Brazil, race and racism: A real life “Alice in Wonderland” in which black Brazilians often fall victim to deception


Note from BW of Brazil: The denial and dismissal of the severity of racism in Brazilian society often times has a willing accomplice: the black population. For somewhere between 70 and 80 years, since the original release of the Gilberto Freyre classic 1933 book, Casa-Grande e Senzala (released in English as The Masters and the Slaves), Brazilians have been conditioned to believe that they live in a society that is free of racial prejudice. Although Freyre’s masterpiece has long been credited with challenging commonly held beliefs that Brazil’s widespread mixture of races led to an inferior people, critics of the book reject its portrayal of the country’s 300 plus years of slavery as somehow less brutal than in other countries leading to a country composed of “good masters and submissive slaves”, as sociologist Clóvis Moura saw it. 

The Gilberto Freyre masterpiece, "Casa Grande e Senzala"
The Gilberto Freyre masterpiece, “Casa Grande e Senzala”

Martiniano J. Silva in his book Racismo à brasileira: raízes históricas (1995 Anita Caribaldi)  opines that miscegenation as it happened in Brazil violated the dignity of black and indigenous women, affecting their honor in moral and sexual terms, through unions maintained by force, under the aegis of fear, insecurity and assault in which children were conceived legally without a father, remaining in the status of slaves and bastards, not having the cultural and racial enriching of any civilization. The author emphasizes the importance of not confusing the mis-characterization of a people through sexual violence with the hypothesis of a “racial democracy” (1), a term that would later become popularized largely because of Freyre’s work. Today, even 80 years after its initial release, students and scholars continue to debate the shortcomings and influences of Casa-Grande e Senzala in its portrayal of racial relations. 

In 2014, it is very common to hear the influence of this work in the daily discourse of Brazilian citizens when the topic of racism comes up. While people don’t generally use the term “racial democracy”, it is very common to hear black Brazilians utter the phrase “we are all equal” after they are the targets of racial insults or racism and as such, offer no sort of true resistance to a force that one could argue is as Brazilian as caipirinha. Although it would actually be not surprising that only 1.3% of  white Brazilians admit to being racists given the many years that the ideals presented in Casa Grande have been disseminated, how does one explain the same denial on the part of black Brazilians? As we have seen time and time again in stories on this blog, perhaps because of not having personally experienced the degradation of racism first hand, often times people are reduced to tears after having encountered a bout of racially motivated humiliation. As such, a Brazil that simultaneously denies that it is racist while consistently practicing it becomes a sort of racial “Alice in Wonderland” as its victims or perspective victims live a sort of manufactured schizophrenia in which the myth and reality are clearly not in accordance. 

Alice in the country of non-racists

by Leopoldo Duarte

Alice is a girl and not cut with a Tramontina (knife). A little dark-skinned skin, she’s amused when they call her moreninha (little dark girl). She considers race a noxious thing, and racism an attitude of strange and petty people; a lucky girl who never suffered prejudice for anything. In almost 30 years of life, she never felt discriminated against or belittled. A daughter of successful professionals, she learned from childhood that we are all equal, without special treatment or rights. In other words, quotas and victimization… ever!

Last week we published a text in which the author (and my friend) narrated an episode that made him realize how racism has been veiled in his life – of the middle class in a metropolis like Rio. The intention was to invite readers to reflect about how prejudice is present in their lives. After all, if the world is racist, not being the target of racism is already a way of enjoying privileges.

Examples of Brazil's mass media promoting the idea of the non-existence of racists or even the concept of race
Examples of Brazil’s mass media promoting the idea of the non-existence of racists or even the concept of race (2)

As one might expect the reactions were different. Among those who disagreed there were those who said that racism didn’t exist, those who opposed quotas and even those who accused the text of racism! In fact, it is strange, especially to blacks, to read the experiences of whites with racism, even more so when they are not fully sensitized to racial issues. And that is why it is so important that each discover the convenience itself in participating in a system that is invisible.

It is no wonder that a non-black doesn’t know how to recognize episodes of racism. It’s easy to ignore a problem that doesn’t affect us and privilege us, or even think that “we have nothing to do with it.” However, it astonishes much whenever a person of color expresses having been immune to racism, deny having suffered any form of discrimination throughout his/her life; although he/she has always been a minority in school, in college and other environments. Anyway, making Alice.

However none of these Alices that I found was able to respond negatively to all these questions:

  1. Never noticed the relief that some feel when you don’t talk like a funkeiro (3)?
  2. Never noticed someone holding their bag tighter when passing by your side?
  3. Never joked that they don’t see you in the dark?
  4. Never said that your hair is ruim (bad) or how much did it cost?
  5. Never a security guard paid too much attention to you in a department store?
  6. Never assumed you were an employee of some place?
  7. Never assumed you had an exaggerated sexual appetite?
  8. Never passed by among cars on the street and heard a symphony of doors being locked?
  9. Never showed expectations about the size of some part of your body?

Anyway, there is another infinity of possible questions. The problem is that although the Alices don’t deny all of these questions, they deny they were victims of racism.

Of all the ideas used to discredit a prejudice, victimization, to me, is the cruelest of them all. It’s like saying that someone was shot dead because of not having deflected the bullet, or was raped for wearing short shorts, or was robbed for not being careful. This argument only makes sense when you want to relieve the guilt of the author. What leads me to believe, from the Alices (which usually declare themselves against quotas and any remedial action) that blacks of middle/upper class in Brazil identify themselves and mirror themselves on whites – à la Maneco (4).

To perceive racism around us requires recognizing that some attitudes and jokes are not always harmless and that the offender may be around you. Therefore, arguments that expose racism become an attack on the mental sanity for those who have delusions that opportunities and treatment are equal between blacks and whites. A delusion that economic and social statistics and the reality in prisons and morros (hills or slums) quickly undo, regardless of the degree of naivete.

Racist is not an adjective applicable only to segregationists or Nazis, it’s also a thought that permeates all who think that the big problem of the theory that ranks humans according to their skin tone were abolished with slavery. Regardless of the ancestors, hair texture or skin tone of one who thinks so.


1. Cited in Nascimento, Roseli Machado Lopes do Nascimento. Arte-educação nos contextos de periferias urbanas: um desafio social. 2010 Dissertation, PUC-São Paulo.

2. In the 2008 novela Duas Caras broadcast in the Globo TV network, the character portayed by actress Juliana Alves is shown reading the 2007 book Não Somos Racistas, meaning “we’re not racists” by Ali Kamel, the head of the journalism department at Globo. The book was soundly rejected by activists of the Movimento Negro for its failure to even seriously approach the topic or provide sound evidence for its thesis. At right is a cover of a 2007 issue of Veja magazine in which it argues that race doesn’t exist. The cover features the twins Alex and Alan Teixeira da Cunha, both 18, who attempted to enter the Universidade de Brasília (UnB) under the system of affirmative action. As the system seeks to increase the number of non-white students in Brazil’s top universities, the twins identified themselves as pardos (browns). To their surprise, Alan was accepted as non-white while Alex was judged to be branco (white) and refused entrance through the quota system. The magazine, the nation’s most influential news magazine, like the most important newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, is very much anti-affirmative action and used this case and other arguments as their basis for rejecting quotas and the very existence of race. Question: even with judges disagreeing on the race of the twins, if one is judged as white and the other black, how does this prove the non-existence of race? Here one can note that both Globo TV and Veja magazine, like other mass media outlets in Brazil, have picked up on and are modern day supporters of the the “racial democracy” ideology as originally idealized by Gilberto Freyre.

3. A person who listens to funk music or participates in funk dances/culture and thus assumes all of the negative connotations associated with it the style.

4. Refers to Manuel Carlos, a writer of countless popular Brazilian television novelas (soap operas) whose career dates back to the late 1950s. His novelas are famous for their characters and their portrayals of middle-upper class lifestyles because, as he said in an interview, “it is the class of which I belong.”

Source: Os Entendidos

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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