In Ceará, Northeast Brazil, I blended in among the brown-skinned mestiços on the streets and buses. People of mixed ethnicity – African, European, and indigenous Amerindian – made up 61.9 percent of the population (ipece.ce.gov.br). Yet the faces smiling at me from billboards around the capital were mostly white. Accounting for 32 percent of the population, whites occupied top posts in the government, commercial banks, businesses, and professional services.
According to Brazil’s Census 2010, whites accounted for 47.5 percent of the total population. Blacks and mestiços make up 50.9 percent. Whites dominated Brazil national TV. In the 1990s when my sons were kids, Xou da Xuxa: Rainha das Baixinhas (Queen of the Little Ones) was the most popular children’s program. The hosts of popular TV night shows were also white. Whites played the major roles in the much-watched Brazilian telenovelas. Blacks and mestiços portrayed the villains, the underdogs, the domestic servants, the seductresses, and prostitutes.
Top Moda also favored whites, as is still evident in Brazil’s world-renowned Fashion Rio.
Whenever I raised the issue of racism in Brazil with friends and work colleagues, I always received the same response: “We don’t have racism in Brazil.”
Was I wrong? Why then were blacks and mestiços the overwhelming majority of people using public transport?
Brazil Census 2010 by color/race, education, and employment reveal that whites held 73.3 percent of college degrees compared to 20.8 percent of mixed ethnicity, and 3.8 percent blacks. The number of self-employed professionals also showed great disparity: 52.5 percent whites to 38.9 percent of mixed ethnicity, and 6.9 percent blacks. The divide was even greater when you consider the number of employers or business owners: 75.9 percent whites to 19.2 percent of mixed ethnicity, and 2.5 percent blacks.
With the enactment of the Affirmative Action Law for Universities in 2012, the Brazilian government is working to reduce this racial social disparity. Leaders of the African community favor this move, but several prominent Brazilians believe that this will lead to racism. (See links to videos and other articles on the Guyanese Online Blog.)
While I worked for white Brazilian business owners who welcomed me and my sons into their homes, and who helped me to grow as an international trade professional, I also faced what I considered racial discrimination. A white boss once put me in my place when I asked for a raise, based on increased job responsibilities.
“You people are never satisfied. You always want more,” he told me.
He could only be referring to the color of my skin. Or was it my lower social status?
Like all upscale apartment buildings in Fortaleza, the ten-story building where my sons and I lived had two elevators: one for residents, the other for domestic servants and external service providers. My income-level had earned us a place among Brazil’s white and growing brown-skinned middle class, granting us the privilege to share the elevator provided for residents, of a white majority.
We became part of the myth of Brazil’s racial democracy.