Brazilians have always thought of themselves as part of a color-blind nation, a racial democracy where the roots of racism are something relegated to our slave-driven colonial past. But is it accurate to say that peaceful racial co-existence is the same as equal racial co-existence?
The answer to this question is clear in the distribution of opportunities in education and employment, which are overwhelmingly relegated to white Brazilians. According to the most recent study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, IBGE, although the level of unemployment in the country is at a historical low (at around 4 percent), about 57.6 percent of the unemployed population is Afro-Brazilian/mulatto. In a society that is truly mixed in racial terms (47.7 percent whites, 43.1 percent mulatto and 7.6 percent blacks) it is surprising that few Brazilians recognize this social imbalance.
Let’s look at some concrete examples.
Until the late 1990s most Brazilian white middle class families had Afro-Brazilian/mulatto servants working for them and buildings were constructed with an entire apparatus to sustain this nineteenth century-style relationship. One of these is the so-called “service elevator” that still exists throughout Brazil, built originally to keep a clear social separation between classes, a reflex of an unofficial apartheid mechanism that was never legalized but yet dangerously codified in social behavior. The use of such elevators was required for maids and other maintenance personnel who were usually all Afro-descendents. What’s worse is that nowadays people still are “asked” to use these elevators (or the stairs) since their social status is immediately judged by the color of their skin (see interview in video below). If this isn’t racism, then please enlighten me on what is.
I could cite several other examples like the ones shown in the video. Just open any magazine or watch any TV program, including Globo’s insufferable soap operas, to see what I mean. Half of the country’s mulatto/black population is grossly unrepresented or portrayed in a stereotypical manner through these means of communication. Black actresses usually play the roles of servants in TV series (although in recent years things have changed a bit, with more soap operas actually having black leading actresses) and if you read any Brazilian celebrity magazine you would have to check twice before realizing that it’s not imported from a Nordic country. Images of blond, white, blue-eyed models are everywhere, and yet, can we really affirm that they are a true representation of what constitutes a Brazilian beauty? Ok, they are part of our social fabric since Brazil is a multicultural nation but are they the only expression of Brazil or is half of the population grossly unrepresented? Another reflex of this “want-to-look white” cultural imposition from the media is that most women (including Afro-Brazilians) feel like they should have blond and straightened hair so they can look more “European” like the women in the soap operas and TV shows.
Even if we reduced the entire argument of racial inequality to the simplistic “class argument” (i.e prejudice in Brazil is related to class, not race) wouldn’t it be time for more fortunate Brazilians to start volunteering, speaking out in favor, writing and reacting positively for the representation in the media and in other public venues of a more ethnically mixed society? Instead, the Brazilian elites are trapped in the past. Just read the news and all the negative reactions against government sponsored affirmative action programs in the public universities and you’ll get the sense of what I’m saying.
Of course, we all know that affirmative action is not perfect but, as the American experience teaches us, it might just be the only way to help a fairer picture of the Brazilian society to emerge, where different ethnic groups are given a chance to participate in the mainstream culture by having access to higher education and work. Although many affirmative action opponents argue that such measures will cause “ou-in-the-open” racism in universities in the long-run (by causing resent against certain ethnic groups for having easier access) how can they deny that Afro-Brazilians are excluded from the country’s best public universities- for reasons that range from the low levels of public secondary education that does not allow preparation for university entrance exams to the financial necessity of joining the workforce after high-school. If these students could at least be given a chance to access public universities (whose tuition is free) then certainly they will embrace it.
Sadly enough I came to the conclusion that this skewed debate takes place because our society really has a double-standard in accepting racial differences. One thing is not to feel strong right-winged European-style racism, which most Brazilians don’t feel (a proof of this is that there are no right-wing parties in the Brazilian Congress). Another thing is to accept that peaceful racial co-existence must evolve into racial equality, which means working together to close the socio-economic gap that separates races. Although the federal government has made important strides in approving affirmative action in Brazil’s public universities, negative reactions by the media show that the country hasn’t reached the level of democratic maturity that is required to put into action the ideals of racial equality rather than in maintaining certain privileges that come with the cost of social and racial exclusion.
This is the complexity of the problem that Brazil has to face and it has to do so consciously if it is really serious about raising its future generations in a culturally tolerant environment where the color of one’s skin or their economic background will matter just as much as the color of their eyes or their city of origin.