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Lilia Moritz Schwarcz: Almost blacks, almost whites

MIGUEL BOYAYAN“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? When you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge”, speaks Shylock, the polemic character in the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. Far from defending violence, the Bard portrays a sentiment, unfortunately all too human, though of Newtonian “scientificism” of “action- reaction- action” etc. when the question is the supposed racial differences. Minister Matilde Ribeiro, the Special Secretary for Racial Equality Policy Promotion, stated, in a recent interview, that “it’s not racism when a black revolts against a white, because he who was chastised throughout his life doesn’t have the obligation to like the person who chastised him”. Shall we agree or disagree?

The dilemma, Hamlet like, is one of the most complex. As, indeed, is everything that refers to race, especially in a country like Brazil. After all, here “nobody is a racist”, as determined in 1988 on the centenary of Abolition, with a survey whose results were symptomatic: 97% of those interviewed said that they had no prejudice. But, on being asked if they knew people or situations that revealed racial discrimination in the country, 98% responded with a sonorous “yes”. “The informal conclusion was that all Brazilians seem to feel like an ‘island of racial democracy’, surrounded by racism on all sides”, evaluated the anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, from the Anthropology Department of the University of São Paulo, author, among others, of Retrato em branco e negro, O espetáculo das raças e As barbas do imperador [Portrait in black and white – The spectacle of races and The whiskers of the Emperor], Racial democracy or racist inferno? “The first procedure is to highlight the pseudo-scientific character of the term ‘race’ even because its connotation is diverse from place to place and its biological character determinations have only a relative and statistical effect. There is no way of imputing into nature that which is of a cultural order: humanity is one, it is the cultures that are plural”, analyzes Lilia.

Curiously enough, racism is a theme born with modernity, which “in spite of being so globalized, finds itself marked by historical hatreds, springing from race, from ethnics and from origin”. We’re “almost whites, almost blacks”, as sang Caetano and Gil, in Haiti, and, for this reason we have gone through our history discussing this “almost”. “Race in Brazil was always a theme used (and abused) by ‘persons’ out with the statute of the law. In this society marked by inequality and privileges, ‘race’ made and makes up part of a national agenda regulated by two parallel and symmetrical attitudes: social exclusion and cultural assimilation. Although a large part of the population remains depleted of citizenship, racial familiarity is, paradoxically, inflated upon the culture sign and recognized as a national icon.” This is not recent.

“After the secular slavery period, between 1890 and 1920, the Brazilian elite was faced with the anguish about the crossbred genetic origins of our people and its capacity to serve as the basis for the so dreamed of economic, political and cultural development. Demarcated in racist interpretation, set in the crossbred origins of the Brazilian people, we would be incapable of development and of progress”, wrote professor Marcelo Paixão, from the Economics Department of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in his article entitled, “The fair combat”. The concept of “race” already arrives in Brazil “out of place”, in need of the “Brazilian jeitinho (way of doing)” in order to function. “If speaking of race seemed to be on the agenda, the theme generated paradoxes: it implied admitting the non-existence of a future for a nation of mixed races such as ours. The way out was to commend the adoption of scientific idealism, however, without its theoretical corollary, or that is to say, to accept the idea of an ontological difference between races without the condemnation to hybridization, since the country, at that point in time, was irremediably interbred”, observes Lilia. “Uncomfortable was the situation of these intellectuals, who oscillated between the adoption of determinist models and the verification that the country, thought of in these terms, was unviable.” Worse: a model of success in Europe from the early eighteen hundreds, the race theories arrived late to Brazil. “Race, since then appears as a negotiation concept, as the interpretations varied.”

The anachronistic debate went on in various locations: in the medical schools of Recife and Rio de Janeiro (where “political medicine” was born), the law schools, the Brazilian History and Geography Institute, the ethnological museums, and in literature, even in fiction. A medical representative, Nina Rodrigues, from the states of Bahia and Maranhão, defended racial Darwinism, which proclaimed the separation of races: natural selection would put an end to, within the competitive process, the inferiors, which would be put under control or eliminated. With her, medicine acquired political forums in legal medicine: “The examples of drunkenness, alienation, epilepsy, violence etc. went on to prove the social Darwinist models in its condemnation of interbreeding, in its alert to the ‘imperfection of mixed heredity'”, observes Lilia.

The medical doctor Arthur Ramos, from the state of Alagoas, representative of the 20th century, preferred to “sugarcoat” Dr. Nina’s pill, modifying race and interbreeding for culture and acculturation. “The national problems went on to be reread in the light of the cultural reference, and not biological. Thus, contrary to the ailments of genes, supposedly eternal, those of culture were alterable by processes that would change inherited social habits”, explains Paixão. Racism à la Brazil.

On the judicial side, Sílvio Romero, from Recife, went on the defend that “the melting pot process would be of fundamental importance for the adaptation in the tropics of European descendants and, in this way, the Brazilian Euro-descendants, without losing their original attributes, would incorporate the legacy of other racial groups, absorbing their best qualities”. From there to the racial enthusiasm of Gilberto Freyre was a small step, whose grand innovation, notes Paixão, was to give value to genetic matrices and ordinary cultural habits that formed the Brazilian people, without wasting time with the embarrassment of ethical-racial order. The Brazilian should now be proud of his mixture.

Although it is not a concept directly forged by anthropologist Freyre, shortly after they began to speak, globally, of Brazilian “racial democracy”, even though it cropped up at a moment in which not even political democracy existed in the country. In São Paulo, Florestan Fernandes, angry ith anthropologist Freyre disagrees with this optimism, (in truth, the author of Casa-grande & senzala [The masters and the slaves] did not hide the sadism that existed in the relationship between slaves and masters, between blacks and whites) with the thesis that the asymmetry of slavery remained functioning.

According to Fernandes, the modernization process had brought the possibility of the non-effective realization of a racial democracy, since our model, like that of the master-slave relationship, remained dependent and peripheral. To discriminate, far from being the exception, would be a tradition among us. In the decade of the 1990’s anthropologists such as Lilia and Peter Fry would return in a critical manner to the “myth of racial democracy”, especially valuing the concept of “myth”, since one could not believe  in such a democracy of races. “Thus, since one can’t deny racism, one can’t stop talking about the singularities of this mixed society. Not only the biological mix, but the miscegenation of customs and religion”, wrote anthropologist Lilia. Racial democracy is a myth, there is no doubt. “But the myth guards an importance for itself, considering it (to) signals a collective desire, not part of other realities, where racial discrimination would not mind to manifest itself in a veiled manner. Considering that all the societies articulate themselves around the myths of origin (such as the American way of life or Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, of the French), that of racial democracy would be only one among others”, evaluates Paixão. “In this manner, the intellectual context of the end of the last century went a long way; although it is no longer scientifically legitimate to speak of racial differences starting from the social Darwinian models, race, nevertheless, remains as the central theme of Brazilian thinking”, believes  Lilia.

MIGUEL BOYAYANWhen even the Special Secretary for Racial Equality Policy Promotion uses “common sense” to justify racism, what can be expected from society?
That was evidently an unfortunate declaration. But one needs to dismount what there is behind common sense, of this talk that “flourishes”. Racism is always demoralizing. It hinders you from evaluating a person, starting from a physical formation, above all the skin color, or else that you attribute to skin color an explanation of biological order. Racism is always a perversion. There is nothing natural in it, it being a cultural construction born from profound social differences that divide us. I believe it correct to go back into history in order to attempt to understand and modify this panorama, to form a policy. But to call any type of racism natural is to make of history an ideological battlefield. There is no naturalness here. I believe that this can lead in fact to an excitement to hatred, and, above all, to something with which all of us must disagree, which is to transform the human race into an essence, a reality. It is not a race; it is a social and political construction.

How have science and racism historically related to each other in Brazil?
Brazil is a country of paradoxes, because, at the same time that we carried this tremendous pessimism, from the 19th century until the 1930’s, afterwards we have been living with great optimism: race was always a talking point in Brazil, for good or for evil, as an element of evil doing or as an element of positive thought. This common sense, it has already been science, or that is to say, prejudice was already a concept. At the end of the 19th century, Brazilian and international scientific forward thinking stated that the mixing of races was harmful and that a country formed by many different races was fated towards decadence. Nina Rodrigues, from the Medical School of Bahia, was the harbinger of this idea. She showed, starting from the idea that schizophrenia, drunkenness, madness, including tattoos, were demonstrations that individuals were degenerate and that this degeneration would pass to the body of the nation. This would be a nation without a future. This vision was not only that of Rodrigues; we can find it in Euclides da Cunha, whose marvelous account is full of confrontations: the backwoodsman is imbalanced, a degenerate, because he is the fruit of races highly balanced and different. At the same time, he is also “a living rock, a hard rock”. Euclides da Cunha does not notice that, nor even why, this crossbreed survives in the end. Sílvio Romero, for example, has a sensational phrase that reveals the spirit of that time: “It’s necessary not to have prejudice. Men are different.” So, in that era, to have prejudice was to state equality. Now this has become common sense. In the decade of the 1930’s there was an official exaltation of interbreeding as our profound singularity, the way out that Brazil would give to the world. Science goes on to de-legitimize the idea that interbreeding is wrong. Common sense assumes this too.

Do these theories arrive here “copied” or do they go through an adaptation?
The movement in Brazil went in the opposite direction, because, at the moment in which the racial theories became the key word in Brazilian science, they were entering into discredit in Europe. And at the moment when the racial theories went on to be discredited in Brazil, this back in the decade of the 1930’s and 1940’s, in Europe they returned with force due to the Nazi question. The ideas, when they entered into this moment of Brazilian history, and in this social, political and specific configuration, gained a new dimension and inclusive within the new reading, a selection. In the end, one thing is to think of eugenics in peoples that are not mixed; another is the eugenics in peoples already mixed, those so-called race laboratories. What had happened here? A marriage of theories that in other places would’ve ended up in disaster. Clearly they are the theories of evolutionism with the most deterministic race theories, because racial determinism supposes what? There is no way to have a mixture. Evolutionism forecasts what? The idea that certain mixtures can be beneficial and others not. There is a selection. It was not a copy but a translation.

How can one understand the attempts at whitening the nation, by way of immigrants, the separation of races and other initiatives?
This way out, via whitening, is an example of a solution à la Brazil, because it is not to say that Brazil avoided whitening. Clearly not, because there is a complete movement in Europe that forecasts the eugenics policy. But to be able to apply the policy of whitening in a context of already “white” is different from thinking of a whitening policy in a country in which the population is Africanized. An emigration policy was requested. João Batista Lacerda, from the National Museum is going to participate in the Official Race Conference. At that moment, we lived in the context of Pan-Americanism, there is political suspicion that the United States will practice an invasion policy on our territories and Lacerda takes up, as the way out, whitening. He shows how, in a time period of one hundred years, Brazil would be white, through natural selection and the implementation of white immigration policies. To have an idea of the “heat of the moment”, Lacerda is considered a pessimist, since he speaks of a century, which would be too long for the whitening of the nation. This is without forgetting about the immigration policy implemented mainly by Don Pedro II. One can understand an immigration policy, but why white? The explanation is in the ideological racial content of this policy. There is, for example, a professor at the Medical School of Rio de Janeiro, Renato Kehl, who was in favor of the South African model. He praised the South African policy, that had selective migration, and white emigrants, and calls for a two-side movement. On one side the white and selected emigration, and on the other, he praises the sterilization of crossbreds. That is to say, the country of courageous racial democracy was one step away from social apartheid.

To what extent has race been used as a form of creating a national identity?
This is a slow process, because we know that nations are constructions, projects made of memories. As Walter Benjamin said, “memory is a past made of today’s moments, full of today”. Memory is made up of some recollections and of many forgotten items. A process of national memory formation is a process of forgetfulness, of selections and re-elaborations. Even of literature, such as that of 1922, which showed that we founded a State but not a nation. The identity, it is a contrastive construction and the material, the yeast of identity, was the idea of difference. So it was necessary to ferment this notion of difference. This cake was cooking during the 19th century and the reign of Emperor Don Pedro II (and) is fundamental in order to understand this model of Brazil that is building itself. Don Pedro II was not an outstanding adept at racialist models but that does not mean to say he was not influenced by the times, since, recalling Sílvio Romero, at that moment, to assume the differences was not to be prejudiced. Hence the selection of the native as the icon of nationality, however, a romanticized native. At the end of the 19th century these racial theories entered the Law School, Medical School and military circles. But it was at the start of the 20th century that this debate surrounding race became more evident. The interesting point is that, for the confirmation of identity, race had to be made positive: as within the Empire, one had to make the Indians positive, in the 20th century the crossbreed was made positive. Interbreeding, from being a profound poison, transforms itself into a great virtue: it is the moment at which you have the official recognition of capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art), the de-criminalization of candomblé (Afro-Brazilian religion), and football transforms itself into a black practice, Our Lady of Aparecida is transformed into a mixed blood Saint, a national icon. During the 1930’s race became in fact an element of nationalism, but with a “good race”, a “good mixture”, and a racial mixture that is more and more transforming itself into a cultural mixture.

MIGUEL BOYAYANHow can one bring together concerns about race and racism?
In truth, there is no solution of continuity. It could appear, through etymology, race and racism, that there is, but not for sure. We were on the edge of a social apartheid policy, of evident racial policies. We were about to implement an official policy of racialism, which did not happen. Now modernist idealism has transformed the race theme into a humanity theme. The first definition of Macunaíma is of a man without race; from there to the man without any character is to throw the question to the culture issue. Modernist idealism transformed race, culture into ethics and embezzled the theme in order to think on some form of assimilation models. The modernist idea of Macunaíma, of that which you swallow, of which you devolve, is a bit like the idea of devolving the man to the melting pot of culture. It is clear that this notion, in a certain manner, perceived the conflict, but did the opposite. The advantage of literature à la Nina Rodrigues is that at no moment did she camouflage the conflict; in fact she exposes the difference. The problem with Nina Rodrigues was not the diagnosis, but the remedy that she implemented.

And your idea of an “island of racial democracy, surrounded by racism”, the Brazilian who only sees the racist in the other?
Arthur Ramos was the first to speak of racial democracy, but Freyre took the fame. But it is useless to know who was the first, since the theme had been on the national agenda. So much so that it found a home in national discussion, via the New State, and gained results outside of Brazil. One cannot forget the impact that this idea had abroad, as in the case of UNESCO research that called Brazil the exemplary case, a huge racial democracy. The idea of the myth is strong and gains different connotations. When we speak of myth, it is not in the sense of a lie. Today one thinks less on what the myth hides and more on what the myth reveals. When thinking on the structural analysis of the myth, they work in a spiral; speak among themselves and at the same time to all of the elements that are here in our social reality. Thus, I think that one needs to take the myth seriously, because it has already been dismounted many times and continues to be present. What does taking the myth seriously mean? It is not to say “we have social democracy”. No, we don’t have it. We practice a perverse policy of exclusion and of discrimination. Thus, there’s no such thing as social or racial democracy, but also I don’t find that we must wager on outside models, analyses that dichotomize the reality between blacks and whites. Perhaps this was to be the unhappiest statement of the minister, backed up on models that are not practiced in this country. Interbreeding is a reality, but the problem isn’t the existence of interbreeding, but the always positive qualification of interbreeding. Interbreeding isn’t a synonym of equality. Interbreeding isn’t necessarily a synonym of the absence of discrimination. It’s this vacuum that disturbs me.

Can we think, finally, that the concept of race can still be maintained?
Race isn’t an ideological reality, but race is a construction, very often perverse, because it leads to a hierarchy field. Having said this, race is a construction, identity is also a construction. We’re in this field: identity as well isn’t a construction that is made in context and with social battles and with social tensions at every moment. Therefore it’s necessary to think why it is that in Brazil race was always material for thinking of identity and what it is that would be this racism à la Brazil. I think there certainly exists this racism à la Brazil whose major complexity is that it is above all of private character. This has been altering and considerably. This Brazilian racism still manifests itself in the sphere of the secret, because of the absence of movement on the body of the law. What we’re having is an inversion. We’re attempting to place in the body of the law compensation policies, practicing policies that in some manner are restoring and racializing the debate. This racism à la Brazil is of a secret character, as it doesn’t manifest itself in the body of the law and for not showing itself in the most official levels. Above all, it’s also a racism that always places on the other the quota of prejudices. It could well be the Argentinean, in the case of football. The good side of the moment in which we live is indeed that people are going on to reflect about this question. Not speaking about it doesn’t signify that one doesn’t live the problem. People negate and throw upon the other the racism that in truth is of each of us.

What happens when one brings together the racial question to that of gender?
This is then double discrimination. It’s not a double day’s work, but it’s a double day’s work of prejudice, because if there is a spread of negative representations towards the crook and the half-breed, when this refers to women, this increases. The mulatta is the stage of the idea that she’s  not just about  idleness, but condemnable sexual acts; there’s the influence of prostitution, betrayal, the mulatta who is sly.

In short, as an anthropologist, what is your vision of the future of race concept and of “being Brazilian”?
“We operate various Brazilian characteristics depending upon the place, the moment and the situation, because it’s a biased concept, above all, contrastive. The identity is build up by the imposition that it represents, by the position that it illuminates. I wrote an article for a Portuguese newspaper about a game of football, in Paraisópolis, which is called “Black against White: it’s a football game held at the end of the year”. In it people change position: one year they play for the Blacks and another for the Whites. Hence one can note how, firstly, identity is a circumstantial question, and race, a situation, in common sense, “temporary”. The people “become white”, “become black”. Which is proof of how race, not as a biological concept, but race as a social construction, continues to be accessed into our imagination. What I can say, without fear of error, is that races have always made us think  in Brazil, because, in the end, they have always triggered the idea, in strategic moments, that the identity, also thought of as a construction, is transformed into a conforming element of public policies and of State policies.