Luso-tropicalism and its discontents: the making and unmaking of racial exceptionalism

Warwick Anderson, Ricardo Roque, Ricardo Ventura Santos (eds), 2019

Warwick Anderson, Ricardo Roque, Ricardo Ventura Santos (eds), 2019

In thinking about racial difference and race relations in the Global South, Gilberto Freyre’s theories, propounded in the 1930s and formalized in the 1950s, of Portuguese (and therefore Brazilian) racial exceptionalism should immediately come to mind. Notwithstanding the ambivalence of his prose, Freyre’s work fostered an appreciation that Portugal had been more benign and racially tolerant as a colonizer than had other European powers, that Brazil as a nation might one day constitute a racially mixed Arcadia, and that the vast Portuguese imperial world was ultimately a successful, if sometimes troubled, interracial experiment. Preoccupied with cultural particularism and autonomy, Freyre helped to concoct the myth of Brazilian racial democracy, arguing that peculiarities of Portuguese colonialism cultivated a convivial mixed-race society, which had incorporated Africans. His major study, Casa-grande & senzala (1933) — poetic and impressionistic, and bearing the imprint of his association with anthropologists at Columbia University — was largely an aversive reaction to the rigid racial regime he had experienced in the Southern United States, that other “exceptional” society In this influential tract, Freyre implicitly juxtaposed American racial segregation and Lusophone racial mixing — racial exclusion and racial “harmony” — looking back nostalgically to what he imagined to be the relatively benign patriarchal structures established under Portuguese colonialism. But what was the true valence of this supposed Lusophone exceptionalism? Was it self-deceiving? Was it even distinctive compared to other racial regimes in the Global South?