Brazil is always portrayed as tolerant and diverse. Here’s the reality.
I am a white, middle class, Paulistano woman of Italian heritage. My family is not rich, but I’m not blind to the fact that my privileges in this society come with my white skin. The most important privilege of all may be the fact that I don’t even have to think about the impact of my skin colour.
Whenever I hail a cab, the driver stops and welcome me in. No one ever mistook me for a hooker while I was having dinner with my blue-eyed boyfriend, nor had me for a child’s nanny or the house servant. And it’s hard to imagine someone crossing the street away from me when walking at night or holding their bag closer when I sit beside them on the bus.
Like our North Americans friends, we Brazilians are extremely varied in our colours, accents, and heritages; more so than any other country in South America. But similarities stops there. People don’t go to the streets when cops kill a black kid. Brazil is a deeply racist country, no matter how festive our Carnival is, how wonderful our music is, or how good looking our people are. Our fair mestizo country is not what it seems. There are many everyday occurrences of veiled racism we don’t talk about because we tend to think the problem as something distant. For most people, racism was the South African Apartheid system, and not the fact that from the 380 most important Brazilian companies, not a single one as a black person as CEO.
The inconvenient truth of Brazilian racism came into the international news recently, when US activist and Columbia University teacher Carl Hart was supposedly debarred while entering the fancy hotel where he was to present a lecture. It was a hoax: Mr. Hart wasn’t stopped at the entry. But he did mention, to more than a thousand people listening to him that afternoon, that there were no black people in the audience: “Look to the side, see how many blacks are here. You should be ashamed.”
What Mr. Hart saw is the same these unnamed expat ladies noticed. Two women of different heritage (African and Caribbean) living in Brazil with their husbands are constantly reminded that Brazil is not the race harmony paradise they imagined. “When I arrived, I was shocked to realize there is a big difference between races and colours, and your skin color defines your role,” one mentions. The other went as far as carrying ID proving she’s the mother of her small children, after being mistaken for their baba (nanny) several times.
In Rio, they are confronted with the reality of living in Brazil, not the idealised Brazilian life one sees in the touristy brochures. They have access to news such as what happened in Rio a few weeks ago, when the police took more than 100 kids out of the buses on their way to the beach. As the article points out, there was no possession of guns, or drugs, or any violence. “They think we are robbers because we are black”, says one of the kids.
The first time I witnessed racism was from my grandmother. My first boyfriend was a black kid and my grandmother, an old, traditional, Italian lady, was appalled. The kind of things she would care about if he was white — if he was from a nice family, was kind, or handsome, if my mother and my sister knew him — made no difference to her. Her problem was that he had the same skin colour as her servants; therefore, he was not good enough for me.
It was more than 25 years ago. What has changed?
Not much, I fear. At my son’s school: everyone is white. At the restaurants and shop I visit: everyone is white, except those in service jobs. The only time I see different shades of skin colour is on the bus and subway lines I use every day.
As Emicida, a talented and outspoken rapper from São Paulo’s north area, points out, “feels like from a point upward, there are no black people in the city”. He meant geographically — how richer, central areas are mostly white. But it’s also true on a social scale. Black people can be successful in sports and arts, but surgeons, engineers, lawyers, etc. are white. Mostly white and male.
According to IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistic), 51% of the Brazilian population have black or brown skin. Still, from the country’s poorest 10%, 70% are black. More data? From the 38 Ministers of Brazilian Federal Government, only one is black (the one responding for Promotion of Racial Equality). Less than 1% of Brazilian executives are black. According to Rede Angola, only 2% of medical students in Brazil are black. The same study stresses that a black man earn almost 50% less than a white man with the same level of education and experience. A black woman will earn almost 80% less than a white man. And almost 70% of Brazil’s prison population has dark skin.
A research carried out in Brazil back in 1995 asked people if they believed there is skin colour prejudice in the country. 90% agreed, but 96% said they did not identify themselves as racists.
What this shows is that there is not only a very big lack of social empathy going on, but also an image problem. While people fail to identify their privileges and insist on an outdated idea of racism as something that happened a long time ago, we’ll go nowhere.
Racism is very much present; it’s all around us. And if you fail to acknowledge this fact, chances are you’re perpetuating it.