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Racism in Brazil

At first view it might seem that Brazil would be one of the most multi-racial societies in the world, with every shade of skin from Portuguese white through to African black represented.

At first view it might seem that Brazil would be one of the most multi-racial societies in the world, with every shade of skin from Portuguese white through to African black represented. The slaves mixed with the colonisers here on a greater scale than anywhere else in the Americas and the result is the sliding scale of skin colour seen today.

But when you look closer at Brazil you see that, as usual, the whiteys are on top and the blacks take most of the shit that society has to offer. The favelas are 70% black, the poorest areas of the country are those with the strongest African influence and head to any expensive coffee shop and you’ll see that the moneyed classes could almost pass for Europeans.

Bur racism in Brazil is different to how it’s expressed in most places in the world. Brazilians are a people who prefer to brush uncomfortable truths under the table – or rather, they prefer to hire a maid to do it for them. Few people in Brazil will speak their prejudices out loud but they’re there all the same.

You will see people of brown or black skin mixing in moneyed circles without anyone making a fuss, but there’s a good chance that they’ll be called negrinho (blackie), a term that everyone insists is purely affectionate. The negrinho in question might even agree but deep down, everyone likes to be called by their name rather than their skin colour.

Those of African descent in Brazil have always been feared by the controlling classes, who found their dance, religion and culture to be alien and bewitching. In the early days of samba the jam sessions would be broken up by the police, fearing that the poor were beginning to organise themselves.

These days the fear of the blacks mostly comes from the legend of violence and crime that surrounds the favelas and poor neighbourhoods, places with a strong black demographic. See a group of black kids coming your way on the street at night and you would, in fact, be smart to run. Life opportunities are so limited to those who come from the favelas that crime is a very reasonable alternative.

Naturally, the acts of mugging and drug dealing are looked upon as profound social evils, by the rich, hiding behind the walls of their gated communities, reaping the economic harvest year after year. Corruption and exploitation are too commonplace to even merit attention in Brazil and only when landowners resort to slave labour do the newspapers get a little interested.

The North East of Brazil is amongst the poorest areas of the country and Brazilians from Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo view it as another country. People from the north east make their way south looking for work and get jobs as maids, porters or casual labour.

Having domestic help is a given for most Brazilians who can afford it and how they treat their servants varies greatly. There are some who treat the maids as part of the family, covering the health and retirement plans. Others exploit the presence of servants to do everything from turning on the light to bringing an ashtray. Few see any harm done as, after all, aren’t the north easterners grateful to have a job?

So racism in Brazil isn’t of the violent, abusive variety that can be found all over the world. It’s more an unspoken prejudice that few are prepared to admit exists. Yet when you hang out outside a bar in a rich part of town you wonder how no one sees it – as the white Brazilians with designer clothes discard their empty beer cans, someone from the favelas comes along to pick it up to earn a few centavos recycling it.

Road Junky

Road Junky specialises in provocative, off-the-cuff travel writing that isn't meant to be taken too seriously. Come and meet us in Morocco each winter for our Sahara Retreat.