Race in Brazil

This piece from the New York Review of Books about race in Brazil is so fascinating.  One semester, while leading a discussion with a group of undergraduates for a US survey course, the topic of race came up (as it inevitably does whenever you are discussing early US history and slavery).  One of my students was Brazilian and in response to an US student who said that racism no longer exists in the US, the Brazilian student laughed.  He said that while Brazil has many problems of its own including major issues with class, Brazilians fail to see the world in black and white as citizens of the US do.  In fact, he said people in the US are absolutely obsessed with these two skin colors (or, rather, these labels for skin colors) and it only takes a few minutes of watching TV or looking at a magazine to see it.

I have always found this comment so fascinating.  Because, like the US, Brazil has a history that includes at its core the institution of slavery.  But, from this guy’s comment, it appears that the long-term effects of slavery have been different for them.  And I don’t know much about why.  Once again, my knowledge beyond the borders of this country falters.

Here are some blurbs from the interview with anthropologist and historian Lilia Schwarcz:

In Brazil, you are what you describe yourself to be. Officially we have five different colors—black, white, yellow, indigenous, and pardo (meaning “brown,” “brownish,” or “gray-brown”), but in reality, as research has demonstrated, we have more than 130 colors.

Brazilians like to describe their spectrum of colors as a rainbow and we also think that color is a flexible way of categorizing people. For several years, I have been studying a soccer game called “Pretos X Brancos” (Blacks against whites), which takes place in a favela of São Paulo, called Heliópolis. In theory, it pits eleven white players against eleven black players. But, every year they change colors like they change socks or shirts—one year a player will choose to play for one team, the next year for the other, with the explanation that, “I feel more black,” or “I feel more white.” Also, in Brazil, if a person gets rich, he gets whiter. I recently talked with a dentist in Minas Gerais. As he is becoming old, his hair has turned white, and he is very well recognized in his little town. He started smoking cigars, joined the local Rotary Club, and said to me: “When I was black my life was really difficult.” So one can see how being white even nowadays is a powerful symbol. Here we have two sides of the same picture: on the one hand, identity is flexible; on the other hand, whiteness is ultimately what some people aspire to. But one aspect is common, the idea that you can manipulate your color and race. […]

I think all kinds of racism are equally terrible. I am just saying that the Brazilian kind is different. For example, in 2000 we completed a survey research project that consisted of three seemingly simple questions: Are you prejudiced in any way? 97 percent of those surveyed answered no. Do you know anyone who is prejudiced? 99 percent answered yes. If you had said yes to the second question, you were asked to describe the relationship you have with this person. We did not ask for names, but people often gave them, naming friends and relatives. We concluded that every Brazilian thinks he is an island of racial democracy surrounded by an ocean of racism. But things are changing: Although affirmative action did not begin until the 1980, it is now pretty effective, and we have a quota and bonus system in the universities (the system benefits mainly poor people who studied in public schools, and, consequently, black people). African history is mandatory in the schools. We are coming to understand the complexity of racial prejudice rather than denying its existence.


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