On May 22nd Lourdes García Navarro published an interesting article about the experience of African American expatriates living in Brazil. After reading and exchanging impressions with other commenters I felt compelled to write the following comment.
Maybe because it is too long or for some other reason it was removed, so I decided to repost my comment here:
I think it's great that NPR published this article and I'm glad I read it and all the comments. I've been logging in periodically and reading all your interesting comments and responding to a few of them but there's something on the back of my mind that I would like to share with you if I may. I have never been to Brazil and my only exposure to the country culture if via what I read in articles like this and a few TV shows I've followed in the past.
I don't doubt that the experience of these American expats are real, I don't know them and it would be an affront of my part to question their validity. Another commenter wrote that it is possible that they may be applying the American frame or reference regarding race relations to another culture, which if true would be a mistake. We don't know if that if the case here, but this in indeed a common problem.
None other than Professor Henry Louis Gates made this same mistake over and over again in his "Black in Latin America" series of a few years ago. I saw all four episodes when they aired on PBS and still refer to them. There are good things to say about Professor Gates work and he should be commended for discussing this subject and introducing black Latin America to American audiences. The simple fact that the vast majority of African slaves were sent to Latin American and the Caribbean appears to be unknown because it is not discussed often.
However, I found that he went in with preconceived notions and an unwillingness to acknowledge that his American experience does not apply in Latin America. The main example was his constant use of the one-drop rule to conclude that anyone with any African ancestry was black. As a black man from the Dominican Republic I understand the relevancy of the one-drop rule in the U.S. During the bad old days of government imposed segregation and Jim Crow laws it didn't matter how black you were, those laws applied to you all the same.
So you didn't have those divisions among light skinned, black skinned and everything in between. We were all in this together. I get that. But racial attitudes in Latin America were different and you have to acknowledge that first in any discussion about race relations in Latin America. I'm not saying that the "Casta" system that Spain used in its colonies is better than the one-drop rule, as that would be akin to arguing about which oppressive discriminatory system is "better"... which would be pure nonsense.
Like I said, I don't really know much about racial attitudes in Brazil, I don't know how the Portuguese went about treating their slaves, if they have something like the Casta system the Spanish had in their colonies or how it was in the period after Brazil became and independent country and slavery was abolished. But the bottom line is that racial dynamics in Latin America are different than in the U.S. and if we as people (meaning all of us, from Alaska to Argentina) want to work to makes thing better, lets start by acknowledging some basic truth.
In no particular order:
1-There is racism in Latin America, is not only an "American" problem: Just because we didn't have something like Jim Crow laws, no "official" segregation, no KKK lynching people or we have one or two black presidents doesn't mean that there is no racism in Latin America. Just watch our TV show, our movies or even our beauty pageants: this is how we choose to present ourselves, and we present ourselves as whites.
2-There is a lot that we don't know: If you read this article you would think that Brazil is a racial hell hole, the worst country to be black in the American continent. But as a Dominican I was surprised when I moved to Maryland (I live 20 minutes from Baltimore) and find out that the perception African Americans have is that we Dominicans are awful, self-haters who don't want to be perceived as "black" but as "Spaniards". But then you read about race relations in the U.S. (Freguson, #BlackLivesMatter, Freddie Gray) and you would think that is the U.S. that is the racial hell hole... or them you talk to somebody who have lived in Argentina and tells you how racist they are... not all can be true!... so why don't we admit that there is a lot that we don't know...?
3-We are moving ahead, there is progress: Jim Crow is a thing of the past; a black man is in the White House. Millions of Black families are middle class, professional, business people, doctors, prominent politicians and judges. In my own country people are addressing our reluctance to openly embrace our African heritage. Haitians in the Dominican Republic are joining the middle class and attending college; businesses are advertising in creole to Haitians immigrants. In Brazil you have organizations such as Educafro working to address disparity in education among racial lines. This is important because the impression I have in speaking with African Americans is that they don't know that these movements are there doing the same kind of work that civil rights organization continue to do in the U.S.
4-We are all tribalist: I'm black, but I'm still from another "tribe" around Baltimore. People see me, assume that I'm African American and as soon as I open my mouth I notice a change of attitude. Some are quite open and would ask me "what are you?" I see no problem in that, this is human nature and it doesn't mean that people are being racist. The same thing happened in Puerto Rico, where I lived more than 20 years. The same thing happened in Perth Amboy, NJ, where I have relatives and in which everybody wanted to know if I was Dominican or Puerto Rican. That's who we are by virtue of being humans and we need to be aware of that and not think that every stare we give or receive when we interact with "others" means that we or the other is a unrepentant racist.
5-Humans are complex creatures, so let's keep our channels of communication open: Race, culture, our experiences shape us. Let's take advantage of forums like this, of occasion like this to try to learn a little bit more about each other.
That's all I can think of right now. I'm pretty sure there is more that we can say, agree or disagree regarding this subject matter.