Black and White: Marveling at a Brazil Where Racial Rules Are Learned Early in Life

Girls, one white, one blackI just returned from another wonderful trip to Brazil. I have been visiting that fascinating country for over 10 years, and on each of my visits I learn something new and different. On my latest visit one of the things I did was to spend time at a little fazenda. It wasn’t really a farm; rather a small vineyard, vegetable garden, and flower garden nestled on the side of a rocky, mountainous area with a small stream running through it.

There were two small houses – one for the owners, who live in a large city some 250 kilometers away, and the other one for the help – who care for the vineyard, gardens, chickens and a few horses.

I drove from the city to the fazenda with the owners. We were going to stay a couple of days, and enjoy a pick-nick with a few neighbors, friends and relatives. We turned off the hardtop road onto a very rough, dirt and boulder track. This track ended at the bottom of the steep hill at the farm.

After I explored the two gardens, marveling at a variety of healthy vegetables and colorful flowers – calla lilies and a beautiful red flower – which the owners took home with them on their return to the city (I grow both vegetables and flowers at my home in the United States, although on a smaller scale) and gazed at the dazzling swath of bright purple bougainvillea next to the house,

I joined the group for drinks and appetizers. After the appetizers and lively conversation, we settled into some great Minas Gerais country food. The group was made up of adults, with several college students (attending college activities in the nearby town), and two young girls.

One child was the daughter of the couple who care for the vineyard, garden and animals, and who prepared the wonderful food; the other was a relative of the owners. The domestic servants’ daughter was about 10 years old; the other girl about 9 years old.

While socializing with the adults, I watched these two girls with interest. I am a teacher and child psychologist, so children’s behaviors fascinate me. Further, it was more relaxing and enjoyable watching them play than trying to decipher the rapid Portuguese spoken all around me!

These two girls would disappear beyond the beautiful bougainvillea bush, down by the garden and the stream. They seemed to be having a great time in the wild brush and bamboo stands. They also rode a big, white horse, sitting bareback together and having a great time riding up by the vineyard. Occasionally they would dart into the house of the family who looked after the place, engaging in fantasy and housekeeping games girls this age seem to enjoy.

They were obviously very good friends, and enjoyed each other’s company tremendously.

On a regular basis the girl related to the owners would join the adult group. She sat with us to listen to the latest gossip about friends and family; she also joined us to partake of the wonderful food prepared by her friend’s mother. She would seamlessly slip between the world of the owners and the world of the domestic servants.

But her friend would never cross the line into the groups of adults in the main part of the house. She would occasionally come in through the back door to check in with her mother in the kitchen, but then she would retreat outside through the same door.

The family who cared for the farm and prepared the wonderful meal were what we in the Untied States would call African Americans (Afro Brazilians); the other girl, while much lighter than her friend, would probably be considered Hispanic in the U.S., based on her appearance (while labeled Moreno in Brazil), but she would also be considered white, since her family is European (Portuguese).

While I watched these two friends play, with the white girl moving between two worlds, but the black girl religiously keeping to her own, servant world, I marveled at a society that trained people so early in their lives and so effectively to play according to society’s stick social rules.

[Here is where my Brazilian friends like to bring up our (U.S.) history of racism, and their belief in how racist a society the U.S. still is. It’s not my intent to compare the two here. For what its worth, I have been married for over 30 years to an African American, and I have helped to raise and educate of four children of mixed-racial heritage in the U.S.].

On all my visits to Brazil, I have stayed with wonderful friends in their homes. Since most of my friends are typically from Brazil’s middle and upper class, almost all of them had domestic servants – sometimes a woman; other times an entire family.

And, while these servants were of every shade of color, they invariably were a few shades darker than their bosses, who would not necessarily be considered white by U.S. standards. And when these domestic servants had children of a similar age to the owners, these children would be close friends, enjoying each other’s company with little concern for social class, as children do.

While I have never seen servants mistreated, I am constantly fascinated by the relationship between the employer and employee, and the fact that a country attempting to be a world leader has such a deeply institutionalized, inequitable and racists system.

One particular example stands out in my mind. A 16-year-old girl was the servant for a single, professional woman (a teacher) and her two adult children – one with a child. She would do the laundry, cook meals, make the beds, and clean the rooms of these two adults. Yes, the beds of the grown children!

My own children were doing their own laundry by about 11-years-old, and, while they did not always make their beds, no one would do it for them. Once their rooms got too messy to tolerate, they would clean them up themselves.

Sure we have nannies in the United States. Many people also make a good living cleaning houses. And there are after-school and weekend programs, along with an entire array of sports options, available for children. But it’s different.

Middle-class families in America cannot afford nannies and servants; occasionally they might hire someone to help clean their home. And these service people are not second-class citizens – they are themselves part of middle-class America (maids in hotels and motels are a different matter).

I know Lula’s government has increased the minimum wage, pays parents when their children attend school, created new universities and expanded old ones  (although, given the sorry state of public schools, I am not sure where the new students will come from – see Improving Brazil’s Public Schools: Nine Recommendations, in www.brazzil.com, and is investing in preschool programs throughout the country.

But I wonder how these changes will impact this highly institutionalized, totally inequitable system, which seems so permanently embedded within contemporary Brazilian culture.

And I wonder what the future holds for the little black girl I saw ridging a beautiful white horse, and playing hide-and-seek with her friend under an expansive bougainvillea bush and behind the bamboo stands.

Francis Wardle has a Ph.D. in Education (University of Kansas). He has been a Head Start director, education director of Children’s World Learning Centers (a national childcare and education corporation), a teacher, and a program director for Big Brothers & Sisters. Currently Dr. Wardle teaches for the University of Phoenix (online) and Red Rocks Community College (Denver). He has published four college textbooks and over 300 articles in a variety of educational magazines and journals.


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