In 1444, when the Portuguese Prince, Henry the Navigator, became the first European to sail to sub-Saharan Africa, seizing captives directly, rather than buying slaves from North-African middlemen, the King of Portugal hired Gomes Eanes de Zurara, Chief Chronicler of the Kingdom of Portugal, to write a biography on Prince Henry.

As John Biewen, in the podcast How Race was Made, explains, “[Zurara] claimed that Prince Henry’s main motive was to bring [sub-saharans] to Christianity. So Zurara portrayed slavery as an improvement over freedom in Africa, where, he wrote, ‘They lived like beasts.’ They ‘had no understanding of good, but only knew how to live in bestial sloth.’ Zurara’s writings were widely circulated among the elite in Portugal. In the coming years, the Portuguese, and their ideas about Africans, led the way as the African slave trade expanded among countries like Spain, Holland, France and England.”

Ideas of White Supremacy and “development” came in handy when colonizing nations were looking for ideologies that would justify this kind of ruthless subjugation; as the African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” In other words, “race” as we know it today — with no reference to modern biology or anthropology — was manufactured by the early ideologues of colonialism to justify the unjustifiable.

Referring to Portugal’s confrontation with the true face of colonialism, Grada Kilomba, Portuguese writer, artist and psychologist, states, “we continue to feed on a romantic past, without associating it with guilt, shame, genocide, exclusion, marginalisation, exploitation, [or] dehumanisation.” Her analysis continues: “We’re not past denial yet. [Racism] has to do with a psychological process that goes from denial to guilt, from guilt to shame, from shame to recognition and from recognition to reparation. […] I feel that we are completely in denial.”

Broadening our understanding of racism

With the growth of the anti-racist movement in Portugal, our entire national narrative is being challenged, confronting us with the possibility of racism as a structural reality in Portugal. “Are we a racist country?” – the question strikes us as shocking.

Rui Rio, leader of Portugal’s leading center-right opposition party (PSD), says that “there’s no racism in Portuguese society”. Similarly, Jerónimo de Sousa, secretary-general of the Communist Party (PCP) says that “the overwhelming majority of the Portuguese people aren’t racist.”

Here, we’re dealing with two different definitions of racism.

One is based on the stereotype of a racist as an individual, intentionally carrying out acts of meanness motivated by racial hatred. Another definition describes racism as “a system that encompasses economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that institutionalize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between White people and people of Color” (Asa G. Hilliard) – a system into which we’re all socialized and that trickles down to every level of society, from the functioning of institutions to a concealed mindset of racial hierarchy, right up to explicit acts of racism.

Confronting White people with the historical system of White superiority and with their own internalized racism can be extremely challenging, triggering numerous evasion and defense mechanisms often described as “White fragility” (Robin diAngelo). In the words of Layla F. Saad, “You will assume that what is being criticised is your skin color and your individual goodness, rather than your complicity in a system of oppression that is designed to benefit you at the expense of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] in ways that you are not even aware of.”

National identity and islamophobia

In this article, I’m mainly focusing on Portugal’s historical oppression of and subsequent systemic racism towards African populations. However, addressing other long-standing power relations could also explain much of what is currently normalized in terms of ethnic and racial tensions.

A key piece is Portugal’s erasure of its Islamic influences, ever since the gradual reconquest of Moorish territory carried out by Christian rulers of the Iberian Peninsula, concluded in the 13th century.

Marta Vidal, journalist, writes, “Since then, Portuguese identity has been constructed in opposition to the Moors, historically depicted as enemies”. These times were shaped by the construction of a European identity that defined itself “in opposition to Muslims, and a crusading mentality that depicted Christian-Muslim relations in conflictive terms.”

During Portugal’s dictatorship, these cultural and religious divisions were reignited and amplified, as Vidal affirms, “With Catholicism at the core of nationalist narratives, the ultraconservative dictatorship depicted Muslims as invaders and ‘enemies of the Christian nation’”.

Currently in Portugal

In 2018, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), a human rights monitoring body of the Council of Europe, issued warnings about the infiltration of far-right and neo-Nazi groups inside Portuguese police forces and the political sphere. Manuel Morais, vice-president of the largest police trade union (Associação Sindical de Profissionais de Polícia), was forced to resign, after condemning the presence of racist and xenophobic elements inside the police forces, accusing the monitoring organs of turning a blind eye to it. In the national elections of 2019, André Ventura, head of the newly formed far-right political party “Chega” won a seat in the Portuguese national parliament. In August, the brutal killing of Bruno Candé, a 39-year-old Portuguese Black man murdered in broad daylight by a White 76-year-old veteran from the Portuguese Colonial War showed the reluctance of several political figures and parts of the general population to accept the blatant racism motivating the crime.

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