This week 10 students were supposed to join me in Brazil for a study abroad course titled "Inequality, Race, and Gender in Brazil." The COVID-19 crisis made us change our plans. After the trip was cancelled we moved the course online and students could explore any issue related to race, gender, and inequality in Brazil. They completed various assignments, including a larger research paper reviewing the literature on a topic of their interest. After they were done with their research I asked them to write a blog post outlining the things they learned and some of the most intriguing aspects of their research. This is the first post of the series.
Throughout the various sources I read for the class “Race, Gender, and Inequality in Brazil,” microaggressions and other underlying racist ideas appeared over and over again. Brazilian white elites are responsible for the popularization of these ideas. Racism is far from unique to Brazil. Discriminating against a peron because of the color of their skin is an idea that has been around nearly as long as humans of differing skin colors came into contact with one another. Yet racism in Brazil is still unique. Unlike in the United States and South Africa, following the abolishment of slavery in Brazil, laws enforcing segregation were never implemented. This lack of segregation allowed interracial mixing to occur on a massive scale, despite it not being encouraged. Today this interracial mixing can still be seen as many Brazilians struggle to identify their race and when they are being discriminated against. Discrimination against Afro-Brazilians are frequently falsely attributed to social inequality, making it hard for Afro-Brazilians and people of other races to recognize when and where discrimination occurs in Brazil today. Anti-Afro-Brazilian ideas have trickled down from white elites of Brazil to much of the remainder of the population and can be seen through microaggressions and other underlying ideas. These microaggressions and other underlying ideas have allowed racism to continue to exist on the scale it does today.
Prior to taking this class I knew very little about Brazil. I began to read news articles and listen to podcasts to learn more about the country upon being accepted into the program. Through these early podcasts it was clear that major inequalities existed in the country and played a major role in shaping everyday life in Brazil. Social inequality is a huge issue. Upon first reading articles about it, the magnitude of Brazil’s inequality stunned me.
Pedro sent us links to a few different podcasts prior to the start of class one of which was NPR’s “Brazil in Black and White: Update.” This podcast was the first time I was really exposed to the complexity of race in Brazil. The podcast discussed programs and quotas being put in place to get more blacks in higher ranking and paying jobs. These quotas were created to attempt to make Brazil a more racially equal country. When applying for jobs applicants would be asked to indicate their race. Checking the box seemed like such a simple act, yet the more I listened to the podcast the decision to do so was far from simple and clear. Throughout the podcast the inner conflict of one man and what he experienced when trying to decide if he should check the box was followed. Pedro Attila’s struggles as he attempted to identify his race showed me how complex race was in Brazil.
Forming a Question
As I read more, it became evident that a litany of factors has contributed to race and how it’s classified in Brazil. Despite such a large percentage of Brazil having Afro-Brazilian heritage, until recently only a small percentage of the population identified as Black. Worldwide Black society movements like the Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU), or the Black Movement, have played a major role the number of those who identify as Black increasing (Guetzkow 137). MNU has gained traction particularly throughout young Afro-Brazilians who are educated as they seek to reverse the stigma associated with identifying as Black. Merely by classifying themselves as Black, Brazilians are fighting microaggressions and the idea that it is an insult for one to consider another a darker skin tone (Kay 225).
Derald Wing Sue and his co-authors of “Racial Microaggression in Every Day Life” defines a microaggression as follows, “Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, de- rogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (271). To be able to fight a microaggression by doing something that to me seems as simple as quantifying one’s skin color, shows how deeply these racial microaggressions run in Brazil. This is what led me to form my question I was to research for the class. I was intrigued by the many complexities of racism in Brazil, and therefore chose it as my research topic. This interest culminated in my framing of the question: why is racism not widely recognized in Brazil and what were the underlying ideas that allowed this to become the case?
Some Research Findings
Racism in Brazil can be seen and experienced differently than the in the US. In the United States following the Civil War an era of segregation followed. After 100 years of segregation the Civil Rights Movement ensued. What made the Civil Rights Movement possible was African Americans’ willingness to stand up and fight for what the rights they knew they deserved. Necessary even before that is the recognition that racism does exist. In Brazil this recognition is widely lacking. Many whites do not believe racism to exist in Brazil, but even worse many Afro-Brazilian who are being discriminated against themselves do not always believe racism exists. Getting more Afro-Brazilians to recognize the existence of racism is the key to fighting racism in Brazil. This amazed me to see how widely unrecognized racism is in Brazil. Even more amazing, or maybe interesting rather, is how this way of thinking came to be.
There a variety of factors that have led to the lack of recognition of racism in Brazil, many of which can be attributed back to the government. Inequality also is a major issue Brazil faces. Shantytowns, or favelas, are located primarily on the outskirts of major cities. Afro-Brazilians make up the majority of their inhabitants. As of 2018, 73% of the 52.5 people below the poverty line were Black (Sanchez). Afro-Brazilians make up 66% of the country’s unemployed population, but only 54% of the total population points out Nayara Batschke of the EFE agency of Madrid. At first glance this can be attributed to inequality. This apparent inequality, though, is fueled by structural racism. The elements black Brazilians are born into, combined with the factors they are subject to along the way, make leading a successful life difficult. This idea is commonly referred to as structural racism. The prominence of structural racism is not widely known, instead the government pitches the unemployment and poverty as byproduct of inequality.
Inequality is just one of the many ways racism is disguised in Brazil. The government does not recognize Blacks to exist in Brazil in places other those have undeniable black heritage. In doing so White Elites and others in charge have created the underlying idea that a person should consider themselves Pardo or Mixed, as opposed to Black. Which has led to the small fraction of Afro-Brazilians identifying themselves as Black. Over time those in charge have downplayed the importance of Blacks by disguising their contributions to society. This is often done by attributing them to someone who is white or considering the Afro-Brazilian who created them to be lighter in skin color than they actually are. Thus, creating the underlying idea that one should identify themselves as of lighter skin color than they are in actuality.
Brazil – a Biography
From the book “Brazil, a Biography” some of the underlying ideas that have allowed racism to exist on the scale it does today were clear to me. In particular the actions of the country’s leaders and the reactions of the civilians stood out. The military and their imposing dictatorship were in power for 21 years in Brazil. Awful methods of brutality were used by the dictatorship in order prevent strikes or uprisings of any sorts. Not only were all strikes prevented for 10 years during their rule, but any recent progress of issues such as racial and gender equality was completely erased. After the dictatorship was removed from power they were never punished for their actions. The lack of punishment was justified by saying, “. . they believed they acted in the best interest of Brazil” (541). To me this shows a normalization has been created surrounding the treatment of people. People were treated poorly and we wish it would not have happened, but oh well seems to be their attitude. This same attitude can be seen during President Médici’s time at the helm of Brazil. During Médici’s time in charge the country experienced its worst period of political violence in history. Due to the economic success of the country during this period Médici received very little criticism, but rather was praised with applause mixed with very little criticism. The underlying idea here is that social justice issues are on the back burner, only to receive attention when everything else ahead of it on the priority chain is alright. This underlying issue is why today racial equality progress is so delicate. One administration can increase representation of Afro-Brazilians, but upon a new administration taking over any funds and representation can be erased in the blink of an eye.
From my research I have been able to see just how complex the issue of racism is in Brazil. Underlying ideas and microaggressions have been formed by years of racist actions of the government. Inequality is an issue in Brazil, but by combatting racial inequality the country will thus be combatting some inequality in the process. More Afro-Brazilians identifying themselves as Black is a major step forward for the country and gives them hope going forward for a more racially equal. By identifying as Black and recognizing racist actions Afro-Brazilians are taking the major steps towards fighting the underlying microaggressions and underlying ideas that allow racist to continue to exist on the scale it does today.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my research on racism in Brazil and feel I have gained a better sense of empathy as a result of doing it. Additionally, this has caused me to search for my own microaggressions and underlying ideas to my being. I am greatly disappointed the current situation does not allow us to go to Brazil. The chance to discuss this with Brazilians and experience the country for myself is something I was really looking forward to. Yet, the research I have done has created a hunger in me and a desire to get to Brazil someday and further my research and have the opportunity to learn from those who have experienced this firsthand.
Five Favorite Sources from my Research:
Lamont, M., Silva, G., Welburn, J., Guetzkow, J., Mizrachi, N., Herzog, H., & Reis, E. (2016). Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv346qr9 (especially chapters 3 and 4).
Kay, K., Mitchell-Walthour, G., & White, I. K. (2015). Framing race and class in Brazil: Afro-Brazilian support for racial versus class policy. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 3(2), 222-238. (Link Here)
Romero, S., Barnes, T. (2015). Despair, and Grim Acceptance, Over Killings by Brazil’s Police. New York Times (May 21). (Link Here)
You Don't Have to Yell Podcast (2020). Episode 28: Race and Politics in Brazil and the United States, a Comparison. (Link Here)
Reis, J. (2005). Batuque: African Drumming and Dance between Repression and Concession, Bahia, 1808-1855. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 24(2), 201-214. Retrieved May 13, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27733744
Batschke, Nayara. "Afro-Brazilian Movement Aims to Combat Racism in Country's Business
World: BRAZIL RACISM -Feature-." EFE News Service, 25 May 2019.
Guetzkow, Joshua, Hanna Herzog, Michéle Lamont, Nissim Mizrachi, Elisa Reis,
Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica S. Welburn. “Brazil.” Getting Respect, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 134-169.
Kay, Kristine, Gladys Mictchell-Walthour, and Isamil K. White. “Framing race and class in
Brazil: Afro-Brazilian support for racial versus class policy.” Politics, Groups, and Identities, 07 Apr 2015, pp 222-238.
Sanchez, Carlos Meneses. "Widespread Racism Against Black Population Persists in Brazil:
BRAZIL RACISM."EFE News Service, 20 Dec 2019.
Sue, Derald Wing, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B.
Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” Teachers College, Columbia University. The American Psychologist.
Warner, Gregory and Lulu Garcia-Navarro. “Brazil in Black and White: Update.” Rough
About the Author: Maddie Schmitz is a junior at the College of St. Benedict. Originally from St. Martin, Minnesota, she is majoring in Physics with a minor in Math. Through the three opportunities Maddie has had to travel abroad, she has had the chance to talk with people from different countries of different backgrounds. Through these interactions she has gained a sense of empathy and perspective. As a result of her studies of Racism in Brazil she has enjoyed continuing to grow her sense of empathy and gaining an understanding of what drives racism.
Sharing student assignments that should reach more people than just me.