A White Journalist Discovers the Lie of Portugal’s Colonial Past

Raised to believe that Portugal was a “good colonizer” of Africa, this Portuguese journalist set out on a journey to explore the racism that existed throughout colonial history and remains today.

A woman shops in a market in Cabinda, Angola, on Jan. 19, 2010.  
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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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.”