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Africa, Culture, South America, Travel

A lighter shade of Black… Observations of racial identity in Rio

This post is not an academic essay on Racial Identity. It’s simply a personal account of what I’ve witnessed and experienced while in Rio/Brazil, and thoughts of locals and expats I have met.

If you come to Brazil thinking racism doesn’t exist (or you chose to label it ‘classism’ – another topic in itself, as opposed to what it really is), welcome to the real world. I’m here to bring you down to reality.

Please leave the comfort of your Copacanbana/Ipanema/Botafogo hotel/hostel and arrange a favela tour without your Rayban tinted glasses so you can see things as they really are.

I am Afro-Brazilian, Patricia in her home town Novo Iguacu, Rio

I am Afro-Brazilian, Patricia in her home town Novo Iguacu, Rio

I’ve been in Brazil just 2 weeks and already the topic of race has been brought up quite a few times. The first, admittedly, I instigated it in a discussion with my friend Patricia. Patricia is Brazilian with a deep chocolate complexion similar to mine. On more than one occasion we’ve been told we look alike and asked if we’re sisters. And her response has been;

‘why? because we’re both chocolate?’

Patricia chooses to call herself Afro-Brazilian. I found this very interesting as I rarely meet a Brazilian (besides someone from Salvador) who chooses to add the pre hyphenated African link. And on top of that Patricia speaks passionately about her desire to visit Africa one day and her experience meeting Africans when she was in London. She recollects humorously the times people wouldn’t believe that she is Brazilian. Challenging her to prove it;

“say something in Portuguese.”

Her mind would go blank and she’s just reply with a cliched

“Oi, tudo bem?”

Racially identified as 'coloured' in the native South Africa. The friends and host Patricia

Racially identified as ‘coloured’ in the native South Africa. The friends and host Patricia

When Patricia hosted 7 (coloured; it’s really strange for me to use this term. In the UK we would say ‘mixed race’) friends travelling together from South Africa, I sensed I may have hit a bad chord when I said, in response to the experience of racism one of the young men had while in Manchester

“but they love black men up north!”

So later that evening, I quietly spoke to Lorraine the group leader and asked her how she describes her racial identity.

“In South Africa you’re white, coloured, or black. Now you have Chinese, Indian etc. So I’m coloured.”

(And adds that her mother is Indian and her father is coloured so “what am I?” she asks).

She concluded

“It’s really nice to be in Brazil where there’s all shades of colours. There’s no racism here.”

She went there. I couldn’t let this one pass. No racism?! Are we in the same country? Am I the only foreigner that can see straight through the false facade that ‘everybody is equal. We’re all one people- Brazilian’?

Another occasion the topic came up, was in the least expected setting of Santa Terersa. One sunday evening outside a bar where expats were gathered networking (amongst other things), I got chatting with Sarah. An Irish journalist living in Rio with her young daughter (who’s father is black). She told me about the hardships she faced in Rio having a ‘black’ child (mixed race).

“Once, the bus driver actually stopped the bus and threatened to call the police! Accusing me of kidnapping my own child because I’m white and she’s black!”

I listened to Sarah’s expressive descriptions in her soft Irish accent (every other word was of course “what the f*ck!”), in amazement that in a city that is a melting pot of mixed heritage, such scenarios can take place.

My own personal experience has been a mixed bag. While in general I joke about not having to learn Portuguese because

“(I’m chocolate) no body bothers me”

there is a flip side. I’ll continue with the fitting in part first.

The view from my 9th floor window in Central...

The view from my 9th floor window in Central…

I’m living in Centro. While it’s quite a large area, the part I live in is- to be blunt, run down. I’m not going to dwell on that issue as it is this environment which is perhaps keeping any attention away from the possibility I maybe a tourist… One who barely speaks enough portuguese to get by, mind you (its never hit home just how vulnerable I actually am)!

The majority of the residents here are black (I know, black isn’t really a specific racial identity, but I did say this post isn’t academic). So, I fit in. While there’s the positive side of fitting in (I go about my business freely, no one looks twice at me- unless they are checking out my ass in my gym attire, and I get the odd ‘linda, chocolate’ mumble).

The negative side is that I’m fitting into a community that is steeped in drugs, prostitution, people selling on the street, and generally lots of black people hanging around doing… Nothing.

This is what I ‘fit into’ . The stereotype I’m labeled under in the minds of the uneducated (and I don’t just mean academically).

So when I walk down the street in Lapa, and a group of white guys (yes, I said white. Sure Brazilian, but still very much white) seek my attention by rudely gesturing I come over to their table, I put them in their place. They chose the wrong African girl to disrespect!

And the best example I could think of putting someone in their place without showing myself up, is to imitate my best friend Rosa when (on the rare occasion) she is telling off her son.
She looks him straight in the eye, points a finger and says sternly in Italian,

“Abbi respetto”.

Simple. But effective. Of course I translate this into english and tell the guys “Have some respect ok.” It was tempting to add a swear word in there but I didn’t demean myself!
One of the men proceeded to ask, almost apologetically where I was from. Like that mattered! So I repeated again “No, have some respect ok. You don’t talk to anyone like that.” And continued walking.

I was fuming.

They had made their case worse. The fact that they were almost apologetic that they mistook me for a Brazilian makes me wonder how life must be for Afro/black Brazilian women. Afterall, don’t they know not all black girls are easy! A black girl can be sexy, confident, attractive AND not a hooker!

I wanted to get the opinion of a non Brazilian man. It’s a pretty touchy subject so the only person I could think to discuss it openly with was Marco (my Italian friend who lives in LA). I met up with Marco for an evening in Ipanema beach. The subject came up naturally and Marco gave his perspective after I told him my experience.

“Actually I find that Brazilian girls in Rio dress really sexy, get attention from the men, BUT, when you try to take it further- they go all religious!”

I just assumed that this experience was with white or mixed racial Brazilian women (yes I’m sub dividing, you get my drift by now- there is are differences in attitudes). Lets assume my assumption is correct, that means that the next easiest availability is the black woman (chocolate).

My flat mate Nubia, a typical representation of a Brazilian beauty; mulata, curly hair, exudes sexuality and full of life (but don’t be fooled! This lady knows her A-Z of Afro-Brazilian history and proudly calls herself ‘black‘ not ‘mulata‘) gave me her perspective with the security guy downstairs as an example.

“I think that security guys likes you Kai.”

I blush. Err, thanks but no thanks. So not my type!

“The problem is these men think black girls with your colour are easy…”

She hit the nail on the head!

Black is beautiful... Don't mistake a confident, attractive, sexy black girl to be 'easy' !

Black is beautiful… Don’t mistake a confident, attractive, sexy black girl to be ‘easy’ !

To the average Brazilian, black girls (delicious chocolate like myself) though desirable, are labelled under; poor and needy, therefore vulnerable which (they must think) makes us desperate. And all this in relation to sex. Black girls must want sex to fill a void (as well as their stomachs, and pockets).

I could rant on about this but who really cares?

Lets have love for humanity by showing some respect amongst ourselves and getting socially educated.

Please leave your comments about any experience/option/debate you may have.

About @makingkai

I'm new on the blogging scene. Yes I know, but better late than never. In my mind I've blogged about everything! But in reality its a different story. I'm passionate about travel. This blog is not a guide book however. More of a way to express myself in differnt contexts. I'm here to tell my story of finding mysef through travel, and hopefully inspire a few people along the way! thanks for following my journey! www.travelmakerkai.com www.theefedstudent.wordpress.com

Discussion

28 thoughts on “A lighter shade of Black… Observations of racial identity in Rio

  1. Very interesting piece. Racial identity is an almost simple issue in Britain compared to the reality in Brazil. You may want to check out the Brazilian context at http://www.blackwomenofbrazil.com/2012/11/black-negro-or-african-descendant.html and the British at http://www.TAOBQ.blogspot.com

    Posted by Aobq Kwaku | December 22, 2012, 7:30 pm
  2. Interesting report Kai. While I really do dig Brazil and had a great time in Rio, I certainly learned from the ground level that the “racial democracy” image they project is a farce. One night in Lapa I went to meet up with some white gringo friends at a restaurant. The door guy acted like he wasn’t going to let me in like I was some favela street kid, even though I was dressed normally. Then when he saw I spoke no Portuguese and my friends were waving me over to the table he let me through. By no means diid that one incident ruin my week and a half there and I had plenty of good experiences to more than balance that out, but I can clearly see that being born black in Brazil must be tough. There’s this attitude that they treat “their” blacks different than they do blacks from somewhere else. Even in America, a white that might be racist to me being an American black might find you exotic and fascinating with your African looks and British accent and you may experience something different in America than an African-American. Or if a cop pulls a British black over here, they may treat you better because you have a British accent. I’ve also heard from an African-American that went to London that a cop changed his demeanor when he realized that he wasn’t British. Funny how that works, huh?

    What you said is also interesting about how men view black women sexually in those societies. I’ve heard this is often true throughout Latin America. I once read a Nigerian girl’s blog who was living in Buenos Aires and was constantly being propositioned for sex. Sounds like it happens a lot in S. European countries too, especially Italy. I remember my first night in Santiago, Chile at a party, a Chilean guy told me how much he likes black women because of their asses.

    Posted by Chris A. | December 23, 2012, 2:19 am
    • Thanks for your comment Chris!

      V. interesting to hear a man’s prospective. Like yourself I’ve also had plenty of good experiences which out-weigh the negative so I try not to let it get to me. However it is very easy to ‘brush it under the carpet’ especially if you’re in Brazil for a short time or holiday. I’ve been here for almost a month so I’m seeing things differenly as the days pass. I guess thats the reality of ‘living’ somewhere as opposed to a holiday.

      As you pointed out, it happens all over the world. And I love travelling so I just put it down to ignorance and hope that I’ve educated at least one person when I put them in their place!

      Posted by findingme | December 31, 2012, 2:26 am
  3. It was insightful, i was about to suggest you check out the bwob site but someone already beat me to it. Great article and i can see why it’d get annoying, fascinating that plenty of people think of brazil as being this country where everything is kosher, i’ve been tracking and watching things for a while and it seems anything but. Until it is addressed it won’t change. As for those wanker white guys, it’s an entitlement / power thing. I lived in malta for some months two years ago and had a hand full of experiences from being told in italian (dude was some diplomat’s son) via a translator that i should come to his hotel, he was willing to pay me. To groups making what they thought were sexy gestures. Of course, you can chalk it up and say oh they didn’t mean it yada yada but errr na in many ways they did for sure. Anyway, great article hun, it’s interesting to read or hear from someone visiting, i still might visit eventually

    Posted by Teetee | December 23, 2012, 3:45 am
  4. Olá Kai,

    Pardon my ignorance, but I can honestly say that the much I knew about Brazil was from the film ‘City of God’ & the sequel ‘City of Men’

    Great post. Quite insightful. Reminds me of my own experiences here in London & in Spain.

    I was out clubbing in north London with some girlfriends (who happened to be all white) & some white guy who was dancing amongst us proceeded to grab my a** & wink at me, to which I quickly responded with a stern look & reprimanded him in a way that he just had to apologise over & over again. I was dressed quite decent, nothing was hanging out unlike some of my girlfriends who were showing more skin than me. And even if I had decided to wear a figure-hugging, cleavage-showing, extra short dress, I still wouldn’t stand for that. I asked the guy why he picked me out of the crowd & his answer was, “it was just a bit of fun”. He cowered away after that though.

    On another occasion, I was on a solo escapade in the north of Spain (Basque country to be precise), where I experienced some intense ogling from a group of Arab men on a secluded beach where I was taking some photos. That situation really unnerved me, so I quickly moved to another part of the beach. The funny thing is, a white girl happened to walk by as the men were calling me ‘sweetie’ & whatever else & they didn’t disturb her at all.

    The strange thing is the local Basque lads were very respectful & only stared at this lonesome ‘chocolate’ traveller from afar. Occasionally, I’d get a courteous smile & a ‘guapa’ from older local gents (& ladies too).

    The race issue sounds quite ominous & pronounced there Brazil though. (And to be quite frank, racism & prejudice exist all around the world.)
    Doesn’t that country have one of the largest population of black people in the world, outside of Africa?

    Anyway, in an effort to educate myself just a tad about Brazil I found this article about the lack of non-white models in Brazil fashion

    http://www.thehabarinetwork.com/brazil-more-black-models-should-be-included-in-rio-fashion-show

    Something else I found

    http://m.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/17/brazil-census-african-brazilians-majority

    Posted by Grace Kabo | December 24, 2012, 2:16 am
    • I almost cancelled my first trip to Brazil after watching ‘City of God’ a week prior to traveling! I’m so glad I didn’t (and ‘City of God’ is now one of my favourite films cinematically).

      Yes, this experience isn’t just in Brazil. I love travelling however sometimes I forget to put on my ‘sensitivity repellant’ so I notice people’s attitudes towards a single black girl travelling alone- I stand out and not just because of my height! Most of the time it’s positive, but when it’s not- its just frustrating!

      I checked out the articles. Thanks for sharing! Maybe you too will be interested in sharing your travel experience with the world someday (subtle way of persuading you to blog)!

      Posted by findingme | December 31, 2012, 2:05 am
  5. Well yesterday, I was asked if ´voce mora numa comunidade?´. Welcome to Brazil, mate!

    Posted by Ayo | December 25, 2012, 2:53 pm
  6. Hi – Just blogged Highlighting Brazil’s Complex African Identity And Race Issues at http://taobq.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/highlighting-brazils-complex-african.html

    Posted by Aobq Kwaku | December 28, 2012, 9:09 am
  7. In Lagos I think the situation is similar. I cannot speak for all but I do get the impression that expats in general view Nigerian girls as easy. Also the general view of the average Nigerian who sees an expat with a Nigerian lady is that said lady is a whore/ prostitute. So either way lose lose for the black lady in question. I find this confusing as I don’t think I was ever viewed as easy when in the UK. So what makes it okay for attitudes to change when you cross the Atlantic?

    Posted by jjcguidetolagos | December 28, 2012, 4:44 pm
    • Oh don’t get me started on Africa in general! That’s another ball game, however similar attitudes from expats towards African women as I’m experiencing here.

      In general I think it’s how you carry yourself that will distinguish you from being associated as being ‘easy’. But that’s never stopped an expat or two getting fresh with me! Completely different attitudes compared to when in the UK also! I have many white male friends and they’re almost intimidated by me lol! The thing is, expats living in Africa feel ‘on top of the world’ and they use this power to exploit. Perhaps not all, but please show me one who hasn’t and I’ll congratulate them personally!

      Thanks for your comment!

      Posted by findingme | December 31, 2012, 2:16 am
  8. wow, Kai, you understand and see some core questions in Brazil really well! Congratulations! Cheers, Marco (from Barbados/Brazil)

    Posted by BB | December 29, 2012, 5:18 pm
  9. Easy black girl

    I do not think it’s real
    Here in Rio most doorman (security guards) are Northeasterners.
    Where there are no many blacks, they really feel attracted to black women.
    Not necessarily easy weighing about having sex but always with fantasies and curiosities.
    Because black women are very different in their physical form are like Mermaids.
    It has everything in the right measure.

    This very far from being easy.

    Posted by Patricia Castilho | January 3, 2013, 8:15 pm
    • I noticed that there are not many dark skin black people in Rio as one might expect. So, yes I guess I stood out, and of course black is desire able no doubt. My problem is people’s attitudes towards a black woman- particularly a dark skinned woman.

      Obrigada for your comment.

      Posted by findingme | January 8, 2013, 11:41 am
  10. Through out the piece I think you asked the questions and in turn answered them anyways and I read the comments and its all quiet interesting. Here is another angle, but before I go into it, let me just say I was surprised Arab men looked down on a black girl more than they did on a white girl but that too has its own dynamic. Where do I start? Django? It was about glorifying the black man more than it was about demeaning him. Not to give away the best part but how many black men had the power SLJ had in that movie during those years? So yes it goes back to the times of slavery and colonisation. And it still is the problem. Aboriginal people are always the ones that suffered the most. Australia and the US for example and its still the case.

    Here is my take on it, black women are looked down on more in developing countries and white women more in the developed countries. In arab countries because of the influx of Russians and eastern Europeans to serve the sex industry, any white woman is not saved from the indecent proposal. Oh it’s a very controversial argument but true. The black women in developed countries are a lot more stronger, so much so that the black men feel its easier to deal with an ‘easier’ white woman. And she might not be your average white trash but they can be easier. Of course it’s a bit of an argument and depending on who you speak to about it, they might not be too forward in admitting. Again it has its web of complexities. I have seen a few documentaries on brazil and I think I have one pending, in as much as I find it shocking, it doesn’t come much as a surprise.

    Then of course, then long instilled notion within ourselves on how we view our race. Where light skin girls happily tag their picture with ‘teamlightskin’ and what they are celebrating I don’t know. The Portuguese problem has affected the Portuguese colonies as well to the extent that I once knew an Angolan who told me she is mulato and somewhat hinted at the idea that they were considered a superior race. Though to her credit her two best friends are both white and a dark skinned girl and I doubt they had racial complexes within themselves.

    Finally in my own country where mostly Lebanese will come and live, Indians too and some Chinese, but they are too good to associate with the indigenous people who the supposedly rich amongst us run to their businesses and make them wealthy without skipping a heartbeat. Not to leave it one sided, i must add that if we visit must of these countries, we find these sane people hospitable, welcoming and curios to know their guests. So it’s a very very complex subject which I really take back to the age of the slave masters who took away a lot of the pride the people had back then and imposed themselves as the superior race. I for one growing up in Africa never ever knew or understood race the way most people did, I really just saw people more in terms of their country of origin as opposed to the shade of their skin. I apologise for dragging on..

    Posted by Bakano | February 23, 2013, 12:31 am
    • Hi Bakano, your opinion is appreciated so no worries about the detailed response :)

      I found the point you made about women in different development environments interesting. As an African who grew up in the UK, I actually feel most comfortable in environments where people look like me. When I’m in Ghana I feel much more confident. And I feel there are better opportunities there for an educated black woman than even in the UK, where there is still a certain barrier as to how far a black person can reach. So I think your perspective of ‘black women being looked down on in developing countries more so than developed countries’ depends on the angle.

      Posted by @makingkai | February 24, 2013, 9:40 pm
  11. I enjoyed the post very much thanks

    Posted by Rex barnie | February 24, 2013, 2:34 pm
  12. Merry Christmas, my friend!

    All the best to you and your loved ones in year 2014.

    Cheers!! :D

    Posted by BeWithUs | December 24, 2013, 3:14 pm

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