Examining Race Relations in Brazil

Brazil has a reputation as a "racial democracy." But some view that reputation as a myth. Commentator Gary Dauphin says Brazilian immigrants often have a different take on race than people born in America. Dauphin is a Haitian-American writer based in Los Angeles.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Brazilians reflect the myriad of colors that contribute to Brazils reputation as a racial democracy, but some view that reputation as a myth. True or not, one thing is for certain, many Brazilian immigrants often have a different take on race than people born in America, and that's not necessarily a bag thing, says commentator Gary Dauphin.

GARY DAUPHIN reporting:

For every one of us that's haunted by the dream of a healing trip back across the Atlantic back to West Africa, there is a slightly more tropicalismo-minded brother or sister who fantasizes about chucking it all and retiring to a hut in Amazonia.

Brazil has been a fairly reliable figment of the American racial imagination, ever since Bossanova invaded the radio air waves in the 1950's. We hold the country in persistent diasporic esteem as the land of Carnival and Caporera and Salvador de Baijilla(ph). Of course, it doesn't usually occur to us that while we are busy dreaming Brazil, the Brazilian's are busy dreaming us. Estimates put somewhere between 600,000 and a million Brazilian immigrants in the Unite States, the lion's share distributed in the New York City metro area, and in Massachusetts.

Other than both those towns, and in each, the Brazilian community plays a role somewhere between sought after exotic, and loner. There's a phrase that the Brazilians like to use to explain this, fazia(ph) America. While I can translate fazia America as either doing America, or making America, it pretty much means earning as much as you can before jetting back home--hardly the stuff of which local intercultural amity is constructed.

Although most Brazilians could easily blend into the average African-American family album, some bristle at what they see as the fixed dualities of black and white identity in America. Their range of self-description, both here and in Brazil, dips into a Crayola box that would put all of New Orleans to shame. Mulatto, Mestizo, Crayola, Blanca, Amerindian, Afro-Amerindian. On paper, the action in Brazil is all about mixing your apples and oranges, and Brazilians carry that image of themselves, part ideal, part fiction, everywhere they go.

Personally, I'd not be so hard on any our new neighbors in Boston, New York, who balk at America's fixed polar notions of black and white. I mean, let's not lie, we have the same issues. If Harold Ford, facing a tough Senate race in Tennessee, can reassure prospective voters with a message that some or another grandparent was white, a Brazilian maid or busboy working in Manhattan is certainly entitled to their racial fictions.

The realities of race, nation, and identity always outpace the comforting stories we tell ourselves. This whether we're we are a light skinned southerner, or brown skin Brazilians. If you think there's a world of troubling history built into what Brazilians name themselves, how about this? As you listen to these words about Brazilians and African-Americans, Brazilian troops, some of them, perhaps, the descendants of the Maroons in Colombo des Palmaris(ph), are in Haiti.

These men are in the world's first black Republic on a murky U.N. peacekeeping mission to hasten and secure a dubious election. Compared to that mass of enigmas, conspiracies, and potential outrages, figuring out whether someone is a quarter Portuguese is a parlor game--child's play that divides as much as it instructs.

GORDON: Gary Dauphin is a Haitian-American writer, based in Los Angeles.

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