Black, White, and in Between:
Diversity in Brazil
Despite being in a daze from the jet lag and not yet completely believing I was in another country, walking down the beaches of Rio our first day in Brazil I was struck by something other than the beautiful scenery. Having done my paper on the history of slavery, the color of the population immediately interested me. In America , especially here at Elon University , it is uncommon to not see one background, culture, or race that holds a clear majority within a certain area. Granted, this majority is not the same in every part of the United States . Depending upon what city or what neighborhood you visit, this majority can be Caucasian, Latino, Black, or many of the other races that make up a part of our country. What struck me about Brazil that first day, was that I could not accurately pick out the majority, because there was such diversity and intermingling between different races.
The cultural makeup of Brazil can be categorized into three main groups of people: the indigenous population, African slaves, and Portuguese settlers. The indigenous population, which was originally between 1 and 5 million, now is the smallest race, making up only 1 percent of the population. The cultural diversity that struck me that first day comes from the two other main groups: Blacks and those of European descent. When Indians were found to be poor slaves in the early 1500's, the Portuguese began importing African slaves as their labor force. In 1800, only 300 years after the settlement of Brazil , blacks, both slave and free, made up nearly two thirds of a population of 3.25 million people. Although Brazil is a diverse country, the racial diversity does change depending on the geographic area of the country. For instance, the northeast region, which had a large slave population before abolition, is 70% black. The southeast region is 64% white, 35% black or mulatto, and the Southern portion of Brazil, which did not have a large slave population is 84 percent white. Overall, a 1982 survey showed that within the country there were more than 65 million whites and almost 53 million blacks or mulattos.
Walking down the streets of Brazil , it is impossible to look around without seeing diversity. In America , we are quick to call certain areas white or black neighborhoods or areas. As anyone who goes to the school can tell you, Elon is one of these itself. In Brazil , with the exception of Salvador , it is nearly impossible to put this label on different areas. No matter where we went in Rio , you would see different races represented. Our tour guide in Rio also mentioned something curious as to this effect. During our favella tour, when I asked whether the people of Brazil associate favellas with black inhabitants, like many tend to do with impoverished areas of the United States, she responded by saying that doing that would be nearly impossible because so many Brazilians are mulatto or have some African connection. Looking around in the favellas, I could see that there were a higher proportion of blacks than there were within the downtown areas of Rio , but it wasn't to such a degree that would allow someone to call it a “black area.” And even this skew toward the black side is explainable. Because many former slaves had no place to go when they were tossed out by their masters with the abolition of slavery in 1888, they formed their own villages on the unused land, which was usually on the side of a mountain or hill. These areas have developed into what favellas are today.
Although race seems to play less of a role in daily life in Brazil as it does here in the United States , racism is far from a non-existent issue. While whites and blacks may come into closer contact and interact with each other more than in the United States , Brazil is far from a racial democracy. In a 2000 poll in the city of Rio , 93 percent of the respondents responded that racism existed in their country, and 74 percent of the respondents said that there is a lot of bias on racial issues. Although the cultural diversity and intermixing are quite apparent in Rio , so is the racism. Billboards and advertisements around the city only contain white models, when a large portion of the population comes from a completely different race. Television advertisements and programs follow this same trend. In the week we spent in Rio , I could count the number of black actors I saw on the television on one hand. The racism that exists goes beyond marketing. Brazil 's government contains very few black politicians, and jobs that require a lot of schooling, like doctors and lawyers, are few and far between for blacks. The black population falls behind the white in numerous categories. Blacks are more likely to be illiterate, unemployed, and go through school for a shorter period of time than their white counterparts. This fact has been realized, and numerous black organizations, pushing for equality and instilling racial pride, have sprung up over Brazil in the past fifteen years.
Despite the racism that does exist within society, Brazil seems to be comfortable with its diversity. While it may not be a “racial democracy,” it is a society in which race plays a lesser role in every day life than it does here in the United States .