The Managers of Brazil

In the wake of the insurrection in Brazil, an Afrobrazilian reflects personally on the entanglement of race and class in the country, and on what needs to be done to unravel it.

Image credit Neil Moralee via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I remember arriving at the Banco do Brasil agency in Ilha do Governador, the working-class neighborhood where I grew up in Rio de Janeiro. I was 13 or 14—the age in Brazil when every Black boy ceases to be a child and, in the eyes of society, becomes a potential Emmett Till.

Holding my father’s big hands, we get stopped at the rolling door by the bank segurança. “Remove everything from your pockets, Sir,” the brown-skin segurança, .38 revolver in his hands, told us. That “Sir” means exactly the opposite of an honorific. Every Black person knows how it sounds: angry and imperative. My father released my hands and placed them in his tethered jeans pockets bringing out a black leather wallet, a metal key chain, and three coins. He also placed his myopia glasses on the check-in table, showing he did not intend to challenge the segurança’s authority. It was then my turn: “Remove everything from your pockets!” I was too young to earn myself the sir badge.

“I have nothing to remove,” I said, opening my arms wide, palms facing up.

He proceeded more harshly this time, speaking through his clenched jaw.

“Lift your t-shirt then.”

I obliged.

I already knew about those rituals of humiliation and how they were part of my Black family’s lives. I also knew that surviving such daily interactions required putting my head down and following the instructions received with no hesitation. Life was just like that.Racism is so ubiquitous in Brazil that I believed it was natural for years. This was my reality. My entire worldview is seen from that prism. Years later, living a somewhat comfortable life in Australia will not alter what I absorbed early in life.

I can only begin to conceive how it is for someone learning precisely the opposite lessons: that they deserve to live hassle-free; that they are destined to be lawyers, accountants, actors, or anything they want; that because they look the way they look, they will be part of the crème de la crème of society; believing that they are genetically and morally superior; most importantly, learning that the ‘other’ (Blacks, Indigenous and other non-whites) deserve their suffering because they (we) are “lazy” or “stupid”; that we placed ourselves in this condition, and believing that inequality is a myth.

In the country that historically kidnapped and forcefully trafficked the most significant number of enslaved peoples during colonialism. In the last country to abolish African slavery, in 1888. In the country, that kills one Black person every 23 minutes. A place where a Machiavellian plan of extermination and eugenics allowed the European population to grow and thrive. In this country, it is not surprising that today the Black population is on one side of the fence and the white on another.

And so it was in the recent national election that the vote was split racially. The majority of Black cities voted for Lula, as high as 90 per cent in some cases, whereas the majority of white cities voted seven-to-one for Bolsonaro. Mirroring the US where African Americans often are the last defense against tyranny, Afro-Brazilians are Brazil’s ultimate defenders of democracy.

Of course, it is not that simple. Nothing is. People make choices or are induced by external or circumstantial forces to make them. There are plenty of Afro-Brazilians voting for Bolsonaro and plenty of whites fighting side by side with me against fascism. However, without understanding the racial roots of Brazilian slavocrat society, it would be impossible to comprehend how we got here.

The Manager

As we entered the Banco do, Brasil, after the humiliating welcome, my father and I waited an hour for our turn to be served by the cashier. She was a typical federal employee type—well-dressed with her hair in a bun and with well-polished nails.

After a quick glance at the paper my father handed in, the cashier said:

“It is not this line, Sir.”

My father remained calm and asked her to please call the Manager. The Bank’s policy was that if a client called for it, they had to respond. It took a while, but the Manager, a middle-aged white man, arrived. Upon finding out that my father was a member of the Brazilian Air Force, he treated us incredibly well. Coffee for my father, an ashtray so he could smoke and even hot chocolate for me. We got what we needed and left the bank.

When this episode occurred, full democracy was slowly returning to Brazil after a long military junta dictatorship. Being part of the Air Force protected my father, but this was a tool he only used in an emergency. As I said, no one is wholly good or bad. More often than not, evil is circumstantial—the worse we see in our enemies also lives inside of us.

Later, my father explained something I carry to this day: “My son, never fight the cashier! It is always the Manager. Fight the Manager!”

This was Marxism and Ubuntu philosophy combined. Class warfare and racial resistance wisdom all in one. I knew I was learning something important. For preteen me, It was enlightening.

These moments Brazil faces are similar to those we met at that bank all those decades ago.

As two Afro-Brazilian men (well, boy and man) entered that bank, we recognized we were facing structural oppression. The foot soldiers of racism have many faces, genders, and social classes. Those that chose or got chosen to perform the tasks for the oppressors or to become the oppressors themselves, as Freire argues, come from many walks of life.

Still, we accepted our fate until we had to use our own set of evils. Until, after being pressured to fight back, we had to become the circumstantial oppressors.

Who voted for Bolsonaro?

About half of Brazilian voters(mostly white) voted for Bolsonaro, led by a selfish intellectual elite that sees race, gender and, most importantly, class as its main enemy. I am tempted to fight them; to entrench myself in a metaphorical urban guerrilla war; to combat the foot soldiers, the lost, the misguided, and the confused. I am tempted to attack the cashiers of fascism.

Is Bolsonaro the Manager? Yes, but he is not alone. The Brazilian oligarchs are destroying the Pantanal and the Amazon for soy and other profitable monocrops—caring nothing for climate change, fauna, and flora; the stockbrokers at the São Paulo stock exchange who care only about the dollar, even when thousands will not eat tonight; the unscrupulous business owners who underpay and overwork their employees, the rich women who shamelessly perpetuate the enslavement of modern maids; the academics who help support those ideas with fallacies and false dichotomies. All of them are the Managers—and as my father taught me, they are the ones I must keep an eye on.

We may have to unleash our evils to get to the Manager’s room. I hope not.

Further Reading

Race and Elections in Brazil

Many Brazilian voters are so disillusioned with politics that in this traditionally left-leaning, post-right military dictatorship society, the right has made surprising gains in this election.