Note from BW of Brazil: Comparisons in terms of the race issue and the cross cultural exchanges and experiences of people are very fruitful, as well as lively means of discussing the disease of racism in a very straightforward, intriguing and educational manner, whether we agree or disagree with the conclusions or the reasons that people come to such conclusions. Today the blog considers these issues again with a German twist. As you or may not have seen, a few weeks, BW of Brazil covered a controversy surrounding the yearly Frankfurt Book Fair that this year paid homage to Brazilian writers. The controversy began when a German writer questioned the reason that Brazil was sending only one black writer of the seventy Brazilians who would participate in the highly acclaimed book fair. The second issue was how representatives from Brazil, a country that has for decades promoted itself in an image of racial tolerance (even not being completely true) simply brushed the issue aside while in Germany, that has for decades been seen as a country of racial intolerance, brought the topic to light. Below is a piece by Cris Oliveira, a black woman from Salvador, Bahia, a northeastern city that is known as the African cultural center of the country due its historical/cultural ties to Africa and a population that is more than 80% Afro-Brazilian. But even with such a large contingent of Afro-Brazilians and affinity for Africa, after living in Germany, Oliveira comes to a conclusion that may surprise some of her fellow “baianos” when comparing the racial situation in the two countries.
Dealing with racism (Lidando com o racismo)
by Cris Oliveira
“How do you deal with racism there?” That was the question I most had to answer returning to Brazil after my first year in Germany. My answer, which at the time surprised at all – including myself, was always: “I never had to deal with racism there.” Let me explain directly the reason my surprise and my answer.
Eleven years ago I had just finished college and wanted to have an experience abroad before diving headfirst into the job market and having to take on being an adult once and for all. As an English teacher, my first choice had been England, but as things thanks to God do not always go the way we plan, I ended up meeting a wonderful person who is my soul mate, with whom I’ve decided to share my life. And he lived in Germany. I decided to make a small adjustment in my plans and I changed the destiny of my trip. Love fills us with courage to do half crazy things, but deep down, at the time I was terrified of what he would find here. It is at that time that I knew almost nothing about Germany and what I knew came from history books, i.e. a gruesome and bloody past. When it wasn’t this there was a story here or other there, in general quite limited and stereotyped of the Oktoberfest and neo-Nazis kind. Of course I was scared and of course I was tense about what awaited me.
When I got there what struck me was realizing how much the image that sells this country is wrong. Here, yes there are Oktoberfest and neo-Nazis. There are a host of other problems and also prejudices against women and against foreigners as well as still having trouble dealing with all the issues that multiculturalism brings. The difference is that the limited and racists from here hide very well, and when they show up they are punished very well. The society constantly debates on intolerance and the media does not hold back on this topic. People in general are careful with these issues, they are cautious in the choice of words when they are not sure whether a certain term can be offensive and apologize immediately when they inadvertently offend (someone). I’ve already been through several situations in which the person with whom I was speaking said something about hair or skin color of someone and then immediately said to me “I’m sorry I said something like this, I don’t know if that offends you. How could I say this the right way?” I always get emotional in such situations because I see human beings in them, who despite not suffering the same pain of others, show empathy, humility and willingness to change for the general welfare.
There was a time I was on a train and another passenger was very uncomfortable with my presence. I didn’t understand well what the problem was with me until he made a racist comment referring to me. I got up with the intention of saying a few good things to him, but before I could open my mouth, ALL the passengers in the train (about 15 people) revolted and took the lead, arguing with him in a way that surprised me. The story ended with a woman who demanded he apologize to me and as he refused the other passengers called the police. Anyone who knows me knows that I cry for everything and of course I cried in the midst of the commotion. Passengers consoled me thinking that my tears were for having been the victim of racism. Little did they know that they were tears of emotion because of their reaction. It was a very special feeling to see myself being defended and consoled by a group of unknown people. I was thinking that they were all very different, but they had one thing in common: a sense of justice and the conviction that a social problem is a problem of each one of them. Each resolved to raise their voice and in the end they formed a group that was indignant with the racist behavior of the man who offended me. Several passengers apologized after the confusion. A gentleman told me “Don’t let this idiot interfere with what you came here to do, don’t. Here there are a lot of good things.”
This attitude is certainly one of them.
It’s not only people on the way to work on public transport that bother to change the perception of some that Germany is a fair country. The government here also constantly invests in socio-educational and reparatory measures. Here there is quota for women, foreigners and the disabled.
There is a benefit for those who have kids in school, those who are college students, to help in paying the rent, to help pay for cultural and educational activities if the family has children, to buy books, to buy medicine and so on. Jews have a right to immigrate here without the bureaucracy that people of other faiths face. The society believes that this is all normal. It’s rare to see someone challenging these measures. Even the average German seems to understand that if there was a historical mistake, a retraction is inevitable. If there is a social discrepancy, everyone loses then it is better to have less to get more, to share so that no one goes without having. Unfortunately I realize that things have been getting worse here too, but the people question everything endlessly and this delays the negative changes, which is good.
So I’m thinking about Brazil and how the people are proud to say that we are the most tolerant country in the world. We are interested in knowing about the issue of racism in other parts of the world and love to keep repeating this that we are a people who do not know what racism is because everybody is mixed. For many people in Brazil, an activist of the Movimento Negro (black rights movement) is paranoid and affirmative action is reverse racism. There’s a bunch of people talking as if they had been personally offended by any initiative that seeks to improve the social situation of a group that does not enjoy the same benefits as the rest of society.
It shocks me the fact that in Salvador, a city where I was born, despite more than fifty percent of the population being black, you can still be the only black in the restaurant, a ballet class, in the waiting room of a chic office, in the faculty room of a private school. I am especially sad when I realize that many people go through life without even realizing these things, thinking it’s super normal that others may have a more difficult life based on a detail that one cannot choose, such as gender, skin color or origin. Unfortunately, in our country there are people who think that those who suffer discrimination should suffer in silence, without questioning anything, without requiring changes. Keeping it quiet like this is good. For some.
Nowadays when I go back to Brazil and someone asks me how I deal with racism here, my answer has to be “much better than I deal with it in Brazil.” Here one understands that discussing and questioning prejudices is to exchange ideas and evolve, as it is in my country, whoever is engaged in a cause must always first explain that he/she is neither paranoid nor radical. It’s sad, but actually do you know how I really deal with racism here? By saving all my strength to face it when I get back to my country.
Cris Oliveira is a master of linguistics and English teacher. A writer in her spare time and cold beer lover, she has lived for eleven years with one foot in Bremen, Germany and one in Salvador, Bahia. She writes about inter-culturalism, about living between two continents and a lot of other things at A Saltimbanca.
Note from BW of Brazil: Fascinating piece here that deserves a few more considerations. For anyone who has been indoctrinated about Germany (known as Alemanha in Brazil) because of years of documentaries, reports, books, etc. about Nazis, Hitler and Jews for a number of years, this analysis may come as a surprise. Well, maybe not. Over the years, this writer has known a number of Afro-Brazilians, African-Americans and Africans who have visited Germany and have nothing but good things to say about the country and its people. How could this be? Well, there are a number of reasons.
1) Considering Brazil, Germany and the US, each country offers a different perspective on the question of race. Brazil has long defined itself as a “racial democracy”, long denied the existence of racism and still today has a problem confronting the issue head on, as Cris’s piece clearly attests to. The US developed a policy of blatant and obvious racism, attempted to address the issue in some ways and now tries to promote itself as “post-racial” even with continuing vast racial inequalities. Germany, whose history has in many ways only been told from an historical perspective continuously associated with World War II, has always been portrayed as a country of extreme racial intolerance and hate, and due to this, has had to deal with this image for nearly 70 years.
2) As Brazilians have long been taught that “they are not racists” because Brazilians are “all mixed”, the issue continues to be avoided and denied by many even with countless stories of blatant and subtle forms of racial discrimination and widespread racial inequality. It’s as if people know racism exists but can’t admit it because it would violate accepted standards of “Brazilian-ness”. Thus, the hegemonic ideology of white supremacy and deeply ingrained social/racial inequality is accepted as the norm. In the US, Americans simply cannot deny its blatantly racist past, but today, because white supremacists groups are not as prominent and there is some degree of intolerance for blatant expressions of racism, many white Americans now believe that the country is “post-racial”. As there have been policies to address racial inequalities and the belief that America is the land of “equal opportunity”, many simply believe that if black Americans can’t “make it” in America it is simply their own fault, totally ignoring the consistent existence of racism interwoven in the fabric of American society.
In Germany, images of white supremacy, Nazism and atrocities of World War II continuously shown around the world in the past 70 years have made many of the nation’s citizens sensitive about their image which has also contributed to a widespread promotion and acceptance of tolerance. Thus we have three histories that have three different reactions from these peoples. The first says, “We are not and never have been racist so what are you complaining about?” The second says, “We used to be racist, but we’re not anymore, inequality is YOUR problem”. The third says, “We were clearly racially intolerant so we need to fix this problem.”
Over the years, this writer has heard a number of comments and received a number of messages from Brazilians saying something to the degree of, “I’ve never experienced racism” or “racism is MUCH worse in the US” or “We Brazilians don’t see race the same way Americans/Europeans see it.” Number one, racism is NEVER about one’s individual experience. Individual racism is not the actual problem and for a number of reasons. The problem is the systemic, institutional problem that affects non-whites whether they have personally experienced it blatantly or not. If one believes that racism doesn’t exist, this actually gives the problem strength as the oppressed don’t even recognize this oppression and thus don’t challenge it. It is not the question of whether one has experienced racism personally or not; if someone who looks like this person HAS experienced it, it could have easily also happened to the person who claims to have never seen it. This is why cross cultural/cross continental experiences are so important because they highlight the nuances, similarities and differences of the same problem. Just like different foods, different language and different types of music, none will be exactly the same even if they are part of the same genre. Let the discussion continue. But always keep in mind the old cliche says, the more we know, the more we grow.
Source: Blogueiras Negras
Antônio Cardoso, in the northeastern state of Bahia, is the blackest city in Brazil and a place where lifestyles haven’t changed much since slavery ended
402 reported cases of racism in Carnaval of Salvador, Bahia, an 80% black city. Deputy mayor: “Salvador is indeed a racist city”
Carnaval in Salvador, Bahia: Brazil’s own spin on apartheid
The continuous white appropriation of northeastern Afro-Brazilian Axé music