Foreign Policy Magazine

The Many Shades of Maíra Mutti Araújo

In a country famous for its egalitarian melting pot, one woman’s struggle with race-based quotas raises difficult questions about blackness and belonging in Brazil.

WHEN MAÍRA MUTTI ARAÚJO speaks, she draws out her vowels and pronounces them with a distinctively sharp tone. Her accent is immediately recognizable to Brazilians as typical of Salvador, a coastal city in the country’s northeast that is as famous for its beaches as its rich African heritage. Araújo grew up in Salvador, just like her mom. Her dad, who grew up in a rural town eight hours away, has lived there since college. She has her mom’s features—a broad nose, full lips—and her dad’s nut-brown complexion.

Araújo comes from a bookish family. Her parents met when they were both chemistry majors at a local university—they now work as middle school chemistry teachers. She got her law degree at the Federal University of Bahia, one of the country’s most prestigious. During her time in law school, Araújo began to consider a career in the civil service. She interned at the Federal Attorney General’s Office in Salvador while still a student and took a job as an analyst at the government accountability office in Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, after graduation. Her goal was to eventually become a prosecutor. “I love arguing cases,” Araújo says, “that whole process of taking a case and finding a solution for it.” As a prosecutor, she says, “you’re responsible for propelling the case forward. The outcome depends on your approach.”

In late 2015, Araújo set her sights on an attractive job opening for a prosecutor back in her hometown, in the Salvador municipal department. Everyone encouraged her to apply using a relatively new affirmative action option. “You of all people! You have to do it,” Araújo’s boss at the time told her. “If I had the chance to apply as a quotas candidate, I would totally go for it,” her friends said. “And you do! So apply!”

Since 2011, lawmakers in the state of Bahia and in Salvador, its capital, have enacted a series of measures aimed at tackling racial inequality. These include legal measures banning discrimination against followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, the creation of a committee to combat institutional racism, and racial quotas for government jobs. The policy efforts in Bahia reflected a national wave of legislation spurred by the landmark Statute of Racial Equality signed in 2010 by then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After decades of fighting to be heard, Brazil’s black activist movements saw

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