Note from BW of Brazil: Just for the sake of clarity and reality, we all know that ideas, theories, discussions and debates that take place in the academic realm don’t always make it to societies at large. As such, in a nation like Brazil where it is the norm to ignore, deny or downplay the roles of racism and white supremacy on the nation, one cannot realistically believe that such a study as the one we present today will have an impact on national thought and discourse. First, because of the reason presented above but also because, as Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross put it in Human Inference (1980), “people tend to cling to their beliefs even when circumstances change and their beliefs no longer match reality.”
The topic of today’s post, whiteness, has been studied for at least two decades in the United States, and while a few scholars have taken up the question of whiteness as an identity and an all-pervasive force in Brazil, much more investigation into the topic will be needed to fully explore its presence and its dominance in the collective consciousness of the population. While there are those who will tell us that “no one is white in Brazil”, the truth is much to the contrary. Not only do a large percentage of Brazilians carry large portions of European DNA, but from the time Brazilians are born they are fully indoctrinated into white superiority with those having a white phenotype feeling secure in their whiteness while non-whites learn to aspire to whiteness, if not for themselves, at least through their offspring. Suffice it say, in a world dominated by white supremacy, Brazil clearly plays its part and studies like the one we present below simply unmask and expose the depths and realities of white privilege, whether people like to admit it or not.
“Almost every white person is racist, even not wanting to be,” says psychologist with a thesis on whiteness
by José Tadeu Arantes
For Lia Vainer Schucman, PhD in Psychology from USP (University of São Paulo), ‘being racist is a learning’ that can be ‘unlearned’ with the recognition of the privileges of being white and vigilance to avoid legitimization and reproduction of racism
Racism is a crime in Brazil, according to the Federal Constitution, under Article 5, Paragraph XLII. “The practice of racism is a non-bailable crime and imprescriptible, subject to imprisonment under the law,” it says. However, over the past year, open expressions of racism have multiplied on social networks and in public spaces, keeping in check the comfortable idea of the Brazilian “racial democracy”. Was this racism obscured and brought to the surface? Or has it become uneasy recently?
Questions like these took up the day to day of Lia Vainer Schucman, PhD in Social Psychology from the University of São Paulo (USP) that recently concluded postdoctoral work with the study with Famílias inter-raciais: estudo psicossocial das hierarquias raciais em dinâmicas familiares (Interracial families: psychosocial study of racial hierarchies in family dynamics) , supported by FAPESP.
Also with the financial support of the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo), her doctoral thesis was recently published in book form under the title Entre o encardido, o branco e o branquíssimo: branquitude, hierarquia e poder na cidade de São Paulo (Between the grimy, white and very white: whiteness, hierarchy and power in São Paulo) published by Annablume.
Descendant of a Jewish family, Schucman heard many reports of persecutions driven by racism. “I was socialized in a home where any form of prejudice and discrimination was totally intolerable and automatically associated with past horrors my family went through in World War II,” she wrote.
Some lines later, however, she recognized that this training didn’t exempt her from a more subtle racism, which, from her point of view, permeates the entire society: “Our racism never stopped us from co-existing with blacks or having friendly/amorous relations with them. However, often these were relationships in which whites felt almost like they were doing charity or favors in relating to blacks.”
Currently there seems to be a resurgence of expressions of racism. Was this racism repressed or has it become uneasy?
Lia Vainer Schucman – It’s called the “medo branco” (white fear). I talk about this in a chapter of the book. While blacks found themselves in a subordinate position, racism existed, but did not assume forms so overt, because blacks didn’t contend with whites for access to public goods and to other positions in society – things that whites considered theirs by merit. But when the struggles of black social movements produced certain achievements, some whites began to feel threatened. This was clearly visible in the interviews I did. It was common, for example, the white respondents considering quotas for blacks in universities as privileges. But it didn’t occur to them to think that the place that they occupied exclusively before was a privilege. There was a built-in idea of merit. In my book, there is a picture of a school from the Limão neighborhood, in São Paulo, with the graffiti “Vamos cuidar de nossas crianças brancas” (Let’s take care of the future our white children)* on a wall. This was motivated by the fact that the school had decided that year in June to have a party with black motifs, motifs of African origin. And some parents revolted against it, without taking into account the official curriculum, adopting as if it were a generically human curriculum, is, in fact guided by European history and values, values that express supremacia branca (white supremacy). This graffiti, that expresses a racist point of view, was a reaction to the achievement of blacks, to having their history and their achievements recognized.
Is the change of mentality a much more lengthy and difficult process than the conquest of rights and the adoption of affirmative public policies?
Yes. Part of my PhD was done in the United States, at the University of California. There, I received the guidance of the African-American France Winddance Twine, who did a survey of whites who interacted with blacks on a daily basis, trying to understand how these brancos (whites) related to their branquitude (whiteness) (1). She formulated the concept of “racial literacy”, which I translated in my book, as “letramento racial”. Racial literacy is a way to individually respond to racial tensions. Beside collective responses in the form of quotas and public policy, it seeks to re-educate the individual in a anti-racist perspective. The underlying idea is that almost every white is racist, even though they don’t want to be, because racism is a structural given of our social formation. For example, a young man studies architecture in one of the best Brazilian universities and, after graduating, designs a maid’s bathroom with the shower over the toilet. He wouldn’t like to use one of these bathrooms. But he designs that bathroom for the maid as if it were the most natural thing in the world. See, he’s not adhering to the slave ideology to do this. He’s simply reproducing a background of racism that permeates our entire educational system and our entire culture. So if being racist is a learning, if we learn early on to be racist in our society, racial literacy is proposing an unlearning.
And how does the racial literacy work?
It is a set of practices, based on five fundamentals. The first is the recognition of branquitude (whiteness). That is, the person recognizes that the white condition confers privileges. The second is the understanding that racism is a current problem and not only a historical legacy. This historical legacy legitimizes and reproduces itself every day and, if the individual is not vigilant, it will eventually contribute to legitimization and reproduction. It’s the same thing that happens in relation to sexism. Whether male or female, if the person is not vigilant, it will eventually contribute to the legitimization and reproduction of sexism. The third is the understanding that racial identities are learned. They are the result of social practices. The fourth is to take possession of a grammar and racial vocabulary. In Brazil, we avoid calling the black black. As if that were an insult and as if avoiding that word could hide racism. To combat it, we must be able to speak openly of race, without subterfuge. The fifth is the ability to interpret “racialized” codes and practices. This means noticing when something is a racist expression and not trying to camouflage it, saying it was a misunderstanding. It is the case of that white couple in Rio de Janeiro that went to buy a car and took their black adopted son. And the seller shooed away the child, who he saw as a “menino de rua” (street kid). Later, the seller or someone from the store tried to apologize, saying there had been a misunderstanding. No, it wasn’t a misunderstanding. It was a pure and simple expression of racism.
Do these five foundations allow us to develop an anti-racist individuality?
Yes. It is similar to a literacy, hence the word literacy. It was this prospect of an anti-racist literacy that made me choose, as a post-doctoral theme, interracial families. Because racism of society reproduces itself in various ways within families, including interracial families.
Give an example.
In an interracial family, it is common for the lighter-skinned child benefiting from the opportunity to study while their darker-skinned brothers just work. Parents find that the lighter one will have better opportunities, so they invest in their education, even though they cannot give the same condition to the other children. There is a hierarchy in society that reproduces itself within families, in whites and blacks. (2) The society constructs meaning on things, and the people, in one way or another, interject these meanings.
In your book, you put yourself in the research, not seeing the issue from the outside, with an alleged objectivity, but questioning your own point of view. How did you choose and develop the theme?
When I started my PhD in 2008, the idea was to study racism. I wanted to understand it, from a psychological point of view, how blacks interjected racism. But, taking graduate courses at USP, colleagues, militants of the black movements, told me that it was time to “look at other things.” What they were saying was that the black always was the theme of the white researcher, as if the black was the object not the subject, and as if the black was always the “other”. They made me realize that by studying the black, studying the indigenous, which the white researcher does is, once again, produce the “other”. So I decided to put the white in question.
In what way did your research evolve from there?
I started with a more theoretical study of race concepts, constructed in the nineteenth century. One of these concepts brought the idea that the phenotype determined an entire way of being: moral, intellectual, aesthetic, civilization. Then I took these four variables – moral, intellectual, aesthetic and civilization – and sought to see how they appeared in the discourse of pessoas brancas (white people). That is, how the idea of race, constructed in the nineteenth century, continues operating in the construction of identities. And I found that they appeared in the subjects’ discourse all the time. For example, I interviewed a white night watchman and asked him: “What is to be white to you?” And he replied: “For me, this has to do with attitude. I’m a worker, I live well.” This fictitious idea of white superiority is almost always present in the discourse of respondents.
When did approach the subject?
At graduation, I got an undergraduate research scholarship to study prejudice and stereotype. I already had a family heritage in that sense, because my maternal grandmother is Jewish, concentration camp survivor, a left-wing person. In her home, there are several pictures of relatives killed in a concentration camp. So anti-racism, awareness of what racism is capable of doing, has always been something very present in my formation. I did a master’s degree with a study of Jewish identity. What most impressed me was interviewing people who did not follow the religion, that had nothing to do with Judaism, but could not stop being Jewish. I asked, “But why can’t you stop being Jewish?”. And the answer was: “Because others see me as a Jew.” The question of the look of the other or of how the look produces the “other” has become a very strong sub-theme in my research. And it continues to be.
You’ve revisited it and developed it your doctorate?
Yes. I realized that it’s only possible for the white to himself as white, that is, get a sense of the privileges that the fact of being white gives him when he lives with blacks. I realized, in living with my black post-graduate colleagues, that if I attend any meeting of the black social movements and pronounced myself against racism, even in that I would have privilege because of the fact of being white and anti-racist gave me a special status. My colleagues were very critical and even they pointed that out to me.
How did you handle it?
I tried not to be reactive. Even though sometimes the criticism was heavy and even aggressive, I tried to understand and assimilate. I had a very large opening. Also, I always had a very clear idea about my role, if I’m white and I’m working or moving closer to the black movement, I cannot claim to be the protagonist. The lead role is black. My role is to be together; do plan to be at the front. This is a very clear consideration to me that continues to guide my participation.
You did many qualitative interviews, taking people’s life trajectories. Do you remember any particularly striking?
I interviewed some “quatrocentões” (3) that still live on income from their farms, that is, still living on what their ancestors gained from slavery, even beggars from Praça da Sé. Interviewing people so different, but all white, my intention was to know if there was a characteristic itself of whiteness, something capable of pervading social classes. A street beggar told me something very strong. When I asked “What is to be white, for you?” he replied: “I can enter the mall bathroom and my black colleague can’t”. This was very impressive: in extreme poverty, the condition of being white still gave him a privilege. Another remarkable interview was with a “quatrocentona” (3) because her values were very different from those of immigrants, even the rich immigrant.
What were the differences?
Immigrants enjoyed several privileges in Brazil, because immigration was encouraged and sponsored by the government. And the entry of white immigrants was in keeping with a policy of “embranquecimento” (whitening) of the country. But to ascend economically and socially, immigrants were, in fact, very hardworking. This was marked in their self-image. Of course there are exceptions, but in general, the immigrant considers that he managed to rise in the world due to his merit. The idea of merit is very strong for him. However, he fails to realize that next to his merits, his rise was also favored by the privilege of whiteness; because the black has also been working for centuries in Brazil and could not ascend the same way. So, in the case of immigrants, branquitude (whiteness) is camouflaged with self-image. In the case of the quatrocentões, no. They are well aware of their privileges, because they never worked. The key idea in this case is the legacy. And one can enjoy a legacy, it was because the black slaves worked for their ancestors. So the idea of being white and the privileges it brings is very present in their view of themselves.
Is there some peculiarity that you could highlight in your research process?
A peculiarity is that that I don’t separate, what might be called “field work” of that that I experienced on a daily basis. In the doctoral thesis, I include many informal comments of people with whom I interacted. It was the case of one that, when he learned that I was researching whites, he said: “Good! Because now one only speaks of blacks.” For four years, I recorded interviews and conversations of everyday life. I was recording all the time. It was all I thought about.
Did this affect you personally?
When you start thinking insistently about these things, you become very angry. You can no co-exist with the city. Because the city of São Paulo has a geography of race: there are places that only has whites. When I entered a place like this, I began to feel sick. I felt like I was collaborating with the apartheid of our society.
How do you address the issue of racial quotas?
In most cases, opposition to quotas does not follow any rational criteria. I had proof of this in my research. When asked “Do you think you have privileges because you’re a white man (or white woman)?”, my 40 respondents said yes. A maid said, “My boss is prejudiced. If I were black, I wouldn’t have this job.” A young man said, “The father of my girlfriend is racist. Maybe I could not date his daughter if I was black.” And so it was. Immediately in following I asked: “Are you in favor of quotas?” Of the 40 respondents, 37 answered: “Não. Somos todos iguais” (No. We are all equal).” These 37 had just said they had privileges. And, they rejected the quotas, arguing that they favored blacks. It is a completely irrational position. So, I use the expression “medo branco” (white fear). And it is a fragmented discourse. Only a fragmented discourse can accommodate the fact that the person who has privileges and, in following, say that we are all equal. (4)
What is the focus of your current research, with interracial families?
I try to understand how the affections can legitimize racism and how they can also help to deconstruct it. From a broader survey, in which I interviewed all members of several families, I chose some families, with which I have been doing an almost ethnographic work about a year. Let me give an example. In one of these families, the father is black and says there is no racism in Brazil. When he is present, all members of the family seem to agree with his point of view. But if he leaves the room for some reason, people take the opportunity to say what they are afraid to say in his presence. The daughter, who is white, said that several times she saw her father being discriminated against because of racism. I believe that, for him, it is very difficult to admit it. (5) There is a whole game of ambivalence that I try to interpret.
* – Although most would not associate this sort of sentiment from Brazilians without knowing the history of race relations in the country, one might be surprised at existent allegiance to neo-Nazi ideals, “let’s separate ourselves from blacks or Northeasterners” attitudes, particularly coming from the south of the country.
1. The word “branquitude”, meaning “whiteness”, that the researcher uses critically in her book, is not in the dictionary. It is a neologism used in opposition to blackness. The concept of blackness was forged during the anti-colonial struggle of African peoples in the twentieth century, and used mainly by the Senegalese poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906 – 2001), to redeem and exalt the cultures, traditions and identity characteristics of Africa, that had been subjugated by colonialism. But the concept of whiteness without being identified by that name, began to be constructed during the European colonial expansion, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but mainly in the nineteenth century to ideologically justify domination by the Europeans, of the ancestral populations of America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. In this process, the “branca” (white) identity defined by skin color and other phenotypic traits, was established as the norm and human standard, the other groups being presented as marginal, deviant or less.
3. Quatrocentão (feminine form quatrocentona) is a term used to designate the Paulistas (natives of São Paulo) of four hundred years in the mid-twentieth century, around the celebration of the four hundred year anniversary of the city of São Paulo, Brazil, on January 25, 1554, the “Quarto Centenário”, meaning “Fourth Centenary”. It designates traditional São Paulo elite, that is, the aristocracy and oligarchy of São Paulo, and therefore mostly of Portuguese origin, among some families of Portuguese and Spanish origin also. Most of these families originated in low- and middle-Portuguese nobility (including therefore the Portuguese nobility). Source
4. A very common phrase among the Brazilian population when the topic is racism or racial inequality which has been touched upon from time to time on the blog. Sort of a modern spin on the old mythological ideology that posits Brazil as a “racial democracy“, this knee-jerk response masks deeply-ingrained racial inequalities behind rhetoric that is true in the humanistic realm but clearly not in the social realm.
5. Another common reaction, or better, non-reaction. Another difficulty in confronting racism in Brazil is an often times complicity in the denial of its existence or silence on the topic by Afro-Brazilians themselves, as we saw in another man’s reflections on the race topic in his family’s home.