The article that came out not only included quotes that we hadn’t said, but it mentioned just “the Americans Erik Larson and Leslie Meyer.” Why was Laura Rose the odd one out? Probably because she has tanner skin, darker hair, and brown eyes. She wasn’t as white as the reporter expected Americans to be.
This is just one example of how my whiteness has determined how people treat me here.
Recently, there’s been a good deal of attention on race within Brazil. That’s due, in part, to a controversial law establishing racial quotas in public universities that came into effect last year.
Dividing people along racial lines strikes some Brazilians as, well, un-Brazilian. In part, that’s because Brazil has long history of racial mixing, which makes racial categories much more fluid than in the United States. Another reason is the fact that, in the words of Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, “most Brazilians believe that discrimination in their homeland today is more often tied to one’s wealth and perceived social standing than it is to one’s skin color.”
But the statistics tend to belie that view. Brazilians who live in poverty are disproportionately dark-skinned. Brazilians in the top levels of education, business, and politics, on the other hand, generally have lighter skin.
On billboards, I see models who could mostly be from northern Europe. It’s the same in magazines and on television. There’s a definite preference for whiteness, which even extends to the kinds of plastic surgery that Brazilians opt for.
In PiauÃ, most people have some combination of European, African, and indigenous ancestry. There’s a wide range of skin colors and body types, but I still stand out.
A few months back, some students from UFPI invited Leslie, Laura Rose, and me to the high school where they do teaching internships. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
The teaching interns had planned an English workshop, which was attended by well over a hundred high-school students. Over the course of the workshop, maybe thirty girls asked whether I would take a picture with them. When students had the chance to ask questions after I introduced myself, the first one was, “Are you single?”
The comments I heard from these female students made clear that the color of my skin, my hair, and my eyes was the reason for their interest.
Here in PiauÃ, the attention I get from strangers has helped me see how people are predisposed to treat me in a certain way because of my race. People may be more willing to start a conversation with me, consider my opinions on the U.S., or accept my explanation of an English grammar rule because of how I look.
Last week, I celebrated my friend Imma’s graduation with a group that included international students from Congo, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and SÃ£o Tomé and PrÃncipe. As we were arriving at the restaurant, a few of them said that the staff had all but refused to serve them a few weeks before. They then joked that having someone with blond hair and blue eyes (and white skin) at the table would mean better service.
Being here has made me more aware of some of the privilege I have as a white man, whether I’m in Brazil or in the U.S. Though I’m not sure what I can do to start dismantling that privilege, I am eager to learn.
Interested in learning a bit more?
For a great overview of the history of race in Brazil, watch this installment of “Black in Latin America,” a four-part documentary by American scholar Henry Louis Gates.
For a look at the fascinating ways that Brazilians describe their own races, see this article by Brazilian anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz.