Being Black in Brazil

It is just like in the FIFA world cup advert.  You remember the favela urchin? The young black boy can only dream of escape. His only hope is the soccer ball in his hand but until the day he transforms himself in to Pele or Neymar, he remains excluded.  Even when goes down to the beach, you notice that he is juggling the ball on his own in his cheap clothes.

It is not great to be a black man living in Brazil right now. It hasn’t been for over two hundred years.

From the ladies clutching their bags tighter when approached by a black man to institutionalised exclusion and everything in between, the odds appear to be stacked against black Brazilians.  The most glaring manifestation of this to an unsuspecting television audience was the colour profile of the Brazilian fans in the stadiums. 99.9% of the Brazilians were white. We spent 9 days in Brazil walking around and talking to people.

You will find Bourbon shopping mall in Sao Paulo.  It is an upmarket mall near Barra Funda. In South Africa it would be a smaller version of Sandton city while remaining on par with the offering. However whereas Sandton City has all population segments represented in the clientele profile a mere 20 years in to democratic rule, Bourbon’s clientele is mostly white and the blacks that I saw there were working in the shops and manning the doors. This in a country that attained independence in 1822 is startling to say the least.

favFor a country that is almost 200 years old as a republic, Brazil is a major contradiction. At a social level and on television, it is a model for harmonious living between different races. In the street, it is not unusual at all, and no one stares, when a mixed race couple walk along going about their business. Scratch below the surface and you immediately discover that Brazilian society has probably the most effective, efficient and institutionalised racism in the world which makes me wonder about Mauritius, but I digress.

The effectiveness of Brazilian racism lies in the fact that it is not visible at all to the unsuspecting visitor. As things stand, I would not like to live in Brazil as a black man. There are over 100 million black people in Brazil, the second largest population of black people in the world after Nigeria. It also happens to be the majority population segment by race. Yet, the majority of black Brazilians are excluded from the upper echelons of mainstream economic activity.

Incarceration trends are normally a good place to spot institutionalised prejudice. The Huffington Post recently reported on violence, both institutionalised and social, against and among young black men in Brazil saying, “For them violence and social exclusion have become normal, encouraged and embedded in their everyday lives. They take this violence home with them, to their communities and families. And in a country that prides itself on not being racist, they are a reminder that the black population in Brazil is still far more likely to be poor, to be out of school, and to be murdered.” Brazil has the world’s fourth largest prison system according to the Huffington Post and the black population “disproportionately fills the prisons.”

carlosI toured Rocinha Favela in Rio, the largest favela in South America, with Carlos Antonio de Souza who was very clear at where the blame lay for black poverty. He describes the favela as institutionalised apartheid because the military government destroyed poor black people’s homes at the beach and sent them north and south. There was no infrastructure to speak of until Pope John II visited in 1982 and the poor appealed to him to intercede for them with the oppressive accident. Right to property was legislated after the Papal visit. As a result, Rocinha was not destroyed and remains today sandwiched between some of the most expensive real estate in the world on a mountain side. It is like passing Dainfern on the way to Diepsloot but there is a difference. Black people are very well represented in Dainfern. They are quite literally absent from the equivalent in Brazil. With the right to property, however, the people of Rocinha began to build themselves better structures. 160 000 people are crammed in to 4 square kilometres here but other favelas find themselves lumped in close proximity to each other with dwellings that are the same as the shacks in South Africa. Turning to the drug issue Carlos says the problems in the favelas are social in nature. When the kids do not have anything to do all day, they fall prey to drug dealers who finding themselves in close proximity to each other will clearly wage war against each other. Carlos defiantly challenges me to go to Ipanema and Leblon beaches, where the wealthiest of Rio go and reckons I will find drugs to buy there because that is where the money is. The pacification project went after the violent gangs because the authorities do not want tourists to hear shootings but not after the drugs because drugs do not make noise. As far as Carlos is concerned pacification is dictatorship. Economic growth is not accompanied by social growth argues Carlos. The rich are living better but the majority black population social status remains static.

Land ownership in Brazil is another point of contention. After two decades of military government, the constitution enshrined land ownership for descendants of slavery whose ancestors settled on land after the abolition of slavery. They face the constant threat of evictions. A movement known as the Quilombo movement has emerged to take the battle up to government and to try and get government to honour its constitutional obligations and stop the arbitrary evictions. The Huffington Post, once again, reports that “Brazil’s constitution states that residents of quilombos are entitled to a permanent, non-transferable title to the land they occupy.” Read the full article here. It would appear black people continue to bear the burden of history, the world over.

Puzzled but not surprised by what I was seeing before my eyes, I decided to speak to another person on the black question. As a matter of interest, the word Negro is actually preferred to the word black in Brazil and this is common in South America. Black, the skin colour in Brazil is “preto” and it is not used in reference to people. The race term of Negro is preferred. So you do not refer to people by the black colour, you refer to them by their race. So Suarez versus Evra was completely misunderstood in England, but I digress again, this time intentionally. When Neymar said he was not black in response to a question on whether he had experienced racism on the field or not, he was saying he is not “Preto” and for that reason, had not faced discrimination. Neymar appears to be mixed race.

sewerBack to the subject at hand. I spoke to Marques, an American living in Brazil and who blogs extensively on race matters.  By synchronistic coincidence, he lives near the Sao Paolo hotel where I was staying for the second leg of my trip. His first point was to define “preto”, the colour of Pele and “pardo”, the colour of Neymar but that both are Negro. His second point was to alert me to the fact that the efficiency of white supremacy and effectiveness of slavery in Brazil is such that many parents aspire to teach their children to be “as light as possible” by marrying blonde Brazilians. The whiter the offspring, the less the chances of economic exclusion. The result is that there is no outward civil rights movement as in the US. There has been no Malcom X or Martin Luther King. No one has died in the name of civil rights in Brazil. Part of the reason is that there was a law enacted in 1968 that forbade talk of racism in Brazil! The law no longer exists but Marques is adamant that “racism works better and is more efficient in Brazil because people accept white supremacy as it is by not admitting to the presence of racism.”

Even though improvements are being made, first under Lula and now Dilma Rousseff, it remains a disheartening sight. On August 6, 2012, the senate squeezed a bill through by a single vote, that now reserves half of all admission places in public universities for students who attended public primary and secondary schools. It is a huge step forward but its fruits will only be seen when the job market begins to absorb the large numbers, hopefully, of new graduates of a darker hue… more than 200 years later.

I loved Brazil and thoroughly enjoyed the world cup experience. As a tourist, I extensively toured Rio and Sao Paulo with absolutely no problems. In fact, I had a thoroughly wondrous time. I, however, came back saddened by the plight of black people in that country. Just before departure, I met a Japanese Brazilian who was going to spend 9 hours in transit at OR Tambo. I invited him to my home and to meet the guys at the pub, as one does straight after a 7 hour flight from Brazil. He backed up all that I had heard and have written on race. That is sad. And tragic.


3 Responses to "Being Black in Brazil"

  1. Christin  January 8, 2015 at 5:21 am

    Hi there,

    Just wondering how you booked the tour with Carlos? I can’t seem to find any details online.


    • Adelaide Steedley  January 11, 2015 at 8:19 pm

      Hi – looking into it and will get back to you as soon as possible.

    • Adelaide Steedley  January 18, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Hi – you can reach Carlos on or book through any agency on the Copacabana. Hope this is helpful.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to our Newsletter