Portuguese non racism”: On the historicity of an invented tradition

Cláudia Castelo

“The Portuguese are not racists” – one usually hears. How and why did this idea appear and take root? History can shed light to the process of production of this fallacy and its contemporary echoes.

After the assaults on black youths from Cova da Moura, a neighbourhood predominantly inhabited by immigrants from Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony in Africa, in the city of Amadora, and their Portuguese descendants, perpetrated by several police officers in a police station in Alfragide, near Lisbon, in 2015, racist incidents have been more scrutinized, even if Portuguese public opinion is still very attached to the idea that the Portuguese are not racists.[1] Antiracist and Afro-descendent associations, but also research journalism and controversy in the press have put the problem under focus. In 2019, hundred of people demonstrated in the main avenue of the country’s capital, Avenida da Liberdade, after a police raid on Bairro da Jamaica, a predominantly black neighborhood in Seixal, in the southern outskirts of Lisbon. Early this year, several protests occurred in solidarity with Cláudia Simões, a black Portuguese beaten by a police agent because her youngest daughter had forgotten the public transport pass. In articulation with the global campaign “Black Lives Matter”, on 6 June, demonstrations took place in the main Portuguese cities, joining the struggle for human dignity following the death of the African American George Floyd, murdered on May 25, in the custody of the US police by a white policeman. In late July, Bruno Candé, a black Portuguese actor, was shot dead in Moscavide, just outside Lisbon. The perpetrator of the shots is a former combatant in the colonial war that Portugal carried out in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique (1961-1974), and had uttered racist offenses to the victim in the days leading up to the crime. In response to the call of Candé’s family and antiracist organizations, demonstrations in his honor took place in five Portuguese cities. The demonstrators asked once again for justice and political action against racism in Portugal.

Colonial past left an enduring imprint in Portuguese society and racism is the rule. There is a racial division of labour, income, and access to education, housing and other social rights, and black Portuguese and African immigrants are more likely to face police violence and suffer prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis. The series of reports written by Joana Gorjão Henriques to the daily newspaper Público (Lisbon) revealed this hidden reality.[2] The unsuspected European Social Survey (2018/2019) confirms that almost two thirds of the Portuguese express racism.[3]  Still, most white Portuguese believe that there is no such problem in Portuguese society, only isolated episodes, exceptions, product of individual misbehaviors, even when accomplished by collectives (neo-Nazi and Fascist groups) or at the service of institutions (as the Foreigners and Borders Service or the Public Security Police). Why is the idea that Portugal is immune to racism so common if evidence points other way?

The idea of a special aptitude of the Portuguese for colonization can be traced back to the eighteenth century, although it gained more consistency in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.[4] From there onwards, empire would become a core element of Portuguese nationalism. In the last decades of the Portuguese colonial empire, when Portuguese sovereignty in Africa was under menace, the Estado Novo (New State) – the Portuguese authoritarian and colonialist regime that ruled in Portugal between 1933 and 1974 – appropriated the ideas of the Brazilian social scientist Gilberto Freyre (Recife, 1900-1987) about a supposedly special relation of the Portuguese with the tropics.[5]

Luso-Tropicalism argued that the Portuguese, in contrast with other colonisers, possessed a special ability for adapting to life in the tropics, through miscegenation and cultural interpenetration. This tropical vocation was not the product of political or economic self-interest, but rather resulted from an absence of colour prejudice and a creative empathy that, for Freyre, was innate to the Portuguese people. According to Freyre, the Portuguese’ intrinsic plasticity, their notable aptitude for mobility, miscibility and acclimatization, resulted from their hybrid ethnic origin, their location in-between Europe and Africa, and their history of contact with Muslims and Jews in the Iberian Peninsula during the first centuries of Portuguese nationhood. A similar process of integration of disparate elements occurred in all areas of Portuguese colonisation, since the fifteenth century, granting all Portuguese and Luso-descendants a unity of sentiment and culture.[6]

Along the 1950s and 1960s, the Estado Novo produced and disseminated a nationalistic version of Freyre’s luso-tropicalism to negate that Portugal had non-self-governing territories under the Article 73 of the United Nations Charter. The Portuguese “overseas provinces” (the new designation for the colonies in the 1951 revision of the Portuguese Constitution) and the provinces in Europe formed a multicontinental and multiracial nation where everyone lived in harmony. Therefore, even after Portugal joined the UN in 1955, it considered it had not to transmit to the Secretary-General information related to the economic, social and educational conditions in its overseas territories. In face of increasing international anti-colonialism and the liberation movements in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, Portuguese social scientists, politicians and diplomats defended that human equality, regardless colour, race or civilization, was a Portuguese invention that preceded in several centuries the UN human rights declaration.[7]

In 1955, Adriano Moreira, at the time professor of the High Institute of Overseas Studies and Portuguese delegate to the Inter-African Conference on Social Sciences, considered that there was no need to teach racial tolerance at Portuguese schools as UNESCO had suggested, since there was no racial discrimination among the Portuguese people; instead, it could be of great interest to highlight “Portuguese antiracist tradition” in primary and secondary education in Portugal.[8]

Notwithstanding the internal logic of the colonial system, based on racial inequality and exploitation, the state political and ideological apparatus, through the education system, media, propaganda and censorship conveyed a Luso-tropicalist message out of step with the political and social reality in the colonies and instilled in the Portuguese the idea that they were not nor had ever been racists.[9] Mass culture events, such as football icons, music celebrities, and beauty contests, also contributed to disseminate and naturalised some Luso-tropical representations in Portuguese people daily live.[10] Everything that constituted prejudice or racial discrimination was referred as “deviation” from the fraternal, plastic, tolerant and ecumenical “Portuguese tradition”. A “tradition” that dated back to the country’s formation in the middle ages, was consolidated in the experience of the so-called “Portuguese discoveries”, associated with the maritime expansion of the early modern period, and kept alive in the multiracial societies Portugal was supposedly creating in Africa.

Even after the “Carnation revolution” of 25 of April 1974, which opened the door to democracy in Portugal, the discourse on a Portuguese exceptional ethos and attitude towards the tropics did not disappear. The myth of the exceptionality of Portuguese colonization gave way to the post-colonial myth of an exceptional decolonization, as a mutual and fraternal liberation from the same oppressive regime, keeping alive the “natural” cultural ties between Portugal and the African countries whose official language is the Portuguese.[11] In 1987, the president of Portuguese Republic, Mário Soares, who had opposed to the dictatorship, visited Gilberto Freyre in Recife and told him that the Portuguese democrats admired his universal ideas, despite the “bad use” the Estado Novo had made of them to justify the maintenance of the empire.[12] The constitution of the Portuguese Speaking Countries Community draw on the rhetoric of the Lusophone brotherhood, and the historical and cultural bonds.[13]

The combination of Freyre’s ideas with pre-existent elements of Portuguese nationalism explain Luso-tropicalism post-colonial survival.[14] The persistence of this diffuse ideology allows reality to be constantly denied and the painful experiences of black people to be devalued. For white people, who have never suffered daily offenses because of their skin colour and, for all intents and purposes, enjoy a privileged position in relation to black people, it is easy to deny what they have never experienced. In the case of white Portuguese who grow up during dictatorship, it is even easier because they have an idealized self-image of an exceptional people in the relationship with extra-European people. Moreover, a positive and exalting narrative about Portuguese presence outside Europe continues being transmitted by the school curricula and the mass media, with few exceptions.[15]

The illusion of Portuguese non-racism has prevented structural racism from being faced and combated in Portuguese society, and perpetuates racism and the fake imaginary that denies its existence.[16] It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. How to put an end to it? Knowing the historical process of racism is a first step, but in parallel, implementing anti-racist policies in all areas of collective life, in the political, justice, police, and education systems.[17] It is up to the state and the civil society to take up the challenge of breaking that self-assuring and immobile image and promoting racial equality in Portugal. It is also up to all citizens to embrace this task of radical social transformation in their daily lives.

Cláudia Castelo

Historian (Centre of Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal), her research interests include the circulation of people, ideas and knowledge in the modern Portuguese colonial empire in a global perspective.


[1] In 2019, the “Alfragide’s police station case” resulted in the conviction of eight Portuguese police officers found guilty of kidnapping and beating up six black youths.

[2] The reports were collected in the book Joana Gorjão Henriques, Racismo no país de brandos costumes (Lisbon: Tinta-da-China, 2018).

[3] According to Alice Ramos, the sociologist responsible for the ESS in Portugal, cited by Joana Gorjão Henriques, “European Social Survey: 62% dos portugueses manifestam racismo”, Público, 27 June 2020. Available at: https://www.publico.pt/2020/06/27/sociedade/noticia/european-social-survey-62-portugueses-manifesta-racismo-1921713

[4] V. Alexandre, “Prefácio”, in C. Castelo, O modo português de estar no mundo”: o luso-tropicalismo e a ideologia colonial portuguesa (1933-1961) (Porto: Afrontamento, 1999), p. 5.

[5] Y. Léonard, “Salazarisme et Lusotropicalisme: Histoire d’une Appropriation”,  Lusotopie, numéro spécial: Lusotropicalisme, idéologies coloniales et identités nationales dans les mondes lusophones (1997): 211-226 and the UNal, late colonialismo 5.th century, althought, 1999), 133-144.le daily livembique99).ducational conditions in its ove; C. Castelo, O modo português de estar no mundo”: o luso-tropicalismo e a ideologia colonial portuguesa (1933-1961) (Porto: Afrontamento, 1999).

[6] The roots of Luso-tropicalism can be traced in Gilberto Freyre’s most acknowledged book, Casa-grande & senzala (1933), translated into English as The masters and the slaves and into French as Maitres et esclaves. The concept would be formulated during Freyre’s visit to Portugal and Portuguese colonies in 1951-1952 at the invitation of the Portuguese government. See, Gilberto Freyre, Um brasileiro em terras portuguesas [A Brazilian in Portuguese lands] (1953), Integração portuguesa nos trópicos [Portuguese integration in the tropics] (1958) and O luso e o trópico [The Portuguese and the tropics] (1961). The last two books were also published in English and French and distributed to the Portuguese embassies and consulates to sustain Portuguese intransigent defence of its African territories.

[7] C. Castelo, “The Luso-tropicalist message of the late Portuguese Empire”, in J. L. Garcia, C. Kaul, F. Subtil, A. Santos (eds.), Media and the Portuguese Empire (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 217-234 [219-220]. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-61792-3_12; M. B. Jerónimo and J. P. Monteiro, “The inventors of human rights in Africa: Portugal, late colonialism and the UN human rights regime”, in A. Moses, M. Duranti and R. Burke (eds.), Decolonization, self-determination, and the rise of global human rights politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 285-315. DOI: 10.1017/9781108783170.015 theira Gorjão Henriques, ” 2017), 217-234. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-61792-3_12 economic interest and generated w. ctrine ected wit

[8] 14th meeting of the CCTA inter-ministerial committee for the appreciation of the recommendations of the Inter-African Social Sciences Conference, 5 December 1955, p. 6. Minutes of the CCTA inter-ministerial committee (C, E47, P03, 2507), Arquivo Histórico Diplomático, Lisbon, Portugal.

[9] C. Castelo, “The Luso-tropicalist message of the late Portuguese Empire”, in J. L. Garcia, C. Kaul, F. Subtil, A. Santos (eds.), Media and the Portuguese Empire (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 217-234. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-61792-3_12

[10] M. Cardão, “Allegories of exceptionalism: Lusotropicalism in mass culture (1960-74)”, Portuguese Journal of Social Science 14, 3 (2016): 257-273.

[11] P. A. Oliveira and B. C. Reis, “The Power and Limits of Cultural Myths in Portugal’s Search for a Post-Imperial Role”, The International History Review 40, 3 (2018): 631-653. DOI: 10.1080/07075332.2016.1253599

[12] See the television report transmitted by the Portuguese national television on Soares visit to Brazil, on 3 March 1987. Available at https://arquivos.rtp.pt/conteudos/mario-soares-no-brasil/

[13] M. Cahen, ‘Portugal is in the sky’: conceptual considerations on communities, Lusitanity, and Lusophony. In: E. Morier-Genoud and M. Cahen (eds), Imperial migrations. Migration, diasporas and citizenship (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 297-315. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137265005_13

[14] V. Alexandre, “O império e a ideia de raça (séculos XIX e XX), in J. Vala (org.), Novos racismos: perspectivas comparativas (Oeiras: Celta, 1999), p. 133-144 [143-144].

[15] The newspaper Público or the web portal Buala stand for exemplary exceptions.

[16] On structural racism, see Silvio Luiz de Almeida, Racismo estrutural [Structural racism] (São Paulo: Pólen, 2019).

[17] Hopefully, something seems to be changing at the very moment I write this post. For the first time, the Portuguese National Education Council issued a report that proposes 12 measures to combat racism in education. Joana Gorjão Henriques, “Há muita consciência nos jovens sobre o racismo e isso vai forçar mudanças” [Interview with Isabel Menezes, on of the report’s authors], Público, 21 November 2020.

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