With the story of a blonde girl begging in Mexico (and the attention it raised) this past weekend, I commented that the story tapped into some of the broader forms of racial prejudice that exist throughout much of both North and South America:
Racial stereotypes of poverty and street children exist throughout North and South America, and too often, the plights of children in the street are ignored, thanks in no small part to these stereotypes. A blonde child goes missing or is begging for food, and it’s a national crisis, even while, on a daily basis, many more children suffer from poverty, homelessness, and neglect.
This racial stereotyping in which blonde-haired and blue-eyed beggars gain attention for their “uniqueness” even while countries overlook the broader problems of urban poverty of thousands of citizens is rearing its (fair-haired) head in Brazil as well:
Tall, blue-eyed and wrapped in a blanket while roaming the streets of Curitiba in the south of Brazil, Rafael Nunes, a former Brazilian model (now known as the photogenic beggar of Curitiba) has gained international attention after his picture and story went viral on Facebook and Twitter.
Rafael, aged 30, ended up on the streets because of crack cocaine addiction and his story was only revealed after Indy Zanardo, a tourist, was approached by Rafael and asked if his picture could be taken. […]
Besides the general reaction to his good looks and his sad drug addiction story, the debate on Rafael’s case has grown into a racism-oriented discussion about how Brazilian society only reacts with indignation to situations of social exclusion when those affected are white and ‘European-looking’.
Although Brazilians are one of the most racially diversesocieties in the world, the top of the country’s social economic pyramid is still widely occupied by white Brazilians and most social indicators connected to education, access to health-care and employment overwhelmingly privilege this group.
As with the case of the young girl in Mexico, the discussion around this young man’s plight is providing some powerful insights into the subtle ways in which racial stereotyping in Brazil (and much of the Americas) works. People wonder why his plight is so horrible, how he is not involved in modeling anymore, etc., without considering the broader social and structural issues of urban poverty and homelessness in Brazil. Again, this isn’t the place to judge his own position, or the tragic impact of addiction on this individual, or social customs that blame the victims of addiction rather than attempting to address the issue. Rather, it is to serve as yet another example, alongside of that from Mexico, of the ways in which racial stereotypes and poverty continue to operate in the Americas. The fact that his story became a national (and now international) headline due to his looks, while the plight of Brazil’s millions of homeless citizens who do not look like him goes unreported (in spite of the efforts of groups like the Homeless Workers’ Movement tries to bring attention to the issue) is a powerful reminder that homelessness and urban poverty continue to be all-too-easily overlooked in much of the hemisphere and the world.