Home > Afro-Descendants in Latin America, Brazil, Race in Brazil, Race in the Americas > Considerations of Race in Brazil and in PBS’s “Black in Latin America”

Considerations of Race in Brazil and in PBS’s “Black in Latin America”

October 27, 2011

After the prodding of several friends, I finally got around to watching “Brazil: A Racial Paradise?” The program was just one episode of Henry Louis Gates’ PBS program , part of the “Black in Latin America” series Gates recently did. I enjoyed the program, but it raised some major issues and questions worth further developing/investigating.

First, to be clear right up front, I highly recommend it, especially for teaching. The program provides a good introduction into many aspects of Brazil that don’t necessarily make up the “stereotypical” image of Brazil (though it, like every other program in the universe, immediately starts with Carnaval*). It’s very teachable, and Gates’ comparative efforts to the U.S. are really useful in getting students specifically and Americans more generally simultaneously to A) think about how other societies consider race, thus opening their minds to the fact that there isn’t “a” type of racism, and B) get a better comparative understanding of race in the world. It has many moments of providing useful discussion between classes or between friends, and it does a great job at getting into a variety of the cultural elements of Afro-Brazilian culture and politics, from capoeira and Candomblé to hip-hop and Afro-Brazilian ethnic mobilization, from the importance of Afro-Brazilians in the country’s Northeast colonial society to their under-representation  in modern media. In focusing on these issues, Gates looks at how Brazil’s past demonstrates the strong contributions of African cultures to Brazil even while it faces very real racial problems today.

*Yes, everybody knows Carnaval, so it makes for a familiar entry point into Brazilian culture and history, and the program avoids giving it the blatant sexual overtones that most portrayals of the festival provide. Still, must we always use it to start talking about Brazil? Carnaval is just one week of the year, and to use it as the image of Brazil isn’t just lazy; it relies on tropes, stereotypes, and portrayals of culture in its most exceptional spectacle. Sure, Carnaval is a part of Brazilian culture and identity, but it’s nowhere near a major part of everyday life or culture in Brazil. To always describe Brazil by starting with Carnaval is like always describing the U.S. based on Thanksgiving if Thanksgiving were on steroids. It’s lazy and unrepresentative, and opens up most portrayals of Brazil [though mercifully not this one] to sexual and racial stereotypes of the basest nature.

That said, I think there are some important shortcomings in the program. Most clearly, even while showing how Brazilian conceptions of race are very different from American conceptions, it can’t help but impose American understandings of race onto Brazil. Specifically, in an attempt to look at race in Latin America and to use it as a comparative to see where the US could improve its own understandings of race and racial relations (and where the US has had success), the program gets rather single-minded in its understanding of race and racial identity. Throughout the hour-long program, the narrative focuses so intently on race in and of itself as a category that it overlooks far more complicated issues that shape and are shaped by race, including class and education.

There certainly are glimpses of these issues. But that’s all they are – glimpses. The program never really gets further into how the connection of issues like race and class, race and education interact in Brazil. This is particularly unfortunate because to investigate these complexities could really help Americans understand the complexities of racism and racial categorization in their own country. Instead, the program’s single-minded focus on race as something separate or above other forms of social categorization leads to plenty of missed opportunities at fruitful comparisons between and lessons for both Brazil and the U.S.

For example, the program closes by looking at the implementation of affirmative action policies in Brazil. In particularly poignant footage, the program includes video of a classroom discussion of affirmative action policies between Brazilian students.  Unsurprisingly, in the footage included in the program, the white university students argue that affirmative action just creates racism in a country that doesn’t have racism, while it is the Afro-descendant students who argue that racism still exists and it is past time that Brazilian society address structural inequalities.  The white students in this debate overall do come off as particularly unsympathetic – one particularly unsympathetic student even demands to see a list of “privileges” that white Brazilians enjoy, a list that one of his colleagues is quick to provide. And the difference are real. As late as 1963, Brazilian universities only had 124,000 students in a population of 77 million; while the university population has expanded to 6 million, Brazil’s population is currently 190 million, making higher education still something for a minority of mostly-middle- and upper-class Brazilians, thus reinforcing many of the social and racial inequalities facing Brazil today. The students start to point to this, and it would have been an extremely useful point for the program to highlight in its criticisms of the idea of a “racial democracy” in Brazil, but instead, it just moves on to a suddenly-cheerful conclusion that uses DNA testing to show that Brazilians genetically are really mixed. The program closes with Gates not-too-subtly suggesting that the U.S. has a lot to learn and that maybe Brazil really is better, warts and all.

I think this message of idealizing Brazil in the face of race and racism in the US ultimately causes the biggest problems to the program, and that message is there throughout, usually latently but sometimes explicitly. And to be clear, I don’t think this is problematic because I think America is so great in terms of racial relations and reconciling our present with our own past; far from it, in fact. Rather, it’s because I think things are far more complicated in Brazil than the program allows for. In an attempt to look at race in Latin America and use it as a comparative to see where the U.S. could improve its own understandings of race and racial relations (and where we’ve had success, too), it glosses over or disregards very serious problems facing Afro-descendants in Brazil today. In focusing so intently on race as a category unto itself, “Brazil: A Racial Paradise” ends up consistently overlooking far more complicated factors that shape and are shaped by race, including class and education, even while interviewees like Afro-Brazilian activist Abdias Nascimento, hip-hop artist MV Bill, Gilberto Freyre’s grandson, and even the “everyday people on the street” at the beginning of the program, begin to broach these issues.

The issue of police violence in Brazil is a good example of the program’s failures to investigate some of these issues. Throughout the program, not ONCE did they mention the police- and drug-violence in the favelas directly. MV Bill started to get there, but either through editing, or through Gates’ questioning, or MV Bill’s own redirection (and it’s impossible to say which it is based on the video), they never did arrive at that point. And it’s not like urban violence is just a minor problem in Brazil: between 1979 and 2000, more than 48,000 people died from firearm-related injuries in the city of Rio alone. Now certainly not all of those 48,000 died in police- and gang-violence, but given the difficulty in getting weapons in Brazil and ongoing police tactics in favela raids, it’s not a small number either. To put those numbers in context, between 1948 and 1999, thirteen-thousand were killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This isn’t to equate the two countries, but clearly the loss of life in Brazil just in 21 years (most of which took place after a military dictatorship left office) is high, and police violence based in no small part on racist and classist attitudes towards those living in the favelas play a major role in that violence. You would think that if Gates were wanting to show there were very serious racial struggles and challenges facing Afro-Brazilians, getting into that level of violence at least once might have helped undermine the whole myth of racial democracy. As appalling as the incident of  Gates’ arrest was, it’s not like only American police target people based on their skin color, and indeed, in Brazil, that targeting often leads to far more violent and tragic outcomes than an arrest and release.

The closing of the program really hammers home the problems of this approach. We’ve gotten nearly an hour of investigations into the good and bad in racial identity and categorization in Brazil, but without any of the true horrors, leaving Gates to close with a highly-optimistic summary that seems to praise Brazil over the U.S. without having ever looked at the very real and ugly consequences of racism in Brazil. And I think that closing is what really gets at the core problem with the program: in spite of examining the ways that the myth of racial democracy has masked very real problems facing Afro-Brazilians in terms of education, status, and even in the media, those last 30 seconds of Gates effectively saying throws off much of what came immediately before.

Again, I understand why Gates might want to see hope in Brazil (and certainly it’s not hopeless); the program was made around the time that Gates was arrested for trying to enter his own home, bringing up once again a reminder of the very real forms of racism that continue in the United States. I think his point that the U.S. can learn from Brazil in some ways is valid (in the same way that I think the U.S. offers lessons to Brazil, as well). But at the end of it all, I think Gates is overlooking some of the context and/or smoothing over some of the very real and very deep problems facing Brazilians. And as I said up front: I look forward greatly to seeing the remaining episodes on Cuba, Peru, and Mexico, and I would and will still highly recommend this program to anybody and everybody because it does get Americans thinking and provides important points of discussion for classrooms and colleagues alike. But I would caution anybody watching this to come away thinking that the program completely investigates racial relations and problems in Brazil, either. There are some very real issues the program smooths over or ignores, and any serious discussion on race in Brazil and/or comparisons with the United States ultimately must also consider those very real issues.

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