Do-over: My Experience with Passive-Aggressive Racism in Brazil
I wrote a post yesterday about my experience with volunteer work and racism in Brazil. I edited the post and removed a portion about my experience with racism because I felt that it made some of the people that I work with seem intentionally racist and mean, when I do not believe this is the case.
I told of two stories in my old post. The first experience entailed my working at a daycare center in Salvador where there are many children. We care for children ages 2-3 mostly. Most of the children are considered Black, but they come in many different shades because of the history of mixing in Salvador. It is our job to assist with caring for the children by entertaining them, playing with them, feeding them and helping put them to bed. Some of the children can be quite energetic. They literally bounce off of the walls.
They are adorable, but it can be exhausting running after them. Some of my white volunteers, however, seem to look at their energy from a different viewpoint. To some of them, their behavior is rowdy and inappropriate. A few have taken it upon themselves to label certain children as being “the good ones,” and certain children as being “the bad ones.” Incidentally, the only “good one,” is the lightest child in the class and most of “the bad ones,” are darker-skinned, Black-looking children.
I believe that there is some bias in labeling certain children “the good ones,” and other children “the bad ones.” For example, when we were feeding the babies, one of the “bad children,” wouldn’t eat her food, so one of my fellow volunteers reprimanded her and told her “eat, eat.” The girl wouldn’t eat, so when she asked me to get her to eat, I said to her (in broken Portuguese) “Deve comer, carinhno, por favor.” She opened her mouth and pushed the bowl to me and I spoon fed her the meal. She was very good and after it was finished, I was very proud of her for eating her food. I wanted to say more, but all I knew how to say was “brigada, carinhno.” I felt that it was unfair to label her as “the bad one,” when I feel she just wanted some affection and to be given the same treatment as the other children.
Incidentally, the only “good child,” is the closest to being white. He is beige (J.Lo colored) with light brown, straight hair. All the other children have curly hair and look more clearly Black/mixed than white. Some of my white volunteers have even directly referred to the child as being “the only white one,” “the good one.” However, what is odd to me is that the child is not even “white.”
I have seen white-looking Black people enough, as they exist in my own family, and I can tell just by looking at his features that, even though he is fair-skinned, he has some Black ancestry in him. He looks to be at least a quarter Black to me. In America, I don’t even think he would be considered white at all, but something more like the Latino, mestizo phenotype. So, for them to label him as white, it seems like they’re just associating him with whiteness because he is supposedly better-behaved than the other children and I do not feel that is right. I feel its racist actually.
The other thing that bothered me was that one of the white volunteers, in particular, keeps making snide comments about the bodies and phenotypes of certain Brazilian women. She keeps saying things such as “no matter how big they are, they still show off their bodies.” For example, when we were on the beach, she said that she went a bought a little, Brazilian bikini because “I figured there are a lot of people who look worse than I do.”
This woman is a blonde, American. I took offense to that comment because she keeps referring to Bahian women as “big,” as if they are overweight, when honestly; they are very few obese women that I have seen in Salvador. It doesn’t even compare to the US, in all honesty. I see plenty of curvy and voluptuous women with wide hips, fuller bottoms, breasts etc. but I would hardly consider that obese or overweight.
Most of the women here are of African-descent, so many have a body-shape that is a bit different than the stereotypical European body type. So, I took her comments as an insult on the features of Black women, including myself because I am shaped more similar to the Black women here than women like her.
This same woman made another comment that I found to be “off.” We had a Professor from a Brazilian University come and he spoke about history of Brazil. He talked about the horrors of slavery, the middle passage, the mistreatment of slaves, the overwork, life-span and explained the admixture in Brazil by describing the extent of sexual relationships between Native women, African women and Portuguese men. He explained that because Portuguese men did not bring Portuguese women, many of them had relationships with their female slaves, who were Black and that admixture is still evident in the population today, but he said most people in Bahia consider themselves to be “proud negros.” (Btw, he considered himself “pardo,” but was married to a Black woman and he considers their son to be “Black,” even though he looks mixed)
He talked about the economic situation in Brazil and when he discussed the fact that most in Brazil were middle or lower class and a small percentage were upper class, just as it is anywhere, this woman asks, out of the blue, if the wealthy were mostly white and if they had white wives?…
I just found her comment to be somewhat odd because why would she automatically assume that wealthy white men should naturally not be with a Black woman. I just sensed something in her comment that made it seem as if she felt that white was superior or something and maybe it’s bothersome, to some, that there are so many mixed-Black people who come from Black women and white men mixing, even though the women were slaves!
I don’t know.
In the US, mixing occurred between white men and Black women in slavery, Jim crow, etc. too, but it was hidden, in Brazil it was not. So perhaps, it’s a shock to her that racial lines are so blurred or maybe it’s a reality check.
I honestly don’t tend to like group trips to foreign countries, I prefer to go by myself or with family, it’s more personal and I have more time to do the things I want, but I wanted to try this experience. However, I have noticed that often in these type of programs that are predominately white and are based in Black countries or regions, some of the white people who go on the trips, seem to go because it makes them feel superior. To go to a place with a lot of people of color and see some of the poverty etc…I think it makes SOME feel superior, but at the same time, there is a patronizing sense of entitlement to “save,” them from themselves. This isn’t always the case, sometimes it’s very genuine interest and concern, but sometimes, people have other motives, I feel.
When we were driving back from our volunteer sites and we saw some favelas, I made the comment that some of these remind me of inner cities in Baltimore and Philadelphia. This white woman was shocked that I would make that comment because she had never really thought that such inequalities could exist in the United States. That is the type of mentality, the blindness, the condescension and patronizing attitude that is frustrating to me. It’s as if certain people live with blinders and they cannot see the inequalities and privilege that sits right in front of them in the US, but they come to another country and patronize POC and then return back to the US with the same closed mindset.
It’s very saddening to me and it has been making the trip less enjoyable in such a vibrant city. I have never been in a situation where I have been the majority or where my beauty has been uplifted or considered the norm and to be honest, it just takes away from it, to have those type of snide comments on the trip. The worst part is, I do not believe the women see any problems at all with their comments.
They don’t even realize what they are saying and they are nice people, otherwise. They are very cordial, fun to hang out with…but it’s just this blindness that is hurtful.
I thought the whole point of this trip was to be open-minded and it just seems like some people are so close-minded.
It comes off as if some people are actually uncomfortable or offended that Black people are the norm here. It is, I think, a shock to some people who are used to being the standard that there are alternate definitions of beauty. It is a shock to some of the white women here that big hips, butts and voluptuous bodies are considered beautiful and I think some find it odd that a Black woman who looks this way would be considered desirable, to Black men and non-Black men.
But, on the edited post, post Tzipporah reminded me that it may just be “culture shock,” that some of my white cohorts are experiencing from never having been the minority before. She made an excellent point and she may be right.
It could just be culture shock, but at the same time, I think there is some latent racism that comes out sometimes too.
I just wanted to do another post explaining my feeling because I don’t want people to think that I hate the other volunteers or that they’re intentionally being mean or racist. Some of them, I really do like and I actually believe they are nice people, but there’s just this myopic mindset that is creating a wall, I feel, between us truly connecting s vs. just getting along or tolerating each other.
My next post will be on the similarities and differences between Black American Culture and what I’ve learned so far about Black Brazilian Culture in Salvador.