Brazil’s Racial Democracy

There is something disturbing, at least for me, when I read the countless criticisms by journalists, scholars, and even celebrities about Brazil’s purported racial democracy. Not because the perspectives they provide are without base or merit. Certainly many issues along the fault lines of race, and other oppressions such as gender, orientation, class, etc., still exist within a country which had once been (like the US and all other Latin American countries) colonized for hundreds of years. A colonial history marked by an economic, social and political system built on the promotion and maintenance of slavery and the trade of African peoples.

I do share the worries and critical gaze of those who understand racism is far more than meets the eye. How it pervades throughout society even in spite of the hundreds of years of struggle towards its end. And is still tightly wound within the heart of the American narrative, like a diseased worm. Festering since the colonial powers decided to make the Americas the place where it was acceptable to wallow in the filth of the vile practice, long after it had lost favor in  Europe. Nevertheless, when people, especially from the affluent US, wave their fingers at the supposedly bambozzled Latinos I am troubled. 

Take for instance this Deadspin article on the world-class footballer they call Neymar. Where a blogger laments on the whitening of Neymar’s clearly African descendency  and his apparent ‘run’ from his it. All of which he bases solely on a single comment by Neymar. When he stated, “Never [have I experienced racism]. Neither inside nor outside of the field. Because I’m not black, right?” Taken out of context it would reaffirm all suspicion that he’d rather be white. Except it would be ignoring his own efforts to support fellow Brazilian footballer Dani Alves during the banana controversy.

Yet it is far more disconcerting that the commentator criticizes Neymar without any real sense of how slavery, thus racism, took form in Brazil. How the Portuguese interacted with Afro-Brazilians in a strikingly different manner than the British did with US Blacks. Their emphasis on racial distinctions that were complex and nuanced in ways that belie comparison to the US. In fact, Brazil’s current national census has continued the original colonial trend and now offers around 186 different racial classifications. Yes 186! Technically Neymar is not Black, in Brazil, because to be black is a question of skin tone. And not so much blood, as it is in the US. Nor would it fit that Neymar would be running from that either since Brazil has had a long history idolizing the beauty of dark-skinned African for their beautiful complexion and ample curves. It could just be that Neymar was unable to bridge the cultural gap between racial distinctions, or just as confused by this uncanny thing we all thing we all participate in, called race.

Now I don’t want to give the idea that slavery was nicer in Brazil, but just different.

Haitian anthropologist and philosopher Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it best when he reflected on his experiences with teaching African-American history: “it attracted the few black students around–plus a few courageous whites–and they were all expecting too much, much more than I could deliver. They wanted a life that no narrative could provide, even the best fiction. They wanted a life that only they could build right now, right here in the United States…. I wanted them to know that slavery did not happen only in Georgia and Mississippi. I wanted them to learn that the African connection was more complex and tortuous than they had ever imagined, that the U.S. monopoly on both blackness and racism was itself a racist plot.” Hyperbolic maybe, on point most assuredly.

 I’m still surprised how very few African Americans are aware that in sporting events across Europe many African diasporic players are repeatedly assaulted with ape taunts and bananas thrown at their feet. Ironically, in countries where its actually illegal, as in criminally wrong, to use racist language at another person.

Or their lacking awareness of the Quilombo movement taking place in Brazil, as I write. A social movement drawn from the families of African slave descendants fighting for their rights to the lands that their ancestors first settled, during and after slavery. Lands which had been systematically taken from beneath their feet in the years following emancipation.

It seems there is just as much to be learned by US blacks from Afro-Latinos, as it is true in reverse.

Why are US Blacks unaware of what goes on in the diaspora, but the same is not true of those outside the US? In what ways is the rise of the ‘Post-Racist’ society much like that of Brazil’s racial democracy? Can it possibly be true that a person of color can be raised without directly experiencing a racist act towards them, but still be systematically and historically barred from representation in popular media, boardrooms, and political chairs? If so, don’t Afro-Brazilians offer the US a unique perspective since they have been supposedly living in a racial democracy for a hundred years? And why aren’t the issues of indigenous rights more forcefully discussed in the US, beyond reparations quips and more plaques?

(from documentary “Quilombo Country,” narrated by Chuck D)

When I read the countless US articles on Brazil’s racial illusions I am reminded of a proverb which says loosely: the faults you may see in others are very much the one you possess yourself, how else would know how to so easily find them. In this way, I look forward to encouraging the discussions between Afro-Latinos with US Blacks. Where the former may take the lead in talking about racisms across our present conditions in a manner which does not blame those lives which have been stunted by something that is always there, but not always present. Yet does not lift  responsibility from those who still living in the places of terror and calculated neglect (the global slums) and those who have fled from taking part in changing their communities’ futures. This, however, will never come to fruition if we get to cozy in our armchairs.

(Feature image is of mural art featured in the Brazilian Favela Praça Cantão, which has inspired similar action in places as far as Philadelphia- take a look:


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