Edna Roland, Co-coordinator and Director of Health, Geledes
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
EDNA ROLAND: In Brazil we fight against an enemy that is invisible, you know, because
the majority of whites and blacks in Brazil will say that the problem does not exist.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the invisible enemy in Brazil.
ROLAND: The majority of people in Brazil will think that race does exist or race is not important.
PORTER: Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
The issue of race in Brazil is confusing, not least of all because the government claims the issue doesn’t even exist.
Nearly 40% of the people describe themselves as being of mixed race and half the population
has some African ancestry. Those who describe themselves as black have, on average, half the
income, half the education and half the literacy as white Brazilians and things are only
marginally better for those who are of a mixed racial background. Helping us to sort through
these problems today is Edna Roland. She’s Co-coordinator and Health Director of a Brazilian
organization called Geledes.
ROLAND: You have a bi-polar model in the U.S.—we think black and white—in Brazil the
way how society is organized and how ideology works—race is thought more in terms of color
and it’s more thought in terms of a continuum that goes from white to black. This is the way
how the ordinary people will think about themselves. And so you have a very complex society
where people will classify themselves and classify the others according to a number of
different racial characteristics racial features. Like the shades of the skin—different
shades of the skin. The texture of the hair or the appearance of the faces and—this makes
things very complex in terms of political relations in society—as you have the phenomenon of
denial of race in Brazil. The majority of people in Brazil will think that race does not exist
or race is not important. Although from my experience—a people only create words to designate
something when this something is very important. And so if you think on the fact that in
Brazil, people have created so many words to describe the race of each other, it’s because
it’s really a hot issue in that society.
PORTER: All the literature I’ve read says that in the United States at least that
we’ve used the “one drop” rule. That one drop of African blood makes you a black.
PORTER: And that means that whites get to enjoy a, what they think of at least, as a
pure group and push everyone else off into another group. But you’re saying that doesn’t
happen in Brazil?
ROLAND: No, in the Brazilian system, it would something like the opposite of this—whitening
—has been an ideological objective that has been proposed by the Brazilian society—differently
from here—if you have some white blood, people will start considering that you are not black
anymore—you know—it’s the opposite, the system. And during—since the colonial times until
today—the ideology in Brazil—the ideology of the racial democracy in the ideology of putting
whiteness as a social objective—proposes that you should try to get lighter at each
generation—you know—and people look for passing—you know—the same phenomenon that you have
in the U.S.
PORTER: Yes, passing.
ROLAND: Yeah, but this—the line of color in Brazil is kind of flexible. One person
that might be considered black in one place, may be considered as brown in another or even
white depending on the region of the country.
PORTER: So passing, meaning that you could move from one category to the other…
PORTER: …is easier in Brazil because of the number of categories.
ROLAND: Yes, and because it’s as I said, it’s a very complex construction—the idea of
who is black and who is white in Brazil. A person like myself—in some regions of Brazil—could
be considered as white—for you to have an idea—the people is not seeing me right now—but you
are seeing me and you can—you know that in the United States nobody would have any doubts
about my blackness—right? But in Brazil, I might be classified depending on…
PORTER: You know let me stop you right there Edna, and say that right now—it is
uncomfortable for me to even think about the topic. When I sit here and I look at you and I
see your hair—and it reminds me of hair that would typically be on an African American…
PORTER: …in America it is almost so unnatural and improper to mention such a
thing—that when you said that it actually made me feel uncomfortable—because I began to
think about your features and which one—and which features I associate with particular
PORTER: And I think—and I mean that’s—maybe that’s…
ROLAND: …that’s the feeling that you experience? Yeah…
PORTER: Yes. And I think that—so you’re saying that in Brazil, discussion of those
features is common.
PORTER: People aren’t necessarily uncomfortable looking at you and saying—”ah—you’re
hair is like that—or your skin is like this”…
ROLAND: Yes. Although people are very uncomfortable on talking about race. In Brazil
people have prejudice of being prejudice. People are prejudice—few are prejudice—but people
will be very embarrassed at being or at recognizing the existence of races. The great majority
of the population will deny that races even exist in Brazil. This has been the official policy
in Brazil for many decades. Brazil thought of itself as being a racial democracy. And the fact
of that—that miscegenation has occurred in great extent in the country—was at the same
time—shown as the proof of the in-existence of racism and the cause of the in-existence of
racism. So miscegenation would be the remedy for racism, you know. This is an idea that has
been developed by the elites in the country and for many intellectuals…
PORTER: By the elites?
ROLAND: Yeah, sorry.
PORTER: That’s OK, I just wanted to make sure our listeners understood.
ROLAND: Yes, and this idea has gone down the people in the country and has been
reproduce by the ordinary people and after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, we had
governmental policies of—to substitute the black workers who were considered to be inadequate
to become free workers—and so Brazil was important. A great number of European migrants from
different countries in Europe. And this was done—one of the reasons why this was done was
because the government had the objective of whitening the population—so there was this
idea—this concept that we could dilute the African heritage in the population if new groups
of white people could be brought into the country and with the process of mixture—in the long
run—the black heritage would disappear.
PORTER: And when did that end?
ROLAND: Well, (laughing) well, going on is that on one side you can say that the
population—you can say that it’s whitening—or you can say that it’s blackening—because now in
terms of the official numbers in Brazil, at least 45% of the population are of African descent
in Brazil—Of which 6% would be the darker ones—which we call Pretos.
PORTER: Can you spell that for me?
ROLAND: It’s difficult to translate—but like—it would be blacks. And the rest—so 39%
would be of mixed race which we call Pardos—which would be the word—it’s like brown or
something like that. So you have a great mixture of races in Brazil. And differently from
here, where if there has been a mixture—that person—is seen as black—it will be seen as non
white and non black. But it’s a different—it’s a third racial category, you know.
PORTER: Do people move from category to category even within their own lifetime?
ROLAND: Yes, I would say so, I think that the issue of what you are—it’s a problem of
your identity that you can construct—in the same way racial identity here in the U.S. also is
constructed socially—is constructed socially—and so as I said—it depends on the region of the
country—how people are perceived and how they perceive themselves.
PORTER: If you have a mother and a father who come from two different spots on the
PORTER: …and then for their children—is it possible that their children may even be…
ROLAND: Look different…
PORTER: …be at different spots on the continuum…
ROLAND: And each child may be considered as different, you know—Like the lighter
children might be considered as white—and the darker may be considered as black you know,
so—it’s a really different way of perceiving it—and for us of the black movement in
Brazil—we think that this—the way how this issue of race works in Brazil—it’s a kind of
a weapon against us—because it divides the black population. People do not identify as
belonging to the same group, you know, you have a number of different categories and people
will not see as being a member of the same ethnic group, you know—so it’s a very complex
PORTER: So you’re talking about political power or even economic power—but if you
had—say the browns here and the blacks here—as long as they’re divided—they will never
be—they will never on their own have enough power to make social change, but if you were to
combine them and show each side that they both had common interests—you could move forward
ROLAND —Yeah. In fact, the people who are in those categories—like the brown—it
doesn’t’ mean that they all feel as belonging to the same group, you know—because in fact,
people use a number of different words of different concepts—to define themselves. Some
will define them as “Mudles???” like brunettes, you know—and light—”Mudunealgladual”???—light brunettes or dark brunettes—there are a number of different concepts and ideas to
describe, you know—so it’s very complex.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Edna Roland of a Brazilian
organization for black women called Geledes. Printed transcripts of Common Ground and
audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit nonpartisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs and meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: In our country, we know the statistics on the differentials between blacks and
whites in income, housing, education. When you have your groups spread out all over those
different categories—do you still have a differential—I mean do you still calculate where
each person—or how likely you are to have an education, or to have adequate housing, or
adequate health care?
ROLAND: Yeah, well, we have official data according to the official census uses 5
categories in Brazil—which would be like, white, black, brown, yellow for oriental, and
ROLAND: Yeah, the category Indigenious??? was created very—in the last census—as a
political requirement of the indigenous peoples. And so we have official data for education,
for income—and also some differences in terms of the employment—the areas of the economy
where people participate—and so the differences are very sharp between the white and the
black population if you consider black plus brown you know—we sum up those two groups to
consider the population of African descent in Brazil. And sometimes there will be some
differences between the brown and the black—but the brown is much more closer to the
Pretos—blacks—than the white, you know, so—from an economic point of view—the third
category—the browns—can be considered as the same group as the darker blacks, you know.
And there has been a lot of fight from the black movement to introduce information on race in
different sectors of the Brazilian life—like in the health system we still do not have full
information about this in Brazil. We had no information about race in the—how do you say—the death certificates—when a person dies…
PORTER: Yeah, you get a death certificate.
ROLAND: There was no information about race—you could have no information about
mortality by race in Brazil. And, although there was some researches that were showing that
the life expectancy for Black people is lower—infant mortality rate is higher for black
children and it’s similar—the situation in Brazil and the U.S. In fact the situation of the
black people in the U.S. is better than the situation of the Black people in Brazil. Even if
Brazil was considered a racial democracy—the racial democracy was not good for the black
people, you know. And the number—the percentage of black people in the Universities is very
small. The differences in income are very large between black and whites—and the great
majority, especially of black women—the great majority of Black women are employed in the
sectors of services—many of them are domestic servants—or for the—how to say—industry—non-skilled work.
ROLAND: Yes, or in agriculture—the great majority—and the number of black women
working in professions or in administrative services is quite small—so you really have a
segregated labor market in Brazil—you know—it’s very sharp the differences and I think
that there may—we may have some progress in the last years but it’s very slow yet. From the
educational point of view—you don’t have much difference between man and woman in Brazil.
But you do have difference when you see how they are employed and the money that they receive
in the labor market—so even if women—have a higher level of education than men—they do
not earn better salaries than men. Partly because the type of work that men and women engage
is different—you know—the type of jobs—but of course there is a bias of the social
definition—the type of work that men are engaged are considered socially to be more valuable
than the type of work that women are involved and so the pay of women is slower.
PORTER: What does your organization, Geledes, try to do about that?
ROLAND: Well we have worked mainly on issues of health and racial discrimination.
There has been now a project on—how do you say—to train young people for the labor
market, you know—but this is still a pilot program—it’s not a big program yet. And I
think this is a key issue for us—but we have not been doing work in that area for a long
PORTER: I have really just one last question for you—you mentioned—or one last
area at least—you mentioned the black movement. Does that mean that you are in favor of—a—of creating a bi-polar kind of system like we have here?
ROLAND: Well, not exactly creating a bi-polar system—but we think that it’s important
for people of African decent in Brazil to raise consciousness around ethic and raise issues,
other wise people will not understand why they live in such poor conditions, you know—if
they do not understand that their ethnic background is a reason why they live in bad houses,
they do not get access to education, do not have access to health and if they consider that
they are just, you know, bad people, that were unable to stay in the school and are unable to
fight to get good jobs—this is a very harmful process of denial of the reality and so from
our prospective—it’s very important for people to understand the social conditions and to
really create an identity regarding their origins, you know, their ancestry. Because if you do
not have self esteem—if you do not value yourself and your heritage, you just can’t change
the conditions where you live on—so I think from our point of view—it’s very important
that people of African descent in Brazil can perceive and identify themselves as black people.
PORTER: I’m sure there are a lot of Americans who would listen to that and say that’s
it’s very admirable and that you should do that—and then there are others who would say “no
please don’t do that—don’t try to do what we’ve done in this area because you’ll only create
more tension and more reasons for people to take sides and point fingers and create a big
schism between two groups.
ROLAND: Yeah, but you know the problem I think that—you do not solve a problem when
you just deny the existence of the problems you know. You have to fight for solutions. The
Brazilian way of trying to hide the existence of this problem has not been a good solution
for us you know. If you compare the percentage of black people in the university in Brazil
and the percentage of the people in the university in South Africa during Apartheid—there
were more people in the university in South Africa than in Brazil.
PORTER: Oh, my gosh…
ROLAND: So… I would say…
PORTER: That says a lot doesn’t it.
ROLAND: Yeah, so I would say that it was a very cleaver system that was created in
Brazil—because if you divide people—if you make them believe that they are not good, that
they are not strong you really—you make it impossible for them to fight for the rights and
for the conditions of living and giving a better life to their children—and so for us—we
had to go against all this concept and this system that has split us apart in such a way that
people do not know what they are and where they came from.
PORTER: Is there anything about race relations in the United States that you can point
to as a good example as something you would like to see happen in Brazil?
ROLAND: Yes I think that it’s good that people in the United States give an importance
to this issue—that it’s a central issue in the American society—although I think that you
negate the concept of class—you should also work on issues of class—and I think what is
good in the United States is that everybody knows what is going on regarding this. When you
have—when people do not pretend that the problem does not exist. I think that people
recognize the existence of the problem and this is the first step if you want to find a
solution. You have to recognize the existence of a problem. In Brazil we fight against an
enemy that is invisible you know—because the majority of whites and blacks in Brazil will
say that the problem does not exist and so it creates a very strange situation where people
will think that you are a schizophrenic you know, because you know that the problem is there,
you know that you may have not got a job because of your appearance and all that stuff—but
nobody will recognize it, you know—so it drives you crazy.
PORTER: That is Edna Roland Co-coordinator and Health Director of the Brazilian
organization called Geledes. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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