Shall we talk about racism?
Brazilian cities have not been left out of the protests that have been shaking global metropolises in recent weeks, following the death of George Floyd, in the United States. Thousands of demonstrators in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília took to the streets, with posters in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., and called for an end to racism also in Brazil. In social networks, the issue reached the centre of the debates and mobilised celebrities.
It makes total sense that this discussion is taking shape in Brazil. As someone born and raised in the country, I feel able to say that we’ve been a racist society since the beginning of our existence. What’s striking in 2020, with the pandemic and the BLM movement across the world, is how much it is becoming clear that racism permeates and aggravates several of Brazil’s biggest problems still today.
Prejudice against Black and Indigenous people is one of the factors that explain, for example, the accelerated expansion of Covid-19 in vulnerable communities in Brazil, the absurd death rates caused by police officers in the country and how the impacts of the economic crisis and social inequality are distributed.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that racism also plays a key role in the climate crisis. It is past time for all of us, Brazilians and people everywhere who care about social justice and the environment, to open even more space for learning, conversations and actions that help us to eliminate racism. This is a fundamental struggle, if we are to resolve the climate emergency as well.
350.org wants to encourage that learning and understanding on racism and climate, both in Brazil and around the world. Our hope is that this series can help open that space. Are you ready to talk about it?
Does anyone still doubt that Brazilian society is racist?
The other day, my childhood friends and I were chatting via app messages about the wave of protests that has been shaking the world. We tried to remember if we had had any conversation about racism when we were in school, in the late 1990s, and the unanimous answer was that no, racism was not an issue in our teenage universe.
This probably has to do with the racial composition of the school where we studied, a large private school in São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. Among the more than 300 students who graduated from high school at this college, in the same year that my friends and I finished the course, there were only three black people, by our accounts. Of the dozens of teachers we had, only one was black, according to our memories.
In my college class, I don’t remember black students either. In my workplaces as a journalist, including newsrooms of major media outlets and NGOs, I count on my fingers the number of black or brown colleagues. None were chiefs. When I go to a more expensive restaurant in São Paulo, I find few black customers, but when I get on the subway or take a bus, then I see a more diverse and closer portrait of the reality of the population of Brazil.
According to official government data, about 56% of Brazilians declare themselves to be black or brown, but clearly there are places where this portion of the population is very present, and others where it appears scarce: the spaces of power and privilege.
A system that defines who is worth more
It took me a long time to understand that this is one of the manifestations of racism. Even though I have never seen my classmates at school, college or work taking prejudiced actions against an individual or group, racism has been present in the formation of the middle class spaces of which I have been part, throughout my entire life, precisely because of the absence of black and brown people, in a country where this population is the majority.
In Brazil, as in the United States or anywhere else, racism is not just translated into attitudes. It is not just suffocating an unarmed man until his death, by putting your knee on his neck in an attitude of humiliation. Racism is a system, a way of organising the world and defining who will occupy which spaces, built over centuries.
In this system, black people are worth less. The police can be more violent towards them; teachers, doctors and public officials are implicitly authorised to treat them with less respect. Their neighbourhoods and territories can be contaminated by the fossil fuel industry, by the mining companies or by wildfires that destroy the ecosystems they depend on. They are expected to receive less for their work and take more risks, including during a pandemic.
Even in cases where no one went there and squeezed the necks of black people, the history of our countries and the way in which our societies organise themselves have led and continue to lead black people to scenarios that are almost always tougher in comparison with the ones that white people face.
Is it racism or classism?
Many people in Brazil still say that we are not a racist country, but a classist one. That black people face worse living conditions not because of racial reasons, but because they are poorer. However, if that were true, black or mixed-race people of middle or upper class would not suffer prejudice, and there are countless cases of discrimination against these people, including celebrities, to prove the contrary.
Plus, the proportion of people living on low income is higher among the black population. As has already been said by many black people, poverty in Brazil has a colour. Classism and racism, therefore, are closely linked. And it is no coincidence: a set of historical conditions has brought us here, including transatlantic slavery, European colonialism, and our society’s lack of interest in repairing these shameful chapters of human history.
Therefore, it is up to us, Brazilians who have the privilege of not suffering racism in our own country, to recognise that, even when we do not have racist attitudes, we are immersed in a system of oppression where racism materialises in many areas.
We’ll explore more on this topic in the next blogs in this series on Racism in Brazil.
Next up: 3 recent tragedies that shocked Brazil (and what they reveal about racism in the country)