Brazil Eliminated Racism… Just Kidding

I have the amazing opportunity to travel to Rio De Janeiro for the 28th Summer Olympic games on August 2nd. The way my bank account is set up I can not pay the sticker price for any of the Olympic events, so I found another way. Two years ago, I decided I was going to get into the events one way or another and I applied to be a volunteer. (Side note: if you ever want to go to a conference, festival, or event and can’t pay/do not want to pay find out if they need volunteers; nine times out of ten they do.) A “volunteer journey” is what they call it and I can assure you it has been a journey. The journey consists of around 40 different tests each lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour long and I am sure many more will come. It has been informative to say the least but I ran across an interesting question on the last test. See if you can guess the right answer.


  1. I point towards the group and say where Joana is and tell him to ask for her, without describing her.
  2. I point to Joana and describe her as the dark-skinned woman.
  3. I point to Joana and describe her as the black woman.

This sparked an interesting question for me about what having melanin in your skin means in Brazil. After doing some research, I found that Brazil has similar struggles to the ones we face here in America.

Both countries were built on the backs of slaves, similarly both have had a long struggle with the way the country has internalized racism. For perspective, Brazil enslaved over 4,000,000 Africans, America enslaved close to 400,000. Brazil, colonized by the Portuguese and a mix of other Europeans, did not end slavery until May 13th 1888, 25 years after America. This left Brazil’s population more than 40% black after slavery. To date, Brazil has the second largest population of African decedents second only to Nigeria.

Unlike America, Brazil did not implement laws like Jim Crow after slavery ended. The government took a different approach by actively discouraging former slave owners from giving slaves paid work and encouraging poor whites from Europe to be the new labor force. The intention of these policies was to “limpar o sangue” (cleanse the blood). In America we outlawed interracial marriages but in Brazil it was encouraged. “The admission of immigrants will comply with the necessity of preserving and developing, in the ethnic composition of the population, the characteristics that are more convenient to its European ascendancy” was the stated reason.

Brazilian elite, largely white, declared the country uniquely equal and, in effect, post racial, shortly after the end of slavery. According to Ivanir dos Santos, the Justice Ministry’s specialist on race affairs, “There is a hierarchy of skin color where blacks appear to know their place.” A survey was conducted in 1957 on 580 middle class students from teachers’ colleges on perceived stereotypes of Afro-Brazilians in São Paulo. Several stereotypes were identified: “lack of hygiene, physical unattractiveness, lack of financial insight, lack of morality, aggressiveness, laziness, lack of persistence at work, sexual ‘perversity’ and exhibitionism.” Very similar, if not identical, to the stereotypes attributed to Black Americans.

In 2002 the first university in Brazil, Bahia State University, introduced racial quotas (Affirmative Action). This was the first structural attempt taken to mitigate the long standing effects of racism. By 2006, 6.3% of black Brazilians 18–24 years old, were in higher education; that is double the number in 2001. Advocacy is slow, but progress is being made. In 2012 Brazilian President Delma Rousseff’s signed the most radical affirmative action bill in the Western Hemisphere to date. The Law of Social Quotas, or “Lei de Cotas Socials,” requires that public universities assign their spots in accordance with the racial makeup of each of Brazil’s 26 states.

Though this Law of Social Quotas is in many peoples view a good thing for the country, flaws still exist within the implementation of the program. The students take a national exam then are photographed by a secret committee to determine if they are indeed Afro- Brazilian. In a documentary “Brazil in Black and White,” by Adam Stefan we see two identical twins applying under this program and one being accepted as “Afro Brazilian” while the other is not. (Skip to 29.31 in the video)

With that understanding I was surprised to find this was the answer to the question.

For obvious reasons I immediately had questions. Who made this test? Where actual Brazilians in the room? Were Brazilians who are black in the room? How does one know if that person identifies as black?

It is and will probably continue to be a tough thing for the secret committee to decide who can identify as Afro Brazilian. The question is who would want to be black? Economically black people find themselves at the bottom and if you turn on the TV in Brazil you see plenty of examples. Joel Zito Araújo, an award-winning Brazilian film-maker conducted research for his documentary in 2000 on black characters in Brazilian soap operas, A Negação do Brasil. He found that 75% of the roles for black actors were in positions of subservience. 81% of Brazilians describes TV as their main source of leisure. Now we see where the perception and stereotypes are reinforced.

One cannot help but wonder why this was even a question and how that could possibly be the best answer. Calling Joana by name is what I will do if given the opportunity. I emailed the Olympic committee asking why they thought this was the best answer. We will see if they respond. They honestly have a lot on their plate already with Zika and a country in turmoil. It seems like they went out of their way to make this question as culturally insensitive and potentially racist as possible. I will find out how actual Brazilians feel and write about this experience when I return. Stay tuned.