Note from BW of Brazil: Although this blog, other websites, books and academic studies have long proven that racism has been and continues to be a serious problem in Brazilian society, this point hits home perhaps 100 times stronger when a person experiences the fact first hand. This has been the case with numerous foreigners either living in or visiting Brazil over the years. In fact, the legendary African-American dancer Katherine Dunham’s experience with Brazilian-styled racial discrimination was the reason for the passage of Brazil’s first official law against racism back in the early 1950s. Since then, foreign experiences with Brazil’s so-called ‘racial democracy’ haven’t stopped.
Back in March, the American Jonathan Duran said his son was expelled from a clothing store on Rua Oscar Freire (street), in São Paulo, because he was black. The confusion happened on Saturday, March 28th, in the Animale store which is famous for its luxury brand stores. Duran said through a social network that he was outside the hotel with his child, who is 8 years old, and stepped away to make a call, was approached by a store employee. The woman had mistaken the boy for a street vendor. In an irritated tone, the employee told me: ‘He can not sell things here.’ I looked at her seriously and said, ‘He’s my son’. “In some places in São Paulo, the skin of your child could have the wrong color.”
Accounts of racism experienced by foreigners in Brazil recently came to the forefront again recently with yet another incident that we will feature in a coming article. The piece we present below was originally featured on the American radio network National Public Radio, NPR, back in May and was subsequently translated into Portuguese and featured on numerous Brazilian blogs including Socialista Morena, Projeto Ponte, Instituto Humanitas Unisinos and RAP É O SOM (meaning ‘rap is the sound’). This and other articles may serve to show that Brazilians can continue to deceive themselves about the race problem and point the finger at others (individuals or countries), but when non-Brazilians start sharing their experiences, the cat may be permanently out of the bag!
Black foreigners residing in Brazil detonate our reputation as a “country without racism”
By Lourdes Garcia-Navarro
There is a joke among Brazilians that a Brazilian passport is the most coveted on the black market because no matter what your background — Asian, African or European — you can fit in here. But the reality is very different.
I’m sitting in café with two women who don’t want their names used because of the sensitivity of the topic. One is from the Caribbean; her husband is an expat executive.
“I was expecting to be the average-looking Brazilian; Brazil as you see on the media is not what I experienced when I arrived,” she tells me.
American Ky Adderley (center top photo) with his wife, Shanna Farrar Adderley, and their daughter, Gisela Sky, live in Brazil. He says being an educated black man feels like a subversive act in Brazil. “All the blacks that I see are in service jobs, and the darker you are, the less you are seen,” he says. “Your job is maybe back in the kitchen and not out waiting a table.”
As is the case for many people from the Caribbean basin, she self-identifies as multiracial. The island where she is from has a mixture of races and ethnicities, so she was excited to move to Brazil, which has been touted as one of the most racially harmonious places in the world.
“When I arrived, I was shocked to realize there is a big difference between races and colors, and what is expected — what is your role, basically — based on your skin color,” she says.
Moving to a new country can be difficult; when you throw racial issues into the mix things can get even more complicated. The other woman is from London, and she also relocated to Brazil because of her husband’s job. She describes herself as black.
“My skin is very dark, so going out with my children, on occasions people would say to me, ‘Are you the nanny for these children?’ And I’d have to explain to them, no, these are my children, I look after them,” she says.
A quick lesson on race and class in Brazil: The country was the last place in the Americas to give up slavery. It also imported more than 10 times as many slaves as the U.S. — some 4 million. That’s meant that more than 50 percent of the population is of African descent, but those numbers haven’t translated to opportunity.
For example, these days among the whiter, wealthier classes, it’s common to have a nanny, or babá, who is darker-skinned. The woman from London says that the babás are required to wear all white (1).
“My 3-year-old has started to come home from school and … rub my arms and my skin. He said ‘mummy, I’m trying to get the brown off.'”
An expat woman from London who describes herself as black
“I promptly stopped wearing white,” she says, because it was tiresome to have to constantly explain that her children were in fact her children, despite Brazilians’ assumptions. “I got rid of the white that’s in my wardrobe, and I do not wear white anymore.”
As a black woman with lighter-skinned children, she says she fears being stopped by the police, who regularly target people of color in Brazil. She always carries ID that shows she is the mother of her two kids — something she didn’t have to do in London.
Ky Adderley, an American from Philadelphia who runs an education consultancy in Rio de Janeiro, says he too was shocked when he moved to Brazil. – “I feel like the racism here is much deeper than I’ve ever felt anywhere,” he says.
He says he knew how to navigate being a black man in the U.S — “regardless of people’s skin tone, there was a sense in the black community that if you have a little bit in you, then you were black, and so then we were able to build community really quickly” — but in Brazil he found it really hard to find that same support network. So he created his own with other expatriate black men.
“We have a group called Bros in Brazil,” he says. “And it is a group of maybe 15 guys now that come from Europe, Africa, the United States, and are living and working in Brazil as professionals.”
They talk about race a lot. Brazil, Adderley says, is deeply segregated along racial lines, especially in Rio. When he walks his dog, if he isn’t wearing a suit, he often gets asked if he’s a professional dog-walker.
He says simply being an educated black man in Brazil feels like a subversive act.
“As a black person, what is your place in Rio de Janeiro? All the blacks that I see are in service jobs — and the darker you are, the less you’re seen,” he says. “So the role that you may have may be back in the kitchen and not out waiting a table.”
Most people in Brazil tell him there isn’t a racism problem, and he says that’s the root of the issue: People aren’t addressing it. The worry for him is how the race question in Brazil will affect his daughter. A woman who was photographing his then-newborn told him that he needed to modify her features.
“Well you can fix her nose, you know — you just pinch it. If you just pinch her nose every day and just keep pinching it, she won’t have that wide nose,” he recounts her telling him (2).
The woman from London says the racism in Brazil has started to affect her kids, too.
“My 3-year-old has started to come home from school, and he’s started to rub my arms and my skin,” she says. “He’d say, ‘Mummy, I’m trying to get the brown off.'” (3)
But there is a positive side — the woman from the Caribbean says being in Brazil has made her a lot more conscious about issues of race. She refuses to stop wearing her favorite color, white.
“Why should you let a color of clothing signify who you are, or your color of skin signify who you are?” she says. “I am who I am. I don’t care what you think — this is who I am, I’m going to continue being me.”
Source: G1, Socialista Morena, NPR, Edmonds, Alexandre.”No universo da beleza: notas de campo sobre cirurgia plástica no Rio de Janeiro” in Nu & Vestido: dez antropólogos revelam a cultura do corpo carioca. Edited by Mirian Goldenberg. Record, 2002.
- A long-standing social standard in Brazil that displays the difference between boss and servant (and often times whiteness and blackness), the most recent example of this standard involved a well-known white television host/model and her two black babysitters. See the original story here and its repercussions here.
- Also very intriguing and revealing of how Brazilians simultaneously believe that all Brazilians “are equal” but clearly know which physical features that they prefer and those that most would prefer not to have. For example, in Alexandre Edmonds’ piece “No universo da beleza: notas de campo sobre cirurgia plástica no Rio de Janeiro”, Brazilians speak openly of not liking certain physical attributes and that they have inherited them from Indian or black ancestors and desiring cosmetic surgery to “correct” these undesirable attributes. Besides this article, there are numerous articles online that speak of “cirurgia corretiva de nariz negróide” (corrective surgery of the negroide nose).
- It is not rare to hear stories of preto (black) and pardo (brown) children attempting to rub the darkness off of their skin. In the Geni Guimarães book A Cor da Ternura (The color of tenderness) for example, the Geni character goes through a process of self-rejection which leads her to rubbing her skin with a crushed brick mixture that her mother used for cleaning utensils in order to remove the black from her skin. The child became disappointed with the words of her teacher who told her in class that blacks were slaves brought to Brazil from Africa and forced to work for nothing.