A woman shops in a market in Cabinda, Angola, on Jan. 19, 2010.  
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

I was born in 1975, the same year that Portugal withdrew from its five African colonies—Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde Islands and Guinea-Bissau—becoming the last of the European powers to finally abandon colonialism. 

Throughout my life, I have been told that we, the Portuguese, were the explorers who discovered the world. We were not occupiers. We did not oppress Africans. We were not like the British or the French. We were good colonizers (pdf), who mixed with the local African people. Apparently we were not racists then, and we’re not racists now. I can remember being taught this narrative as a child at school. Four decades later, Portuguese children are still being taught this distorted, idyllic narrative.

Growing up in a socially mixed area of the capital city, Lisbon, I encountered black Portuguese children in specific places, like the poorer areas. At primary school, there were a few black pupils. At high school, just a couple. At university, I cannot remember seeing a black student. Yet, Portugal has always had a significant black population.

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Long before the horrors of the trans-Atlantic trade of human beings, in which Portugal played such a pivotal and shameful part, there were black Africans in Portugal. Following decolonization five centuries later, there was a wave of migration to Portugal from the former colonies, particularly Cape Verde, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. Yet this racially diverse population is still not visible at universities or in the leading positions of society: We don’t see black doctors, black professors at university; we rarely see black people on TV or appearing in advertisements. This absence reveals the truth of our history, proving that Portugal was never, ever the “good colonizer.”  

In 2015 I traveled to Portugal’s five former African colonies. I interviewed more than 100 people in a bid to understand the truth about our history. I set out to try to answer a number of questions: Was Portuguese colonialism really less racist than the British and French systems? Did Portuguese colonizers really have a harmonious relationship with the African people they sought to dominate? How do Portuguese ideas of race persist in these countries? My full reports are published in Portugal’s largest national daily newspaper, Público. For The Root, I shared insights into two of the countries I visited: Angola and Cape Verde.

In Angola, racial hierarchy is explicit in everyday life. Since the end of the country’s civil war in 2002, tens of thousands of Portuguese have migrated there to take up opportunities primarily in the construction industry. This influx of white Europeans has exacerbated racial tensions across the country. I contacted a variety of Angolans—including academics, politicians, musicians, activists, social workers, artists and journalists—who spoke frankly about racism and the fact that colonial ideas of race continue to be reproduced in their country among Angolans, as well as Portuguese migrants. 

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In Angola, people watch Portuguese soccer and drink water, sodas, beer and wine all imported from Portugal. Many of the restaurants in the capital, Luanda, have mainly Portuguese dishes on their menus, and televisions are permanently tuned in to Portuguese networks. Portugal and Angola have strong economic ties: After China, Portugal is the second-largest importer, and there are dozens of Angolan investors in the Portuguese market, including the president’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, who does business in finance and communication services.

However, the economic benefits between the two countries are not always mutual. Some Angolans told me that a lot of the Portuguese who live in Angola today behave just like their colonial predecessors did. In other words, they appear to be nice enough to the Angolans they encounter every day, but they never engage with the locals in any real depth. There is an overwhelming sense of “us and them.”

In many multinational companies, blacks appear to be discriminated against while whites benefit: “You would have a white Portuguese or white Brazilian leading a team of black Angolans, but there would never be a black Angolan in a leading position,” explains Elias Isaac, director of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa in Luanda. “It is not explicit racism, but the acceptance of a cultural mindset.”

Isaac reads this tension as a syndrome that persists in colonized countries and is transmitted from generation to generation. “There was independence from Portugal, but not decolonization of the mind,” he says. 

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In Angola, 60 percent of the population is under 24 years of age. They did not, therefore, experience the segregation of Portuguese colonialism. The sociologist Paulo de Carvalho, 55, has strong memories of the racial segregation he experienced on buses and on the sidewalk. Even elderly black people would rapidly exit a public space like a pharmacy the moment a white person entered. A sign of submission, according to de Carvalho.

The colonial system had different classes of citizens. Most astonishing, an Angolan could become “assimilated” on condition that he or she assimilated the Portuguese way of life: in other words, had a formal job, sat down at a table to eat using a knife and fork, worshipped a Christian God, spoke only the Portuguese language and wore European clothes.

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Likewise, the assimilated had to give up their own cultural practices, including their languages, customs and, very often, their names, too. Women had to straighten their hair. Only by adopting the Portuguese way could black and mestiço Angolans climb the very racialized hierarchy that was so crucial to the colonial system. De Carvalho, himself, was “assimilated.”  

People have strong memories of Luanda as a divided city, where the center was for whites and the periphery—the musseques, or shanty towns—were for blacks. Over 40 years later, those divisions still exist, says Isaac. The people who live without water, electricity or gas in the musseques are almost entirely black and are mostly poor. Although there are some whites who live in poverty in a few pockets of the country, they are the exception to the rule. Inherited from the colonial structure, this pattern of racial hierarchy is one of the expressions of what Isaac calls “subtle racism.” 

Lúcia da Silveira, director of the human rights nongovernmental organization Associação Justiça, Paz e Democracia, says that African women are discouraged from having natural-hair styles and that straight hair is still considered the most beautiful. There is a popular group called Natural Angolans that advocates natural black hairstyles and discourages women from straightening their curls. 

White Angolans with mixed heritage—known locally as mestiços or, pejoratively, mulattoes—are also sometimes at the receiving end of verbal abuse. Thirty-three-year-old political activist Luaty Beirão, who is mixed, remembers other children at school calling him nasty names, always referencing his skin color.

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Beirão is an activist and well-known rapper who went on a hunger strike for 36 days last year to protest against his imprisonment without going to trial. He and 14 other activists were indicted for “preparing acts pursuant to a coup d’etat” because they were debating politics and their ideas for a change of government—the president, José Eduardo dos Santos, has been in power for 36 years. They are still waiting for the sentence. 

Beirão grew up understanding discrimination through the historical lens. During colonialism, economic power was in the hands of a white minority. Today the association between wealth and white or mixed race persists, he says. But there are also wealthy black Angolans, he says.

For much of the 20th century, under the Portuguese dictator Antonio Oliveira Salazar, Portugal viewed its colonies as provinces, part of the country, and the colonized people of Africa as Portuguese. But those Portuguese who were born in Africa were treated as second-class citizens—even the whites.

Portugal, however, had a different approach in each of its five African colonies. For instance, Portuguese people were actively encouraged to migrate to Angola. In Guinea-Bissau, Portuguese people were mainly present in public services. Thus it was called a “colony of exploration.” In Cape Verde, the West African archipelago that operated as an important slave market, there was a different policy. It did not exercise the so-called indigenous law, which segregated African and European populations. Cape Verdeans were used by the colonizer as an extension of its power in other colonies. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, many Cape Verdeans held senior positions in public services like the post office.

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Throughout time, the Salazar regime created an image of Cape Verdeans as “special blacks” who were not quite as African as the others. On the contrary, they were more like the Portuguese because they were more educated, read more books and didn’t wear African clothes. Cape Verdeans were used to promote the myth that racial harmony existed in Portugal’s overseas territories. They were, if you like, proof that the Portuguese really did mix with the African people.

As a consequence of its particular experience of colonization, the Cape Verdean elite felt white, according to the historian, Iva Cabral. Cabral is the daughter of Amílcar Cabral (1924-1973), one of the most important thinkers of his time and the leader of the independence movement in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.  

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In fact, some Cape Verdeans saw themselves as Portuguese, and even today, there is a part of the population that refuses to acknowledge its own African identity. At school, African history is barely taught. “Of course we are Africans,” explains Jorge Andrade, a political activist who lives in the capital, Praia, “but in practical terms, what was the social policy that protected African interests? There was no such thing.”

The young sociologist Redy Wilson Lima says: “As all Cape Verdeans, I say I am Cape Verdean. And that is the ambiguity. By saying I am Cape Verdean, I am denying my Africanness. We learn that we are Cape Verdean, but it is only when I go to Europe that I understand that, in fact, I am [also an] African.”

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The narrative of being the “special colony” is part of Cape Verdean identity. Many, like 69-year-old historian Corsino Tolentino, say that they only felt they were black when they went to Portugal.

The Cape Verdean identity was created on the base of lighter skin, says Abraao Vicente, an artist who is light-skinned himself. Having a light skin tone in Cape Verde is still a privilege, he thinks. A few years ago he wrote a book, 1980-Labirinth, in which he stated that “being African in Cape Verde is a taboo.” Today this is a sensitive topic in Cape Verde and in Portugal.

Cape Verdeans are the largest African community inside Portugal. Cape Verdean music, especially, has always been very well received in the capital’s cultural circles. Besides that, there’s not much interaction between Portuguese and the Portuguese of Cape Verdean descent in the intellectual, political and economic spaces. Interestingly, despite that, many Portuguese still believe that there’s a special relationship between the two countries, a reflex of the “good colonizer” ideology.

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As a white Portuguese journalist, I am aware of my own position of privilege while doing these reports. Despite having a critical approach to our colonial history, I was still shocked and surprised by what I heard during my travels. Although I don't believe in the idea of “good colonialism,” I did not realize the extent of the physical and cultural abuse that took place under Portuguese colonial rule. The interviews I conducted in Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau have made me question the ways in which my country’s colonial past is taught at schools.

Why wasn’t I ever told at school about the segregation imposed in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau? Why didn’t my teachers tell me about the cruel and degrading policy of assimilation? Why didn’t they explain what happened to women and men, who had to give up African names if they wanted to become second-class citizens, as opposed to mere subjects? When, I wonder, are we, the Portuguese people, going to start telling the truth about our colonial past to our children?

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Joana Gorjão Henriques has been a journalist at the leading national daily in Portugal, Público, since 2000; a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2010; and a contributor to The Guardian. She is mainly a long-form writer who reports on racism, discrimination and social injustice.