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world wide wednesdays :: parda people

god is watching you, white people
i guess you could call this one "world wide ash wednesday", since today is indeed ash wednesday, the first day of the christian period of lent, when you're supposed to give up something important to you in honour of the jesus' fast in the desert, where he was exposed to the great temptation. i've never participated in this, although i've always been aware of it, because in the days when i would attend church [when i wasn't old enough to have a say in the matter], it was always protestant and lent is more of a catholic thing. you'd be surprised at how deep that division still runs in some parts of canada. my family did, however, practice the british tradition of pancake day on shrove tuesday, the day before ash wednesday. so the beginning of lent for me was generally associated with a food coma and sticky syrup stains in strange places. i do, however, think i might give up depression and anxiety for lent. both are important facets of my daily life, after all.

some people take the wind up to lent a little more seriously and celebrate it by indulging all of their senses, just to get indulgence out of the way before they start the annual purge of all things enjoyable. and no country is more associated with this custom than brazil, with their [in]famous carnival. it's an orgiastic fest of music, food and partying in the streets that draws millions of brazilians and almost as many hedonistic tourists [who probably aren't going to observe lent afterward] and is one of the things that has helped establish brazil's reputation as a party capital of the world. [side note :: one of the principal foods consumed is meat in all its myriad forms, since many catholics traditionally gave up eating meat for lent. in fact, this is what gave the carnival its name: it's derived from the latin word for meat "carne".]

bahia
carnival in brazil is not a uniform event. as you might expect in such an ethnically diverse country, significant differences exist between regions at carnival, which is pretty indicative of how things are in general. while foreigners original flocked to the party capital of rio de janeiro, interest has in recent years shifted to its cooler northern cousin, bahia province. rio, and the south of the country in general, is dominated by those classified as "white"- descendants of european settlers from the portuguese on- whereas bahia, where sugar plantations were the major industry for many years, became dominated by the descendants of african slaves, or workers from africa. this means that bahia has a much higher black population, but also a much larger number of so-called "parda": people with mixed racial history, termed "brown" for official purposes. in brazil, race is very complicated and it very important.

the history of the slave trade in brazil may seem odd to someone used to viewing the practice through the lens of the american experience. it's estimated that four million slaves were brought to brazil up until the country abolished slavery in 1888 [the last country in the americas to do so]. that's roughly ten times the number brought into the u.s. as a result, the black/ african influence on national culture has been marked: catholicism in bahia province is heavily influenced by the african traditions, especially those of the yoruba tribe from west africa.

rio de janeiro
despite the fact that slavery was the norm on plantations, the rules were quite different than in the united states. it was not uncommon for slaves to gain freedom and, more importantly for the history of brazil, there was little racial segregation. it was always acceptable for blacks to marry whites, or people of other races [generally of the same social class]. the combination of blacks and those of mixed ancestry have long formed a majority in bahia and, as of the 2010 census, now outnumber whites across the country as a whole. however, despite brazil's insistence that its racial history has been gentler and friendlier than others, particularly the united states, the fact is that whites continue to occupy a place of prestige in economic terms, which, as you might expect, has lead to other advantages. [side note :: the extent to which miscegenation was actually acceptable in colonial brazil is somewhat debatable. the image of brazil as the ultimate racial melting pot stems largely from the writings of guillermo freyre in the 1930s, who portrayed the portuguese as being more relaxed and inclusive in their rule, a sort of kinder, gentler colonizer. evidence from elsewhere would indicate that the portuguese were every bit as cruel and autocratic as other european nations and freyre incurred the wrath of the portuguese government, who vociferously objected to his assertion that they had been open to mixed race marriages and families in their former colony.]

for one thing, it's a great deal safer being white in brazil. whites are able to afford better security and are also able to exert more influence on politicians to keep their affluent neighbourhoods safe. brazil is a frighteningly violent country, with a murder rate almost four times that of the united states, a country with 60% greater population. most disturbingly, the brazilian police force kills at a rate of about five people per day [overwhelmingly black]. the united states has been heavily criticized for the number of people killed by police in recent years, which is about four hundred, or one fifth the number murdered by police in brazil. in the last decade, the number of blacks murdered has increased by about 40%. the number of whites murdered has decreased by 24%. 

not black. also not white.
the mixed-race afro-brazilians occupy a difficult space in the middle of these two groups. or rather, they occupy about a hundred and thirty places, because brazil has one hundred and thirty-six different descriptors for race, with separate categories for blonde, light blonde, people whose skin is more cinnamon, people whose skin is chestnut, somewhat chestnut-coloured, white, snowy white, off-white... the list is pretty exhaustive and, just to make things a little more confusing, people self-identify on the census, so it's really more a reflection of how people see themselves. soccer player naymar jr., the darling of this summer's world cup, raised some eyebrows when he told an interviewer that he had never experienced racism in his profession and added "but i'm not black". [read the original interview here, in portuguese.] from the perspective of a white north american or european, that might seem peculiar, because he is so clearly not white. but in brazilian terms, the only ones with which he would have been familiar at the time, neymar is absolutely not black and racism in brazil clearly rolls downhill through a spectrum of skin colour between white and black, getting progressively worse. meymar was simply indicating that he was high enough up the hill that he wasn't a target.

definitely beautiful, definitely white
appearance is a very big deal in brazil. the country is now the fifth largest consumer of beauty products in the world [and is projected to be third by 2017, after the united states and japan]. considering that a much larger proportion of the population lives in poverty and, of course, that the population is much smaller, that statistic is incredible. and within the beauty industry [which includes male consumers in almost the same number as women], there is an implicit [and expected] bias towards some level of whiteness. blonde highlights have become a huge trend and even the level of highlighting can denote relative social status. bolder, brassier highlights are the hallmark of the lower and middle classes, while more caramel tones- a more natural option on those who are whiter to begin with- are worn by the wealthy. more recently, golden tanned skin has become a major trend [achieved through artificial means to avoid any ugly damage] and, of course, it's a look only white people can achieve. the further down one falls on the racial hill, the less likely it is that they can adopt these major beauty trends. [there is no better example of the ideal of brazilian beauty than super-model gisele bundchen, with her subtly lightened hair, clearly caucasian features and golden but gloriously healthy skin.]

there are some signs of improvement in brazil where the racial divide is concerned. while black brazilians earn only about 60% as much as their white countrymen, that's actually better than the 50.5% they earned fifteen years ago. government efforts at affirmative action have increased the number of blacks at universities, which they hope will lead to a greater presence in higher-paying and more influential jobs. [in a country where afro-brazilians form a majority, there is only one black cabinet minister in the government. also, while racial abuse is a crime in brazil, it's relatively rare to see prosecutions within the massively white legal system.] affirmative action, however, has met with steady and vocal resistance, not only among whites, but among those who feel that dividing brazil's patchwork of races into groups who are then judged to be more or less deserving is in itself racist. [side note :: as often happens, universities were the bulwark for affirmative action reforms. the policies have been strongly suggested by the government rather than enforced, and early studies have indicated that its beneficiaries have performed as well or better than the whites that they displaced. the theory is that blacks who end up attending universities are people who actually want to do so, whereas for many whites, it was simply considered a normal step after private school for someone from a wealthy background, and therefore was not taken as seriously.]

since today is ash wednesday, the carnival is over in all parts of the brazil and the observance of lent has started. here's hoping that some people are choosing to give up their conservative views on race, for forty days and beyond.

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