because of the color

Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Dressing for Mardi Gras, 1877 (The Met collection)
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By JOÃO SETTE WHITAKER FERREIRA*

In the highest income spheres, racism exists, and it is there that it becomes most insidious and perverse.

With my daughter returning to school in person (how scary), I stopped with her, returning from her grandparents' house at the beginning of the night, in a supermarket that seemed empty to me, to buy things for school lunch. It was a St. Marche, those fancy markets where you spend at least ten reais to take home a baguette, but as it was empty and on the way, that's what we had.

As I went around the shelves looking for a milk bread and boxed juices, my nine-year-old daughter started doing what a nine-year-old would do in an empty supermarket: she started running through the aisles, dodging me and anyone else. eventually show up there, playing spy, hide and seek, whatever. After a few minutes, it was strange to see the market security guard pass by me, out of breath, mask with nose out, going back and forth, in quick steps. I realized right away that he was stuck with my daughter. I think I gave him a certain relief when he said, at the time: "it's my daughter, see?". He gave me a nice answer: “oh well, I'm sorry, it's just that she was running back and forth, hiding from me”.

I told him that children are like that. They run back and forth and, thankfully, have fun. In short, they are children. Maybe he was thinking that she had put some treat in her pocket and, frightened by her presence, she was running away from him in the supermarket? Strange, because she called me all the time, even from far away, she talked to me, laughing, without the slightest face of someone who was up to something.

Ah, I haven't said so far, because that, in my opinion, shouldn't have the slightest importance in this little story. My daughter is black.

But here comes the question: if my daughter were a little blonde with blue eyes, running and laughing through the aisles of an empty supermarket, playing hide and seek with her father and the security guard, the only person there besides one or two other customers , would the boy have had the same reaction? I don't think I need to answer.

My daughter noticed the dialogue, and asked me why he was talking to me. I explained that he was intrigued by her running from him, and that I didn't think he realized she was my daughter. Her answer was quick and simple: “of course not, dad, because of the color”. The answer hides a fateful truth, which she has already assimilated very well: in our perverse sociability, the privilege of being “upper class” does not overcome the “discomfort” of color. For her, even if this has never been made explicit, quite the contrary, it is assumed that, in some very perverse way, that “should not be” her place. As sociologist Kabengele Munanga says, the “geography of the body” will always speak louder.

I immediately remembered the 17-year-old boy, black, left naked and tortured for 40 minutes in a supermarket in the South Zone, in September 2019, because he had stolen a chocolate. I also remembered the 10-year-old boy who, in 1999, was begging in front of the Afonso Brás Sugarloaf Mountain, also in the South Zone, and whom a security guard held for 20 minutes in the supermarket's cold room. The tenuous limits that make a situation turn into a tragedy are defined by details: in this case, a father, white, upper class, who imposed his social “superiority” on the security guard.

Even though she is black, my daughter benefited from this privilege. What if she was a girl coming down the street, walking away from her mother at the lighthouse, sneaking past the security guard to get into that supermarket? In both cases, the security guards involved were punished. The rope breaks at the end, where it is most fragile. Security guards, often black themselves, are rightly punished for their deviations, but society as a whole, which has formed its mind to prejudice, will always remain deviant.

I lived in France until I was 15, as the son of exiles. Once, when I was 13 or 14 years old, on the last suburban train of the night, together with my friend Reza, the son of Iranian exiles, we were stopped by a bunch of extreme right-wing punks (not all punks were extreme right, by the way). As we didn't have the clear appearance of Europeans, they kept teasing us for a while, asking what we were doing there, in their land, and then they got off the train laughing and very proud of what they had done. A bunch of imbeciles, proud racists. In the US, the open confrontation with blacks means that, in the South, a racist subject has no qualms about making his prejudice explicit and calling someone a “nigger”. In Apartheid South Africa, the institutionalization of racism became state policy for decades. All very explicit, which doesn't make things better, just different.

It is wrong, therefore, to think that there is no racism in those countries, or that capitalist development has brought some kind of racial equity, although it has, in fact, allowed for some achievements, such as the many affirmative policies in the USA and those of social welfare in Europe. But nothing that has actually changed the structurally racist condition in these societies as well, as part, of course, of the omnipresent class domination that capitalism promotes. The fact that black people make up 13% of the US population but make up 37% of that country's prison population is a nice reminder of that, as is the police killing of Floyd. In France, Belgium, similar police violence has recently occurred.

But a fact that differentiates these countries is that, there, racism is more explicit. In Europe, it was born and still feeds on an ethno-cultural and political confrontation that goes back to the colonizing past, and was renewed in the middle of the last century. Most European countries were colonialist, and slave-owning. But the loci of this slavery was external to those societies, it took place in exotic and distant colonies (although, in Portugal, and contrary to what some historians of “politically incorrect” say, there were indeed many slaves). This did not institutionalize the naturalness of racism in their social structures.

Over time, already in the second half of the last century, and with what the Franco-American sociologist Suzan George called the “boomerang effect”, these colonialist societies found themselves getting “back” populations that they colonized before, people desperate with the economic misery in their countries, going to look for better opportunities in the former colonizing metropolises. This led to blatant ethnic clashes. Maghrebians and Central Africans in France, Africans in Portugal, Turks in Germany (in this case not because of colonization, but because of Prusso-Ottoman relations in the past), and so on. Troubled Europe showed all its xenophobia and racism, especially in the popular segments that saw their fragile jobs threatened, with the “invasion” of immigrants. Openly xenophobic parties have resurfaced and are getting stronger every day.

That is, the racist reaction was, as a rule, explicit. And the confrontation was even more violent when, a few generations later, the children of immigrants, born in these countries and legitimately European, saw their rights little by little denied. In the “riots” in the French suburbs at the turn of the century, in the racist attitude of the police, in the suppression of social welfare rights for the population of immigrants, a racism was made explicit in the light of day. It is common in Europe to throw bananas at stadiums, something that here (still?) would be almost unthinkable.

“Brazilian-style racism”, as Munanga called it, is different: insidious, perverse, it is, in the words of the anthropologist, “veiled”. It is not admitted that it exists, it is even criminalized. Marilena Chauí says that “the fact that in Brazil there was no apartheid legislation, nor forms of discrimination like those existing in the United States, and that there was miscegenation on a large scale, suggests that, among us, there is no racism”.

It is true that if we look at the open socio-racial inequality in Brazil, where 75% of those incarcerated are brown and black, where almost the entirety of the poor population is non-white, where paid schools and hospitals are almost exclusive to whites, where stray bullets invariably target black bodies, we can say that there is nothing subtle about it. Here too, racism is wide open, but for those who take the time to want to see it. It is part of that “other reality” that barely affects the upper layers, which have little contact with it. In the world of the richest, on the part of functioning cities, where “social problems” are far away, it is common to say that Brazilian society is multiracial, understanding, that there is no racism. Until recently, the ideological construction that we are the country of samba, football, joy and respectful cultural miscegenation (because there are indeed aspects of our sociability that, thankfully, are like that, even if we allow it to be done , perversely, such manipulation of the narrative) was still the best known face, abroad, of our country. Today, the Bolsonarism that exposed even to ourselves (those of the civilizational bubble) how much we are still dominated by the most hateful conservatism has opened up to the world a country very different from that image.

In the highest income spheres racism exists, and it is there that it becomes most insidious and perverse. And it is present at all times. Because in Brazil, slavery was not external, taking place in distant colonies. It took place here, as a constituent part of our social formation. Our black population did not come late from a colonized country. It built and sustained our sociability from the African diaspora, already in the dominated condition. There is a very tenuous step between the existence of domestic slaves in the 300th century. XIX, or the tiger-slaves who, over XNUMX years, removed the feces and urine of the richest in our cities, and the tenuous labor relations with domestic servants and sweepers, almost always black and black, which today continue to show the relationship utility that the elites created with “servants” of all kinds.

As Marilena Chauí points out, “our society came to know citizenship through an unprecedented figure: the (slave)-citizen master, who conceives citizenship as class privilege, making it a concession from the ruling class to the other social classes”. In this sense, the racism that is imbued in the individual behavior of the elites is not an individual behavior, as Silvio Almeida rightly points out in his recent and wonderful book structural racism, but rather a structuring characteristic of society that “cannot be resolved without a profound transformation of society as a whole”, in the words of Chauí.

But to maintain its own perverse operating logic, we reiterate the myth of non-violence and a diverse and racially inclusive society to the point that it becomes the “official” face of social relations while racism is incorporated subtly and unnoticed by others. all, or almost all, often even for those who suffer from it. As Marilena Chauí says, “a myth has a calming and repeating function, assuring society of its self-preservation under historical transformations. This means that a myth is the support of ideologies: it manufactures them so that it can simultaneously face historical changes and deny them, since each ideological form is in charge of maintaining the initial mythical matrix”.

Thus, the permanent reproduction of the racist condition takes place in the daily life of the elites. In the paternalistic and abusive relationship with the maids who are, for some, “as if they were part of the family”. In the suspicious look towards anyone whose “geography of the body” (and this is where the discussion of so many other situations of social and gender discrimination is inserted) is not compatible with the place where he is. A young black teenager complained that when he returns from school with his white friends, he walks calmly down the sidewalk with them. But, if he returns alone, he is often “escorted” by a police car.

Therefore, the immediate individual condemnation of those who reproduce a perverse social logic will not always be effective, as it will perhaps change a mind that eventually did not even realize what it was doing, but it does not change the general social condition much. A supermarket security guard is an exploited worker, without training, without specialized courses, with a miserable salary. But he reproduces what society tells him is “right”. Just like PM. The problem is that these guys all have a distorted legitimacy of force.

The security guard was relieved when I told him that girl was my daughter. The boy was good people. Deep down, he was troubled by the possibility, that he was mentally constructing himself out of nothing, or rather, out of an insidious belief that society had implanted in his head, that that black child must probably be a little thief. . Or, simply, a child who, being black, like him, should not be there. I gave him an answer that put things right: my social class and my whiteness gave my daughter a free pass and eliminated the huge internal conflict he was building. And he almost sank under the gondola when my daughter, on her own initiative, decided to go there and apologize. I asked why she asked. She told me: "you're welcome, just to be polite and so he doesn't get upset".

I close this reflection knowing that it will not be the only one, and that many others, unfortunately, will come. Because, as Silvio Almeida says, “racism is a result of the social structure itself, that is, the 'normal' way in which political, economic, legal and even family relations are constituted, not being a social pathology, not even a disorder institutional. Racism is structural”. In such a way that, in our country, no one declares themselves racist. But it permanently exercises its structurally racist social condition. I hope that my daughter's generation can become adults under another paradigm. In this sense, opening up this social structure, so long hidden by cordiality, and which today is strained as never before, can be a start. But for that to happen, we need to remove from the leadership of our country that – and those who support it – that makes racism and so many other related evils (misogyny, homophobia, hatred of the Indians, intolerance of the poor, etc., etc) your modus operandi, and reinforces, every day, this perverse sociability from which these evils derive.

Joao Sette Whitaker Ferreira Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at USP (FAU-USP)

References


ALMEIDA, Silvio. structural racism. São Paulo: Jandaira, 2020.

CHAUÍ, Marilena. “Reflections on Racism: Against Violence”. In: Forum Magazine, 03/04/2007.

GEORGE, Susan. L'effet boomerang: choc en retour de la dette du Tiers-Monde. Paris: La découverte, 1992.

MUNANGA, Kabengele. Our racism is a perfect crime. Interview with Camila Souza Ramos and Glauco Faria. Forum Magazine, no. 77, year 8, São Paulo, August 2008.

 

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