Skin Color Still Plays Big Role In Ethnically Diverse Brazil

The painting "The Redemption of Ham" by Modesto Brocos features a black grandmother, mixed-race mother, white father and white baby. The grandmother stands to the left with her hands raised in prayer, praising God that her grandson is white.

hide captionThe painting "The Redemption of Ham" by Modesto Brocos features a black grandmother, mixed-race mother, white father and white baby. The grandmother stands to the left with her hands raised in prayer, praising God that her grandson is white.

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Melissa Block visits a historic section of Rio de Janeiro that pays homage to Afro-Brazilian history and the many slaves that came ashore there. She talks with Brazilian filmmaker Joel Zito Araujo about what it means to be black or mixed race in Brazil, and how skin color still dictates many aspects of life.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block in Rio de Janeiro and let's start with some samba.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND SINGING)

BLOCK: We're at an all-night outdoor samba circle held every Monday in Rio. Hundreds of samba fans are jammed into a small cobblestone plaza. They press tight against the circle of musicians and fill the twisted, sloping streets above.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND SINGING)

BLOCK: This spot is the Pedra do Sal or the Rock of Salt. Here, in the 17th century, enslaved Africans would unload salt from ships. Steps were chiseled into the rock face here to make the climb easier. This has become known as the birthplace of samba in Rio, a historic site for Afro-Brazilian culture entwined with the country's long history of slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND SINGING)

BLOCK: The crowd here is a perfect slice of Brazil's racial mix. Look around and you see all colors. I strike up a conversation with a young samba fan named Edson Santos.

EDSON SANTOS: It's like therapy for me.

BLOCK: It's like therapy for you?

SANTOS: Yeah, it's like - I don't know, something about my soul making me happy and I feel like contact with my ancestors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND SINGING)

BLOCK: He tells me: When I look at my skin, I see a mix; ancestors from Portugal, Canada, Africa, everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND SINGING)

BLOCK: Brazil is a country where non-whites now make up a majority of the population. It's one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world; home to 97 million African descendants - the largest number of blacks outside Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Nearby at Rio's old port, a tour guide narrates the history of the Valongo Wharf, the pier where human cargo was unloaded off slave ships and sold. She points to the massive old paving stones where the slave market stood. Those stones had been paved over, were uncovered by archeologists. The guide says, we have to confront the memory of slavery.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: It's estimated 4 million enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil. That's more than any country in the Americas; some 10 times the number of slaves brought to the United States. And Brazil didn't abolish slavery until 1888. It was the last country in the Americas to do so.

JOEL ZITO ARAUJO: I imagine people the suffering. (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Brazilian filmmaker Joel Zito Araujo imagines the suffering, as he looks out over these old stones where so many slaves were sold. His latest documentary, titled "Raca" or "Race," explores the fight for racial equality in modern Brazil. And we've met here to talk about Brazil's complicated racial balance.

When you talk about racism in Brazil, you do hear the idea that Brazil is a racial democracy, that there is no racism in this country. What do you say to that? Is Brazil a racial democracy?

ARAUJO: (Through translator) No. Brazil is not a racial democracy. We're cordial between blacks and whites, and we don't have a dividing line that's as sharp as in other countries. But if you look at all the statistics - of advancing in the workplace, entering universities, of access to health - you'll find the black population doesn't have the same ability to advance or participate within Brazilian society.

BLOCK: Araujo says just turn on Brazilian television to see what he means.

ARAUJO: (Through translator) If you turn on the TV today and see a soap opera, you're going to see that blacks aren't even 10 percent of the actors. The people who are valued have Germanic features. If an actor has blonde hair and blue eyes, he or she will be more successful. If the actor has black characteristics, she'll probably play a domestic worker, a marginal person.

BLOCK: Araujo remembers he used to see job ads in the newspaper that would say: We're looking for people of good appearance.

ARAUJO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: That's code, he says, for if you're black, don't bother applying.

ARAUJO: (Through translator) So in Brazil, you have a racial mixture in the lower socio-economic class. But once you get to the elite it's much less mixed.

(Through translator) We have an expression here. To have a foot in Africa or to have a foot in the kitchen.

African foot or kitchen foot.

(Through translator) As our best-known sociologist says, we are a society divided between the big house and the slave quarters. The people who spent time in the kitchen were the black women. So to say that you have a foot in the kitchen means you have a foot in Africa.

(Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Araujo tells me, in Brazil, whitening is seen as having great value - a sign that you're going up in the world. And he mentions a famous Brazilian painting from 1895 that symbolizes this goal. It's called, "The Redemption of Cain." It shows a mulatta mother sitting with her white husband and holding their child, who's very white - paler than she is. The black grandmother stands behind with her hands raised to the skies.

ARAUJO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She's praising God that her grandson is white.

Araujo gestures toward his belly and offers an example of language that women might use. She is cleaning the plantation.

ARAUJO: (Through translator) Cleaning the plantation is when a woman gets pregnant with a white man. So she'll have a child in her womb who is already whitened. You'll find hundreds of popular expressions that value the whitening process.

(Through translator) So, the ideology of whitening in Brazil is still part of our mindset, even now.

BLOCK: But more and more, Araujo says, Brazilians are self-identifying as black or brown, mixed race. A household study found Brazilians used 136 different terms to describe their skin color; from acastanhada - somewhat chestnut colored - to cinnamon, chocolate, honey colored, singed, toasted and deep-dyed.

How do you self-identify?

ARAUJO: (Through translator) As Afro-descendent, I prefer the word Afro-descendent to black or dark. We have to go through a process in Brazilian society so the children and grandchildren of indigenous people, and of blacks, come to be proud of their origins. So, the term Afro-descendent means descendent of Africa, which is the fundamental question for us today.

BLOCK: In the end, I ask Brazilian filmmaker Joel Zito Araujo, can you imagine the day when Brazil might have a black president?

ARAUJO: It's a dream. We need more than one decade.

BLOCK: You need more than one decade?

ARAUJO: Maybe more than one decade. Maybe more.

BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block in Rio de Janeiro.

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