The Brazil Files: Busy Being Foreign

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Since I’ve been living in Brazil, I have suffered from memory loss. On occasion, I simply forget that I am black.

Let me explain . . .

I was born in the United States, in the South to be exact, during the early 1980s, to a mother with very fair skin who, along with her seven sisters and brothers, had witnessed and undergone Jim Crow segregation. My great grandmother and grandfather, a teacher and farmer, respectively, who both had dark skin, had given birth to a light-skinned child, my grandmother, who would then go on to marry a man of equally light skin who was raised to distrust black people who looked like his in-laws. My father, on the other hand, came from a family where the emphasis on high cheekbones and dark wavy hair was made more frequently than that of slightly flattened noses. We have Native blood, they’d say.

You see, colorism was alive and well in my family.

And yet years later, when I still feel compelled to remind my mother that her coarse, nappy hair is beautiful or that there is no need to insert the words “but” or “despite” as my family refers to model Alek Wek’s ebony-skinned beauty, I know that the remnants remain. At the end of the day, we are all of African descent, and in our slavemasters’, old legislators’, and white domestic terrorists’ eyes, we were all black. Yet within that category, we found various ways of re-categorizing ourselves to fit our own neat little model of racism. We created a home-kit, if you will, of silly divisions of what was acceptable and what was not in terms of appearance and behavior.

My maternal grandfather warned his daughters of the dangers of the villainous, malicious dark blacks. Of course, there were exceptions, my dark-skinned aunt and uncle being visible reminders of our inescapable heritage, and the only dark people my grandfather ever truly accepted beyond a superficial level (his race track buddies do not count). But for the most part, darker blacks were to be avoided, despite my family’s shared plight with them in a segregated south.

My mother, though quite young during the segregation period, still bears irrevocable memories. She has recounted stories of slapping a young white girl who had stared at her in a hospital bathroom because she had “never seen a Negro girl up-close before,” of thinking that “colored only” fountains would one day magically transform into a spring of rainbow-infused water, and of remembering her confusion as to why her older sister spent so much time “marching” in the street when she was not wearing her majorette uniform. And presently, in her work as a geriatric social worker, she is reminded of the divisions the period and the long-lasting subsequent effects they have had on the black community when her older, darker-skinned black patients assume she is “stuck up” or cannot be trusted because of her light skin.

Having grown up in a family like this, race inevitably became a daily topic of discussion.

Sure, we were undoubtedly on the privileged end of the spectrum. We had light skin, we were middle class, we owned property. My mother, father, and some of their siblings had coveted college degrees, no small feat for the select few blacks who made it through the southern university system in the 1960s and 70s. And even the family members who never made it to college still have successful, fulfilling careers of which they can be proud. Of course, my family, like any other, has its flaws, but nothing that was inherently linked to our skin color.

Yet again, race comes up all the time. My family holds the same hostility as other blacks towards those involved in the perpetuation of systematic, institutionally sanctioned racism. We are reminded of our race all the time by co-workers’ exclusionary behavior, by being followed around while patronizing clothing stores, and by merely having tastes, food traditions, and vernacular speech that differed from whites. Despite our color privilege, we existed in a third world of sorts, our own little space between “black,” as designated by whites, and “not quite black enough,” (or “almost,” as I was once called) by other blacks.

My going to a predominately white all girls’ school did not exactly alleviate this feeling. As the sole representative of blackness in my grade, I was a piss-poor example of the kind of black girl my white peers may have anticipated. I was not like the black people they saw on television, nor was I quite like their maids who, in some cases, had provided the only contact the girls had with other blacks. Yet despite my being “different” from other blacks, I (along with several of the black students from other grade levels) had to serve as a delegate for the race. I got the usual questions about hair maintenance, “ghetto” vocabulary words, and whether or not blacks are capable of tanning. Needless to say, the job was tiring.

Following high school, college led me to New York City where, despite the city’s never-ending layers of diversity, I was still confronted with lots of questions, comments, assumptions, and externally-assigned categories related to my race, the race of my partners, and the race of my friends. So considering my family background, upbringing, and personal history that warranted my admitted preoccupation with race, you can imagine my surprise at my ability to go days at a time during which I completely step outside of my skin and do not feel the often heavy weight of being a person of color.

That is the only way to describe my experience here in Brazil. I have never had so much time go by in my entire life during which I am not faced with unwarranted expectations, assumptions, and characterizations associated to my race. Why? Mainly because what I consider “my race” does not exist within the same box as it does in the United States.

In Brazil, the term “black” (“negro/a”) is often relegated solely to people of African descent who have much darker skin and/or used for political purposes (i.e. as a unifying, symbolic reference by people with invested interests in community building among blacks/Afro-descendants). So whenever I discuss race with my students (which occurs a lot considering that a discussion of race is inseparable from a discussion on American history and culture) and I declare myself as black, they get confused.

“But, Teacher, you are not black,” they often say, noting the lightness of my skin as the most salient piece of evidence. “You’re morena or mulata, but not black.”

Following their usual assertion, I have to explain that in the United States, the three terms are not mutually exclusive. As a result of the “One Drop Rule” and, later, the politicization of the term during the Civil Rights Movement, black was a term reserved for the majority of people who have African heritage in the United States, no matter the lightness or darkness of their skin. I then go on to cite the color gradation within my own family and that, in spite of their lightness, many much lighter than I, they still consider themselves black in both race and culture.

Considering that race in Brazil is dealt with mainly on a phenotypic level (based on physical appearance), you can imagine their surprise at what they consider an oversimplification of race in the United States. I recall once that when a Brazilian friend of mine came to visit New York, he remarked that he was surprised by the large black population in Brooklyn.

“There are soooo many black people here,” he proclaimed, leaving me a bit dumbfounded. “But you’re from Brazil. What are you talking about? There are plenty of black people there. Why are you so surprised?” I asked.

Then I realized; “Black” for him and “black” for me were two totally different things. In my eyes, he and I were both black, along with the other millions of people in Brooklyn whom he had singled out as having shocked him in their abundance and millions more brown-skinned people I had seen in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Salvador in Brazil. Yet to him, “black” only meant people with very dark skin and decidedly black African features. That term was reserved for a very small group of people in Brazil, some of whom continue to be marginalized in many ways on account of their color.

Espero que nosso filho não seja preto,” (“I hope our son isn’t black” — “black” in this case being referred to by way of the now offensive term “preto,” which is used sometimes to refer to very dark black people) I once heard a white expecting mother jokingly say of her soon to be born biracial child. The father, moreno. The grandfather, according to the couple, preto, hence the fear. While the statement was harsh and said a lot about Brazilian race relations, I cannot exactly say I was surprised. It is just that normally I am not privy to such racist admissions. As a result of my appearance, I had been cast in the shadow of privilege and provided a front row seat to the racism circus, a performance I often missed in the United States because I was still black there. At home, I was not placed in some imaginary bubble of protection simply for being a few shades lighter than some others. Black was black was black. Brazil is a different story entirely.

Here, I have begun to recognize that privilege takes many forms, all of them unwelcome on my part. For one thing, I am American. While this aspect of my being is not immediately recognized, as most Brazilians assume I am one of them and/or have a parent who is, once this fact becomes known, how attractive, interesting, and accepted I am in public places skyrockets in ways that would never happen if I were simply a brown-skinned Brazilian.  In a country where many of the imports come from the Land of the Free including entertainment in the form of music and film, some of the most powerful mediums of cultural dominance, you can imagine what my presence means, whether I like it or not.

The other point of privilege lies in my appearance, at which I have already hinted. Being more caramel-esque than dark means I am afforded treatment that is strikingly different. I do not get followed around retail stores or profiled by the police. People who look like me are profiled in advertisements, have roles in novelas (soap operas), and are spokespeople for high end products. I am included in colorist, racist discussions and jokes as if people who have the same origin as I are separate species. I am pursued romantically and openly considered attractive by people of many different races. In relation to quite a few of the aforementioned, I cannot say the same with regards to my experience living in the United States.

The next aspect of privilege I have had to assess is one that is far more powerful than skin color and nationality: class. In the United States, I am middle class. Here, despite my weary checking account, I give off signs of wealth unintentionally. Clothes like those one could buy at H&M, Forever 21, and other popular chain stores are taxed to the hilt and marked up to the degree that they are almost inaccessible to anyone who is not upper middle class to rich. The same goes for items from Zara, which they have in larger Brazilian cities, but with price tags that would give any New Yorker, Lisboan, or Madrileña a heart attack. Electronics, international food, and even books can be added to this list of overpriced goods in Brazil, but to which I have easy, cheap access Stateside. With that said, my possession and consumption of the aforementioned put me in a higher class than many Brazilians who share my skin color, as the wealthy class in Brazil is decidedly white. 

With all that said, there are other recognizable differences in the way race is dealt with in Brazil that allows me to take a mental vacation, including but not limited to, a heavy presence of interracial relationships (and not necessarily those of the same racial pairing), multiracial families, and phenotypic diversity within groups of friends of all ages, all things still seen in smaller quantities in the United States, even in major cities.

All of these things make it almost too easy for me to “forget” that I am black, to not spend my days preoccupied with my race as I do in the United States. Yet, there is something unsettlingly unhealthy about that, mainly because it means one of two things: the United States has a long way to go, or I am temporarily blinded by a non-existent ideal steeped in privilege. I am going to go with option two. Of course, the States has a long way to go in terms of improving its domestic state of race relations, yet one has to be careful not to read those in Brazil as being utopian, as they, too, have a complex and somewhat dark past, one of them being the goal of ethnic cleansing by way of miscegenation to which I often reference. I have enough common sense to read between the lines and assess personal situations from an objective standpoint, and this is no exception.

I find that many Americans of color, upon traveling to another country, often remark on the striking differences between the treatment they receive abroad versus the treatment they receive in the United States, myself being one of them. But we must also employ the critical thinking necessary to realize that our experience is through the tinted lens of privilege, be it via nationality, skin color, class, and any other unrecognized differences that set us apart culturally from our international peers. I have to recognize that while the story I tell of my experiences in Brazil as an adult may be different from the experiences I underwent as someone who grew up in the South, someone somewhere in Brazil has a similar story that is going unheard or unrecognized by the thousands of Americans who travel to Brazil and deem it a racial paradise, a vacation spot for the oppressed.

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*drawing courtesy of amazing French graffiti artist/cartoonist Fafi, whose work can be found here: www.myspace.com/fafinette