Brazil's racialised sperm economy

Why is there a surging demand for caucasian sperm in Brazil?

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    Sperm samples, each individually numbered, rest in a tank of liquid nitrogen. [Fred Prouser/Reuters]
    Sperm samples, each individually numbered, rest in a tank of liquid nitrogen. [Fred Prouser/Reuters]

    The commodification of biomaterials, such as eggs and sperm, and their associated products, has drastically changed the ways in which we deal with reproduction and kinship. A domain of life once understood to be natural has now become a matter of choice. At first glance, the vast availability of biomaterial in the borderless marketplace seems to be liberating: single women increasingly make up the largest consumer group of sperm banks, a fact that signals to the disruption of traditional gender roles and family models. But are people's uses of assisted reproduction technology only telling us about subversion or could they also indicate the ways in which powerful structures of domination are entrenched in our societies?

    In the case of Brazil, the answer seems to be that the recent trend of sperm importation, reported by the National Health Surveillance Agency, reveals a lot more than simply a tremendous increase of demand for this commodity (which cannot be commercialised within the country). The report details the information on foreign human semen use from 2011 to 2016 and shows that 95 percent of the demand was for samples provided by Caucasian men. The colour of the donor's eyes was also an important factor for the importers: 52 percent preferred donors with blue eyes, followed by brown (24 percent) and green (13 percent). The profile of the donors who received the largest number of requests show a slight variation: They are either blond Caucasian with blue eyes or blue-eyed Caucasians with brown hair.

    For anyone who has ever heard about Brazilians being mixed people who live in a racial democracy, it might be difficult to understand why those who can afford to import semen have such a strong and almost unanimous preference for the blue-eyed Caucasian type. Growing up as a white person in Brazil, it is not hard for me to figure this out. The racist structure that governs our society unmistakably establishes that power, privileges and inherent capacities go along with the colour of your skin. Whiteness is the normative racial identity here, and being a white person places you in a position that, throughout your life, systematically gives you privileged access to material and symbolic resources.

    The value given to whiteness may be seen in different domains of life. First, in terms of beauty standards, white aesthetics is hegemonic. Straight hair, white skin, blue or green eyes and delicate features make up the prevailing idea of human beauty, which is entrenched in popular culture, and disseminated in mass media. Such aesthetical superiority is, in fact, one of the distinguishing features of whiteness in Brazil, as recent studies have shown. Also, the idea of moral and intellectual superiority - which is at the heart of "race" as a colonial construct to justify subjugation of indigenous and black people in the Americas - is deployed, up to this day, by white Brazilians to explain why they earn more money, live in the best neighbourhoods, occupy the highest positions in both the market and the state, among many other advantages they enjoy.

    It is clear thus that Brazilian racism is by and large supported by a pact of whiteness. While such a pact does not place barriers to the establishment of everyday relationships between whites and non-whites, hence our "racial democracy", it reinforces, in every instance, the idea of white superiority that legitimates the privileges that we white people enjoy. White people are not only favoured in such racialised structure, but they have actively produced and strengthened it, simply by promoting the (very wrong) idea of racial democracy or through more direct mechanisms of discrimination. 

    One of such mechanisms were the state policies deployed at the turn of 19th century, when the abolition of slavery became an inevitable fact and hundreds of thousands of black people would become citizens. Aiming to turn Brazil into a white country, a decree from 1890 liberalised the entrance of workers, except for those native to Asia or Africa. During the coming decades, particularly between the 1920s and 1940s, the state engaged in a deliberate effort to attract European migrants as a means to whiten the population. Interestingly in contrast with the US experience, interracial coupling became, both in state policy and intellectual discourse, a eugenic instrument. In only about 30 years, 2.1 million European migrants were allowed in the country, a number equivalent to that of the black people forced into Brazil as slaves during nearly 375 hundred years.

    Today, we have the largest black population outside of Africa and the majority of my compatriots define themselves as black or mixed race. Nonetheless, the commitment to make this a white nation has not relinquished, as the recent and growing trend of Caucasian sperm importation might suggest. While institutional racism still plays a major role in sustaining preferences, hierarchies, privileges and material inequalities between human beings based on their skin colour, the role individual racism plays in the maintenance of this structure cannot be ignored. After all, signing out of the "white pact" means to oppose a long list of racial, economic and political privileges that comes with being white in Brazil.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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