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Black women in BrazilBlack American media outlets recently exploded over a Brasilian university official asking a black female Brasilian student to leave campus for sporting a natural hairstyle. It propelled a popular stereotype of Brasilian culture, which paints Brasilian citizens as being reluctant to confront race, instead, choosing to define their ancestry as a big melting pot. The truth is that racial identity in Brasil is far more complicated than it is in the United States, so it’s not easy to apply our ideas of race as an organizational structure for Brasilian nationhood. Most Brasilians are mixed with a little bit of everything, including African, indigenous, and European ancestry. Thus, if you talk to most Brasilians, they will own all of their racial identities, instead of simply saying, “I’m white” or “I’m black,” as we’re accustomed to in the United States.

But this cultural norm does beg the following questions:

Are Brasilians who claim several racial backgrounds hiding behind their mulatto ancestry as a disqualifier for confronting the racial disparities that are still present in Brasil? If you’re part Black, how can you individually or systematically oppress Black people? Right? Is it the reason that Brasilians that do possess a stronger history of Afro-ancestry, are reluctant to self-identify as black and therefore organize behind one racial identity to fight lingering racial oppressions? Is it a shield from blackness, as an entity in itself, rarely being considered beautiful on a national scale?

Welcome to Brasil where race is simply complicated; this black female Brasilian student is just one example of the tension that still exists.

Personally, I have experienced a very different side of Brasil, as I began my travels in Bahia, the most Afrocentric region of the country. Bahia is afro-everything: afro-culture, afro-music, afro-history; the list goes on and on. Thus, stepping off the plane and entering the city of Salvador with a large auburn Afro, gold West African bangles, and sporting colorful prints didn’t make me look like an anomaly. I looked like a local.

I was embraced as beautiful. I was accepted as a sister. And many Bahians were the first to tell me that indeed they were Afro-Brasilian, proud, and connected to African-Americans through the African Diaspora.

In Bahia, black is beautiful and the majority, so it isn’t frowned upon to see a black woman rocking her natural hair. While the majority of Bahian women use relaxers, heat straightening techniques, or cover their natural textures with long weaves, both straight and kinky hair textures are accepted as examples of the diversity in black women’s hairstyles. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt pressured to relax my hair while traveling in the region or country at large. But I am aware that I experience the country from a sense of privilege and will never know what it’s truly like to be black, female, and Brasilian.

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37 Comments

  1. I supposed I have come into the conversation quite late but I am hoping I can give a slightly different perspective on the topic of black in Brazil and not necessarily associated to hair… I am the daughter of a black Brazilian mother and a white Brazilian father. I was raised in London from the age of 5, my father’s family are of British and German descent.

    I recently spent 6 months in Brazil doing research for my PhD, not in predominately “black” Bahia but in Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro four very different states in Brazil. My father’s family are upper class, there is a very strong sense of white cultural identity there, my father has always been very proud of his British and German heritage. My father quit college when he was young and never attended university though he had a pretty decent career in the military and eventually opened up his own business. My mother’s family are very poor, she worked as a nanny for most of her life in Brazil. My mother is very intelligent and proud of being black. She was one of the first black women to attend her university in Rio, she studied psychology and media though the best job she could ever find in Brazil was working at the check in desk at the airport. My mother’s older sister fits a stereotype I saw often in Brazil, a cleaner who lives in the favelas of Rio de Janiero and works various jobs, 6 days a week to feed her family. On my recent visit I could not help but notice how the color of my skin (I am very white, you would never guess my mother is black, my father is very fair) was of utmost importance to my mother’s family. My naturally straight hair and pale olive skin was all they could talk about, not my PhD or how much my Portuguese was improving. Talk of life in the favelas was kept to a minimum and I never got to meet them at their home but always in the city instead. I am known among their friends as the “white” cousin from London.

    Watching the TV I also noticed the lack of black role models in the media as well as products specifically made for curly hair. There was no Dark and Lovely on the shelves, hardly any magazines orientated towards Afro-Brazilians and rarely would one see more than one or two black actresses in a novella (soap opera) at a time. The typical stereotyped black or mullato woman on the television was either playing the role of a maid or a cleaner, lived in the favelas or had become rich by winning the lottery. There were no such representations of black doctors or lawyer on Brazilian television. In fact I am trying hard to picture any black or mullato women that I had met in real life on my travels who wore their hair natural. The keratin hair treatment that straightens the hair was very popular among those with curly hair, this treatment was often very damaging to the hair and burnt the skin.

    Another thing that I had noticed was the lack of black women working in well to do jobs in Brazil. Doctors and teachers were predominately for whites, jobs in retail and restaurants tended to go to the mullatos and morenas. The main roles I saw black women in were in supermarkets or working as cleaners, cooks and nannies.

    Race in Brazil is a very complex topic that is still evolving. I personally believe that until there are more strong role models in academia, business, law and in the media, black Brazilian women will carry on this struggle through Brazilian ‘racial toleration’ in order to gain racial acceptance and not feel the need to “whiten” themselves in order to move up the social ladder. After all Brazil allowed the immigration of some 5 million white Europeans, known as the period of ‘brancamento’ which means whitening in Portuguese to white wash the black slave population which was on the rise. How could something so politically ingrained in the minds of the Brazilians simply be forgotten in the click of a finger?

    There is only so much I can say in a comment but if any of you would be interested in learning more about my experiences or my research in Brazil, please feel free to get in touch. I would also suggest watching the documentary ‘Black in Latin America: Brazil.’

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  2. As an African American who is quite familiar with Brazil and fluent in Portuguese, it always amazes me when individuals contend that Brazil is dramatically different than the US when it comes to race relations. I should preface my remarks by stating that I am a very dark complexioned male (like Wesley Snipes) and there has not been a time during my stay in Brazil that I did not personally experience some form of racism. In fact, when my Brazilian friends, white and black, inquire as to why I like Brazil so much, I reply, rather sarcastically, “Because white Brazilians are just as racist as white Americans and it makes me feel right at home!” Of course, this remark doesn’t go over too well with white Brazilians who think my claim is a gross exaggeration. However, my black Brazilian friends, unlike 20 or 15 years ago, are no longer in denial of this reality.

    It would behoove anyone who thinks otherwise to take a cursory look at the data that the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estasticas (IBGE) has compiled on Brazilian society. In every social indicator imaginable, education, health, life expectancy, wages, umemployment, etc. the disparities between black Brazilians and their white counterparts is down right appalling! All this even though the latest statistics from IBGE peg the white/black population at 50%/50% which, in my humble opinion, is a gross distortion of reality as the black population is easily at least 70%. The fact is that in Brazil, like the United States, there is a conspicuous chromatic hierarchy where whiteness is at the apex and blackness at its nadir. Ironically, even those Afro-Brazilians, who are clearly of mixed ancestry and should, according to the “Brazilian Mulatto Escape Hatch” theory that supposedly “rewards” lighter complexioned Afro-Braziians, merit better treatment, consistently find themselves the brunt of racist remarks and physical racial attacks. Brazilian racism has become even more virulent recently as the nation is trying to come to grips with the implementation of Affirmative Action policies, better known as “Cotas.”

    “Whiteness” operates, for all intents and purposes, in Brazil the same way that it does in the US. A black person quickly learns of the discomfort that white Brazilians feel when they see a black person in an upscale restaurant, hotel, bookstore, cafeteria, etc. or any place that whites feel that “blacks don’t belong.” There is really no need for anyone to “project” American racism onto Brazilians because white Brazilians have long mastered the blunt and subtle nuances of the practice and, as a consequence, are quite adept at demonstrating hatred towards Afro-Brazilians in all facets of Brazilian society.

    The diversity that one sees on a quotidian basis in Brazilian society is still not adequately reflected in the Brazilian media; whether they be newspapers, magazines, TV, etc. In regard to the latter, I find it rather telling that I witnessed more black people on Swedish TV in 2005 (Sweden has about a 1% black population), even a black woman contestant on their version of Big Brother, during my stay in Stockholm than on the three major Brazilian networks; O Globo, Rede Manchete and SBT (Sistema Brasileira de Televisao)! If there is any bright side, it is the fact that many Afro-Brazilians are truly starting to embrace their African ancestry and, as a result, are demanding more equality and greater participation, commensurate with their numbers, in Brazilian society.

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  3. As an African American who is quite familiar with Brazil and fluent in Portuguese, it always amazes me when individuals contend that Brazil is dramatically different than the US when it comes to race relations. I should preface my remarks by stating that I am a very dark complexioned male (like Wesley Snipes) and there has not been a time during my stay in Brazil that I did not personally experience some form of racism. In fact, when my Brazilian friends, white and black, inquire as to why I like Brazil so much, I reply, rather sarcastically, “Because white Brazilians are just as racist as white Americans and it makes me feel right at home!” Of course, this remark doesn’t go over too well with white Brazilians who think my claim is a gross exaggeration. However, my black Brazilian friends, unlike 20 to 15 years ago, are no longer in denial of this reality.

    It would behoove anyone who thinks otherwise to take a cursory look at the data that the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estasticas (IBGE) has compiled on Brazilian society. In every social indicator imaginable, education, health, life expectancy, wages, umemployment, etc. the disparities between black Brazilians and their white counterparts is down right appalling! All this even though the latest statistics from IBGE peg the white/black population at 50%/50% which, in my humble opinion, is a gross distortion of reality as the black population is easily at least 70%. The fact is that in Brazil, like the United States, there is a conspicuous chromatic hierarchy where whiteness is at the apex and blackness at its nadir. Ironically, even those Afro-Brazilians, who are clearly of mixed ancestry and should, according to the “Brazilian Mulatto Escape Hatch” theory that supposedly “rewards” lighter complexioned Afro-Braziians, merit better treatment, consistently find themselves the brunt of racist remarks and physical racial attacks. Brazilian racism has become even more virulent recently as the nation is trying to come to grips with the implementation of Affirmative Action, better known as “Cotas.”

    “Whiteness” operates, for all intents and purposes, in Brazil the same way that it does in the US. A black person quickly learns of the discomfort that white Brazilians feel when they see a black person in an upscale restaurant, hotel, bookstore, cafeteria, etc. or any place that whites feel that “blacks shouldn’t be.” There is really no need for anyone to “project” American racism onto Brazilians because white Brazilians have long mastered the blunt and subtle nuances of the practice and, as a consequence, are quite adept at demonstrating hatred towards Afro-Brazilians in all facets of Brazilian society.

    The diversity that one sees on a quotidian basis in Brazilian society is still not adequately reflected in the Brazilian media; whether they be newspapers, magazines, TV, etc. In regard to the latter, I find it rather telling that I witnessed more black people on Swedish TV in 2005 (Sweden has about a 1% black population), even a black woman contestant on their version of Big Brother, during my stay in Stockholm than on the three major Brazilian networks; O Globo, Rede Manchete and SBT (Sistema Brasileira de Televisao)! If there is any bright side, it is the fact that many Afro-Brazilians are truly starting to embrace their African ancestry and, as a result, are demanding more equality and greater participation, commensurate with their numbers, in Brazilian society.

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