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.