By Kate McGlinch
In studying race, gender and inequality in Brazil, it is impossible to not recognize the structural and interpersonal violence against minority groups in the country. The multilayered discrimination against black Brazilians has sprawled across history and recent times. Coming from the United States, these issues were not unfamiliar to me; During our trip, ten black people in Buffalo, New York were shot to death in a supermarket in a racially-motivated hate crime.
Hateful ideologies feed into many instances of interpersonal violence like this which are, essentially, swept under the rug by the institutions and individuals holding power. Colorblind legislation allows for problems to be “fixed” without being fully addressed or validated. These things happen in both the United States and Brazil.
But while I am fully aware of these issues in the U.S., I had much to learn while studying abroad. Before embarking on our trip, our class read about the history of race relations and the so-called racial democracy of Brazil. We were visited by Ian Carrillo, who had conducted ethnography on how color-blindness manifests today in Brazil’s sugar-ethanol industries, among many other scholars both in-person and virtually. In his article describing his studies, Carrillo identified racial democracy as the portrayal of “centuries of slavery and sharecropping through a nostalgic lens in which masters enjoyed cordial relations with enslaved peoples. Rather than abhorring the power inequalities inherent in the denial of human freedom, racial democracy romanticizes paternalistic relations'' (Carrillo, 58).
I found this elaboration helpful in understanding the public reception of Mestiçagem and Freyre’s theories. Looking at the centuries of slavery and harsh oppression of Afro-Brazilians in this way seems to have provided the people perpetuating it with an escape hatch from guilt or accountability. Meanwhile the racism that continues today, though veiled, remains just as violent and repressive.
We also read chapters from “The Politics of Blackness: Racial Identity and Political Behavior in Contemporary Brazil”, which provided a comprehensive examination into how the identities of Brazilians interact with their political behaviors. In its conclusion, it is stated that “discussion on the role that violence plays in maintaining an Afro-Paradise where foreigners celebrate exotic black bodies at the same time that the state destroys these bodies through terror and killing, highlights how state actors create racial categories for economic and social gain. Exclusion and discrimination are violent” (Mitchell-Walthour, 222). I found this to be a corroboration to Carrillo’s description of color-blindness in Brazil’s institutions today.
In traveling to Brazil and observing life for different people there, I found these conclusions to be very real. While driving around Bahia, I spotted a lot of different billboards. Many promoted music while others marketed healthcare and beauty products. The differences in how these different interests were portrayed, however, seemed odd to me. While billboards for music and some beauty items included more people with darker skin tones, the billboards for healthcare almost always had just white people on them. Though pretty subtle in the grand scheme of things, these billboards seemed to reinforce the idea of higher education and employment in healthcare being more fitting for people with lighter skin. This was especially concerning to me as we had attended lectures talking about the reality of racial disparity in higher education. They emphasized that these pursuits are not “more fitting” of white Brazilians, rather, white Brazilians simply have much easier access to them.
Apart from my experiences in Salvador, the lectures played an important role in identifying institutional violence against black Brazilians. We were visited by Professor Wyllis Santos for a lecture on Afro-Brazilian religions, in which he described the actions taken by evangelical and Catholic churches to suppress Afro-Brazilian religious practices throughout history and today. While the aggressive enforcement of Catholicism happened through colonialism, evangelical pastors today have been teaming up with drug-traffickers in order to target Afro-Brazilian congregations. Additionally, militias (often populated by cops) have also joined forces with drug-traffickers in implementing restrictive power over favelas, especially in Rio, which are often majority black communities (Santos, 2022). These groups do not seem to be held accountable for their violence due to their ideologies being mostly in-line with the country’s current president.
Though this violence against black Brazilians is undeniable, the counteraction of black consciousness and empowerment seems to be supported with an equal level of determination. I was especially impressed by the work of the Pai de Santo Alcides and the Steve Biko Institute in their work for black communities in Brazil. As a practitioner of Candomble, Alcides emphasized positive work in one’s community as a principle of the religion. In his community, he started projects teaching children dental hygiene and building self-esteem in black women by teaching them how to do their hair (Alcides, 2022). The Steve Biko Institute, inspired by Steve Biko’s legacy of black consciousness and citizenship in South Africa, provides a “preparatory class for the entrance exam aimed at low-income black students - the first of its kind in Brazil” (Steve Biko Cultural Institute, 2014). Institutions like these, along with Afro-Brazilian percussion and dances in public spaces, voice opposition against racial discrimination in a sophisticated way. It seems that
Afro-Brazilians have grown more and more unapologetic for their African features, making a case for the importance of these features to Brazil itself. Whether through practicing Capoeira or creating educational opportunities for black Brazilians, there is a strong sense of empowerment in Salvador.
Carrillo, Ian. 2021. “Racialized Organizations and Color-Blind Racial Ideology in Brazil.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 7, no. 1 (January): 56–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649220943223.
Mitchell-Walthour, Gladys L. The Politics of Blackness: Racial Identity and Political Behavior in Contemporary Brazil. Cambridge Studies in Stratiﬁcation Economics: Economics and Social Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. doi:10.1017/9781316888742.
Santos, Wyllis. “Candomble and Religions in Brazil.” Lecture, Instituto Clara Ramos, Salvador, BA, May 16, 2022.
Alcides (Pai de Santo). “The Practice of Candomble.” Lecture, Instituto Clara Ramos, Salvador, BA, May 16, 2022.
“Projetos: Pre-Vestibular.” Instituto Cultural Beneficente Steve Biko. Instituto Cultural Steve Biko, 2014. Accessed May 20, 2022. https://www.stevebiko.org.br/projetos
Kate McGlinch is a sophomore at CSB/SJU with a major in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy. She is from St. Paul, Minnesota. Her academic interests include justice and reformation in politics as well as policy for social issues. She looks forward to understanding Brazilian politics and culture in a more holistic way while studying abroad.