Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro

Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro

by Jennifer Roth-Gordon

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Based on spontaneous conversations of shantytown youth hanging out on the streets of their neighborhoods and interviews from the comfortable living rooms of the middle class, Jennifer Roth-Gordon shows how racial ideas permeate the daily lives of Rio de Janeiro’s residents across race and class lines. Race and the Brazilian Body weaves together the experiences of these two groups to explore what the author calls Brazil’s “comfortable racial contradiction,” where embedded structural racism that privileges whiteness exists alongside a deeply held pride in the country’s history of racial mixture and lack of overt racial conflict. This linguistic and ethnographic account describes how cariocas (people who live in Rio de Janeiro) “read” the body for racial signs. The amount of whiteness or blackness a body displays is determined not only through observations of phenotypical features—including skin color, hair texture, and facial features—but also through careful attention paid to cultural and linguistic practices, including the use of nonstandard speech commonly described as gíria (slang).
Vivid scenes from daily interactions illustrate how implicit social and racial imperatives encourage individuals to invest in and display whiteness (by demonstrating a “good appearance”), avoid blackness (a preference challenged by rappers and hip-hop fans), and “be cordial” (by not noticing racial differences). Roth-Gordon suggests that it is through this unspoken racial etiquette that Rio residents determine who belongs on the world famous beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon; who deserves to shop in privatized, carefully guarded, air conditioned shopping malls; and who merits the rights of citizenship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293809
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/20/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 727,260
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Roth-Gordon is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. 

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Race and the Brazilian Body

Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro

By Jennifer Roth-Gordon


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96715-1


Brazil's "Comfortable Racial Contradiction"

In 2013, Brazilian journalist Paulo Henrique Amorim was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison, a sentence later upheld by Brazil's Superior Tribunal de Justiça (Superior Court of Justice). His crime? He had publicly criticized the powerful Brazilian media network Rede Globo for denying that racism exists in Brazil, and he had called out one particular journalist, Heraldo Pereira, for going along with this denial, describing him as a "negro de alma branca" (black with a white soul). Amorim was later accused of racismo (racism) and injúria racial (racial insult, or an "injury to one's honor"; see Racusen 2004:789) by both the network and Heraldo Pereira, and was found guilty of the latter. Amorim, who is politically liberal and often at the center of controversy, used as part of his defense the fact that he has long publicly supported antiracist efforts. He argued that he was merely exercising his freedom of speech in order to disagree with Pereira's implicit suggestion that any black person could work hard and become rich and famous in Brazil. Despite Amorim's desire to make Brazil's structural racism more visible, the expression that he chose to describe Pereira allowed the powerful (and conservative) media network and the courts to find him personally guilty of racism toward another individual. As the prosecutor explained, his use of this "highly racist" expression:

sugere que as pessoas de cor branca possuem atributos positivos e bons, ao passo que os negros são associados a valores negativos, ruins, inferiores. É o mesmo que afirmar que os brancos são superiores aos negros e, nesse contexto, um negro de alma branca seria aquele que, embora seja preto, tem a dignidade ou a distinção que seriam próprias das pessoas de cor clara.

suggests that white people possess positive and good attributes, while black people are associated with negative, bad, and inferior values. It is the same as saying that white people are superior to black people, and, in this context, a black person with a white soul would be a person who, despite being black, has the dignity or the distinction that belongs to light-skinned people.

Only a few decades ago, this widely used expression could have been considered a compliment by some in Brazil (Turra and Venturi 1995), a saying that noted with approval Pereira's acquisition of "white" traits, including his higher level of education (he is trained as a lawyer), his use of standard Portuguese, and his behavioral refinement, all of which would help override the negative characteristics thought to accompany his dark skin and phenotypically black features. Another Brazilian expression, more commonly used in Bahia than Rio, describes those who demonstrate refinement and the right class status but aren't fair-skinned as socialmente branco or "socially white" (Azevedo 1975; Figueiredo 2002). These types of racial descriptions have long suggested a mismatch between phenotype and behavior. And yet this radically new reading of the expression negro de alma branca, as an example of a racial insult now subject to legal prosecution (Guimarães 2003; Racusen 2004), serves as an excellent introduction to current debates about Brazilian racism. If you criticize a dark-skinned person for not being antiracist, does that make you a racist? Is noticing race always racist? Does racism explain Brazilian inequality? Do the recent affirmative action policies (such as racial quotas for university admissions) create racism in Brazil? These questions, and controversies like the Paulo Henrique Amorim case, can be dizzying, and they illustrate how public discourse in Brazil over race and racism has changed considerably over the past few decades.

It's not just the public debate that feels new. Brazil has had laws against racial discrimination on the books since the Afonso Arinos Law of 1951, passed after an African American dancer, Katherine Dunham, was denied a room at a posh hotel in São Paulo. Brazil's 1988 constitution went even further, defining racial discrimination as a crime without bail or statute of limitations and punishable by imprisonment. Despite this "enlightened jurisprudence" (J. Dávila 2012:2), when I moved to Brazil to conduct dissertation research in 1997, no one had ever been convicted of either crime (Rosa-Ribeiro 2000:226; see also Racusen 2004). After I returned to Brazil in 2014 to begin a new research project, I met several people who had personally filed charges of racism against others. This included one woman who filed a legal complaint against the owner of the nail salon where she worked and another woman who filed charges against the principal at the public school that her daughter attended. Very public racial incidents had garnered not just media attention but also legal, financial, and social repercussions. When a dark-skinned girl from the racially mixed state of Minas Gerais posted a picture of herself wrapped in the arms of her light-skinned boyfriend on Facebook, she was flooded with racist comments. The Brazilian Civil Police began to investigate those who had posted offensive comments, including those who alluded to plantation life and asked where the boy had purchased his "slave." When losing soccer fans screamed "macaco" (monkey) at the dark-skinned goalkeeper of a rival team, one twenty- two-year old female fan from the southern state of Porto Alegre was caught on camera. She was banned from the stadium, and the team she was rooting for was given a R$50,000 fine (equivalent to over US$20,000 at the time).

In a similar incident involving fan racism (this time while playing in Europe), Brazilian soccer player Daniel Alves spurred an online antiracist social media movement back in Brazil when he peeled and ate the banana that had been thrown onto the field by a (presumably European) fan. Brazilian celebrities, politicians, and supporters all posted selfies with peeled bananas, and his teammate, Brazilian fan favorite Neymar, used the opportunity to launch a hashtag campaign, #somostodosmacacos (we are all monkeys). Barely twenty years ago, academics described what felt like a "cultural censorship" around the topics of race and racism (Sheriff 2001; see also Twine 1998; Vargas 2004), yet public discussion of racism seems commonplace in twenty-first-century Brazil.

In one of my very first job interviews, a professor from Princeton University who had not worked in Brazil asked me a question I have not forgotten: "A few decades ago, anthropologists were studying Brazil because of its excellent race relations. Now all people seem to study is Brazilian racism. Did we just get it wrong back then, or have things changed?" The safest answer, of course, is both. Things have changed in Brazil, by a lot, not only since I began researching there in the mid-1990s but also since the United Nations commissioned scholars to study the country as a "racial democracy" that could serve as a role model to a world reeling from the horrors of state-sanctioned anti- Semitism after World War II. But even as the current sociopolitical context allowed for the complicated racial positionings that occurred as a "white," left-leaning journalist accused a "black," right-leaning colleague of being a "black with a white soul," and then was convicted for his racist insult, there are some strong currents of continuity. While a conviction and a jail sentence for the crime of racial injury are definitely new, Amorim was ultimately punished for violating a very old Brazilian preference for "racismo cordial" (cordial racism), according to which individuals downplay racial differences that might lead to conflict or disagreement (Fry 1995–96; Sansone 2003; Turra and Venturi 1995). His comment, which the general public has only recently understood as a racial insult, also willfully mocks the long-held belief that racism is not just personally abhorrent, but an insult to the nation. The better answer to the senior scholar's question, then, would have been this: Brazil, as a nation, has long lived with what I call a comfortable racial contradiction.

Historian Micol Seigel offers examples of how the Brazilian elite simultaneously "clung to racial hierarchies even as they loudly repudiated racism" (2009:210). In his book Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (1999), Thomas Skidmore, another Brazilianist historian, has declared that Brazil's "ultimate contradiction is between [its] justifiable reputation for personal generosity ('cordiality') and the fact of having to live in one of the world's most unequal societies" (xiii). Perhaps nothing sums up this contradiction better than the assertions of Brazil's own abolitionists who in the late 1800s widely proclaimed that Brazil had been fortunate to escape the racial hatred and division that characterized their neighbor to the north — at the same time that Brazilian slavery continued. Brazil retains the notorious reputation of being the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, which it did, at least in part, because of concerns over its international racial reputation. One abolitionist, Perdigão Malheiro described in 1871 a Brazilian context that increasingly included free people of African descent (such as manumitted slaves): "Since Negroes came to Brazil from the African coast there has never been that contempt for the African race to be found in other countries, especially the United States. ... Gentlemen, I know many individuals of dark skin who are worth more than many of white skin. That is the truth. In the schools, higher faculties, and churches do we not see good colored students alongside our distinguished men?" (quoted in Skidmore 1974:23).

The idea that an individual of African descent could succeed in Brazil because of the country's lack of prejudice, while more than a million black people continued to be forcibly enslaved, was echoed by the more widely known Joaquim Nabuco: "Color in Brazil is not, as in the United States, a social prejudice against whose persistence no character, talent, or merit can prevail" (quoted in Skidmore 1974:24). Both abolitionists, their own century's equivalent of the antiracist, seem to lay the foundations for the negro de alma branca. They would have seen no contradiction in the belief in white superiority that this term implies existing alongside the pride they took in Brazil affording free people of African descent the opportunity of social mobility despite the unfortunate and obvious circumstance of their blackness (E. Costa 1985). Their focus on the possibilities of individual accomplishment as "exceptions to the rule" brings into sharp relief their dismissal of the significance of the widespread and structurally embedded racism amid which they lived. Drawing on what is now considered sensational and offensive language, this is essentially the same situation that Paulo Henrique Amorim felt compelled to critique nearly 150 years later.

I will describe this as Brazil's comfortable racial contradiction, but my choice of this term requires a few disclaimers. I do not mean to imply that this racial situation is "comfortable" for all of Brazil's residents, as it certainly is not (A. Costa 2016; Sheriff 2001), nor do I wish to ignore the contributions of activists or academics, past and present, who have long sought to expose and ameliorate this contradiction (see, for example, Carneiro 2011; Dzidzienyo 1971; A. Nascimento 1978). More important, however, I do not intend to examine Brazil or Brazilians as somehow unusual, or even extreme, in their ability to juggle competing racial ideologies. Instead, my choice of the term highlights the fact that Brazil handles these larger contradictions quite well, making them seem "comfortable" and commonsensical to many people, who adapt them to new situations and political climates. North Americans, in particular, have been drawn to Brazilian race relations because a lack of overt racial conflict, an absence of clear racial identities, and a situation of ambiguous racial boundaries seem so unusual and even (to some) "unnatural." Rather than asking how Brazil developed an "exceptional" set of racial beliefs (cf. Hanchard 1998), I examine day-to-day life as completely normal. I describe how Rio residents, in particular, live among these comfortable racial contradictions and how these contradictions structure what they see, what they say, and how they interact with others across race and class lines. I seek to explain what it means to live in a city of sharp racial disparities and obvious racial hierarchy, but in a country where one is not supposed to be influenced by or believe in racial difference.

This contradiction has been studied by both Brazilian and Brazilianist scholars across a range of academic disciplines including history, sociology, political science, and anthropology. Florestan Fernandes famously claimed that Brazilians have "the prejudice of having no prejudice" (1969:xv). Anthropologist Robin Sheriff described Brazil's racial democracy as simultaneously "a nationalist ideology, a cultural myth, and ... a dream of how things ought to be" (2001:4). Michael Hanchard examines "the simultaneous production and denial of racial inequality" in Brazil (1998:155). For my part, I am less concerned with making sense of this contradiction than with understanding its effects. After all, Brazilians are not the only ones to smoothly juggle opposing ideals and realities. The United States remains a nation deeply wed to the notion of the American Dream and the seeming opportunity for any individual to succeed, even as income inequality has reached its highest levels since before the Great Depression. Shamus Khan refers to this as "democratic inequality" (2011:196). Nor does Brazil hold a monopoly on racial ironies. U.S. historian David R. Roediger reminds us of the question posed in the late 1980s by novelist Ralph Ellison: "What, by the way, is one to make of a white youngster who, with a transistor radio, screaming a Stevie Wonder tune, glued to his ear, shouts racial epithets at black youngsters trying to swim at a public beach?" (1998:359). At the end of the day, I am also not interested in assessing whether Brazil is more racist, less racist, or as racist as the United States, and, aside from offering a brief history of how the two nations have long been in dialogue and competed on racial matters (Seigel 2009), I attempt to avoid making what are often far more complicated comparisons. My goal instead is to understand how ubiquitous racial inequality, notions of white superiority, and a national disdain for racial prejudice play out in the mundane experiences of everyday life.

This book is based on twenty years of research in Rio de Janeiro, a city where 52 percent of the population identifies as preto (black) or pardo (brown), numbers that closely resemble the racial makeup of Brazil. I draw on my training as a linguistic and cultural anthropologist to analyze what may be described as everyday racial strategizing that Rio residents employ as they present themselves to others and as they interpret the people they meet. I focus on daily interactions to shed light on how racial inequality, and the racial hierarchy on which it is based, is not just something people live in but also something that people actively negotiate and produce. As I present snapshots of everyday life across race and class lines, I argue that Rio residents "read" bodies for racial cues, examining not only phenotypical attributes — including skin color, hair texture, and facial features such as the shape of the nose or lips — but also paying careful attention to cultural and linguistic practices such as how one is dressed and how one speaks. My attention to daily practice is inspired by the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 1994), and, as in his work, differences of socioeconomic class pervade the encounters that I describe. When I analyze the attention paid to levels of education, "proper" ways of speaking, and displays of cultural refinement (or the lack thereof), both North American and Brazilian readers may be drawn to read these as obvious signs of class status. The explicit intent of this book is to show how these embodied practices also convey racial meaning.

In what follows, I introduce the three main premises of Brazil's comfortable racial contradiction. They include the following racial "facts," which I will set up in further detail: (1) structural racism has always existed in Brazil; (2) Brazil continues to draw on and perpetuate notions of the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of blackness, ideas that are globally shared; and (3) Brazil has long been proud of its racial mixture and its racial tolerance, ideas that have been both promoted — and enforced — by the Brazilian nation-state. Given this cultural contradiction, I do not restrict my analysis to situations in which people explicitly talk about race, because those are clearly not the only times that Brazilians are influenced by racial ideas, nor are racial terms (including negro de alma branca) the only way that race impacts ideas about language and actual linguistic practice. In short, I invite the reader to dive into a study of the ways Rio residents make sense of ubiquitous signs of blackness and whiteness within a context that discourages them from describing what they see in racial terms.


Excerpted from Race and the Brazilian Body by Jennifer Roth-Gordon. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Brazil's "Comfortable Racial Contradiction" 1

2 "Good" Appearances: Race, Language, and Citizenship 42

3 Investing In Whiteness: Middle-Class Practices of Linguistic Discipline 69

4 Fears of Racial Contact: Crime, Violence, and the Struggle Over Urban Stace 95

5 Avoiding Blackness: The Flip Side of Boa Aparencta 128

6 Making the Mano: The Uncomfortable Visibility of Blackness in Politically Conscious Brazilian Hip-Hop 161

Conclusion: "Seeing" Race 185

Notes 195

References 203

Index 223

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