Note from BW of Brazil: The question of racism based upon understandings of race continues to be a difficult and delicate topic to discuss. There continue to be those who won’t fully acknowledge the influence of this social ill on any given society. For the greater part of the 20th century, Brazil was able to pass by unscathed whenever the discussion of worldwide racism would come up, even passing itself off a “racial democracy” (1). But Brazil was not the only country that managed to sneak under radar of racist countries. While the world focused on countries such the United States and South Africa, racial discrimination and human rights violations for the most part went unnoticed in Cuba, Australia and India. Brazil’s promotion of this mythology even managed to deceive Brazilian citizens themselves, including the very black Brazilians who were often the victims of such discrimination. But in recent years things have changed as social scientists, activists and every day citizens have ripped off the mask of Brazil’s racism and have been exposing it ever since. But even with this challenge to the ‘racial democracy’ rhetoric, there are still those who believe Brazil isn’t as bad as other countries. That’s up for debate, but in the end, does it really matter? Racism is racism. Below, yet another woman presents her perspective on Brazil’s own spin on a deadly disease.
Reflections on a Brazilian racism: the return of the ghosts that were never there
By Laila Batista
I start this reflection with a question to readers, particularly black readers. How many of you have already been accosted by the police? How many have suffered some kind of embarrassment with security or were victims of baculejos (term used for police searches)? Certainly many must have had worse and traumatic experiences, right? And these experiences always render a sense of powerlessness, a bitter taste in the mouth, a sadness that insists on remaining and a question in the air, which makes us suspect, or that always makes us the first suspects of everything?
Lest one think, “ih…here comes the vitimista (one who plays the victim) discourse of black population”, I invite you to go back to a post-slavery Brazil, let’s go to the nineteenth century, there we find figures that were of fundamental importance to legitimize the racial hierarchy among peoples, like Nina Rodrigues, P Broca, Morton and other theorists and scholars of racial determinism. This assumption that provided the basis for Brazilian racism dialogued directly with the theories of evolution and social determinism. According to the thought of racial determinism, there is a difference between whites and blacks that correspond to an inferiorization of blacks, some scholars defended the thesis of the infertility of the mestiço (mestizo, person of mixed race)
From that racial determinism, came the policy of eugenics, which advocated racial improvement, and this would only be possible impeding whites and blacks from maintaining sexual relations and bearing children (2). Still with regard to racial determinism two cruel practices were stimulated, one was anthropometry, science for the measuring of skulls in order to explain the superiority or inferiority between the races, and the other was phrenology, with the intent of knowing the characteristics and personality of black people through skull conformation. The latter practice was used to find criminals before they could commit crimes because, by evaluating their physical characteristics (color, nose, mouth, forehead, head) it would be possible for the analyst to predict a possible criminal profile.
This scary story was not in our history books of Brazil, but it is real and tells us a lot about how the post slavery black population was ‘integrated’ into Brazilian society. Rehabilitation of racial theories that founded Brazilian racism in Brazil shows the denial of citizenship, the recognition of blacks as citizens and this fact has not been so different from what we are seeing.
It seems to be the same parameter utilized to render the inhabitants of the hills and slums occupied by the UPP’s, it seems to be the same targets of stray bullets, the suspects in department stores (3), rolezinhos in the malls, there are so many statistics and that only with a lot of struggle did we manage to extract names and stories of the numbers.
The story of Claudia Ferreira, woman, mother and black, dragged by police and killed leaving us without reason and with no answers until today. Very recently the story of Miriam França, black woman, born in Rio de Janeiro, arrested arbitrarily and unjustly accused of a murder made the pages of various media and now another black sister, a trans woman, Verônica Bolina (4), arbitrarily arrested by the São Paulo police, beaten, had her hair cut, exposed naked in the men’s ward, with a completely disfigured face, makes us reflect: have we really overcome the cruel practices of phrenology from the nineteenth century?
The suspect profile still has color and has class. The Brazil that has always prided itself on being a country of racial and cultural diversity has been unmasked. While it camouflaged itself compared to other strong slave regimes such as apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow in the US it could sustain the myth of racial democracy and the country of cordiality. And now that the number of dead blacks in this country grows at an alarming rate and is gaining recognition due to the strong mobilization of social movements and activists, it doesn’t appear to be a country so “abençoado por Deus e bonito por natureza” (blessed by God and beautiful by nature), sung by us.
Schwarcz, Lilia Moritz, Queiroz, Renato da Silva (eds.). Race and Diversity. Sao Paulo: University of São Paulo: Science Station: Edusp 1996.
1. Numerous books and academic articles have been written on this topic over the years. See Rebecca Pattillo’s 2013 article “Combating the Myth of Racial Democracy in Brazil” for just one example.
2. As shown in other articles (see here, here or here), Brazil’s elites plan of racial engineering ran opposite to the US. While in the US, racial segregation was promoted to maintain the purity of European ancestry/whiteness and defining any person of any known African ancestry as black, Brazil, on the other promoted widespread miscegenation with the hope that after 100 years, the Afro-Brazilian phenotype would eventually disappear leaving a population of white or near white Brazilians.
4. The case recently made worldwide headlines when photos of a Bolina’s disfigured face hit the internet. According to reports, Verônica Bolina, 25, was arrested on April 10th after trying to kill a 73-year old woman in the Bom Retiro region of São Paulo. After being apprehended by Military Police, the Municipal Secretary of Human Rights and Citizenship divulged a note in which it said that Bolina affirmed being the victim of aggressions on the part of the police. Photos appeared online of Bolina’s disfigured face, a head shaved by police and another in which he is seated on the ground, breasts fully exposed, surrounded by police.
Another story soon surfaced in which the Secretary of Public Security revealed that Bolina was beaten by other prisoners after having masturbated in front of them. Bolina’s mother, Marli Ferreira Alves, denied this version of the story and confirmed that Verônica was beaten by police. In yet another twist to the story, Bolina made a recording in which he is heard denying having been physically assaulted or tortured by Military Police. Speculation is that Bolina denied having been brutalized after having been promised a reduced sentence.
Meanwhile, Laura P, 73, is still recovering from the scars left on her body after Bolina invaded her apartment and almost killed her. Blood remains smeared on the walls where the woman lived. Laura P’s daughter is outraged that social media is trying to turn Bolina into a heroine after what was done to her mother. Another transvestite is responsible for saving Laura’s life. Activists created the hashtag #SomosTodasVeronica, meaning “We are all Veronica”, in support of Bolina.