To Be Black or Not Black? In Brazil…Who Cares!

Black in white handA couple of months ago, an older, well-educated female student in my intermediate conversation class asked me if I was concerned about Marcelo’s dark skin color. You see, we had been discussing M and I’s move to Canada and I was anxious about how quickly he would get a job in his field. Marcelo is a DBA (Database Administrator) and though people working in IT generally fair well as immigrant workers, we were still prepared for him to work in an entry level position – perhaps not in his area.

In any case, the fact that his skin is mulatto had never entered into the equation for us. We hadn’t even discussed it. I hadn’t thought about it until she asked me, “Are you worried about Marcelo’s race?” as if all North Americans were bogged down by the color of our skin.

Race is a funny issue in Brazil. I have not met a Brazilian who didn’t boast that “there is no racism in Brazil”. They scoff at race issues in the US.  “What’s the big deal,” they might say, “that Barack Obama is black? So what? Us Brazilians don’t see people in those terms. We’re color blind.”

Yet I have not seen one black politician and certainly not a black president. They openly joke about blackness and it’s not considered taboo or racist. In my family they call each other “Negrão,” which means something like “Big Blackie”. Non-racism is a Brazilian “fact” that was probably in large part created by Gilberto Freyre who wrote the infamous work “The Masters and the Slaves”.

In his book published in the 1930s, Freyre describes in intricate detail the culture of colonial sugar plantations and though not explicit in his descriptions, he links the masters and slaves through sex. Peter Robb writes in his book “A Death in Brazil”: “It was sex enhanced by the gorgeousness of the climate and the sweetness of the sugar, and also sex made perverse by the cruel relationship of masters to slaves, of the Roman Catholic Church to African practices and indigenous forest life. Every new theme he turned to became an aspect of sexual life.”

And so sexual mixing laid the groundwork for a “…benign equality in diversity of all of Brazil’s races and cultures, once the institution of slavery dropped away…” However, the white Brazilians of the 1930s ruling class who were shaping the society were not as easily seduced by the idea of Brazil as racially benign and were focused on creating a Brazil of “order and progress”- a seemingly European Brazil that would not be held back by its voluptuous, humiliating past.

Indeed it’s here we continually encounter the Brazilian paradox: a white ruling class embarrassed by its backwards, rural northeastern culture and yet exuberantly proud of its unique mixed results. In conversations with wealthy, fair-skinned Brazilians, they often express shame at the problems in Brazil’s Northeast, although conversely they are fiercely proud of Carnaval and other Brazilian festivals which originated there.

Furthermore, they like to emphasize the progressive ways of Brazil’s more European southern states predominantly populated by Germans and Italians, yet condemn the cold nature of those very same people. The culture is defined by these temperatures.

The wealthy, middle-class people who surround me here in Brooklin (São Paulo) compliment Brazil when it’s doing something very “First World” and deride the nation when it’s acting “Third World”; they venerate their hot-blooded festas (which one could assert are very African in nature) but are working very hard, especially here in São Paulo, to create a respectable society free of its overheated and lazy Third World chains.

Ultimately, what are the catalysts in forming this idyllic Brazil of the future? President Lula wants to shape Brazil by implementing “poor and black” quotas in top public universities and giving poor people free money or “bolsas”. Other Brazilians, especially those of retirement age desperately in need of pension money they feel is now going to poor people, believe that high quality public education is the key.

According to Marcelo’s parents, when they were children (in the 40s and 50s) public education from elementary until high school in Brazil was top notch. They received a fine education and went on to finish university. Marcelo’s mom was a school teacher and his dad worked his way up in a computer company. When the military coup took place, public schools disintegrated and from the rubble emerged a multitude of private schools who gladly charged eager, middle class parents their hard earned dollars for a guaranteed chance of a “better life”, one could even call it a First World life.

My brother and sister-in-law pay 1000 reais a month (US$ 540) to send their 2-year old to a pre-school for half a day, five days a week. That is almost double what an average nanny is paid monthly to look after children for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Though it’s certainly not fair to directly compare schooling and all that entails with basic child care, the numbers still speak. The majority of Brazilian nannies are often poor, black women who leave their families and their own children to tend to wealthy, predominantly white children.

My maid Manoela once told me that she married an alcoholic abuser and had six children with him because no one ever taught her any different – not her impoverished parents, not her school, and certainly not the wider community. And why? Is it because she’s a black woman? Brazilians might reply, “No, of course not. It’s because she’s poor.”

Ah ha, so this is how race works here: it’s disguised as class. Manoela was given two choices in her youth: have babies and clean houses, anything beyond those would have required someone close to her to suggest a solid education and demand more for herself.

Herein lies an example of contemporary Brazilian racism: poor black women do not generally receive a decent education and work for rich white families. The rich white parents need this black woman because they’re both working, they’re both working because they need to pay for private health and education for their children.

You get the picture. It would be impossible to build this so-called Brazil of the future if there wasn’t a lower class of predominantly poor, black females carrying it (like it would have been impossible to build the Brazil of the 17th century without slave labor).

Brazilians may be color blind, but they’re certainly not blind to class and I’ve yet to witness an angry march in street demanding better education for all Brazilians, rich or poor. It’s just not happening.

Somehow middle-class Brazilians support the illiteracy of poor Brazilians by continuing to pay private educational institutions.

When you ask them about this, they will be quick to tell you that they have no choice. It’s either pay the private school or raise a “loser”. And no one, especially those raised in the middle class, want to be viewed as poor.

Back in my intermediate conversation class, I laughed in response to her question. I honestly thought she was joking and when I saw that she was completely serious, I replied, “Well I hadn’t really thought about that. He’s a Brazilian, right? He doesn’t really have a color.”

Carmen Joy King is a freelance writer and Canadian expat living in São Paulo. You can read more by her here:



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