Provocative title. Big question. No perfect answers. Many depressing pointers.
Why depressing? If the evidence shows that regardless of your decision, you end up in the same predicament. How would you feel? Powerless I imagine.
I am back from my trip to Brazil. Eight great days. My friends and I spent time with economists, entrepreneurs, leaders and we also immersed ourselves in local life. My biggest highlight? Brazilians’ relationships to “race”. I could see it on the regular once I started paying attention to it:
- It was the first time people seamlessly used the term “Black”, regardless of being Black or not.
- A part of Rio is called Afro Town, which surprised me slightly. And then I wondered, “how come there are china towns” and it is all good, but Afro Town is surprising?
- In Afro Town, I got into the most insightful conversations about Blackness in Brazil. A white family was raising awareness about the cruelty of slavery in Rio.
- A group of white, mixed, and Black people collaborating to push forward the Afro agenda.
Our guide explained that race is self-declared in Brazil. Again it felt weird, but I believe in gender identification. So why not race identification, especially in a country with so much mix. Then the guide also dropped a bomb on me. “Racism is illegal in Brazil”. And she went on to explain cases of explicit racism and the person being arrested – I was later informed that racism is also illegal in Russia… so you know… does not mean all that much by itself.
We spend the whole morning with our guide. And as soon as she identified as LGBTQ+, I felt more comfortable going into real talks with her. I started asking what was really on my mind: “how come Brazil seems woke and yet everyone in power looks white?” There were no simple answers to that one. At least she educated me on the origin of slavery in Brazil. Here is the key difference with the US.
- People who migrated to the US were settlers. Entire families were looking to conquer the US and stay there. Often people with wealth or status. Brazil, instead, was seen as a resource. A place to be harvested. People did not primarily plan to settle in Brazil, they wanted to exploit Brazil for its natural resources. It was not wealthy families migrating in this case, but rather men with little to lose. So you guessed it. Men alone in Brazil would rape Black women and not hide it. They did not have to, it was not illegal or immoral, contrary to the US.
- Mixed race kids were ordinary in Brazil early on. Even in the royal family. Unlike in the US, where enslavers would pretend that kids were not theirs, it would be acceptable in Brazil. Today about 43% of the Brazilian population is self-declared mixed.
How come, with 2 very different situations, both the US and Brazil seem to end up in a similar position where white people have the wealth and power. Somehow, I always hoped that discrimination would end when there were enough Black or Mixed people. But even with more than 50% of Brazilians self-identifying as Black or Mixed, we are far from an egalitarian society. They make up two-thirds of incarcerated individuals and 76 percent of the poorest segment of the population.