RIO DE JANEIRO -- An old adage comes to mind: ‘‘If you're white, you're all right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, get back."
It was a folk saying -- property of no one, property of everyone -- that we African Americans used to encompass defining realities of our lives. Meaning not just the fact that some white men would think themselves better than you because they were white, but the fact that some black men would, too, because they were light. This was a legacy of slavery, when light skin often meant less brutal treatment.
Correction: Speaker -- Jack Chang, not Leonard Pitts
So to be here in Brazil, to wander through this culture where a man the color of Bishop T.D. Jakes or Don Cheadle might, with a straight face, deny the Africa in him and people earnestly debate "who is black," well . . . it feels like you've stumbled into a fun-house mirror of race in which everything is exactly the same as it is back home, except where it is completely different.
As this month's Miami Herald reports on black life in Latin America vividly attest, that sense of falling through the fun-house mirror fits much of the black experience in this hemisphere. That black woman in Guatemala who made history by winning a beauty title could be Vanessa Williams. That Argentine kid who got called Kunta because he went to a white school could be a kid bused to school in Boston 30 years ago. That black man in Cuba getting harassed by police could be my son or, indeed, any young black man in America.
In much the same way, race in Brazil has a way of seeming both hauntingly familiar and exotically strange. Some here will tell you that this nation's triumph is that it never encoded race into its laws as did the United States. While that sounds like, and in some ways is, a laudable thing, the punchline is that those same people will also tell you this did not save Brazil from the sin of racism.
Indeed, they will haul out anecdotes and statistics illustrating the fact that Brazilians the color of T.D. Jakes or Don Cheadle tend to find it harder to get work, education or healthcare, but damnably easy to get followed around the department store by security guards who equate darkness with dishonesty.
This country is engaged in a debate over how to best address those issues. They are fighting over an affirmative-action program that would offer educational and healthcare advantages to Brazilians who are black.
Which brings us back to that earnestly debated question: Who is black?
A COMPLEX MATTER
The question is more complex than an American might believe. In Brazil, a nation of indigenous peoples and descendants of African slaves, European colonists and immigrants, a dark-skinned man who might automatically be called black elsewhere has a racial vocabulary that allows him to skirt the Africa in his heritage altogether. He can call himself moreno (racially mixed), mestizo (colored) or pardo (medium brown). Anything but "afrodescendente'' (Africa-descended) or negro (black).
In this, he's not unlike his counterparts in the United States, where black people also have an extensive vocabulary to describe variations in skin tone. In the United States, one can be ‘‘high yellow'' (i.e., of very light skin); one can be "red'' (i.e., with a reddish tint; one of Malcolm X's early nicknames was "Detroit Red''); or one can be any of a number of synonyms for dark. Like, for instance, "Smokey." In fact, the famous (and "high yellow'') Motown singer William Robinson was given that nickname in affectionate irony by one of his father's friends -- sort of like calling a fat guy Tiny.
THERE IS NO DOUBT
But here's the thing: In the States, no matter your skin tone, your race is never in question. Detroit Red was black. Smokey Robinson is black. T.D. Jakes is black. Don Cheadle is black.
The same is not true in Brazil. And if the United States is a country where black people with light skin used to sometimes ‘‘pass," i.e., pretend to be white, well, in this country "passing is a national institution." So says Elisa Nascimento with a laugh. She is white, American-born and the wife of Abdias do Nascimento, a 90-year-old black Brazilian artist and political icon. And the insistence of some Brazilian blacks on "passing," she says, has political consequences in that it tends to distort statistics on black life. "The way racism works in Brazil . . . there is a hierarchy, and so people tend to identify themselves lighter than they necessarily would be."
But Simon Schwartzman, a white social scientist, thinks that allowing Brazilians to self-identify beats the alternative. "I think it's very wrong for the government to start labeling people and saying, ‘You are officially black or you are officially white, or you are officially something.' You have all kinds of people in all kinds of situations, and I don't think it's the business of government to classify and label people."
So the question of "Who is black?" is tricky, to say the least. If a man the color of T.D. Jakes or even Smokey Robinson says he is not black, do you take him seriously? Do you laugh in his face?
BLACK IN THE U.S. OF A.
Maybe your instinct is the latter. In the U.S. of A., after all, we know what black is.
Of course, the U.S. of A. is also the country where, in 1896, an ‘‘octoroon'' (i.e., one-eighth black) man named Homer Plessy, white to all physical intents and purposes, lost a Supreme Court case that started when he was ordered to move to a "colored'' train car. And it's also the country where educator Gregory Howard Williams, a man who would disappear in a room of middle-age white men, saw his life change in 1954 from middle-class comfort to ostracism and racial slurs when it was revealed that his father was half-black.
As Williams, the author of the 1995 memoir Life On The Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black once told me in an interview, "The issue in America has never been color. It's always been race."
So in deriding the silliness of another nation's racial mores, an American finds himself in the unenviable position of the pot calling the kettle, well . . . black.
THE ROLE OF LAW
Indeed, it is America's history of encoding its racial biases in law -- everything from the Constitution designating blacks as three-fifths of a human being in 1787 to the restrictive housing covenants and segregation statutes that persisted into the 1960s -- that Yvonne Maggie points to in explaining why she objects to Brazil's flirtation with affirmative action.
"We don't need to say that race exists," says Maggie, an anthropologist and university professor. "We have to say that race is not important to define people in social terms, that black and white are the same kind of people."
It is worth noting that Maggie is white, her ex-husband is black, and they lived for a while in the United States. In 1971. In Texas.
"It was a rough time," she says in her imperfect English. "For me, was impossible to live there. We could not be married. Why I married with a black guy, you know? So when I say to you that Brazil was different . . . even my first husband didn't think of himself as black. In Brazil, he was a Brazilian, even though he was black. He never thought of himself as someone different from me because he was another color."
Which brings you to the heart of the matter, the reason any discussion of race and racial terminology that goes on long enough eventually comes to seem silly and overly complicated. African American? Afro-Brazilian? Negro? Colored? Moreno? Afro-descendente? Red? Pardo? Smokey?
NO SUCH THING
The reason the language struggles so hard for precision is that it seeks to describe that which does not exist. As a scientific matter, there is no such thing as race. We are all of the human race, something we probably will not fully understand until it is explained to us by green people with eyes waving on stalks.
Whereas U.S. history flies in the face of that fact with its centuries of pretense to hard and fast racial boundaries, it's a point of pride for Maggie that her country never -- officially -- bought into that lie.
I respect the principle she argues -- race does not exist and therefore should not be acknowledged in law. But that raises a question: How can you have racism without race?
Maggie insists that you can. She says that what Brazil has is a kind of "social racism'' supported not by law, but by custom. One suspects that those who suffer under it would be hard-pressed to tell the difference -- or find reason to care. Which is why, given the choice, many dark-skinned Brazilians choose to be other than "black." It is a means of escape, if only linguistically.
One morning, my translator and I ride out to the favela made infamous in City of God, the Oscar-nominated 2002 film about the drug wars that suck in children and spit out bones. We wait outside a community center for the Brazilian hip-hop star I have come to interview. Inside, a funeral has just come to an end. A casket is borne out to a van, followed by a handful of young people. Some have light skin, some have dark. All have sad eyes.
After a while, the man I'm waiting for appears. His given name is Alex Pereira Barbosa, known professionally as MV Bill. The MV stands for Mensageiro da Verdade, Messenger of Truth, and he is famous for rapping about conditions in the favelas.
CHOOSING ONE'S RACE
When I mention the funeral, he explains that the dead boy worked for one of the drug lords and met a violent end. When I mention that the boy was mourned by young people both black and white, MV Bill gives me a look. He considers all of them black.
"One of the characteristics of Brazilian racism," he says, "is that the person can choose to be what she wants. ‘Oh, I'm white, I'm not black.' Here, the darker you are, the more discrimination you suffer. And that makes it difficult for the blacks, from light to dark, to understand each other. The lighter-skinned blacks avoid the darker-skinned blacks because they don't want to suffer the same discrimination. It's hard for them to work together because of the degree of discrimination according to your color."
The cruelest racism, says MV Bill, is actually intraracial, perpetuated by light-skinned blacks against dark-skinned blacks. Fair skin, he says, represents power, even in the favela.
After being in this country a while, I find myself doing something I'd never feel the need to do at home. I ask people I'm interviewing "what'' they are. When dark-skinned people identify themselves as "black," there is an unmistakable little thrill of victory, a notch for "our'' side, as in someone who was brave enough and tough enough to accept the designation this society despises. Someone who understands that the problem isn't color and never was; rather, it is what some people have arbitrarily decided color means.
Lucia Maria Xavier de Castro, coordinator of Criola, an activist group representing black women, says she has known many people who were unable to accept their own blackness. "The
person does everything to get rid of black traces. Straightens her hair, dresses like white people -- not colorful. People do everything to eliminate traces. It's as if this person had a birth defect and was trying to correct it by taking those attitudes."
Brazil likes to think of itself as a racial democracy, says Miriam Leitao, but that's a delusion. She has, she says, been making that argument for 10 years and has become one of the nation's most controversial journalists in the process.
When she writes about racism in Brazil, people tell her she's crazy. "I don't know how to explain the thing that, for me, is so obvious," she says.
And there it is again, that sense of race as a glimpse in a fun-house mirror. Indeed, as Leitao relates the responses she receives, I find myself laughing in recognition. One reader, for example, accused her of "creating a problem because I talk about it."
"Because of you," the reader wrote, "one day, we will be racist."
I've gotten that exact same e-mail. Many times. And it's funny, Lord knows it is, but it's also maddening. You wonder how intelligent people can turn logic so thoroughly inside out. How smart people can say such stupid things.
Over the years, I have come to understand that it's not about the strength of the argument. Leitao has a computer full of statistics documenting "a very strong and permanent gap between black and white in Brazil." Over the years, I must have quoted a hundred government and university studies illustrating a similar gap between black and white in the United States. Yet at the end of the day, sometimes, it's like you wrote it in sand.
You begin to realize that denial is stronger than logic. And that while it is, your country -- whatever country it is -- will always fall short of its self-image.
America, the land of the free? Not always, not quite.
Brazil, the land where race matters not?
"We have a carnaval song," says Leitao. "For 40 years, the people, every year, sang this song. And this song is terrible. [Whites] never think about what they are singing. The song is: ‘‘Because your color won't contaminate me, I would like your love."
"It's offensive," says Leitao. ‘‘And the people never realize. Why we don't never realize that we have a problem here?"
Her frustration makes me chuckle in recognition.
She is a newspaper columnist who writes about race in a nation 4,100 miles away.
But she is also a reflection in a fun-house mirror.