Sunday, July 18, 2010

Racism in my Brazil

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.
First and foremost I must report that after having lived in urban African American neighborhoods for most of my adult life (with all the concomitant experiences therein), I have never seen the level of racial integration of neighbors, friends and family that I have seen here in Brazil. But let me highlight some experiences here that twist my racism antennae.

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?


Fabio Bossard said...

In my opinion, today there is more prejudice against poor/uneducated people rather than black people. A upper-middle class black family (they are far and few between) won't suffer as much racism as poor black family. It's all about what you have, who's your father, where you live than what you skin color. That's the difference between Brazil and States.

Ray Adkins said...


I have had many discussions on this topic and have gotten some conclusions.
In comparing Brazil and US when talking about racism, I found some very similar racist behaviors in certain parts of the US and certain parts of Brazil, coincidentally this is what I have noticed.
You have to separate the traditional Brazil with a strong slave background such as Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Pernambuco and Sao Paulo from the 3 southern states plus Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul ( colonized by southern Brazilian Europeans ).
The traditional Brazil has some very similar racist behavior when you compare it to the Deep South of the US, states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and even the Carolinas and Virginia.
There is a disguised racism, hidden, deceiving, in Brazil you see more African Americans being racist against other African Americans, it is plain and simple, people have a certain way of behaving, there are certain things you can do and others you would never dare to do.
For example, in traditional Brazil, I have examples from Sao Paulo, people would never, EVER, have their maids eating at the table with the family or even being in the same room during a meal, there are very clearly defined roles that both sides know to follow. Maids don't wanna be seen shopping at the same store as the families they work for...
People have maids, never make their beds or wash their dishes, never, ever!! If the maid is sick and doesn't show up, bed doesn't get done, dishes pile on the sink.
Some people refuse to buy dishwashers, after all, what's the maid going to do with all that free time?
There was a BIG DEAL in the late 80's with Condominios blocking "service people" ( Maids, plumbers, delivery people ) to ride in the Social Elevators, "service" people HAD to follow rules and were allowed to ride only the "service" elevators.
Long story short, a lot of humiliated maids and delivery guys later and a law suit buy Sao Paulo's state's attorney, a new law was passed which forced Condominios to place a sign in front of every elevator making sure EVERYONE is allowed to ride ANY elevator in the building with prison as a treat for punishment for those who break the law.

Ray Adkins said...

Continuation from last comment:

Today you can get in serious trouble and even end up in jail if you call some one buy the N word in a humiliating way in public.
In Sao Paulo, Bahia, Rio and Minas Gerais is very common to see apartments and houses with a "maids" quarter, usually a small bedroom and bathroom. It is very awkward, a small 2 bedroom apartment with a "maids" bedroom and bathroom, very uncommon in Santa Catarina for example.
Most Brazilians originated from recent European immigration think it is a foreign concept to have a stranger ( maid ) living in the house with the family. In Minas and Rio it is very common for families to have a sleep in maid who usually stays with the family for many, many years.
We knew a family in Minas that had a living in maid that was born in their house, her mother and grandmother were also born in the house and 4 generations of women from the same family lived in the same house serving the same "White" family.
In Bahia there is a "cultural practice" that is very strange, girls from African origin that are very dark, try to marry the whitest man they can find to lighten the skin of their children the most they can.
You probably know by now, many light colored African Brazilians don't consider themselves Black, and in an effort to distance themselves from the African "classification" they some times practice racism against their own, kind of like Tedd Haggard, Larry Craig being mean to gays...UGH, I gag just to remember these names...
The US had a war to abolish slavery! A lot of people died, the country was torn a part, partly destroyed, plantations destroyed and burned to the ground...the country raised from the ashes and expunged slavery and a shameful and embarrassing practice.
Brazil saw nothing like that, slavery was ended with the stroke of a pen and a new law, pressured by European ended peacefully and slowly...
It didn't end because the Industry and the Capitalists in Brazil wanted the African slaves to incorporate the country's work force as paid labor and potential consumers like in the US.
In Brazil, it ended because European countries ( mostly ) UK was threatening Brazil with commercial embargoes.
So, the Brazilian elite worried on how to replace the work force on the plantations, their short term solution: famished European, mostly from Portugal, Italy and Spain, very, very poor immigrants who were brought in to replace the slaves, as paid farm hands, with promises of land and a future.
I could write a book on this subject, it is fascinating to me, to learn more and more about it and understand how and why things are the way they are today in Brazil and in the US.

Ray Adkins said...


This is an intesting article on this topic.

Jim said...

Fabio - I would agree and inclluded the words "gainfully employed" in my post to allude to this. Class is always an issue (and rarely talked about).

Ray - thank you for the thoughtful remarks. I am steeped in the Rio culture you describe. I once made the mistake of serving lunch to the handiman who was remodeling our maid's quarters into a laundry room and my father-in-law at the same time. Two plates on the same table. My father-in-law saw that and left the room, not returning until the worker had finished and left. I learned quickly...

Thanks for the link as well. My reading assignments have been made.