Roots of Racism: Brazil Maintains the Colonial Project of Subordination
Note from BW of Brazil: It’s always amazed me how it is that Brazil sees itself when the discussion is race and racism. He is a country that has managed to subjgate its black population in ways that are arguably worse than many other countries that have people of African descent. The evidence is in abundance. But yet, because of the existence of interracial sex, most of it happening while Africans were enslaved and treated like property, there is a deeply held belief that Brazil doesn’t have the racial problems that other multi-racial countries have.
In reality, many people are under the illusion that simply because people of different races have sexual contact (even when its rape), this automatically means there is no connection between power and wealth or the lack thereof and the fact that wherever one goes throughout the country, where there is wealth, most people have fair/white skin, while the areas in which poverty is the norm are populated mostly by people with darker skin.
It boggles my mind that whenever the issue of why people with darker skin are rarely seen in positions of prominence in the business world, the media and politics, and someone suggests that it could be because of race, people will argue that that can’t be true because so many Brazilians are of mixed race. The point here being, if blacks, white and Indians have mixed for centuries, how could racism exist? This belief was disseminated far and wide due to the seminal work of anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, Casa-Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves). Of course, black Brazilian leaders have been debunking this myth ever since, but in recent years, the criticism of Brazil’s historic denial has gotten even louder. And for good reason. Brazil’s race and color-coded inequality clearly didn’t happen by accident.
Looking for the roots of racism in the country where “Georges Floyds die every day”
By Vânia Maia
Two Brazilians were confronted with the role of the Portuguese in slavery when they visited nine African countries in search of Brazil’s black heritage. In the face of anti-racist demonstrations that swept the world, photographer César Fraga and historian Maurício Barros de Castro denounce the “racial denialism” of the Jair Bolsonaro government
When he was a child, the Afro-Brazilian, César Fraga, 47, heard his mother tell him that his maternal great-grandmother wasn’t a slave only thanks to the Lei do Ventre Livre (Free Womb Law). Also known as the Rio Branco Law, this legislation, passed in 1871, provided that children born to slave mothers would be free in Brazil.
“My great-grandmother died when I was 10, I never knew very specific details, but I know that she felt a huge internal conflict because she had rights that her parents didn’t have, because they were slaves. She thought that was very unfair,”says the photographer.
Feeling the weight of slavery in the family’s history, César Fraga began to question what existed before the “navio negreiro” (slave ship) that seemed to limit Brazil’s African heritage to the brutalized and exploited black. “I have never seen a young man wanting to associate himself with a black man shackled on a boat, but that’s all that is shown in the history books that I grew up reading,” he illustrates. In his visits to Brazilian schools, he is accustomed to the fact that, in front of an audience of mostly black students, no one raises his hand when he asks if someone is of African descent.
For this reason, he decided to set out in search of historical references that would counteract such a reductive view. “I wanted to bring some of Africa’s cultural wealth to Brazil and, with that, help to fight racism in my country,” says the designer, who became a photographer after leaving behind the advertising agency he had founded.
He joined the Brazilian historian Maurício Barros de Castro, also 47 years old, and, over the course of two months, visited nine African countries, including old territories colonized by the Portuguese, such as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. They also passed through Senegal, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. The expedition gave rise to a book, a photography exhibition and a documentary series on the African cultural influences enhanced by the slave trade to Brazil. The book Do Outro Lado (Editora Olhares) has no Portuguese edition and the documentaries don’t have an exhibition date in our country yet (in Brazil, they are shown on TV Prime Box Brazil). César Fraga also liked to be able to bring the exhibition to Portugal.
During his African tour, César Fraga reveals that it was in Nigeria where he found “more Brazil”. He even came across a Carnival party in the city of Lagos. “There was even a barbecue in the middle of the street,” he recalls, surprised.
The photographer had the expectation of finding more Brazilian roots in Angola, since about half of the enslaved people brought to Brazil were originally from that country, “but the colonist’s hand was very strong”, he notes. “Angolans are very Portuguese, it was very difficult to find pre-colonial Angola.” Capoeira and samba, for example, have their origins in the Bantu culture of southern Angola.
Under the skin
Maurício Barros de Castro locates the origin of racism in Brazil in the slave trade. “At that time, the Church and Science justified the discourse that the negro was inferior. And that thought persists today,” he argues. The professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro stresses that the history narrated by the winners “makes the importance of African leaders who organized themselves to fight slavery invisible.” After all, “its abolition was not the result of a simple law, it was also the result of the liberation struggle.”
Portugal was the first country to transport enslaved people from Africa to the Americas. Altogether, there were 12 million Africans trafficked.
In Brazil, there is a law that requires the teaching of Afro-Brazilian history in schools in the country, “although it doesn’t alter structural racism, it is an anti-racist instrument,” defends Maurício Barros de Castro.
Portugal was the first country to transport enslaved people from Africa to the Americas. Between 1501 and 1866, about 12 million Africans were forced to embark – 2 million didn’t survive the voyage. In Brazil, slavery was abolished in 1888.
César Fraga considers himself the example of the “classic Brazilian”, in addition to having blacks and indigenous people in his family, his maternal grandfather was the son of Portuguese people. “Brazilian society is one of the richest in the world culturally, but there are huge racial differences,” he says.
“A child, the daughter of a maid, died while the mother’s boss took care of him. Would that happen if he were white?”, he asks. The case happened in early June and shocked Brazil. Miguel Santana da Silva fell from the ninth floor of a luxury building in the city of Recife, in Pernambuco. He was 5 years old.
A history of violence
Interestingly, the anthropologist and sociologist Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) was also from Pernambuco. He was the great architect of Lusotropicalism, who praised the miscegenation of the Portuguese as proof of a more benevolent colonialism than the others.
“In Brazil, there is a consciousness that the Portuguese colonial project was devastating, but there is also a positive outlook in relation to the cultural mix. Now, it is necessary to deconstruct the idea that it was a milder colonization, as if torture could be mild. What resulted from miscegenation was a hierarchy, in which white is more valued, and not a multicultural country,” explains Maurício Barros de Castro.
On his visits to Portugal, the historian realized that, on the one hand, “there is an interest in recovering the historical past in order to recognize Portuguese participation in slavery and to bring about a change, but on the other hand, there is still difficulty in facing the racial issue in the country; traumas lead to silence,” he declares.
“All the violence of Portuguese colonialism is recognized, which is at the origin of many of the problems of today, but the Portuguese living in Brazil are very close to the population and this created a great affectivity” – MAURÍCIO BARROS DE CASTRO, HISTORIAN
The historian classifies the relationship between Brazilians and Portugal as “very ambivalent”. On the one hand, “we recognize all the violence of Portuguese colonialism that is at the root of many of today’s problems. On the other hand, the Portuguese who live in Brazil are very close to the population and this has created great affectivity.”
César Fraga knows Lisbon and Porto. In fact, it was on a night in São João, three years ago, that he decided, together with his wife, to call the couple’s son João. The photographer doesn’t see resentment of Brazilians towards the Portuguese due to the colonial past. “There is grief from the Movimento Negro (black rights movement) in relation to the white, but not necessarily against the Portuguese,” he explains. “In the suburb of Rio de Janeiro many Portuguese live, they are associated with non-favored areas, they own the bar where people go, there is a lot of proximity”, says the carioca (Rio native), who has lived in São Paulo for 11 years.
The photographer feels that, in the last two years, the fight against racism in Brazil “has gone back five decades”. And he gives an example: “The president of Fundação Palmares [Sérgio Camargo], who should promote racial equality in Brazil, is a black racist”, he accuses – went so far as to affirm that slavery brought benefits. At the same time, President Jair Bolsonaro “disdains the issue and treats it in a joking way”, despite the fact that 56% of the Brazilian population is black.
“The Military Police kills blacks every day. We have Georges Floyds every day” – CÉSAR FRAGA, AFRO-BRAZILIAN PHOTOGRAPHER
“I know people who are afraid that their black son will run in the neighborhood where he lives because he may be the target of the police, but a white child can run anywhere,” illustrates the ex-publicist. “Not to mention boys who don’t get jobs because of their skin color, are beaten by the police and end up accepting the social trap of drug trafficking,” he summarizes.
“Racism is always present”, concludes César Fraga. “The Military Police kills blacks every day. We have Georges Floyds every day.”
The color of poverty
Maurício Barros de Castro has no doubt that, in Brazil, poverty has a color: “It’s primarily black”. Just go to a favela (slum) to confirm this. “When slavery ended, there was no effort to integrate these people into society, they were left to their own devices,” he adds.
“Brazil maintains the colonial project of subordination and violence, physical and social, against the black population. These stories are present in the news,” exemplifies the visiting professor of the University of California, Berkeley, USA.
The government’s commitment is fundamental to implement policies that combat social inequality, such as the bet on public education, but currently, this is not a priority in Brazil.
“The current government contributes to racial denialism”, defends the historian, “just as it denies Covid-19, the dictatorship or the fact that the Earth is round.”
César Fraga is hopeful that the death of George Floyd, and the anti-racist demonstrations triggered by it, could be a turning point. “That image is very emblematic: a black man in handcuffs, with a knee on his neck and a white man with his hands in his pockets”, he describes.
Maurício Barros de Castro also witnesses the growth of anti-racist consciousness in the new generations. “The demonstrations we have seen are a symptom of a population, which includes whites, that no longer tolerates this type of violence”, he notes, before adding: “From now on, the response will be global”.