SAO PAULO, Brazil— Jessica Moreira was 21 years old when she realized she's black. Natalia Paiva had turned 20 before she made the discovery. And Cleyton Vilarino dos Santos is sneaking up on his 26th birthday and says he's still not sure if he's black, white or what.
Welcome to Brazil, one of the most racially intermixed countries in the world. Racial identity is a complex issue anywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than here, where the difference between black and white is not so black-and-white.
Generations of interracial marriages have led to a rich tapestry of phenotypes and skin tones in every conceivable hue. But it can make racial identity an evolving or fluid situation that can change as a person gets older, learns more about the world, and their relationship to it.
As a result, it's not uncommon for young people to spend the first 20 years of their lives looking in the mirror without fully understanding the race of the person staring back at them.
"My mom's family is white, and my dad's family is black. I'm not as white as my mom or as black as my dad, and that bothered me because I didn't identity with either of them," says 25-year-old journalist Babi Souza. "My grandfather always told me: 'If you're darker than white, you're black.' So from the time I was little, I thought of myself as black, until I went to school and people told me I wasn't black, which just made everything more confusing."
Babi says she identified as mixed-race for most of her teenage years, because she liked the ambiguity of being neither this nor that. But a year ago she used a turban for the first time, and it was that moment—she remembers the day: Feb. 13, 2015—that Babi knew with certainty that she is indeed black.
"It was love at first sight," she says. "I felt beautiful! I felt stylish! But mostly, I felt black!"
Asserting yourself as black in your twenties is not without its challenges. Babi says her family views the matter as her "decision," but mom "feels a bit rejected because she thinks I want to be more black than white and thus distance myself from her."
Babi's friends, meanwhile, are mostly nonplussed. "They think I'm crazy because I'm not so black," Babi told me.
Babi's not alone. Brazil has been experiencing a racial awakening for more than a decade. And it's a process that appears to be accelerating thanks to the government's affirmative action policies and Brazilians' hyperconnectivity to social media, which is allowing young people to create online communities, share their stories, and encourage others to embrace their blackness in a country where white has always been king.
For Artur Santoro, 21, identifying as black is about being honest with himself—a process similar to coming out as gay.
"I had to come out of the closet twice—once as gay, and once as black," Artur tells me. He says growing up with a white dad and a "light-skinned black" mom made it difficult to recognize his own blackness for most of his youth. But once Artur got involved in the LGBT community, it helped him identify other forms of discrimination in his life.
"I was suffering from situations of racism and didn't realize it before," he said. "If you're black, you suffer racism—it's not a choice; black is a consequence of what I live."
Not everyone supports Artur's new racial identity.
"My father accepts me as gay, but doesn't see me as black," Artur told me over beers in friendly three-story Sao Paulo bar. "But my blackness has never been questioned by anybody in the black community."
Like many people who identify as black later in life, Artur says hair played a big role.
"When I was a teenager, I always shaved my head to hide my blackness," he says. "At first I used to see it as a haircut preference, because I thought I looked better with a shaved head. But then I realized it was a racist preference."
Artur has since made up for his years of buzzcuts by rocking a pink afro. Now there's no hiding it.
Hair is also a major factor for women in asserting their blackness. I spoke with several women who told me the moment they fully assumed their black identity was when they cut off their chemically straightened hair and let it grow back in naturally. It's such a life-changing process it has it's own name: "The big chop."
"I started straightening my hair when I was 11 years old, and then I started wearing makeup to make my nose look smaller, but I thought of myself as kind of white," says Jessica Moreira, who says both of her parents are mixed-raced with lighter skin. "I had no reference for being black…It took a long time for me to accept myself."
In her teens, Jessica started reading black feminist writing, and found herself nodding. But the real moment of epiphany came when one of her close college friends, a woman who she says "is lighter skinned than me," started to identify as black. "I thought: 'If she's black, then I'm really black'," Jessica says.
It was then that she went in for the big chop and came out feeling black and proud. "Hair was so powerful in this process," she says.
But it's not all about the hair. For more than a decade, Brazil has been undergoing a structural adjustment to address its deep-rooted racism. It began in earnest under former socialist President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who in 2004 began imposing racial quotas to provide more job and educational opportunities for black Brazilians. Lula's public battle for civil rights culminated in the 2010 "Statute of Racial Equality," which sought to address historic racial inequalities and discrimination stemming from centuries of slavery.
The same year, Brazil—for the first time in its history—officially became a majority non-white state, when the census results showed that most Brazilians were now identifying as black or "pardo" (mixed-race). The number of Brazilians identifying as white dropped for the first time in the country's history of census-taking.
Two years later, Lula's predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, helped shepherd one of the most progressive affirmative action laws in the hemisphere, further institutionalizing the long overdo black awakening in the country with the largest black population outside of Africa.
Brazil also has a version of #BlackLivesMatter, which actually predates the BLM movement in the U.S., but still doesn't have the same nationwide presence as its American counterpart. But it might just be a matter of time in a country where a black person is 1.5 times more likely to be killed by police than a white person is, according to an investigation by Brazilian publication Ponte.
For now, Brazil's black awakening is mostly about trying to deconstruct its founding myth of "racial democracy," whereby the white people in the country maintain that Brazil is a colorblind and racially harmonious nation thanks to its post-abolition government policies that promoted an intentional mixing of races (read: a whitening of the population by encouraging Italian and German immigration.)
"There's no Brazilian dream; there's very little chance of social mobility here," says Natalia Paiva, who heads the Brazilian affiliate of Transparency International. "And the myth of racial democracy has just been used to cover racial tensions from slavery."
It's true that Brazil is one of the most racially mixed countries in the world, she says, "but racial integration doesn't lessen racial discrimination."
"We've been telling ourselves this story of racial democracy for 150 years, and only recently have we started to challenge it," says Natalia, who did her "big chop" seven years ago when she was 20.
Social media is helping to flip the script too, she says. Black feminists are sharing their stories on Facebook groups such as "Senti Na Pele" (I feel it on my skin), and it's helping other women to identify as black.
"Social media makes it easier to share and hear people's narratives outside of the mainstream media, where everyone is white," Natalia says.
Facebook isn't the cause of the movement, but it's an accelerant that's making an historical process move at a quickening pace.
"Every movement needs the right timing, the right historical circumstances," Natalia says. "Now the circumstances exist. There's no going back."