Racism and History of colonialism in the History textbooks in Portugal

What was the problem?

This project's need emerged of the existing gap in the analysis of how the national and international debates over the history and teaching of colonialism and racism enable understanding in which measure an eurocentric approach persists in the contemporaneity, meaning, “a reality interpretation model which consecrates the idea of Europe's historical progress and ethical and political superiority”. This was the starting point of the project “'Race' and Africa in Portugal: a study on History textbooks” which took place in CES between September 2008 and February 2012, coordinated by Marta Araújo. The project approached the modern school as an arena which reflects wider debates and political struggles on History and national and European identity and, consequently, approached the History manuals not only as fundamental pedagogical tools in the teaching-learning process, but also as privileged objects for the study of such debates and belonging imaginaries. Even if the school textbooks are object of diverse sociological studies, this investigation sought going beyond the analysis of the stereotyped representations on the “other”, to understand how the historical knowledge production in Portugal continues to consecrate eurocentric approaches, perpetuated in spite of the inclusion of “other voices” (through including them in the “discoveries' narrative”). The project concentrated in two paradigmatic examples of the “depolitization” and “naturalization” of certain historical processes, namely racial enslaving and the African national liberation struggles. This analysis was framed in the context of the wider discussions at the national and international levels on “race” and racism, power and knowledge, politics and violence, citizenship and belonging.

What did we do?

The project focused in three moments: 1) the analysis of the political debates and recommendations of international organizations (for example, UNESCO and Council of Europe), of the national curricular orientations and educative policies and of the History school manuals most sold in Portugal, in force between 2008/09 and 2013/14, for the 3rd Cycle of Basic Education (students aged from 12 to 15 years old); 2) qualitive interviews and focal discussions with 60 participants involved whether in the elaboration and consumption of the school manuals, whether in the production and critics of the historical narratives, among which policy decision-makers, historians, editors, teachers, students, civil society associations, activists and journalists; 3) participative workshops to discuss the investigation's results. The analysis sought going beyond the state-of-the-art in three ways: a) by placing as fulcra the need of approaching the dissemination of historical knowledge as reflecting debates and divergences in the frame of the academic production itself; b) by relating the debates on the History with wider political discussions about the so-called Portuguese “interculturality historic vocation for interculturality”; b) by problematizing how the “race” notion pervades the narratives on the Portuguese identity, building the assumption of national homogeneity and legitimizing “depoliticizing” approaches of (anti-)colonialism and (anti-)racism.
Amongst its results, the project highlighted that eurocentrism is built and consolidated as i) a linear narrative which places the “other” in a different time (meaning, previous) of the European present; ii) through the narrative of the (democratic) national state as an hegemonic paradigm of the political organization, and iii) through the equation between racism and given spatial-temporal contexts (for example, 19th Century's new imperialism, Italian fascism and Germain Nazism), discharging the role of Portuguese and Spanish colonialism in the emergence and consolidation of the “blood purity” and “race” ideas. These premises pervade not only the studied manuals but also many of the public debates on History, being crucial whether to naturalize the African History absence beyond the “contact with the Europeans”, whether to invisibilize the colonial power's violence, recurrently treated as “expansion” and reduced to “discoveries” and “contacts between peoples”. Apart from promoting the critic of the limitations of a positivist approach based upon “correcting” stereotyped images, the project sought to demonstrate that the inclusion process of “other” histories cannot be reduced to the representation right but should help rethinking the national History and identity.
The project promoted several extension activities aimed at involving teachers, students, artists and civil society representatives, fostering the debate around History beyond the “scientific study of the past”. Sessions were performed (in the frame of the activities of the extesion program “CES goes to School”, and the team's coordinators and members participated in diverse debate and civil training spaces, such as: Science and Technology Week 2010; Annual Training of the association SOS Racismo and Advanced Training Courses in CES.

What happened?

The project was concluded in 2012, being target of diverse national and international news in which the results – as well as the future necessary actions – were expressed. Through a brochure produced for the purpose, the team sent suggestions to the Education Ministry on how to work the History textbooks' contents. However, 5 years were necessary for the matter to be discussed at the level of the national governance sphere – and even then, there was no unequivocal government position on the theme. Nonetheless, the project impacted other social spheres, namely on diverse afrodescendants' organizations and antiracist collectives – which placed the demand of the revision of History teaching in Portugal in an Open Letter to the United Nations in 2016. The absence of governance impact itself helped highlighting the inertia of the decision structure on the taught History curricula’s, in which the responsibilities over them appear as diffuse, with a governance void emerging. If the History Teachers' Association expressed that such changes are of the rulers' responsibility, up to date the Ministry remained in silent on the theme. In the governance sphere, only the former Education Minister, Maria de Lurdes Rodrigues, expressed – in an interview to Diário de Notícias – that the revision should not be made by the rulers, but by those who teach. More recently, in 2018, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) issued a report in which it advises the Portuguese government to review the History textbooks so that they encompass “the role played by Portugal in the development and”, later, in the “abolition of slavery and the discrimination and violence committed against indigenous peoples in the former colonies.

Related Projects


´Race´ and Africa in Portugal: a study on history textbooks

Marta Araújo

September 1, 2008 to February 29, 2012

Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology

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