In Brazil, Racism’s Second Lives

Black Awareness Day in Brazil passed some weeks ago. Half the country’s 200 million people consider themselves white, half say they are black or brown, making it one of the most racially diverse large countries in the world. In this essay, a Brazilian journalist recalls the appalling practices of not so distant a past and measures the powerful, though almost invisible, present remains of the beast within.

In the 1970s, I remember vividly how one of my relatives kept two types of glasses in the cupboard. Which type of glass should be offered to whom depended on how much melanin was in a guest’s skin. It worked like this: if I brought a friend whose skin was a little darker, they would be offered an old jam jar if they wanted a drink of water. If the friend had light skin, he could drink from one of the house’s regular glasses instead.

Are you shocked? That kind of behavior was not exclusive to my relative, it was a fairly common practice among the many white (but not all of them) families residing in the city of Salvador. The racism, in this case, is solely link to one’s skin color, it has nothing to do with ideals of a pure race.I’ve lived most of my life in an Italian family bubble in Salvador, I am the mixture of Europeans, Blacks and Brazilian Indians, but my light skin tone ensured me that I would always be served water in a common glass, not an old jam jar.

There was also the matter of the elevators. I’ve lost the count of the times I went to a friend’s house to study and, accompanied by a black colleague, the concierge of the building(usually a black, sullen man) would warn us that my black friend had to use the services elevator, and not the social one. “Rules of the building”, he would tell us.The most bizarre thing behind that is not the “building rules”, but the fact that both my friend and I never raised our voices against that, we took it as a normal thing. We acted like that was “okay”. You also have to consider the fact that, until the early 80’s, me and my friends weren’t even 10 years old.

But then adolescence comes, and with it, one’s adorable ability to question authority.And that is quite interesting. It is like something sparks up inside our brains, maybe catalyzed by raging hormones, and we start to question if certain things are right or wrong, no matter what our parents tell us.And that is how I discovered that the apartheidof the water glasses was not a consensus within my Italian family.Some of my relatives practiced the melanin-based division of the water glass, but some spoke fiercely against it. And that’s when I realized I felt extremely uncomfortable every time I would offer a jam jar as a water glass to a black schoolmate. It was only then that I realized that I felt strange (bad) when a black friend was forced to use the services elevator, the same one that is used to transport garbage within the building.I believe most people are taken over by the same bad feelings whenever they are confronted with such racist actions. I have my own reasons to believe that most people are good, even though they might be a bit lazyand have a tendency “to keep things as they have always been” because it is easier to live like that.

Then came the 80’s and, with them, my first epiphany: in the outdoor advertisements all over Salvador, the models were all white with brown hair. In many cases they were blond and blue-eyed. Let me repeat the name of the city: Salvador. In the city that hosts the largest black community outside of Africa, models used in advertisements did not reflect at all their target-audience.Still during the 80’s, I came in contact with the biggest offense one can ever direct at a black person: calling them “monkeys”. What is most impressive is that, at that time, one could humiliate a black person in public by calling them a monkey or worse, and nothing would happen. Nothing. It was “normal”.

Jumping through time, we get to 2014. Today, as I write these lines, we celebrate Black Awareness Day in Brazil (the date is celebrated on November 20th). Today there are those that say a “special day” like this is no longer necessary. And there are those that argue, deludedby a false idea of symmetry, that we should also have a “White Awareness Day”. Some say black people today only have privileges within our society.Some say racism is no more in Brazil.

Not longago, I’ve had an online argument with a black man. He was 20-something years old; that is, he was born after anti-racism law passed in Brazil [in 1989]; still, this man argued that racism did not exist in Brazil. He went on to describe how successful he was in life, he had a university degree, he was a lawyer etc. He told me he was treated “as an equal” (I was really shocked by his use of “as an”).He insisted that in Brazil prejudice was social rather than based on race.If a blond kid is found begging in the streets of São Paulo, he is sure to make tomorrow’s headlines. If it’s a blond adult, the media will quickly turn him into the “hunky beggar”, and he will be offered a job (that actually happened last year in Brazil). Non-black commentators on the same virtual forum applauded the guy, saying things like “that’s it!We have overcome racism, it doesn’t exist, congratulations, black kid, you’ve learned a good lesson”.

But fate loves a bit of irony. Months after this, while I was running on a treadmill at my local gym, who comes in? Exactly the same Black guy from my virtual argument.He didn’t recognize me, but I recognized him quite well.Three things called my attention. One: with the exception of the janitor and one of the teachers, he was the only black person inside that gym. Two: he was wearing expensive clothes. Three: he was very popular, he seemed to know everyone in the gym, and they were all really nice to him.

Could he have been right? Is prejudice in Brazil based in social class than on the color of one’s skin? This black kid seemed to be the living proof of that argument. He seemed. Until I realized what was happening.

According to common gym etiquette, one should wipe their sweat off of every surface their bodies touch. At my gym, most people simply don’t do that: the air conditioning is strong enough to keep people from sweating all over the gym’s equipment.

Even then, after this black guy used any equipment, the person that followed him would wipe the seat off before using it. Always.And only when the black guy had used the equipment. I analyzedthe situation for some 15 minutes. I saw a White man (with red skin bursting with steroids) sweat a whole oceanon one of the benches. The person that used the equipment after this guy didn’t seem to mind the puddle of sweat: he took a seat and almost bathed in it. Was that a rational action? Did he expect that somehow those steroids on the guy’s sweat would be transferred to him by contact?

As for the Black guy for whom “racism doesn’t exist”, he didn’t sweat a single drop. He would use an equipment and leave it as clean as it was. Even then, everyone, without exception, that used the same equipment after him would wipe the seat with a cloth. The Black guy failed to notice that.I truly believe that even the people wiping the seats themselves failed to notice what they were doing. They were the same people that had greeted him with hugs when he arrived. They laughed at his jokes and gave him little pats on the back. They are the same people that invite him out to places and that like his many internet posts. I believe that the people wiping the seats were not aware of what they were doing. They probably don’t consider themselves racists, and they are actually not as racist as a Klan member; I would never make such a comparison.

Today, the jam jar is not as used as before, glasses are no longer symbols of the apartheid (at least not as much as 30 years ago). If someone forces a Black person to use the services elevator today, they will be punished for this. The law works in those cases.But we still have the gym rag sanitizing every inchof surface touched by Black people.It is impossible to criminalize such a subtle, unconscious behavior, and maybe that is not even the answer for the problem. Racism is still very much alive in Brazil; it just hides better nowadays because people are afraid to face jail time for it.But the law is not the only answer, for laws are not enough to make a problem disappear.Education plays a big role in this equation. With education and critical thinking, we can free ourselves from old embedded prejudices.

More than ever before, Black Awareness Day is a hurtful reminder of my childhood in Salvador, but I consider myself Lucky: I managed to come out unharmed from an environment that could have turned me into a racist person. And I thank my education at the Antonio Vieira JesuitSchool for that.It was the 80’s, there were no anti-racism laws, but the Jesuit priests would offer scholarships to the sons and daughters of all of their Black employees, and that time, no one would even think of calling that a “black privilege”. At that school, we were taught to question any kind of prejudice, be it against blacks, gays, or whomever. On a day such as this, I miss my school in Salvador, for it is the place where I learned to never, ever offer a jam jar as a glass of water to anyone.
Today I have to admit that gym rags frighten me more than mere jam jars.

Alexey Dodsworth Magnavita Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard