Brazil’s False Image of Racial Harmony Has Accomplice: the Black Population

Brazilian crowd in Salvador, BahiaIn retrospect, I often ponder the following questions: Do people really not see the truth? Do they see it but choose not to acknowledge it? Have they become so accustomed to it that they see nothing peculiar about it? Do they indeed realize but continue to participate in the privileges? Looking at this issue from another perspective, the situation cannot be explained so easily.

On the one hand, while it appears that people don’t notice racism in its implicit form, some studies show this not to be the case at all.

For instance, in a study by Camino, da Silva, Machado and Pereira (1), Brazilians were asked their own opinions and what they thought the opinion of other Brazilians would be regarding "natural" attributes correlating to whites and blacks. In a classic example of recognizing prejudice but not seeing prejudice in themselves, Brazilians believed that Brazilian society itself associated negative attributes to blacks and positive attributes to whites.

People in the survey consistently believed that Brazilians in general attributed adjectives such as intelligence and honesty to whites while believing that the society saw blacks as dishonest and aggressive. The study also confirmed that Brazilian society in general sees blacks as being more naturally endowed for sports and the arts while whites are associated with authority and professional employment.

Finally, the study showed that people (themselves or society) associated "third world" qualities such as poverty and being workers with blacks while whites were thought to have more "first world" qualities such being rich, civilized and independent.

The point of this study answers one of my previous questions. Brazilians do indeed clearly see how their society is structured. The results of this study questions the typical reaction regarding poverty when one says that racism doesn’t exist because "whites also live in favelas".

In actuality, there is also "inequality according to race within the favela! According to research by Ney dos Santos Oliveira, in marginalized communities (in which blacks are the numerical majority), whites have consistently higher income and reside in favelas on average eight years less than blacks. (2)

Making matters worse, the probability of social ascension of the children of whites belonging to a low socioeconomic class is better than a black child in the same condition. Furthermore, the child of a black parent of higher socioeconomic status runs a higher risk of not being able to maintain this standard of life than a white child of a similar background. (3)

When we begin to realize that inequality persists in all socioeconomic strata of Brazilian society, the question must be asked as to how these inequalities maintain themselves. Classic studies by Carlos Hasenbalg reveal that in both professional and manual labor markets, blacks are paid less money than whites to do the same work. (4) Thus, whiteness brings benefits that have nothing to do with education or socioeconomic status.

Within the different tiers of favelas, whites are often able to build social networks with middle-class whites that blacks do not have access to thus giving them more diverse means of raising themselves out of poverty. Given these facts, it is not as easy to proclaim that race doesn’t matter when one is poor.

For, as many activists have proclaimed, it is one thing to be white and poor, but worse being black and poor. Even if we were to consider two poor families, one white and one black, poor whites can still maintain some degree of self-esteem when they turn on a television and see positive and powerful images of themselves in the media, a symbolic luxury that Afro-Brazilians do not have.

Recognition of Privilege

"All of us whites benefit daily, and in an illicit way, by living in a racist society. There are innumerous privileges, small, medium and large, that help us to maintain advantages and concentrate more resources." (5)
– José Jorge de Carvalho, Professor of Anthropology, University of Brasília

There are more clues that address other questions. Activist and Social Psychologist Maria Aparecida ("Cida") Silva Bento believes that there is a secret pact among Brazilian whites to silently accept white privilege without acknowledging it. (6)

Is this an outrageous statement? Consider these facts:

– Lawyer and NGO director Hédio Silva Júnior was once told by a white director of human resources that he felt institutional pressure to hire white employees. Although he felt comfortable around black people and was married to a black woman, he also realized that if he didn’t adhere to a policy of white privilege he could lose his job. (7)

– While doing research in Rio, Professor Robin Sheriff was in the company of a group of whites when one announced that "we whites have to stick together." (8)

– A production assistant was fired by a program director when he noticed that a group of black children were seen among other children participating in a recording session. The question was asked, "Foi você quem escolheu aqueles dois negrinhos? (Was it you who chose the little black kids?)" (9)

To the contrary of the belief that they "are all Brazilians", and thus assumedly equal, many white Brazilians are accustomed to having and maintaining a position of power and privilege within the social hierarchy and will often-times react in hostile manners when this hierarchy appears to have been challenged.

Take for instance the story of Conceição Vianna, a black female financier of Mitsubishi’s operations in Brazil. Upon graduation from college, she competed with a white male colleague for a position as an accountant. When she got the job, the colleague made a comment that she would not soon forget.

When he learned that she had gotten the position over him, he turned to her and said that if he could, he would get in a time machine, go back in time and kill Princess Isabel. (10) For those who don’t know, Princess Isabel is credited with freeing the remainder of Brazil’s slaves on May 13, 1888 by signing the Lei Áurea (Golden Law).

Daniel Moreira Alves also knows from personal experience that many whites feel that they are naturally supposed to be in superior positions to blacks. After a car accident in which his nephew hit Alves’s car, Silvio Luís Pereira asked Alves who was the owner of the ’94 Monza in which he was sitting.

Alves told him that he was the owner. Pereira replied "But how? This is a brand new car and you are black! Blacks aren’t people. How does a black guy have a car like this if I am white and I don’t have one?" (11) In other words, as he was white and Alves black, there was no way that Alves could possibly have a better, newer car than he.

The social/racial hierarchy in Brazil is the unofficial guarantee of that. These are not simply isolated incidents; they are examples of every day occurrences in modern day Brazil that help maintain a racial hierarchy in all strata of Brazilian society. These attitudes have their historical roots in colonial Brazil where being white meant "to adopt certain superior attitudes, to wield a certain power." (12)

Whiteness also had monetary value. This can be noted in the 17th and 18th centuries, when penniless European men married elite São Paulo women (of mixed Indian-white ancestry) who had dowries which included real estate and slaves. Although the man had no money, he achieved equality through his European ancestry. (13) In essence, whiteness was worth money.

While I highlight the privilege that whiteness brings in Brazil as in other countries, I would like to remind the reader that it is racism itself that supports the idea and ideal of whiteness.

At this point, it is not necessary for anyone to point fingers and proclaim "the United States is far more racist than Brazil", for, as Frantz Fanon once wrote in his classic work Black Skins, White Masks, either "a given society is racist or it is not".

The visionary words of Fanon written over 50 years apply to the United States, Brazil, France or any other society where one racial group oppresses and subjugates another. If one were to substitute Brazil and the United States in this next quote, one could easily apply it to current arguments people make in favor of Brazil when comparing to the US:

Statements, for example, that the north of France is more racist than the south, that racism is the work of underlings and hence in no way involves the ruling class, that France is one of the least racist countries in the world are the product of men incapable of straight thinking. (14)

While Brazil appears to be a country of cordial race relations, beneath the surface is buried the truth. According to Mário Sérgio Cortella, a Post-Graduate professor at Pontifícia Universidade Católica of São Paulo, Brazil never needed a formal South Africa-styled apartheid because "blacks never in fact disputed the space of whites in the job market in commanding posts". As such, Brazilian racism only shows its hostility in "moments that negritude threatens the space of the Indo-European."(15)

Recent disputes over the application of quotas to ensure that afrodescendentes have access to Brazilian universities seem to illustrate Cortella’s conclusion quite well.

In researching the Brazilian situation, it is a conclusion that I fully agree with. Over the years, Brazil has managed to maintain a worldwide image of racial harmony and cordiality while simultaneously practicing as cruel a form of racial exclusion as any other racist regime.

It has managed to do so with an almost complete complicity of its huge African descendent population making the feat all the more impressive, if one could call visibly invisible racism impressive.


1. Camino, Leôncio; da Silva, Patrícia; Machado, Aline and Pereira, Cícero. A Face Oculta do Racismo no Brasil: Uma Análise Psicossociológica. Revista Psicologia Política. Volume 1, Number 1, Jan./June 2001. [Available online April 22, 2006]

2. Oliveira, Ney dos Santos 2002 "Direito das/dos negras/os: distribuição racial, pobreza e moradia na região metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro", Anais XXI Encontro e VI Congresso Arquisur (Salvador, Faculdade de Arquitetura, Universidade Federal da Bahia) as quoted in João H. Costa Vargas’s "Apartheid brasileiro: raça e segregação residencial no Rio de Janeiro" in Revista de Antropologia, Volume 48, number 1, São Paulo Jan./Jun. 2005.

3. Programa das Nações Unidas para o Desenvolvimento. Relatório de Desenvolvimento Humano: Racismo, pobreza e violência. Brasil 2005.
[Available online June 12, 2006]

4. Hasenbalg, Carlos. "Perspectives on Race and Class in Brazil" in Crook, Larry and Johnson, Randal. Black Brazil: Culture, Identity, and Social Mobilization. UCLA Latin American Center Publications, Los Angeles, 1999

5. Carvalho, J. J. "As Ações Afirmativas como Resposta ao Racismo Acadêmico e seu Impacto nas Ciências Sociais Brasileiras". Série Antropologia, Brasília, volume 358, 2004

6. Carone, Iray and Bento, Maria Aparecida Silva (orgs.). Psicologia Social do Racismo: estudos sobre branquitude e branqueamento no Brasil. 2 ed. Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro. Editora Vozes. 2003

7. Telles, Edward. Racismo à Brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará, 2003.

8. Sheriff, Robin. Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil. Rutgers University Press, 2001.

9. "Racismo no ar: Crianças negras ficam longe das câmaras". Veja. May 13, 1992 as quoted in Amelia Simpson’s Xuxa: The Mega-Marketing of Gender, Race, and Modernity. Temple University Press. 1993.

10. Pinheiro, Daniela. "A classe média negra". Revista Veja. Issue number 1611, year 32, #33. São Paulo, Editora Abril, August 8, 1999.

11. Bertolino, Élidi. "Racismo no trânsito." Raça Brasil magazine. No. 37.
September 1999.

12. Mattoso, Katia M. De Queiros. To Be a Slave in Brazil, 1550-1888.
Rutgers University Press. 1994.

13. Nazzari, Muriel. "Concubinage in Colonial Brazil: the Inequalities of Race, Class and Gender." Journal of Family History. Volume 21, April 1996.

14. Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1967 (1952) Grove Press.

15. Rodrigues, Greice and Rita Moraes. "O negro é invisível". Isto É. March 5, 2003.

Mark Wells holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Social Justice at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michigan. He can be reached at quilombhoje72@yahoo.

© 2007 Mark Wells


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