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Is Brazil a Racial Democracy?

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on November 4, 2015
This article was updated on December 21, 2015

When we think of any foreign country, especially one we’ve not visited yet, it’s only natural to refer to stereotypes to simplify our thought process and organize our ideas. For most people, Brazil conjures up images of half-naked, perfectly toned bodies sunbathing on the golden sands of paradisiac beaches, happy multiracial crowds dancing in colorful costumes to the beat of the samba during Carnival or even high-powered soccer players, who could never be beaten 7–1 by Germany in a World Cup game.

However, the interconnected world of Internet, social media and cable television has made it easier for most of us to gain a clearer and more realistic view of what used to be called “exotic” countries. For example, I don’t think many people elsewhere still believe the blond German-looking TV personality Xuxa Meneghel is representative of the majority of the Brazilian population, which is in fact composed of 53 percent black or dark-skinned people – the so-called Afro-Brazilians. According to The New York Times, Brazil has “the world’s largest black population outside Africa and the second largest after Nigeria.” However, there is a deep divide between the two sides of our population, which we are only now starting to acknowledge and address.

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After all, the country is both the Brazil of the animated movie Rio, with its vibrant colors, laid-back people, sense of humor and mind-blowing beauty, and the Brazil of The City of God, the sobering book-turned-movie, which depicts the drug wars among the urban gangs in a favela on the west side of Rio. Far from the breathtaking views of the city’s famous landmarks, such as the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain, the favela is home to mainly dark-skinned residents, including the drug dealers of the story. This is not surprising given that race and social class are intrinsically related in Brazil: the economic pyramid gets progressively darker in skin color toward the poverty at its base. However, violence is only one consequence of the racial divide in Brazil.

It was the Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre who, in his famous treatise The Masters and the Slaves (originally Casa Grande e Senzala), hid the deep racial prejudices toward more than half of the Brazilian population by romantically coining the term racial democracy to describe the country in the 1930s. Perhaps Freyre’s cover-up was inadvertent, but it totally denied a much harsher reality that some whites still refuse to acknowledge and to tackle head-on. Of course, Brazil’s legacy of three centuries of slavery and its status as the last country in the Americas to formally abolish the practice – without taking sufficient steps to make room for the freed black population in society – would make it impossible to turn the country into a racial paradise in only 126 years.

Paternalism characterizes class relations in Brazil, where, for example, maids are patronizingly considered members of the upper-class families they work for but actually have barely more rights than slaves – at least, they did until recent legislation under the Rousseff government, regulating their profession and generally narrowing the divide between Brazilian blacks and whites. In addition, the huge racial mix that resulted from the colonial period, when white Portuguese men would take indigenous women and black slaves as mistresses and father their children, prevents racial distinctions from being as clear-cut as, say, in the United States. Besides, the number of slaves exported to Brazil was some 11 times larger than the number sent to the US. Almost everyone in Brazil must have had a black family member at some point in the past. All these factors make it hard for racism to be confronted more effectively.

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That said, Brazilians, especially the black and dark-skinned part of the population, seem to have become progressively more aware, through education, of the exploitation and prejudice some citizens are subject to daily. We are finally taking steps to correct our path and work toward a true racial democracy. First of all, we’re discussing the racial divide a lot more openly. For example, most people have acknowledged that high-end stores and restaurants have more black and dark-skinned people among their staff than among their patrons. Affirmative action has established quotas for black, indigenous, mixed-race and underprivileged people among the students accepted at state universities in the country. We can already see more blacks occupying senior positions in the corporate world. And the disproportionate police violence against blacks in the outskirts of big cities and in the favelas is getting a lot more coverage in the media. Awareness is on the rise.

To make Brazil the real racial democracy we would all be proud of, Brazilians need more than anything to wake up to the simple fact that racism is a crime. The laws against it need to be more strongly enforced. Once we’ve accomplished this, the steps already being taken to build a more egalitarian and just society will likely be accelerated.

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More