By Jennifer Roth-Gordon, Associate Professor, UA School of Anthropology
I spent the 10 days leading up to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with my children, two of whom are African American and adopted. As an anthropologist, I have been researching race relations in Brazil for over 20 years, and we had all spent time visiting and living in Rio prior to this year. Even I was shocked by what we experienced on this trip. On the second day of our visit, as we left a beach sandals store in the touristy South Zone of Rio, I heard a woman speaking loudly, and sharply, to my children. At first, I thought she was trying to enter the store and that they were blocking her way. As she yelled, “Sai! Sai!” (Leave! Get out of here!), I moved my 11-year-old son closer to me to give her more space. The white woman’s face quickly lost all color: “Is he your son? I am so sorry. Please forgive me. It’s just that there have been a lot of thefts in the area. I didn’t realize. We are all scared. I am so sorry!” Frightened and able to understand our conversation in Portuguese, my son began to cry. “Please don’t cry,” she told him, kissing his cheeks and asking him to hug her. People passing by were equally disturbed that she had mistaken him for a pivete (street kid) based solely on the color of his skin. Strangers came up to brush away his tears. The store attendants rushed to get him a cup of water and asked him to come inside to sit down.
When they heard the story, my Brazilian friends were appalled. Some cursed. Others looked shocked and sad; one struggled to find the words to react. Blatant incidents of racism like this are not supposed to occur in Brazil. But the day we were leaving – 3 days before the Olympics were set to begin – it happened again. As my son and I joined my husband, daughter, and some of the kid’s friends at a beachside restaurant in Copacabana, I called over the waiter to order more food. My daughter was happily munching on her cheese pastry next to me. A woman who worked at the restaurant came over and spoke directly to the waiter: “Don’t let them order any more food. It’s enough. They’ve already bought them pastries to eat!” I turned to address the woman: “These are my children.” The woman, dark-skinned, knelt down on one knee and put her head in my lap. “I am so sorry. I was misinformed. God forgive me. It’s just that there have been so many assaults. And so many street children asking for food, and it bothers the customers.”
New laws underscore the idea that racism is fundamentally immoral and un-Brazilian. “You should have called the police and reported her!” several people told me. The penalty for engaging in an act of racism such as this could include jail time. One of the store clerks in the sandals shop shook her head angrily and uttered the Brazilian expression “Nada a ver!” (literally “Nothing to see” or “one thing has nothing to do with the other”). Her thoughts express the Brazilian “myth” of a racial democracy, the dream that Brazil should be a country where skin color does not predict one’s character or life chances. But of course, my son’s dark skin color had everything to do with people thinking he could be a thief or a street kid. This is the lie behind the fantasy of a racial democracy: The stubborn persistence of structural racism means that most of Brazil’s African descendants are poor. Brazil has no equivalent of the U.S. black middle class.
The racism that we suffered in one short trip pales in comparison to what has long been experienced by poor black youth from Brazilian “comunidades” (a new euphemism for residents of Brazilian shantytowns). It is also yet another problem that should have disappeared long before Rio hosted the world’s largest athletic games. One of the 2014 World Cup slogans asked fans to “Diga não ao racismo!” (Say no to racism!). This year’s Olympic slogan promises “Um mundo novo” (A new world). These slogans highlight a side Brazil has long sought to hide.
Brazil has the largest population of people of African descent outside of Africa. But it has spent centuries trying to eliminate its blackness through miscegenation (race mixing) and policies designed to “whiten” the country, including financially supporting the immigration of millions of Europeans after the abolition of slavery. And yet, their aversion to racism is also heartfelt. Researchers have described the racial etiquette that tells Brazilians to avoid mentioning race, or pointing out blackness, following the dictum: “Never speak of rope in a hanged man’s house.”
As a nation, Brazil wrestles not only with these racial identity issues, but also with its global reputation and how to represent itself on a global stage. In a “Beauty and the Beast” type skit written for the opening ceremony of the Olympics, world famous – and very white – Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen was supposed to walk out into the middle of Maracaná stadium, where she was to be accosted by a street kid. The police would give chase but fail to capture him, and she would instead “befriend” him before walking off stage together. After this skit debuted at the dress rehearsal to an outpouring of media and social media critique, it was quickly cut from the final program. The “beast” that Brazil had somewhat bizarrely chosen to showcase here was their ongoing problems with poverty, structural racism, crime, and (police) violence.
Of course, Rio prepared for black athletes to come to compete in the Olympics. And, in the right context, they will be treated well. Pelé, their national hero and an official “national treasure,” is considered “sem cor” (without color), as one friend explained to me. But given the widespread concerns over everyday experiences of crime and violence, hidden fears of blackness have become harder to mask. Brazil is a country full of warmth and carinho (affection), but as my family experienced last week, it is also a country that continues to struggle with its own racial differences.