When the test scores came out, Lucas Siqueira, 27, was really excited. His high mark on the Foreign Service exam earned him a coveted position at Brazil’s highly competitive Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Siqueira considers himself to be mixed race, known in Brazil as pardo, or brown.
“I consider myself to be a very typical Brazilian and I’ve always been very proud of it. In my dad’s family, my grandfather is black, my grandmother has Indian and white roots. And on my mother’s side they are mostly white, mostly Portuguese,” he said.
How he defines himself matters because he was required to self-identify on his application. In 2014, the government introduced a quota system for federal jobs. The affirmative action regulations require that 20 percent of all government positions be filled by people of color–either black or mixed race.
The problem came once the announcement of the appointments was made public.
People started investigating the background of who had gotten the slots. They got into Siqueira’s Instagram, his Facebook feed and they sent his personal photos to the government.
“A lot of people sent pictures saying, ‘Oh, this dude is white, he’s a fraud,'” Siqueira says.
But the controversy wouldn’t go away. The government was getting so much flack that it put Siqueira’s offer on hold.
And then the government went a step further.
In response to the outcry, it set up a kind of race committee to review his case, and a few others.
He was asked to present himself to a panel of seven diplomats in a room who would decide if he was really Afro-Brazilian, as he claimed.
They asked him a bunch of questions such as, “Since when do you consider yourself to be a person of this color?”
What they decided was that he was not pardo, or mixed race. No explanation. No discussion. So he decided to sue.
And that’s when this story gets even more complicated. Because in order to “prove” that he was Afro-Brazilian, his lawyers needed to find some criteria. He went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. The last doctor even had a special machine.
A few weeks ago, these race tribunals were made mandatory for all government jobs. In one state, they even issued guidelines about how to measure lip size, hair texture and nose width, something that for some has uncomfortable echoes of racist philosophies in the 19th century.
But the race commissions have a lot of support from the black community.
Leizer Vaz is coordinator of NGO Educafro, which works to open up access to education for black Brazilians. He, like most black activists here, supports the commissions. The reason is simple–history.
“We are very far from the equality,” he says from his home in Sao Paulo.
The legacy of the period can still be felt today. Even though the majority of the population is of African descent, only 5 percent of Afro-Brazilians were in higher education as recently as 10 years ago. Because of affirmative action, that number is now 15 percent. Vaz says these are hard won gains, but there is a long way to go.
“Only 5 percent of executives are black in Brazil, politicians, diplomats, all things, so the black people don’t access the space of power in my country. This is the real issue we have,” he says.