The Brazil Files: Is Racism Relative?

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

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As mentioned by countless writers who dare to venture into the dangerous territory of race and ethnicity, racism is a tricky animal. There are moments when racism stares one right in the face, begging to be confronted via the most obvious of responses, then there are moments when racism hides in the shadows, only to be perceived by the most observant, sometimes the victim alone. Yet what is to be done when considering racism when it has literally crossed borders, cultures, and history? Does it become a new species?

I was faced with this difficult question just last week. On Wednesday, I walked into our teachers’ lounge/meeting room to ask if anyone knew of any Asian restaurants in the city. This inquiry, by the way, is not completely out of left field. Brazil has a large and thriving Asian population, composed primarily of Japanese immigrants and their descendants, in addition to smaller Chinese, Indian, and Thai communities, and many cities in the region in which I live happen to have restaurants that serve Asian food or some Brazilian-Asian fusion dishes. The dialogue that followed, however, was far more out of left field than my request:

    Brazilian Teacher (male, white, 25): “Yeah, there is a Chinese restaurant downtown. They have yakissoba and sushi.

    Me: Oh ok. I thought yakissoba was Japanese, no?

    BT: Meh, Japanese, Chinese, same thing, right?

    Proceeds to do the “Miley Cyrus(also known as “a derogatory gesture that involves using one’s index, and sometimes middle, fingers to stretch the skin around his or her eyes horizontally, in order to make one’s eyes appear like those of people who are of Asian descent”…just in case anyone was lost). Laughs hysterically.

    Me: Takes a deep breath in order to remain composed. Um, no. They have some things in common, sure, but to say they are the same is not exactly correct. I mean the culture is different, the language is different… sometimes the foods have similar origin, but are still different . . .

    BT: Yeah, but Korean, Japanese, Chinese…they all look alike right?!?!? “Miley Cyrus,” proceeds to laugh again.

    Me: Disgusted. No, they don’t actually. Some people may have similar features because there was a lot of mixing going on in Asia for generations…(so flustered at this point, because I am thinking of thousands of years of civilization, and how exactly to explain that to someone in 30 seconds), but there ARE differences. It’s like if I said everyone from Spain, Portugal, and Italy look JUST alike and are all the same just because the majority of people are white. I mean people are different!

    BT: All the same! “Miley Cyrus,”AGAIN

    Towards the end, I decided to return to the original subject to preemptively extinguish a potential fight.

    Me: Ok, whatever. Where is the restaurant?

So by this point, clearly I was fuming. But after the fact, I began to reflect on the exchange. Was I being overly sensitive? Did I miss something in my Brazilian history lesson about it being socially acceptable to derisively mimic people with Asian ancestry in public places? Was I being a “typical American” (read: over-reacting to the tiniest of issues)?

At first, I thought maybe so. I had carried around my own country’s baggage of sullied race relations and unpacked it in another place. I was analyzing the situation through the gray lenses of the United States and our racial past. But then I considered something that had a simple answer, but not exactly the easiest of solutions:

    Is racism culturally relative?

The immediate answer is, “yes,” but in terms of addressing this version of cultural relativity or, in other words, the variation across different societies and cultures of what is considered of value, good/bad, and/or acceptable, there is no easy answer. Different countries may have similar histories, but the nuances of each nation’s respective past often yield a strikingly different present.

With Brazil carrying the heavy weight of being considered not only one of the most ethnically and racially diverse nations in the world, but also the most “utopian” in terms of race relations, to analyze the issue of racism becomes doubly difficult because to consider race at all is a bit complicated*. There are fewer fixed ideas of race in Brazil than in the United States. For example, there was never a “one-drop” rule here, nor was there legislated segregation following the abolition of slavery (though they abolished slavery in 1888, much later than the United States, many Brazilians cite the Jim Crow Laws when condemning the U.S. as a racist country). These factors, when coupled with pre-existing ideas allowing for slightly more social acceptance of miscegenation (“race mixing”), mean that race is a far more muddled category. Though complex, the Brazilian racial spectrum tends to be far more “open” in terms of racial categories and even provide for what one could consider racial transcendence, meaning that after a day involving a lot of sun exposure or a property inheritance, I can go from being considered one race to another.

The complexities of Brazilian racial history and general race relations I will leave for another article, as it is too extensive to discuss at this moment, but it is important to consider the aforementioned when thinking about whether or not the statements I heard and gestures I witnessed were racist or not. If I were raised in Brazil, there is a possibility that I may not have found my co-worker’s impromptu comedy routine racist, but I wanted to test this theory by running by a few of my Brazilian friends of various races.

The majority of my friends said it came down to a matter of city vs. country. In larger cities, much like in the United States, there is less tolerance for racial stereotypes and discrimination thanks to the increased diversity within the population who keep everyone, including the government, on their toes. Though there are residents of Asian descent in the town in which I live, there are thousands more in cities like São Paulo, which is where most of my friends live. They noted that the heightened political awareness and education level of larger cities may also be a determining factor in the response to my co-worker’s behavior.

But to add to this consideration, I also thought of how I deal with the majority of cultural norms I find outside of my comfort zone (i.e. female circumcision, socially sanctioned domestic abuse, or the exclusion of certain ethnic and/or religious groups from voting rights). I usually resort to using the Harm Principle, a concept coined by one of my favorite thinkers, British philosopher John Stuart Mill.

The Harm Principle rests on the basic premise that one should be allowed to do as he or she pleases, so long as his or her actions do not harm other human beings. In my own personal version of the harm principle, however, I extend the definition to go beyond the physical. I include the prospect of psychological “violence.” If you engage in an act of racism, by my definition, you are conveying a pre-existing stereotype you hold of one group of people in the presence of others. And even if those present are not of the group you seek to insult, the general affect on the listener is harmful because it results in the spread of stereotypes, which in turn can result in the spread of hatred and/or lead to discrimination (“Active” racism, i.e. legal restrictions for certain racial groups or hate crimes).

In other words, my co-worker passed my racism test. By considering all Asians to be the same, primarily based on a sole physical characteristic that most, though not all, East Asians share, and then, in addition, by relegating the cultural and culinary traditions of all East Asians to the same category, one that he then proceeded to ridicule, he scored pretty high on the b.o.b. (big ole bigot) scale. So while I fully recognize that race and the way we think about race-related issues varies across cultures, it does not mean, in my opinion, that we should give license to those who choose to engage in the perpetuation of stereotypes or complete misconceptions about one group or another. From one country to another, feeling as if your respective group is not considered equal or that your culture is somehow funny, strange, or insignificant in comparison is all the same: unacceptable.