Apartheid lives on… in Brazil!
Nelson Mandela would be deeply shocked and embarrassed had he visited Brazil before he died
Luckily Nelson Mandela died before visiting 21st century‘s Brazil. Otherwise he would have quickly realised that the country with the largest black population outside Africa has remained almost stagnant in the fight against race discrimination in the past two decades. The shock could have killed him prematurely.
When the Apartheid-fighter last visited Brazil in the 1990s, South Africa was undergoing unforeseen social changes. The black population had finally taken front stage, and affirmative action was sweeping the nation. In just a few years, the oppressed and racially segregated moved from the background into effectively running the largest economy in the continent. Two decades later the country is hardly recognisable to those who witnessed Apartheid. Across the Atlantic, Brazil remained virtually unchanged during the same period.
Ingenuous Brazilians mistakenly believe that miscegenation equals racial tolerance, and that they live in a “racial paradise”. Sadly this is a shameless myth and blatant fallacy, and veiled racism remains widespread on Brazilian soil.
Brazil is probably the most racially mixed country in the world, but this is by no means a reflection of racial permissiveness. The Portuguese began mixing with the Indian as early as the 16th century because the men had travelled to the new continent on their own, leaving their wives behind (differently from the USA, where entire puritan families travelled and settled). This practice is known as ‘cunhadismo’. Two centuries later, the white began mixing with the black slaves largely through the mass rape conducted by the ‘senhores de senzala’ (slavehouse masters). This was an affirmation of their authority, and had nothing to do with love and tolerance.
Brazil has never had a Mandela or a Martin Luther King. There has been no Civil Rights Movement, and the fight for racial equality has only taken baby steps in the past decade or so (such as quotas for black people in some universities)
Racial inequality is conspicuous. The country only had its first black state governor in 1991 (Alceu Collares from in Rio Grande do Sul, ironically one of the whitest states in the nation). At present there are no black governors (there are 26 states), and less than 8% of our congressmen are classified as black. At the workplace, they earn on average 36% than their white counterparts. People tacitly believe that blacks make great singers and footballers, but are not suitable to run a public or a corporate office.
Black religion is almost invariably frowned upon: candomblé temples are highly marginalised and tucked away from sight. The majority of Brazilians perceive them as dirty and profane.
Brazilian congressman Marco Feliciano claimed that black people are “cursed”, citing the Old Testament as a source for his beliefs. Earlier this year, he was elected the president of the Parliamentary Commission for Human Rights and Minorities.
Last week, the police in Vitória (in the state os Espírito Santo) was called in to disperse a crowd of funk lovers (largely composed of black and poor people) that arranged to meet in a shopping mall. The shopkeepers assumed that it was an ‘arrastão’ (mass robbery), probably judging the colour of their skin.
Blacks in Brazil are so deeply stigmatised that many of those with a scintilla of European blood in their veins prefer calling themselves white, however dark their skin. They try to straighten their hair and lighten their skin with make-up, and being deemed black is often an offence. Had Obama been born in Brazil, he would probably consider himself white. New York University Professor Robert Stam calls this “the whitening theory”.
Mozambique writer Paulina Chiziane recently claimed that her country is “scared of Brazil” because of the poor representation of blacks in the media, particularly the mainstream soap operas by Rede Globo. The African country shares the language and a cultural legacy with Brazil.
Blackness and poverty still walk hand in hand because very few blacks have ascended economically and socially. I grew up in Salvador, the old capital of Brazil and a place that takes pride in the (questionable) accolade of “city with the largest black population in the world outside Africa”. I studied at Colégio Anchieta, an upper middle-class school. During my high school years, there was only one single black person in my class, from a total of ca. 100 students. She was a very nice girl by the name of Carol. In poor schools, the picture was exactly the opposite (it was difficult to find a white pupil). And little has changed since.
On the evening of Mandela’s death, the Germanic-looking Fernanda Lima and Rodrigo Hilbert hosted the World Cup Draw in Salvador. FIFA had previously refused the black Lázaro Ramos and mixed race Camila Pitanga. Salvador is the Brazilian capital with the largest concentration of black people. Equal rights organisations are now considering legal action.
Carnival provides a very graphic image of the racial segregation in Salvador. The white people are always in the ‘camarotes’ (VIP boxes) and inside the ‘blocos’ (revellers following a music floater). The blacks are the doormen at the ‘camarotes’ or the security holding the ropes protecting the ‘blocos’. They also form the ‘pipoca’ (‘popcorn revellers’: external revellers who cannot afford a ‘camarote’ or ‘bloco’). White inside, black outside: it’s as simple as that.
Recently one black Brazilian has became famous for his achievements outside the music and football world. Joaquim Barbosa is the Chief Justice at the Supreme Federal Court, the highest legal jurisdiction in the country. He has been recognised for his eloquence, independence and firmness. Unfortunately he is a singular example, and he has not vigorously embraced the fight for racial equality
Perhaps Brazil’s time for equality is still to come. It just concerns me that people have been blithely basking in the “racial paradise” myth for too long, happily ignoring the glaring racial prejudice deeply rooted in our society. I hope that our people have not become accustomed to injustice and social abjection. I hope that blacks can soon claim the role that they deserve in society. And I’m not talking about football and carnival.
Special thanks to my dear friend Heike Muranyi for her sharp eye and invaluable views – she is the most Brazilian European that I know