PART I - PRE-DEPARTURE THROUGH ARRIVAL
On Saturday morning, I sat in my apartment frantically going over my packing list. My backpack and suitcase were (relatively) organized. Despite the last minute errands I left for my day of departure, I did my best to tap into my inner Virgo and match my outfits to the activities on my itinerary and organize all my travel documents and whatever else highly organized people do.
For context, I am traveling through parts of Brazil to study the effects of Affirmative Action policies and how they impact the social mobility of under-resourced Brazilians. The course is titled "Brazil:Race, Class, and Equity in Higher Education. As a master's student studying higher education with an interest in college access, this experience aligns well with why I am pursuing my degree.
A major focus of this course has been about racial identity, racial classification, and opportunity. I am making a distinction between racial identity and racial classification intentionally. There is often a difference between one's individual relationship to race (i.e. what they see themselves as) and the outward experience of others deciding what race they think a person belongs to (i.e. how people perceive race). Unlike the United States where race is overwhelmingly ancestral because of old policies like the One Drop rule, in Brazil, race is primarily phenotypical. Thus, immediate family members can get categorized differently according to the official census. When you consider the fact that Affirmative Action programs in Brazil are designed to help disenfranchised Brazilians who are under-resourced largely in part because of their skin color, this becomes very contentious.
In class we have discussed how little representation there is for dark skinned Afro-Brazilians in places of influence. Brazilian political ideology from the 19th and 20th centuries were deeply invested in the idea of racial harmony, or the belief that Brazilian national identity was rooted in intermixing between races and that the average Brazilian was made up of many cultures. In my own experience, I grew up with family members who saw Brazil as a "racial utopia" because everyone was mixed and therefore racism was not as prevalent as say, in the United States. What I have come to understand my aunt's beliefs as rose-colored glasses of a place she has never seen firsthand. The reality remains that Black Brazilians are given fewer opportunities to go to school to get the education needed.
Race in Brazil, as it is in most places, is extremely complicated. I am trying my hardest not to impose my "American" lens on things. Admittedly, I have felt particularly uncomfortable when my professors bring this up to our class because of all the different cultures and experiences present at the table. Sometimes it feels like when people warn American travelers not to be themselves, they are mostly only warning white people. My "American" lens is inherently informed by diaspora, and I have traveled here to learn about another diaspora. While these are different perspectives, Black oppression and disenfranchisement is global.
I was fortunate enough to have had a visiting doctoral student from Brazil in one of my classes last semester. She shared about how little representation there is of Black Brazilians in public office, middle class jobs, and in higher education. Sitting across from her, I listened intently. Traveling through JFK and GRU airports, I felt more of what she was saying.
Arriving to the terminal from where my journey began, I immediately noticed that most of the members of the airline crew were visibly white or white passing. Most of the Brazilians in the waiting area also looked white or white passing. Where were the Afro-Brazilians? I thought to myself. Boarding the plane, once more I was greeted with white Brazilians. I was reminded of the words of my classmate Alessandria who said that not all opportunities were afforded to Black people.
After we landed, I stood up as other passengers were gathering their belongings and scanned the plane once more for Black bodies. To my side was an older Black man. A few rows behind me was a Black woman. We gave each other a smile and the standard nod of acknowledgement. I later learned that she was also an American, leaving me to wonder once more where Afro-Brazilian women were.
PART II - ARRIVAL TO SÃO PAULO
My roommate, friend, and I all arrived to São Paulo early Sunday morning, and have several hours to fill before we were allowed to check into our hotel rooms. After walking around the city for a few minutes, we stumbled upon a street market where I saw a captivating sign:
"WHERE ARE THE BLACKS?"
This banner made me pause. Up until this point, the darkest person I had come into direct contact with was a Afro-descent woman at the hotel. The issue of representation is deeper than me not seeing Black Brazilians right away upon my arrival. Instead, it is about how despite the fact that Black Brazilians make up a majority of the Brazilian population, yet they are not seen in popular media, politics, or education.
As our course is focused largely on Affirmative Action policies, I am beginning to recognize why a clear policy is needed to give Black Brazilians a critical voice in their sociopolitical lives.
I am carrying the question from this banner with me throughout this experience. I am finding answers along the way, as well. For example, while exploring São Paulo, my friends and I visited MASP - Museu de Arte de São Paulo. There we toured an exhibit titled Histōricas Afro-Atlanticas, a global look at the many histories of the African diaspora. Walking through the exhibit, I was reminded how Brazil was the largest recipient of African slaves and was the last to abolish slavery in 1888. The art curated for this story shared African, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Caribbean, and African American history. The first two pieces I saw upon entering set the journey for where the rest of the art was going to take me.
Amazing right? Seeing these two pieces stirred something in me. It reminded me that Black Americans, Caribbeans, and Latinxs all started from the same place. That we were stolen, tortured, and killed. BUT WE ARE STILL HERE.
WE ARE HERE.
So, to answer that banner's question in the best Portuguese Google Translate can offer me: Os negros estão em toda parte.
Here are some of the other pieces that left me breathless.
More to come on my journey through Brazil!