“I began to understand why white friends always offered me bananas”: Congolese immigrant details his experiences with racism in Brazil

25 year-old Congolese student Abed Nzobale was deceived by Brazil's image
25 year-old Congolese student Abed Nzobale was deceived by Brazil’s image

Note from BW of Brazil: One of the best ways to gauge a country is how it is perceived by foreigners. Although it is true that natives of a particular country may become upset if an outsider criticizes their home, it is often a way of seeing how the country really is beyond the obvious love and positive bias that a national will feel for their own country. Of course we must all consider our cultural differences, but those differences in culture should not disregard the views of someone who didn’t grow up in the culture. I often note that on websites written in English about Brazil, a Brazilian will often question where someone is from if they make a comment about Brazil that they disagree with. Question: if people in a country live according to a certain myth and a foreigner to that country states an opinion about the country that is actually true, should that person’s opinion be rejected simply because it he/she is a foreigner and said opinion contrast with the national belief, that was a myth from the beginning?

Today’s post ponders this question again. In past posts, we’ve discussed the complex question of blackness in the northeastern state of Ceará and also highlighted a number of African immigrants who have voiced their disappointment in how Brazil has treated them. As we know, millions of Brazilians will continue to stick to the “Brazilians aren’t racist” phrase as long as they still have breath regardless of how much evidence to the contrary there is. Well, may this is a case of, if you tell a lie enough times, people who previously disagreed will suddenly start to believe it also. Either way, the truth is out there; whether one wants to accept it or not is another story. 

From the Congo to Ceará: An African’s vision of Brazilian racism

What may sound like an extensively repeated discourse in our society, for Abed came as a new deception. “Brazil is not what we thought it to be. The black Brazilian is not part of the elite”

By Jarid Arraes

Nzobale Abed, 25, is a civil engineering student from the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the Federal University of Cariri (UFCA), a region that brings together eight cities in Ceará, Abed realized the desire to study in another country, a dream of many young Africans. But since coming to Brazil, Abed has had to think more deeply about racism.

The state of Ceará in Brazil's northeast
The state of Ceará in Brazil’s northeast

The young Congolese had his first shock that aroused racial thought in his mind when, with the objective of taking the course, the plane landed at Guarulhos airport: the majority of people who circulated through the airport were brancas (white), a very different picture than Abed and his friends had before reaching Brazil. “What little we know from there is what the media shows us: black, mulata actresses (1), with their cabelos crespos (curly/kinky hair). And the girls there take them as models of the standard of beauty, especially in the hair. Black Americans and Brazilians have always been for us a kind of reference.”

Nzobale: "Brazil is not what we thought it to be"
Nzobale: “Brazil is not what we thought it to be”

As to be expected, futebol also plays a large part in this black imaginary sold abroad: “We also know Brazil for its beautiful futebol. Me and my friends, when we play ball, we denominate ourselves Pelé, Romário, Ronaldinho and so on. When we looked at the seleção (Brazil’s national team) with the significant number of blacks, we thought that here in Brazil they also were part of the majority population.” For this reason, when Abed was faced with the whiteness of Guarulhos airport, he thought that they were strangers – a realization that he came to that find himself mistaken as soon as he left for his next destination: João Pessoa (Paraíba) (2), where he would learn to speak Portuguese. “I realized again that we were the only black people on the plane. Once I was at the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB), I realized that something was wrong.”

What may sound like an extensively repeated discourse in our society, for Abed came as a new deception. “Brazil is not what we thought. The black Brazilian is not part of the elite,” he laments. At the university where he studies, counting all students of civil engineering, Abed says that, besides him, there were about two or three black people. For the Movimento Negro (black rights movement), as well as Feminismo Negro (Black Feminism), this perception about the exclusion of black people is already widely debated and criticized. Despite the political actions and hard fought battles, racism is a profound social blemish in Brazil, rooted in the culture, opinions and everyday values and, therefore, it is very difficult to eliminate.

For Abed, the experience of racism was something unprecedented in his personal experience, especially in regards to being the victim of discriminatory attitudes – something that only came to fruition on Brazilian soil. “In Africa, the word ‘preconceito (prejudice)’ was not part of my vocabulary. Today I take account of so much discrimination that I suffered when I arrived early without noticing. The first suspicion I had was when we learned Portuguese: initially all were black students from different countries. Soon after came the British, French and Americans. The professors changed their stance in the classroom, we only answered questions when all the whites no longer knew the answer,” says the student.

Unfortunately, the experiences that Abed had in Brazil are not scarce and are part of a powerful system of exclusion, affecting all black people living in the country. Therefore, the reports of the young African are easily identifiable. Moreover, it is interesting to see how his consciousness took shape and his comments sound inevitably politicized. “I slowly began to understand why other white Brazilian friends that I had always offered me bananas. Whenever I approached the doors of houses and cars were closing. In Brazil, it is possible to co-exist with a racist person without knowing it. This is very dangerous. Here in Cariri I was very much welcomed. I met nice people … But these practices I just mentioned are also common here.”

In spite of everything, Brazilian negritude has much more to offer besides cases of discrimination, like its rich cultural manifestations and religious cults of African origin. Abed acknowledges this diversity, especially the religious. “Even being an evangelical Christian, I see with good cultural eyes these religions,” he explains admiringly. “In the Congo, we also have African religions. The Kimbanguiste church is one of them. But the names Candomblé or Umbanda I only heard here, although the practices are alike, the garments, pais de santos (3), dances, etc. Arriving in Brazil, I realized I needed to appreciate my culture. And Candomblé and Umbanda are religions that promote African culture.” To hear that kind of affirmation is certainly very inspiring.

The Abed Nzobale case highlights many topics for discussion and analysis. It is especially important to awaken a more complex look at racism in Brazil and understand that, even in the midst of so much discrimination, there are ways of resistance and redemption. For him, the cultural, political and human enrichment are realities that he makes an issue of demonstrating. “The Brazilian people are warm, compared to other countries. When the Brazilian tells you that ‘it will work out’, he is certifying that your problem is resolved; a great cultural wealth that one only finds here. I am also enjoying this experience of my study abroad. I am not only acquiring knowledge but also learning another culture. Despite everything I said about racism, this fact will not erase so many beauties that this nation has. I believe that if justice remains rigid against any kind of discrimination here, this nation will become one of the best nations in the world.”

In the end, negritude (blackness) strengthens itself and Brazil is a bit more fascinating with the contribution of people like this young Congolese.

Notes

1. As much as the invisibility of black women in the media is discussed on this blog, I do wonder where he saw so many of these women, unless of course he’s talking about the Carnaval season.

2. João Pessoa is the capital of the state of Paraíba in Brazil’s northeast.

3. The mãe de santo and pai de santo, together being pais de santo, are priestesses and priests of Afro-Brazilian religions such as  Umbanda and Candomblé.

Source: Portal Fórum

About Marques Travae 2894 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

3 Comments

  1. Very interesting article. I have to be honest and state that the vast majority of Brazilians I meet in the U.S. (in church mostly) are White so I’ve never really thought of Brazil as a Black country.

    Further most Latinos I meet do not identify as Black even if they look like me. It seems that calling yourself Black is not widely embraced in most Latino countries, which I guess is the same in Brazil.

  2. Racism against black people will continue because many of us participate in this antiquated behavior. Ex. wealthy black men who put white, white Hispanic, Asian women above women from their own culture. In the end, many black men will be left alone by those same women when the money, good sex, etc. stops.

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