Why am I insulted when people mistake me for a samba dancer?

Let me give you some snippets of what it is like to be black in Brazil: A few months ago Ana*, a well-to-do, Afro-Brazilian friend of mine, dressed in head-to-toe perfection, was asked to go into the service entrance of her (white) friend’s apartment building (yes, residential buildings in Brazil have separate service entrances for the exclusive use of  housekeepers, gardeners, plumbers etc.). She was livid and spewed her wrath at the doorman, insisting that she be shown the regular entrance.

…“We are seen as the maids, or the maids’ children”, Gisela declared, during happy hour at a boteco (our local term for ‘bar’ in Brazil) in Itaim Bibi, a pretty yuppy neighborhood in São Paulo. This was her explanation of what we were experiencing, the fact that not a single guy in the bar (they were mostly white), was looking at us. In their minds, she explained, we are pretty invisible as we are black and therefore poor and undesirable. “They don’t even see us,” she declared.

…Diana, a White Paulistana of Lebanese and German heritage, is married to Hank, an Afro-Brazilian. Often, Diane tells me the cops pull them over (they own an SUV). One goes around to Hank in the driver seat, demanding in the usual cop-like menacing tone, for his papers. The other goes around to Diane’s side, the passenger seat, and asks her, unbeknownst to Hank, if she is ok. They assume that she is being car jacked.

…A pretty well-to-do black friend in Rio, went to open a bank account, and the guards basically stopped him and would not let him even take the four steps from the revolving doors to the reception area. They kept asking him, menacingly, what he was doing there — thank God one of the bank managers lives in his apartment building, and had seen him there, so she had to yell to the guards to leave him alone.

…Vanessa Barbara, a White Brazilian journalist, has stated that there is denial over racism in Brazil. Clearly perturbed by this, she wrote in the New York Times last month that when she applied the ‘neck test’ in an ice cream store (the neck test works like this: go to any establishment, stick your neck up and see how many black people you can see), she counted one black person. She wasn’t convinced he was Brazilian either (presumably he spoke English and therefore probably wasn’t).

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The above will surprise many, but they are but a fraction of the true life stories that have been recounted to me, poignantly illustrating that racial prejudice in Brazil is alive and well. What is surprising to me, three years after living in Brazil, is that Brazil is seemingly oblivious to this reality. Friends from the world over, France, South Africa, Kenya, India, Singapore, are often very shocked when I explain to them this reality.

Doesn’t it go without saying that any country in the world that experienced slavery still suffers from the bitter after taste of this forced subjugation of African people? Shouldn’t we expect this from Brazil? After all, Latin America received the largest number of slaves in the 1800s, with Brazil benefiting from the lion’s share. In addition, Brazil was last of the countries in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888.

Why should we be surprised that racism exists in Brazil?

I have a few explanations, which, partly triggered by the vignettes above (and I have a whole load more), have been marinating in my mind over the past 3 years living in Brazil. I may modify some of my musings over time as I continue to ponder over stories I hear, read more, understand the country I live in and talk to more Brazilians.

From the outside, Brazil seems to be a rainbow nation with glorious tones of caramel, cappuccino, café au lait, mocha – the blond person with afro-like hair; the chocolatey toned person with blue yes. These are the images we see. Brazilians are warm, fun-loving people who love life and seem so carefree. Samba, carnival, beer, those beautiful women, frequent kisses of affection. Fun, relaxed, all getting along. Somehow, we believe that this is all that there is to being Brazilian. To acknowledge that something as negative as racism exists seems so, well, un-Brazilian. Not at all like the images that we have seen.

White Brazilians whom I have asked about racism say ‘it is not like in America’ as a part answer to my ‘do you think Brazil is racist’ question… Unfortunately they are in denial, as was the case in the recent scandalous shooting in Rio of a 15-year old and a 19-year old by cops. It was a clear case of white cop shoots black teenage boy for no good reason. The explanation the cop gave, something to the tune of ‘I thought they were doing something wrong’ is intrinsically racist of course. In a nutshell, North America dominates the story of race in these parts – easy for Brazil to get away with just not saying anything about this issue. The truth is that the highly flagrant race-motivated attacks in North America are happening here.

We acknowledge the shock of poverty in Brazil, clashing desperately against the wealth. Some of us has seen the abysmal poverty that a significant portion of the country lives in, in the favelas portrayed in the famous film, “City of God”. The fact is that more than 70% of the most poor of Brazilians are black; and most black people are poor, so the two issues are inextricably linked. Could it be the race problem is hiding (thriving?) in the layers of the poverty problem? Most White Brazilians that I have spoken to accept that their country is classist and prejudiced against the poor; in doing so, they are implicitly addressing race, in my view.
Poor and rich do not mix here, and there are layers of class norms, unspoken rules and behaviours, that over time, have become set in stone in the society. I say this because in my neighbourhood, the black people are the maids, watchmen and dog walkers. This is jarringly uncomfortable to me as I have never lived in a city where black people were so visibly downtrodden. Even having black waiters in restaurants in the nice neighbourhoods is a recent phenomenon– they used to be kept hidden behind in the kitchen. Since this has always been the case, then this is what people, particularly white people, accept as normal.

For me, this cannot be normal. If I see brown hued people buying groceries or going to the gym in Georgetown in Washington, D.C, or Maida Vale in London, or Sandton in South Africa, I should be able to see them in Jardins, Sao Paulo or Ipanema, Rio. If White Brazilians do not see Afro-Brazilians enjoying the offerings of a nice neighbourhood in a metropolitan city, or if they don’t think they belong there, surely they, or their cities, are prejudiced?

When we reflect on who is writing about Brazil, and who is producing TV shows and movies, we realize that the key movers and shakers are not of the brown skinned hues. So if you have not experienced disparaging remarks while shopping in a high-end store, you probably cannot write about this in a way that is authentic. President Dilma’s cabinet of approximately 40 Ministers has only one black one, can you imagine, just one! On TV, black people are mostly maids and drivers, or the like and in my first two years in Brazil none of the mainstream magazines featured an Afro-Brazilian woman on the cover. (For the record, two men are featured frequently, Pele, as well as Barbosa, a brilliant and prolific judge who served as Supreme Court Judge from 2012-2014). Another reason why the black reality in Brazil is an invisible one, therefore, is that they don’t have spokespeople representing their realities.

My close White Brazilian friends in Brazil do not deny that racism exists — highly educated and well-travelled, their exposure has open their minds to the reality that persists. One of my dearest White Brazilian friends, Gigi, warned me years ago when we both lived in Johannesburg. ‘My country is prejudiced,’ she told me. And when she returned to Brazil, she said that she found herself wondering ‘where are all the black people?’ I see these friends take steps to educate their families and their children, live in more inclusive ways, learn more about the manifestations of prejudice, and openly have conversations about it. This needs to happen on a much bigger scale.

Yes, Brazil is the warm and contagious people, the beautiful metissage that happens when Africans, Europeans, Indigenous people mix, the beat of Samba, the potent caipirinha, the architecture of Niemeyer, the magic of Neymar, the addictive sweetness of acai. But, it is also prejudiced, and the more we talk about it, the more we can understand it and the more something can be done about it. In three years, I have seen some changes, albeit small ones– a non maid black character in a major telenovela, an Afro-Brazilian on the cover of a major magazine, more waiters serving at fancy restaurants. But I need to read more about Afro-Brazilians, hear more of their stories, see them portraying diverse characters in TV programmes, see more of them in the corporate offices I work in and hear, from the lips of Brazilians of all hues, that yes, racisms exists in this beautiful country.

PS: Despite my frustrations that there is little acknowledgement of, or discussion about, racism in Brazil, I continue to love living there. I am often asked if I am a samba dancer instead of a business executive while in flight (despite my corporate attire). In many white people’s biased minds and experience, the highest level of success a Black Brazilian woman can reach, is to be dancer, model, actress. I sometimes receive gawking stares while I enjoy a meal at one of my favourite restaurants, and pay for it myself. For the most part, people know I am not Brazilian-they think I am American, and treat me exceedingly better than they need to. Perhaps because in their minds, Americans are rich. And, as class rules here, rich people are treated nicely.

*Names have been changed throughout this article.

Micheline Ntiru

Micheline Nitru is a lover of Latin America, positive pan-African, linguist, voracious reader, constant traveler who works on the nexus between business success and social progress, as well as my short stories reflecting international Africans’ experiences.

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