I may get in trouble for this one. Talking about race in Brazil is nearly as fraught with landmines as it is in the States. But then, I have never been one to shy away from danger zones.
Having grown up in suburban Detroit in the 1960’s and 70’s (can you say riots?) I have had my share of spoon-fed racism as well as against-the-current anti-racist learnings. Dare I say I have spent the 30 plus years since I left Detroit deliberately trying to un-learn the racist lessons of my youth. Lucky for me my parents were always models of resistance against the racism in our surroundings, but the resistance did not extend much further than that.
It’s generally considered common wisdom among the gainfully employed in Brazil that the issue of racism is over stated. “We’re not like America,” people say, “We got over it after the African slaves were emancipated. We never had a Jim Crow period. Even before then, Portuguese slave owners always loved f**king black women. Our being a brown population is proof of our lack of racism.”
This line of thinking never took me in very far, even when I was all starry-eyed about Brazil and its culture. I don’t buy it. If anything, look around: who are the black characters on television (mostly maids and drug dealers)?; who lives in the expensive neighborhoods and who cleans their toilets?; who drives the imported cars and who parks them?; who are the bosses and who are the laborers?; who dominates in political life?; historic and institutionalized racism has a way of being plain to see in everyday life, if you are willing to look.
But rather than being academic I want to share some personal experiences which remind me I am not from here and which keep me confused. Applying my liberal American anti-racism sensibilities to my Brazilian experiences does not always balance out like I would have thought.
We have a black friend who introduces himself to everyone by his nickname: Neginho (little black one).
People will refer reverently to a powerful, captivating and often sexy black man as a “Negão,” (big black guy).
Popular artwork from more Afro-Brazilian parts of the country will feature caricatures of black folks I find offensive and racist. But they are available in souvenir stores and galleries alike and are in the homes of our friends, including our black friends.
At a birthday party we were at last night (and why I write this today) they had a “dress up” area with dozens of costumes and masks. Two of the masks were of the exaggerated nose and lips features of some Afro-Brazilians. Yet most of the guests who wore the masks had skin colors darker than those of the masks. All in great fun. WTF?
So either the internalized racism among Brazilians of African decent is worse than I imagined and the overt racism among light-skinned Brazilians simply goes without challenge – or there is a dynamic afoot that is not easily understood by progressive anti-racist thought from the US. Probably both…
Generally I keep my mouth shut and follow up after the fact. But so far, not having Brazilian sociologists among my friends as yet, I am not getting satisfying or enlightening explanations. Maybe my circle of friends and colleagues is too narrow and I am just getting a distorted impression. I need a reading list. [I found one here.]
[Make no mistake – I see plenty of overt, offensive racism, but this post is meant to hover in more blurry, personal territory.]
What do you think?