The issue of racism in Brazil goes deep into the country’s and is controversial. In a land where slave labour was at the root of its economic existence until a little more than a century ago, the tension and the coexistence between its ethnic groups is complicated and can be perceived in several different ways and each of these ways can have different readings.
The picture above where a pretty and young slave cuddles an equally pretty blond baby is meant to be cute but at the same time to communicate the viewers about the social status of the person who paid to have the photo taken, a quite expensive purchase at the time. It would have been kept dearly by the family and probably the girl would have dear memories of that sweet time too and even, who knows?, be proud about it. All of this points to one fact: race relations in Brazil are marked by ambiguity, and to clarify this point we’ll highlight the two pillars that sustain race relationships in Brazil.
First lets take a look at the Brazilian racial demographics: The almost extinct Amerindians make up for 0.4% of the population, the orientals, mainly Japanese, make up for 1.1%, Afro Brazilians make up for 7.61%, Pardos (mixed race) make up for 43.13% while the whites make up for 47.73%.
Even without considering that most “white” people interviewed by the census would have tried as hard as they could to hide any trace of darker ancestry, the Pardos and the Blacks together make up for the majority of the population. In addition to being a majority, although I do not know the numbers, the mixed race population in Brazil is proportionally bigger than in the U.S. and at least, and probably better accepted too. Both these undeniable truths and the fact that there is nothing to indicate civil or institutionalized segregation would lead us to believe that black people and their descendants are well-integrated into the country’s human fabric, and that Brazil is not a racist country.
On the other hand, if one looks into more detailed censuses and studies the percentage of Blacks in Favelas, in prison, in low paid jobs and compares these numbers with the percentage of people of color in leadership positions both in the private and in the public sectors, or with a university degree, or living in the wealthier neighbourhoods of the bigger urban centers; one realizes that there is a problem.
One can also not forget that Brazil was the last western country to abolish slavery, in 1888. When this happened the rulers of the time sent emissaries all over the world to attract pale skinned immigrants to populate the land in order to keep the country white. This initiative was institutionalized racism at the highest degree. In addition to the above one must not lose sight the “institution” of the domesticas, or house maids, used throughout the 20th century by the middle class upwards; there is not one flat in Brazil that does not have the “service” quarters, and not one respectable building that does not have the “service” elevator where servants, mostly afro-brazilians and pardos, work but transit in segregated areas, in out of the sights of the mostly white home owners.
These two contradictory forces, i.e. a powerful white minority on one side and a powerless colored majority on the other are still present. On one hand there is an elite trying to look as European as possible, as one could notice in the right wing overtones of the recent wave of protests carried out mainly by the discontent middle class, while on the other hand, this effort is contradicted by what happens “on the ground”; the mixture of races, the discovery of a new inter-racial identity by the children born out of this mixture. This tension is deeply rooted in the Brazilian DNA and explains millions about the country’s social mechanics.
The result is a society of racial ambiguity. Brazil is a country where, more than any other in the world, skin color or cultural origins do not define a person’s perception of who they are or what they stand for. You will never see a black Brazilian seeing himself an Afro-Brazilian and, looking further, you will never see people defining themselves as Italian-Brazilian, or native-Brazilian. Everyone sees themselves as children of the country and full stop. Brazilians will probably take more pride in the black Pele, than in the slightly Pardo Alberto Santos Dumont who constructed and flew a plane before the .
However, this does not prevent racism from happening. Both the elite and the people below it expect classes and races to “know their place” be it at work, at school or at leisure time. Although racism is a punishable crime in Brazil there are deep cultural barriers that will die hard. True racism happens at the individual level and we hope that given the trends of increasing the mixture of races one day, the Eurocentrism elites will finally dilute into life’s Samba.