Why did thousands of Brazilian politicians change their race?

Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT) April 10, 2021

(CNN)Last year, more than 43,400 politicians in Brazil declared themselves to be a different race than in previous election years.

Since 2014, Brazil has required electoral candidates to declare their "color/race," picking from among "Black," "White," "Brown," "Yellow," and "Indigenous." A CNN analysis of data published by the Electoral Justice, which organizes elections, shows that one in four candidates who ran for office in a previous election declared a different "color/race" in 2020 from previous such filings.
The changes in politicians' self-identification reflect Brazil's rich diversity and mirror the country's evolving view on how to recognize and define demographic categories throughout its history. They also coincide with a new electoral rule that directs additional funding and visibility to Black and Brown candidates' campaigns.
Interviews with several Brazilian candidates revealed a range of reasons for race changes -- some said they or campaign officials had simply made a mistake while filling their candidacy form, some said their family background gave them a claim to multiple racial groups, and some said they had recently started to feel a sense of belonging in a new racial category.
Brazilian politicians do "have some latitude to fluctuate on how they present themselves" in order to connect with supporters, Andrew Janusz, a political scientist at the University of Florida who has studied the race changes of candidates extensively, told CNN. Nevertheless, "individuals don't have total freedom of choice, so if someone is really fair-skinned, they might not be able to say that they are Black, for example," he said.
Official demographic categories in Brazil have traditionally focused on what demographers call marca -- each individual's external appearance -- rather than family origins, unlike the US.
The most common racial change for politicians last year was from White to Black or Brown, a shift made by more than 17,300 candidates. But vast numbers of candidates also moved in the opposite direction: About 14,500 switched from Black or Brown to White -- the second-most common change.
Adriana Collares, who ran for city council in Porto Alegre, told CNN that her racial declaration changed only because her previous party had mistakenly described her as White in 2016, against her wishes.
"I never considered myself White, but there was no name for what I was," she says. "I never felt like I had the right to call myself Black. I was always recognized as 'tanned,' as 'mulatta,' as anything but Black. Then came this term, 'Pardo,' and I found my place in the world."
"Pardo" translates literally to "Brown," but can also mean mixed-race. Though not commonly used colloquially among Brazilians, it has been used by national statistics agency IBGE, including in the census, as an official category since the 1950s, and is currently the largest group in Brazil.
Since the 2016 election, Collares left her old party and moved to a new one. In the 2020 election, she again requested to be described as Brown. This time, the party respected her choice.
In contrast, Adriana Guimarães, who ran for city council in Manaus, switched her racial declaration in the opposite direction. She told CNN that she selected Brown in 2016 after being ideologically conditioned by the left.
"In Brazil, we have a mixture of races. In my case, I also have that mixture, of Black, White, and Indigenous. But under Lula and Dilma, there was a push for Brazilians to identify as Brown," she said, referring to campaigns sponsored by the administrations of former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff that described Brazil as a mixed-race nation.
After an economic crisis and a corruption scandal hit the country in the early 2010s, Guimarães, like many other Brazilians, began to embrace a more conservative view of the world. She was also reacting to what she perceived as government overreach in the private sphere.
"I started participating in conservative movements," she says. "I started researching conservatism, reading about Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and I ended up noticing that I'm conservative."
She also noticed her racial identity in a new way. "My race change happened due to my new political ideology," says Guimarães, now a supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro.
In 2020, she declared herself White.
"I could say that I'm Parda because my grandmother was Black. But my color is White. My color is not Parda. I'm not a 'neutral burned Yellow.' I believe that saying that I'm Parda is like saying that I'm neutral. But I have my position, I have my strength, I'm not neutral. It's the same thing with that neutral gender. It's like being undecided," she said.

Picking an identity

Brazil's official racial categories have evolved over time, and some contemporary efforts to change them are part of a broader push to rectify inequalities rooted in the country's history.
Slavery lasted longer in Brazil than in other places in the West, and involved more people than in other countries in the Americas -- of the 10.7 million slaves who arrived alive on the continent, about 5.8 million were brought to Brazil, compared to about 305,000 taken to the United States, according to the Slave Voyages database.