Brazil marks Black Awareness Day under racism cloud

A demonstrator with face paint takes part in a protest by black and indigenous women against racism and machismo in Sao Paulo.
A demonstrator with face paint takes part in a protest by black and indigenous women against racism and machismo in Sao Paulo.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Brazil promotes itself as a harmonious blend of races, but the reality as the country celebrates Black Awareness Day on Monday (Nov 19) is that the darker your skin, the less chance you have of getting ahead.

The numbers are hard to ignore.

According to the state statistics office, only about five per cent of management jobs are held by non-whites, who account for 54 per cent of the population, according to the latest census.

Among the richest 10 per cent of Brazilians, 70 per cent are white. Among the poorest 10 per cent, 74 per cent are black. Blacks are also hard to find in prominent media jobs or in fashion.

These inequalities are highlighted in a video called "White Privilege Game" published by the anti-racism group ID-BR that has received 1.2 million views so far on Facebook and been aired on several television programs.

Based on an original version created by BuzzFeed in the United States, the video shows a contest where participants have to take steps back or forward from the starting line depending on how they answer questions about their colour or wealth - or if they have been the target of racist remarks about their hair.

In highly graphic form, the process shows how people get a head start, or are held back. Inevitably it's blacks who end up at the back of the line.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

"White privilege means getting a whole range of advantages over others without even realizing," said Giovana Freitas, a historian at Rio Federal State University.

A survey from the Institut Locomotiva, which studies poverty, found that black men with university degrees in Brazil earn about 29 per cent less than white men with the same qualification, while the figure was 27 per cent for black women.

"If blacks earned the same salaries as whites, there'd be 808 million reais (S$336 million) injected into the economy," said Locomotiva president Renato Meirelles.

There have been positive changes over the last decade and a half as the effects of racial quotas at universities, introduced by the leftist government at the time, take effect.

The proportion of non-whites entering higher education has risen from eight per cent to 27 per cent.

"All these policies of affirmative action have started to produce results," said Esteban Cipriano, who manages education programs at ID-BR.

The problem is what happens after.

"These people with degrees then have a really hard time on the jobs market," Cipriano said.

CHANGING TASTES

ID-BR lobbies companies to open doors to non-whites.

It has worked especially closely with the fashion brand Maria Filo, which last year prompted a scandal with a line of clothing that reproduced scenes from artworks depicting slavery.

"Thanks to dialogue, our views have changed. Now, everyone is more aware," said Maria Filo's marketing director Isabel Beaklin.

Each month, she joins a dozen or so employees from different departments in the company to discuss racial issues with ID-BR.

"During some of these meetings, we ourselves have suggested ditching campaigns that might be seen as offensive" to non-whites, Beaklin said.

Product development manager Catia Fernandes, one of the two blacks in the group, said she appreciated the chance to air sensitive issues.

"These are themes I've always wanted to discuss," she said. "When the group was created, I felt emotional because I could finally express myself."

Still, racist attitudes persist in the marketing world here. A brand of toilet paper, coloured black, was recently sold under the slogan "Black is Beautiful."

After a wave of protests in social media, the campaign was withdrawn and the white actress who appears in the ad, wrapped in the paper, apologised on Twitter.

A well-known television anchorman was suspended last week after he said on air that a car horn bothering him while on a live broadcast was "a black thing."