was extended to all territories in the 19th century. These are all reasons why the President thinks Portuguese should not feel obligated to apologise for being the major force driving the Atlantic slave trade, mainly in Brazil.

This version of Portugal’s role in the slave trade is comforting, prideful and shameless. Comforting, because it allows us to think that we alone were capable of seeing the inhumanity of slavery and fixing it; prideful, because it is often used to propagate the myth that Portugal was “the first country to abolish slavery”; and shameless, because none of it is true and, in fact, slavery continued long after 1761.  After the President’s statements, however, Portuguese academics, journalists and activists turned to newspapers and social media to display their objections, eventually writing an open letter that urged the President to recognize Portugal’s historical role in perpetuating slavery and colonization – to break free from the myth of Portugal as the Civilizer, which was forged in the 19th century and force-fed during almost 40 years (1933-1974) of dictatorship. This was perhaps one of the few times that Portugal’s colonial and slave legacy was openly discussed. Tying that legacy to institutional racism in the country, however, is a far more difficult task, because the myths are difficult to shatter and play into the negative conception of the Portuguese African.

Popular perceptions of the majority white population may suggest that there is no racism in Portugal, that Portuguese people are inherently hospitable and tolerant, since we ourselves are a nation of explorers and emigrants. And while some Muslims in Portugal have acknowledged that there is less discrimination in the country than in other European countries, this might also be attributed to Portugal’s small size compared to other minority communities in the country.

The problem in attempting to prove institutional racism in Portugal is the lack of data. The United Nations (UN) has repeatedly asked Portugal to start collecting indicators on ethnicity, but Portugal argues that it is unconstitutional, because listing an individual’s ethnicity on a form would be considered discriminatory. Without numbers, however, it is impossible to track social mobility, rates of educational achievement, incarceration rates, etc. Moreover, by refusing to admit the existence of other ethnicities under a false pretense of universality and equality, the truth remains hidden.

The ghettoization in the periphery of the main cities in Portugal disproportionately affects Portuguese Africans and Afro-descendants. As a result of this isolation, there are hardly any advocates with high-level professions or notoriety capable of explaining what it is like to be a Portuguese African. For example, police brutality is difficult to prove and take seriously when the complaints are made by Portuguese Africans, since the image of the thief or criminal is deeply racialized in Portugal. Even if an Afro-descendant manages to overcome this deeply racialized image, it is still difficult for the majority of Portuguese to grasp that a “real” Portuguese could be black (or Chinese, or Muslim). This calls into question the myths about Portuguese colonization as a brotherhood of the people that is tolerant and accepting.

As an example, there was a scandal that was brought to light through a series of news reports in 2016. It consisted of the denial of Portuguese citizenship to the children of Portuguese Africans, who were born during colonial times, but who held the citizenship of the newly created nations. Some of these children had no citizenship whatsoever; others were technically allowed to apply for citizenship, but costs and other bureaucratic obstacles prevented them from obtaining citizenship. As a result, people who had never before left Portugal were forced to go through the procedures applicable to an average immigrant, and those with any blemish in their criminal record were permanently barred from obtaining citizenship.

The black minority in Portugal constitutes a parallel world to the white majority and, contrary to some countries where debate and activism on race issues is more developed, there are very few advocacy organizations in Portugal, especially from Africans to Africans. The small, but growing number of these organizations, however, attempt to shine a light on the everyday racism Africans face, while at the same time celebrating their African heritage. The organizations, Radio Afrolis and Femafro (devoted to women) are a few examples. However, except for larger organizations like SOS Racismo, African associations and other associations that address discrimination are still far from obtaining mainstream coverage. It is almost as if Portugal is unable to achieve reconciliation with the last remaining consequences of its colonial past – both the immigration patterns and the institutional racism left behind.

It is important to not blindly accept the myths countries tell about themselves. Resistance to racism and discrimination seems to be finally taking hold in Portugal, but it is very difficult to challenge stories that are so entrenched in the common psyche of a country when they form the core of its identity. Perhaps, the first step would be to question those stories that are being told as history, and try to provide the full version of the events – not just the impressive tales about the colonizers, but also the tragic tales of exploitation and torture of the colonized. Only then may it be possible to do some much needed soul-searching and realize that the current situation in which we find ourselves is not merely a coincidence.

The Myth of Colourblindness
Margarida Teixeira

Margarida is a Human Rights & Humanitarian Action Portuguese student in Paris, with previous background in Philosophy and Cinema. She is mostly interested in gender issues in the Persian-speaking world (Iran and Afghanistan).
    22 Comments on this post.
  • Tesa
    10 June 2017 at 12:52 am
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    I’m an African American woman who moved to Lisbon a few months ago. I’m dark complexion so clearly I’m from African decent. I have not received good service in certain hotels and I can’t decide if it’s simply poor service or does race place a part. It at least appears that Whites tourist receive better treatment

    • Lana Murphy
      22 July 2017 at 6:45 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Hi Tesa,

      I’m an African American woman that visited Portugal,and loved it so much that I would love to move there. How has your experience been so far?

  • Vagabundo
    13 June 2017 at 3:42 am
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    The problem is that decolonization wasn’t properly made. That is, it should never had happen. The cause of racism is precisely decolonization.

  • WiB Team
    WiB Team
    13 June 2017 at 5:08 pm
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    Hi Vagabundo, Thank you for your comment. would you care to expand on your point?

    • Vagabundo
      16 June 2017 at 10:20 pm
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      Yes I will do that in due course. This is surely a theme that has been haunting the recent Portuguese history. Although I take the chance to throw a challenge to the author. Which is precisely related with the ‘consequences’ of our colonial past. How and in which perspectives (‘prismas’) should this been seen? Should we have an official guide or scrip in which we should trust oy lay? Recently Fernanda Cancio wrote that ‘Portugal needs to be “decolonized”‘. The text of F. Cancio seems somewhat related with one of the author of the text above. From whom and what does Portugal needs to be decolonized? Who will be the winners and loosers of such ‘mental decolonization’? On my next ‘intervention’ I will try to start about the slavery theme. And surely about the commerce of slaves and who were the primary suppliers of slaves to the Portuguese slave traders. Until then.

      • Margarida Teixeira
        16 June 2017 at 10:52 pm
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        Hello! By decolonization I mean letting go of the ideas that are ingrained from our colonial past. Yes, I agree, most of the social problems we have probably had to do with the hasty and confusing decolonization process – mostly because it wasn’t accompanied by an intellectual breakdown of that ideology and most of the people who came from Africa ended up in ghettoes. But it goes far beyond that. In my university, for example, a university of social sciences and literature, you still had people saying Africans had no history before us. This at a Masters level. It’s a common misconception from the point view of the colonizer.
        As for the primary supliers of the slaves – for people who use as an argument that Africans themselves engaged in slave trade and that somehow minimizes our actions in perpetuating it, that is also a very close minded view. You treat every single African people as it was the same – if one tribe engaged in slave trade, does that mean every single other African was an accomplice? It would be the same as me saying that gas chambers or concentration camps are a European tradition because the Germans did it and so if someone else came and did the same in Portugal we couldn’t really complain because it was in “our” culture.

        I am only asking you to look beyond what you were taught, because the generations before ours hardly ever questioned any of this. No matter how cultured they were, you had a de facto segregation in which most cultured, educated people hardly ever communicated with Africans except as domestic workers & etc.

        These are just loose examples. But I wonder why Portuguese people get so worked up about the subject, almost as a personal attack.

  • WiB Team
    WiB Team
    13 June 2017 at 5:08 pm
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    Hi Tesa, Thanks for sharing your experience, we are glad that our article triggered some thinking about this topic.

  • Chantal
    19 June 2017 at 11:25 pm
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    Hello Margarida, Thank you for your article. I just moved with my family from Rio to Lisbon and I’m pretty shocked and disgusted actually by the racism being taught in schools.. as well as all the statues dedicated to “Vasco de Gama, and others..”the men were most certainly racist.. ( the americans are finally taking down the statues of the confederate soldiers .. same thing needs to happen in Portugal). History books dedicated to perpetuating the myths of “the great explorers and age of discoveries.” of Happy Indians and African slaves listed as products. It’s beyond backwards and obviously a major sign of endemic racism, denial, and ignorance.. The Germans have forced generations of school children to learn and admit the atrocities of the Nazi regime.. Was 400 years of slavery and colonization not just as horrific and lets not also forget the genocide in Brasil.. I think Portugal owes a huge apology and kids should be taught in school that this is a dark period in the history of their country. What good came out of the “age of the discoveries” ? Thank you for your article and the courage to push this discussion.

    • Vagabundo
      28 September 2017 at 11:54 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Why should we take the statues of our historial caracters? Why? I tell you: No!!! Há cada uma!

    • Margarida Teixeira
      Margarida teixeira
      18 March 2018 at 3:32 am
      Leave a Reply

      Hello Chantal! Sorry it took me so long to answer. I think removing statues of navigators is a step too far – they are crucial historical figures, after all, and at the time of Vasco da Gama, for example, transatlantic slave trade did not exist yet. I think it’s important to know the differences between what we may call the age of discoveries, the slave trade and the colonialist period, because they did not always happen simultaneously and the ideological framework changed throughout the centuries.
      As for your comment regarding history books, I do think we need to dwell a little bit more on slavery and colonization. One major lie Portuguese people tell themselves, for example, is that Portugal was the first country to abolish slavery in the 1700s – in reality, slavery was abolished in continental Portugal in order to move as many slaves as possible to Brazil. And then we continued to have slavery and then forced labor in the colonies until the 1970s.
      But this is all a learning process and I hope that new African-Portuguese authors, intellectuals, academics and artists can expand our thinking 🙂 I just wish they were given a platform to do so, which isn’t always the case.

  • GL
    17 March 2018 at 3:43 pm
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    congratulations on this article

    i have been living in portugal for the past 5 years, i lived in london for 20 years of my life, before making the decision to return home to portugal.

    i find it absolutely shocking that i have experienced more racial abuse here in these 5 years than in the 20 that i spent in london.

    small inicidents such as fans at a football stadium calling their own player that useless black guy, people referring to an african guy or guys as preto /pretos is something that i here often and i find it unacceptable… should we all not be treated by our names instead of our color?

    i myself have had to tolerate racial abuse within my working environment where i was subject to months and months of verbal abuse such as nigger, or slave, or you do not deserve a break because your’e black… in a country with real structure this would be a sackable offence at the very least. the incident was indeed reported correctly to management and the individual got a ‘slap on the wrist’. even at multinational companies there are no standards for us.

    i look around me and i see my fellow africans working, yes working but with what jobs… cleaners, or in fast food chains, or retail shops. it all indicates to the education system in this country.

    this is a beautiful country yes but only if the color of your skin is right

    • Margarida Teixeira
      Margarida teixeira
      18 March 2018 at 3:23 am
      Leave a Reply

      Hey GL! So sorry to hear about your experience…I was honestly shocked to hear about the “nigger” and “slave” words used against you in the workplace. I honestly had no idea people could be so racist in such a blatant way (privately yes, but against employees or co-workers???). I hope you had the chance to meet other Portuguese people who treated you with the respect you deserve. It’s very important to share stories like this so white Portuguese like me can see our reality through another perspective 🙂
      As a sidenote: you mentioned you lived in London. It’s interesting because, as you know, there’s a large Pakistani/Indian/Bangladeshi community in Portugal and often they say they prefer to live here and not in the UK because they feel less discriminated against. So it’s sad to see that “tolerance” applies to certain groups and not to others.

      If you continue to be a victim of discrimination, I advise you to consult the Portuguese Association of Victim Support, they have a unit in Lisbon specifically for victims of discrimination in case you’d ever want to take legal action or need psychological support. Stay strong!

    • Raul Silva
      8 July 2018 at 2:38 pm
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      Have you ever seen photos of Margarida among the African and Asian communities in Paris ?.
      Do not make me laugh.

  • GL
    21 March 2018 at 1:24 am
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    i think that in portugal racism is not viewed as a big crime, i think it was a few weeks ago where fabio coentrao said some racial remarks to another player which was caught live on tv and nothing was done of it. in england there was a similar case involving john terry who ended up going to court and facing trial. portuguese athlete nelson evora has also been told once that he and his companions were too black to enter a night club, so people here can see that racism goes unpunished so they are not afraid of using it.

    the situation in england with the asain/middle eastern/arab community is a sad one, because they have been in the uk for such a long time and they are a part of the english community as much as anyone, yet media has seemed to change peoples minds regarding them because of terror attacks. i can honestly say that i have nothing but respect for the asian community in england and whilst im glad that they are here (because it brings back a little of britain to portugal) it not nice that they feel they had to leave their homes to get peace

  • I.K.W
    17 June 2018 at 8:46 pm
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    Racism can be covert or overt. I spend several months per year travelling through Portugal, and see a healthy socialisation of people from colonial origins, in restaurants, or social events in general. This does not mean it is perfect, however, there is no overwhelming evidence to suggest to me that in the main, people are racist, or use racist actions to alienate or exclude people of colour.
    The “modern” triumvirate of race/class/gender, that can be imperfect, needs greater work around class and gender however in Portugal. Class: as Portugal evolves into a dynamic economy where people are poorly paid, and gender where stereo types of woman are still stuck in a bygone era, compared to other modern European countries.
    I recognise that colour plays a part in the historicity of Portugal, in reinforcing divisions, but as generations mix/marry people of non Portuguese traditions, this I am hopefully optimistic will help to build a closer inclusive society for Portugal.
    Good jobs and decent pay with men and women on equal terms is the ideology of an inclusive society in Portugal, irrespective of background or colour.

  • Raul Silva
    4 July 2018 at 2:02 pm
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    Margarida is the typical case of those who speak about racism but live out of Africa or in places like Cova da Moura where a large number of African people can be found.

  • raul Silva
    8 July 2018 at 3:05 pm
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    Actually, it is funny to read what Margarida writes. She writes about racism in Portugal but in her comments she mentions her University which stands in France.
    She also refers the case of Portuguese citizenship denied to the children of Portuguese Africans, who were born during colonial times.
    I was born in Angola in 1959 but I cannot get Angolan citizenship because Iwas born during the coloniaçl times.
    It seems that this case is not ” welcome ” to Margarida because it the opposite to what she writes.
    Margarida should understand that the Africans and African descendents are not stupid. They know very well who are those who speak and write about racism but, in fact, are the real racists.
    It is like those who say to care about homeless people and refugees but are the first to avoid them.

  • pedro gomes
    5 August 2018 at 10:23 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Portugal is the most Hateful and Racist place on earth dude, or is it simply easier for you to Ignore that Truthful Fact??? From what i see, Portuguese are Constantly spewing anti-Spanish hate comments from their mouths in Canada so cut-the-crap with the poor innocent Portuguese routine, it’s old and nobody is buying that crap anymore!
    *Portugal started the Global Slave trade in 1441 and it’s NOT safe for a black person anywhere there are Portuguese to date! Simply put, You Hate Blacks: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32419952

  • Forcadelta5
    13 August 2018 at 5:41 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Portugal is the Biggest Racist country that i have ever lived in. I feared for my life there and i consider myself lucky that my family got out alive! I have never lived in such poverty (Sopas dos Pobres everyday) 40% unemployment rate and 60% of the population earn less than $932 USD per month, and that’s considered Middle Class here! Within the European Union it is the worst of the worst place to live.

    The bottom line is the bulk of the People in our poor country exist in a brainless comma that is fed by Ignorance, anti-Spanish hate, and severe Racism of pretty much everybody that isn’t Portuguese! And, Portugal started the Global Slave Trade in 1441 so it is definitely NOT a safe place for Blacks!!

    I found important websites that explain the Severe multi-generational Racism and Hate that exist in Portugal today, and i highly encourage all to read them and spread the word in order to avoid innocent, and desperate people from living or visiting there. Get educated on the Truths about Racist Portugal now.

    1) https://www.theroot.com/a-white-journalist-discovers-the-lie-of-portugal-s-colo-1790854283

    2) https://saynotoracistportugal.neocities.org/

    3) http://www.discoveringbristol.org.uk/slavery/routes/places-involved/europe/portugal/



    5) http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/10/portugal-crisis-pushes-women-into-prostitution/

    6) https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/06/the-mystery-of-why-portugal-is-so-doomed/276371/

    Be SAFE friends. Hugs.

  • Realist
    21 December 2018 at 1:43 pm
    Leave a Reply

    There is racism in Portugal just as there is racism in Uganda. But lets compare Portugal to the country which loves exposing the bad behaviour of other countries – Britain, shall we? According to certain ‘Anglo Saxon’ websites, racist Portugal should be boycotted because they started the slave trade. We only took over the trade from our Muslim colonisers after regaining our independence! Which country had the largest slave trade? Britain! Racism in Brasil is a legacy of Portuguese colonialism. The KKK and white supremacist Aryan movements can be found in the ex-British colony of the U.S.A! Portugal discriminated black people in Angola and Mozambique. The British invented apartheid in South Africa, Rhodesia and Australia! Portugal ill treated the Indians in Brazil. The British wiped out the Indians in North America! Portugal treats Muslims and other foreigners badly. The British invented Islamic terrorism #www.redmoonrising (globalists and islamists)! So who’s the wolf in the sheep skin now?

  • Realist
    22 December 2018 at 7:38 am
    Leave a Reply

    What happened to free speech, Margarida?

  • #forcadelta 5 gomes
    22 December 2018 at 1:28 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Leave a reply? But don’t dare mention has been Britain, or your reply won’t be considered? Only posts which denigrate non British are considered? Why bother with such biased lobsided rubbish?

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