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.

Racism in Portugal against African descendants
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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).
    8 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
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      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
        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.

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