From the end of the 1930s till his death in 1995, the anthropologist Ashley
Montagu alerted us that the biological concept of races as distinct groupings
that could be classified as superior and inferior was a mistake. Therefore, the
news that “Genetics shows that each human being is unique and contests races in
Brazil” (my translation), which appeared in O Globo recently, does not surprise
The novelty is this interest in genetics to demonstrate correctly that, biologically, races do not exist just when in Brazil the (equally not so new) thesis that the social concept of race is powerful enough to organize the structures of societies and determine people’s quality of life picks up strength.
Demétrio Magnoli, a Brazilian sociologist, argues that “popular racism, mass racial hatred, doesn’t exist in Brazil.” I argue that such mass racism has been suppressed by effective practices that keep so-called blacks in their “proper places,” i.e., outside of competition with so-called whites.
There are plenty of examples, such as the “good appearance” requirement (read “whites”) for employees who might have contact with the public, the low salaries for blacks with the same education and experience as whites, the barring of blacks from clubs, and the ubiquitous idea that individuals with darker skin are at once less intelligent and prone to crime.
The demand for affirmative action policies would be an instance of blacks getting out of their pre-determined social places by pointing to the unequal treatment to which they are subjected.
Actually, we are talking about another theme, also well explored: the existence of two Brazils. In one, the descendants of phenotypically white immigrants enjoy the privilege of ignoring race; in the other, where I live, skin color and negroid features take over any other characteristics, such as way of dressing, education, and occupation.
I have plenty of examples: although I was thrice the best student at a famous English-teaching school here in Rio, I grew up hearing that blacks aren’t capable of learning foreign languages. Last year, I was on my way to a bank; ahead of me was a white woman. The moment she looked back and saw me, she retarded her pace and held her bag more firmly. I took out my card from my pocket and left it visible.
Only then did she relax and got into the bank. I suspect that, because I was casually dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, I was seen as a potential thief. However, being well-dressed is no guarantee of decent treatment: more recently, I was prevented from entering a cocktail party to which I had been invited thus: “The bathroom is over there.” Because I insisted that I was not looking for the bathroom, the “woman bouncer” decided to ask for my invitation, after having emphasized that it was a closed event.
Finally, when I was visiting a college where I had already been introduced as a professor and researcher, I was announced as “a girl wishing to speak to a professor.” The tragedy is that, just as all of that has happened to me, it certainly happens to innumerable Brazilians who look like me. The moral of the story is, there is a stigma in being black in Brazil.
There is a name for that: racism. Simply speaking, racism is the ideology of racial superiority, regardless of how races are defined. That ideology may manifest itself as prejudice, discrimination, or a combination of the two.
By the way, as prejudice is the pre-judgment of an entire category of people, having it is not particular to the white elite. Even mestiços can harbor prejudice and discriminate, such as when Brazilians conveniently omit their black grandparents from their genealogy by avoiding mentioning them or by hiding their pictures.
Discrimination, i.e., treating persons differentially, may or may not occur together with prejudice. Historical data describe how the Brazilian post-slavery immigration policies favored Europeans and the Japanese, but not the Chinese. The justification was that, with so many blacks already here, we didn’t need “the Chinaman.”
Are we all Brazilian? Yes. Are we mixed? Yes. Unfortunately, that fact doesn’t prevent our being treated unequally. As the phenomenologists suggest, there are several “realities,” worldviews created out of our social status.
Let us, thus, respect the reality of those who are discriminated against or who are prejudged due to the color of their skin. When their opinions have more weight, perhaps the debate will become more balanced. At least till then, let us stop pontificating that “we are not racist.”
Vânia Penha-Lopes, a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. She is an associate professor of sociology at Bloomfield College, in New Jersey. Penha-Lopes is also a columnist at Afropress, a Brazilian online publication.