Race out of bounds? Thinking about racism in Brazil

Talking about race in Brazil can be difficult. Many in the country will speak to a dominant ideology of ‘race-mixing’ or ‘miscegenation’, which causes some to say that race/racism in Brazil simply doesn’t exist. This ideology became expounded in Brazil through the ideas of Gilberto Freyre, who in the 1930s argued that Brazilians were a strong population because of the historical sexual mixing between indigenous peoples, African slaves, and Portuguese colonialists.

This idea of miscegenation manifests in the multitude of ways in which people think of themselves racially in Brazil. In a 1976 census of racial identity in the country, people self-identified as being 136 different ‘races’. But these are not static identity categories, as exhaustive as the list might seem. As ethnographer Donna Goldstein points out, ideas of race in Brazil are also fluid; they depend on who is speaking to whom, and can change based on income (i.e. ‘money whitens’). And in a country that hasn’t had a large organized movement around racial identity – such as the civil rights movement in the United States – it is much easier for Brazilians to speak about poverty and class rather than race.

Goldstein explains the complexity:

“Although there is no legally sanctioned racism in Brazil, the structures of racism are present in everyday experiences. Because their existence and significance are often conveyed through indirect forms of communication – black-humored jokes and coded silences – they are much more difficult to describe and challenge.” (p. 106)

I’ve tried asking academics in Brazil about race. Many have acknowledged that it is important, but they insist that in Brazil, race is ‘different’ from other countries; it’s more complex. Not everybody approaches the subject in the same way, of course, but one gets a general sense that many are unsure of how to talk about race in Brazil.

My relatively short stint in Brazil does not render me any kind of expert, but I do believe it’s worth trying to wade through some of these difficulties around discussing this subject. Race, after all, is very much a part of how both Brazilian cities and the World Cup are currently functioning.

Race in the Streets: Racial Profiling and Security

Not everyone has trouble seeing race in Brazil. At an anti-Copa gathering I recently attended in the ‘pacified’ Chapeu Mangueira favela in Rio’s Zona Sul neighborhood, race was a central theme. Pacification is the Rio state government program whereby military police are permanently occupying low-income communities in order to ‘drive out’ drug traffickers and hopefully, one day, offer social services. Many are calling these pacification programs an attempt by the Brazilian state to ‘clean up’ favelas for the mega events. Many people have been killed through these pacification programs, most being young black men.

Virtually every person that approached the microphone during this rally called the Brazilian state both ‘racist’ and ‘genocidal’ in its relationship with the people living in favelas. It is their young dark-skinned boys that are being disproportionately killed by ‘stray bullets’. It is their young dark-skinned boys that are pulled over and searched by the military police in the streets of ‘pacified’ favelas. It is their young dark-skinned boys that are being taken away by BOPE helicopters that hover low over favela communities before dawn.

Racial profiling is actually built into the security apparatus of large Brazilian cities like Rio and Sao Paulo. These spaces are striking for the increasing number of fences and gates that are meant to protect private property from ‘outsiders‘. Academics and journalists have been writing about the securitization of space, urban security apparatus, and the security-industrial complexes that underpin these projects. But fewer people speak about the way this securitization of space depends on racialized thinking for their functioning.

Most gates are manned (yes, strikingly male) by door people who will buzz you through. These door people are not familiar with many of those who approach the gate, whether it is an apartment building or commercial space. For lighter skinned people, this unfamiliarity is generally not a problem. In the few cases in which I had to identify myself, I only had to mention the name of the place I was visiting. Most of the time, however, I was just let in. Why do the door people and security officers exist, if they just let me in without asking who I was? Well, because they are not there to stop white people like me. They are there to cast suspicion upon bodies that might pose a threat. Their profiling, like the military police who stop young black men in favelas, is based on a racial logic that one can visually identify people who are considered threatening. And these threats are overwhelmingly darker-skinned.

Race in the Stands: Who can access tickets?

Race isn’t just experienced through racial profiling. Journalists have started commenting on the predominantly white faces that fill the stands at the World Cup. This is a surprise to many commentators, as Brazil is often celebrated as a country with a large racial diversity. But what this whiteness in the stands demonstrates is a close alignment between race and class in Brazil.

In a solid Stephanie Nolen article on the subject published in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, sociologist Carlos Costa Ribeiro argues that FIFA and ticket distributors did not discriminate against black Brazilians per se, but opened up a lottery to sell off many tickets. In FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke’s words, this meant that everyone had an equal opportunity to purchase World Cup tickets. However, in a country where poverty often aligns with race, most darker-skinned people did not have financial access to these $90+ tickets. As the Nolen article rightly points out, even those who could afford to buy a ticket likely couldn’t afford to travel to the actual game, as the chances of ‘winning’ a ticket for a game in the city in which you live is quite low. Moreover, tickets were generally sold over the internet, which can be extremely spotty in favelas of differing telecommunication infrastructures. And even though the civil construction companies that helped build the stadiums bought substantial numbers of tickets, it is surely not the largely dark-skinned frontline construction workers that have been the recipients of these high-end tickets.

Race on the Field: Brazil’s Whitening Ideal and Neymar

Racial thinking in Brazil can also be exemplified by events that occur on the field. A particularly interesting and provocative article was recently written by Achal Prabhala, who seeks to explain Brazilian racial ideology ‘through the prism of Neymar’s hair’. Prabhala, who works in India, South Africa, and Brazil, uses Neymar’s changing appearance to highlight the power of the whitening ideal in Brazilian racial ideology. While Neymar has never identified as ‘black’, the pictures demonstrate a gradual ‘whitening’ in appearance, primarily through the straightening and bleaching of his hair.

Of course this may not be a conscious decision on the part of Neymar to ‘whiten’. But it does reflect trends in which many celebrities from the United States to India have acted or appeared lighter/whiter over time. There are whole beauty industries that have organized around bleaching head and body hair, an industry that makes quite a lot of money in Brazil. Of course, people who do lighten their hair are not necessarily trying to be ‘white’, and one can hold different ‘racial traits’ in tension with one another in the same body and/or fashion. But the cultivation of the desire for lighter hair (as just one example), and the availability of such consumer products, is a manifestation of the dominance of racial thinking in which lighter is better.

Whitening ideals exist throughout the world, but are particularly important in the Brazilian elite’s history of racial thinking. Thomas Skidmore argues that a ‘whitening ideal’ held sway through the 1920s and 1930s, in which Brazilian elites celebrated miscegenation/race mixing, but with the underlying understanding that the race was ‘whitening’, and thus improving. By the 1950s, this whitening rhetoric was less popular due to the civil rights movement in the United States, decolonization, and global events that foregrounded the violences of white superiority (eg. the Holocaust). But the whitening ideal still exists, if more understated, according to Skidmore: “Now, as before, the surest means for a Brazilian of African heritage to gain upward mobility is to possess a whiter skin than his parents” (p. 212). Darker-skinned individuals are still more likely to be at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, and still suffer prejudices of surveillance, as but two examples.

Race on the Beach: Sexualization of mulata women

Just as race and poverty align in complex ways in Brazil, so too does race and gender. This is being felt by many Brazilian women at Rio’s beaches during the World Cup. A few days ago, an article was published in the Wall Street Journal’s blog section about the difficulty Brazilian women are having in Rio at the moment. According to the women quoted, they are being treated like sexual objects, open to the gaze of the (generally male) foreigner, who often comes jeering with lewd comments and unwanted sexual advances. What this article completely neglects, however, is the importance of race for cultivating this ‘sexual desire’.

How sexual attractiveness gets defined in Brazil is through race. Goldstein argues, “Race is embodied in everyday valuations of sexual attractiveness, and this attractiveness is gendered, racialized, and class-oriented in ways that commodify black female bodies and white male economic, racial, and class privilege” (p. 106). Goldstein elaborates that the “celebration of Brazilian sexuality is intricately connected to the question of race because the primary icon of ‘hot’ sexuality in Brazil is the mulata.” (p. 115) In Goldstein’s estimation, one need only to look at pornography sites to see the popularity of this ‘mulata’ ideal, in which characteristics associated with ‘whiter’ people (such as light skin) are valorized in conjunction with characteristics racially associated with ‘darker-skinned’ people, such as a large ‘bunda’ (buttocks). Goldstein calls this, “a highly conventionalized political economy of interracial desire,” in which, “certain ‘whitened’ characteristics are appreciated for their beauty and sensuality, while the majority of low-income mixed-race and black women are barred from economic and social mobility” (p. 118).

Rio de Janeiro is often marketed as an erotic hot-spot, built on the proverbial back(side)s of this fictitious ‘mulata woman’. It has become such an issue that country-wide campaigns are trying to deride sex tourism, in which (generally) foreign men come to Brazil for sex. These concerns are heightened during events like the World Cup. At a protest a few month’s ago, aimed directly at the mega events, a women’s group distributed a pamphlet saying ‘We will not be sold as commodities by our government to attract tourists’. It seems, however, that many tourists are refusing to listen.

(In)Conclusive Thoughts

Indeed, race in Brazil is not simple. It is not a ‘bi-racial’ society, and different ideas of race uneasily intersect with class and gender. As such, these thoughts of mine about race in Brazil are not exhaustive or conclusive. Rather, what I’m trying to do is use the World Cup as an event that exposes fault lines in ‘race-mixing’ ideology – such as through all-white stadium attendees and mulata sex tourism – to begin a conversation about how race exists in Brazil. As I mentioned above, I am no expert on the subject and am hoping to learn more and more as I continue my work in this country. However, I do believe it’s worth engaging in conversations around race, as complex as the subject may be, because it does indeed structure the existence of people and cities in Brazil.

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