Anti-racism and racism in me

Image: Cyrus Saurius


If there is something that unites us all as Brazilians, unfortunately, it is this crime of racism that we have inherited

I grew up in Brazil as a white boy. I have, however, recorded in my memory two episodes in which I, still very young, came across the issue of racism. The first episode is proud to tell, and the second, well, it has to be told.

The first episode takes place in Kindergarten. I don't remember how old I was, but I remember that it was before the first grade, in the building where, as an already big boy, I had my first contact with society outside the protection of my family. In this building, there was a playground where the children played. Me not so much, I wasn't particularly mingled with the others, and I was more on my own, watching.

One day, I noticed a boy like me – and he was suffering. His pain was so visible it hurt me. He suffered because he was being chased by children who mockingly called him chocolate. He was – you guessed correctly – a black boy.

I might not yet have been exposed to racism, not in such an obvious way, but I had no trouble connecting this boy's skin color with the attempt to offend. They called him chocolate, with the intention of hurting him, because he was black. What I couldn't understand, and would only understand later, was why that boy's skin color was used against him.

The cruelty of that attitude was palpable, but it was also inexplicable… if having chocolate skin is really a problem, then we all have that problem, don't we? After all, there is also white chocolate. And, by the way, both are delicious. So my child mind thought.

I tried to approach the sad boy sitting in his corner, as I was sitting in mine, because I wanted to tell him: they are chocolates too. I remember how, in the midst of all those children, witnesses of that suffering, my attitude was so unexpected that, at that moment, that little friend of mine could not imagine the possibility of a “white boy”, like me, approaching him as a friend.

After that, my memory fades, but the story continues, a few years later, in first or second grade – after I change buildings at school and before I move to a new city.

The stage is no longer the playground, but the classroom. I remember that the room was big, bigger than before, and that we sat at rows of desks, no longer at small shared tables as children. Behind me sat a white boy. And he bothered me for some reason – I don't remember what, and that's not even relevant, what matters is that he bothered me a lot.

Then one day… in fact, I think it happened more than once… on one of them, I vaguely remember standing, walking towards the classroom exit, right behind the boy who was bothering me. Or maybe it was the other way around. He was walking behind me, disturbing me, and I, very uncomfortable, suddenly stop, turn my body towards him and say something like: you should be painted black.

Yes, you read correctly. Hey you white boy who do me wrong, your skin should be black. After all, those who do us harm are people with black skin. Hey, you white boy who hurts me, I wish your punishment was to have your skin painted black. After all, being black is a punishment in itself. That was, effectively, the meaning of the words that came out of the mouth of a 7-year-old boy – that came out of my own mouth.

The same boy who understood, without anyone having to explain to him, what racism was, when he observed the suffering of an injured child in the playground; the same boy who couldn't understand why anyone was racist, or why the hell it would be bad to have skin the color of dark chocolate while others have skin the color of white chocolate; that same boy now voiced and propagated the prejudices of a racist culture, of which he was inevitably a part.

I don't remember when I understood that this episode was about a racist act on my part. I think, in a way, I always knew how absurd and cruel those words were. It is not by chance that I carry this memory as one of the most vivid of my first decade of life. As soon as I said them, I felt uncomfortable, even as a child. And, even so, I couldn’t avoid – not at that moment at least – being a vehicle for a racism impregnated in society.

It's not particularly nice to write about it. I could have ended the narrative right after the first episode, with the conclusion that our society produces racist children – except me, of course. But that would be false, very false. The narrative of this text only ends, and the fight against racism only begins, when we admit to ourselves that we are part of a racist society.

I was a spontaneously anti-racist boy, but I was also a spontaneously racist boy. Today, I am a spontaneously anti-racist adult, but I am also a spontaneously and regrettably racist adult, in the thoughts I sometimes see flashing through my head.

Admitting this can feel uncomfortable, and it certainly is, but it's also as easy as ripping off a band-aid. It hurts a little at the time, but then it relieves and offers a chance for the wound of our own cowardice, when exposed to time, to heal little by little.

Admitting all of this is uncomfortable, of course it is, but this story isn't about my own shame, it's about a centuries-old crime, slavery and the discrimination that founded our country. A crime in which we all inadvertently take part, and which needs redress, not once and for all, but for as long as necessary.

If there is something that unites us all as Brazilians, unfortunately, it is this crime of racism that we have inherited. We all share this heritage, and it is up to each one of us to understand the way in which it was expressed and expressed in our lives.

I don't know what your particular history with racism is. I know this is part of mine. And I know that admitting my racism is what I owe to my playmate on the playground, and to myself, to my 5-year-old boy who, shy in his corner, observed the injustice and stupidity of racism, and rejected it.

I know that by admitting the racism that emerges in my thoughts before I even have time to identify it, I give myself more time to recognize it, to deconstruct and reject it, before acting like a fool, or, worse, like a monster.

Each one has its own story. I don't know what yours is, but I'm quite confident that we all have an empathetic child inside us, wanting to embrace the world, wanting to speak louder than the cruelty, indifference and carelessness that is also ours, but that can be recognized and guarded. Not because of guilt, but because of the abundance of spirit of the child who discovers for the first time the beauty of sharing the world with different people – and sees nothing more beautiful than that.

Have you ever seen – I bet you have – the baby's smile at a stranger on the street? It is in that smile that our fight against prejudice begins. And that smile is unbeatable.

*Tiago Cerqueira Lazier, PhD in Political Science from USP, teaches at Leupanha Universität Lüneburg (Germany).


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