Jennifer Roth-Gordon on her new book, Race and the Brazilian Body

Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro by [Roth-Gordon, Jennifer]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you were at a wedding, and the person at your table happened to be a scholar of African-American experiences of the Jim Crow South who wanted to know a bit about your book, what would you say?

Can the person sitting next to the Jim Crow scholar at our table be someone who witnessed the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville? I think I might open by saying to them that I study race relations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a context which is both very similar and very different from the ones that they are immersed in. My book is an investigation into how we can watch people draw on and perpetuate racial hierarchy in daily conversations and interactions, in a national context where noticing racial difference is (and has long been) taboo. These racial ideas – about the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of blackness – are the same ideas that were legalized in the Jim Crow South and that white people marched to uphold just a few weeks ago, in defense of statues meant to keep nonwhite people “in their place.” I can point to very little that changes, over time or across national boundaries, in the civilized/uncivilized and upstanding/dangerous distinctions between what whiteness and nonwhiteness are thought to represent.

Brazil also suffers from incredibly high levels of structural racism that almost always exceed statistics from the present-day U.S. (from racial gaps in education levels, income, and where people live, to what scholars have called a black genocide of thousands of Afro-descended youth killed by police each year). Despite these national similarities, Brazil has long used incidents like Charlottesville (such as the Civil War, lynchings, the LA riots and Rodney King beating, Ferguson, and so on) to define themselves in contrast to the violent history and aggressive nature of race relations in the U.S. Though they are now more aware of racism than ever before, many Brazilians continue to take pride in their reputation for racial mixture and racial tolerance. While most would admit that Brazil is not (and has never been) a “racial democracy,” there is a strong belief that inequality in Brazil is socioeconomic, rather than racial.

My book seeks to explain the “comfortable racial contradiction” that surrounds Rio residents with signs of blackness and whiteness but discourages them from describing what they see in racial terms. It’s not a contradiction that is “comfortable” for all, but I argue that this contradiction is surprisingly easy to live within, even as it may be hard to unravel and explain – in the same way that we now have to contemplate what it means to live in a “colorblind” America that has people on both ends of the political spectrum loudly proclaiming that race matters. I study how racial ideology allows us to live in societies that promote themselves as tolerant and equal, even as we are daily surrounded by (and participating in) profoundly racially unequal and unjust circumstances. Laws and torches are not the only ways to maintain white supremacy, and swastika-flag bearers are not the only ones who keep systems of racial hierarchy in place.

You argue that Rio residents are in the position of being able to claim to be racially tolerant while still re-inscribing racial hierarchies in practice.  Do you have an especially apt example of this dynamic?

My intention is to better understand race, and more specifically whiteness, by disentangling the obvious relevance of phenotype from the often unacknowledged significance of embodied practices. As I describe, medium brown-skinned bodies can be read as “black” in Rio when they take up slang associated with favelas (shantyowns). These same bodies can be read as “white” when they occupy exclusive private spaces like social clubs and demonstrate “proper” restraint and decorum. Drawing on everyday interactions, I show how Rio residents unavoidably draw on widespread and well known racial discourses to make their bodies interpretable, and to interpret others, as they interact in both comfortable private spaces amongst “equals” and as they cross the city’s well-established race and class borders.

In the book, I discuss an especially interesting situation in which a phenotypically “brown” youth who I call Bola started spending time hanging out in the housing project/favela where I was conducting research. He was raised in the white middle class, and he was splitting his time between studying for college-entrance exams with his friends from his private high school and hanging out on the streets with darker-skinned peers in Cruzada who were not on the same life path. He adapted a very different speech style with these youth. I played recordings of his speech for outside listeners (non-participants), including his own mother. Her response offered an excellent example of this simultaneously racially tolerant and racially hierarchical reaction. She was not upset that her son chose to associate closely with darker-skinned people in spaces that were considered dangerous. But she was horrified by his language in these conversations, which evoked the blackness and criminality associated with the favela: “É uma tristeza isso aqui! Meu Deus do céu! Que diálogo horroroso isso! [Eu rio] Não, eu acho! Não vou dar crédito a isso aqui . . . Que bando de marginal!” (How sad this is! Oh my God! What a horrible dialogue! [I laugh] No, I think so! I won’t give credit to this . . . It sounds like a group of marginals [criminals]!) It was not people who were visibly and audibly black that worried her but rather others’ ability to read the signs of blackness off of her son’s body (and the fact that these signs undid the possibilities of his whiteness).

In Brazil, neither light skin nor ancestry guarantees or is required for racial whiteness, which is helpful for phenotypically darker members of the middle class like Bola, but this makes the constant display of the bodily techniques associated with whiteness all the more important.

How are notions of whiteness in Brazil different than in the United States?  How might this explain the differences between being a Brazilian playboy and a U.S. wigger? 

Brazil is both proud of its history promoting miscegenation and racial mixture and deeply ashamed of its status as a “mongrel” nation that lacks the culture, civilization, and modernity associated with racial whiteness. Across Latin America and the Caribbean, individuals, families, and nation-states have long struggled to acquire and display whiteness, harboring both implicit and explicit fears that they will never shed their associations with nonwhiteness, which includes both African and indigenous heredity. Whiteness suggests decorum, respectability, and civilized control. But the presumed lack of racial purity in Brazil – what has been called “virtual whiteness” or the implication that one is “branco por procuração” (white by proxy) – means that one’s whiteness is always vulnerable. I find this racial anxiety productive in suggesting that critical whiteness scholars should question the presumed “normalcy” and stability of whiteness, even in the United States. In particular, I am intrigued by the cultural and linguistic work that people (of different racial backgrounds) do to associate themselves with whiteness, in order to benefit from racial privilege. (Though people like the rappers and rap fans I worked with could also choose to explicitly reject the push for racial whitening or assimilation.) In the book, I examine three social and racial imperatives that uphold Brazilian racial hierarchy: (1) the need to display whiteness, (2) the desire to avoid blackness, and (3) the obligation to remain racially “cordial.” I believe that the United States shares with Brazil this orientation towards whiteness and away from blackness, though ideologies of racial purity clearly differ. In Brazil, the ideal national color is “moreno” or brown.

Because of the ambivalence surrounding racial purity, the Brazilian “playboy” is a term rappers use to call out the desire of privileged male youth to flaunt their racial whiteness (without necessarily identifying as white). By contrast, the U.S. wigger is a term used for white-identified male youth who flaunt their dangerous and “inappropriate” connections to blackness. Both terms help illustrate the main argument of my book: The amount of whiteness or blackness a body displays is determined not only through observations of phenotypical features, but also through careful attention paid to cultural and linguistic practices.

One of your fieldwork strategies that turns out to be very productive is playing recordings of people’s speech across class lines and analyzing people’s reactions.   You often mention that the Brazilians you encountered seemed intent on not discussing or openly acknowledging race.  How did this technique function in a context where people actively avoided discussing precisely what you were interested in studying?   Is there a specific response someone had to a decontextualized snippet of conversation that you especially like to analyze?

My favorite “decontextualized snippet” to play wound up being one in which a favela youth recounted a time that he felt he was going to be robbed. Just as cultural anthropologist Teresa Caldeira has found in São Paulo, “talk of crime” is a very productive narrative genre in Rio. But rather than responding by producing their own “near robbery” experiences (which they all undoubtedly had and liked to share), middle-class listeners reacted very viscerally to the speech that they had just heard. Though the story was about a favela youth’s own vulnerability and near-victim status, all they could hear was the voice of a criminal. Their reactions to the non-standard speech that he used (all of which they associated with gíria or slang) beautifully illustrated the enregisterment of slang, as specific linguistic features were grouped together to point directly to “dangerous” city spaces and the persona of a “bandido” (bandit or criminal). Though the actual bodies of the speakers could only be imagined, foundational ties were being stitched together between perceived linguistic disorder, the breaking of laws, and blackness. In less directed conversations and without concrete examples that triggered emotional reactions of fear and disdain, members of the middle class were more likely to speak in general terms about the links between standard speech, education, and socioeconomic class. Rio residents rarely mention race explicitly, and this technique of metalinguistic interviewing allowed me to show how they continue to draw on an implicit racial logic that links whiteness to bodily and linguistic control, cultural refinement, and law and order while connecting blackness to a lack of rationality and intellect, violence, and dangerous disarray.

How did being part of a mixed family in the field, since you have two adopted children who read as black in Brazil (and in the US as well), offer you a useful lens for understanding how race is socially constructed?   And how do all your children deal with the transitions of moving between two such differentially racialized contexts?

I’ve studied race in Rio since 1995, but the year I spent living in Rio with my three children in tow (in 2014) was an eye-opener in understanding the huge differences between color and race and between brownness and blackness. Though they went to a private school with hundreds of children, many of whom would not be considered white in the U.S., my two African American children stuck out due to their phenotypical blackness. At the same time, I could watch how they were treated very differently from the darker-skinned people who did occupy the same private, middle-class spaces (as minimum-wage workers who cleaned, served as security guards, and so on). Rather than attributing that merely to a difference of socioeconomic class (as many Brazilians, and even North Americans, would assume), I had to expand my understanding of race beyond phenotypical markers. My children did not cease being black and people did not turn off their awareness of race just because of their class status. This led me to question why two of my three children didn’t receive more of a reaction when they entered such white spaces. On the one hand, I would argue that they have acquired the right “racial sensibilities” (as Ann Stoler calls them), but, at the same time, structural racism gets pretty glaring when you are in its limelight. When we are at a “casa de festa” (private party space) with dozens of other children, none of them dark-skinned, and another mother comes up to ask me if I am the mother of the “girl in the green dress,” it becomes clear that there is a sophisticated “not noticing” of race that is going on. Rather than merely benefiting from socioeconomic similarity, my daughter was being read as both black and white. This has euphemistically been referred to as being a “negro de alma branca” (a black person with a white soul).

My children have struggled with their own noticing of racial difference (“why are most of the street kids black?”) and the occasionally loud noticing of racial difference by other young children not yet trained in the racial etiquette of tolerance or colorblindness (“your skin is black!”). But cycling back to my answer to your first question, the structural racism they live in and the white supremacist ideologies that they must live with have produced similar life lessons in racial inequality in both contexts. This simultaneous similarity and difference has long made Brazil a productive foil for the study of U.S. race relations.

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