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Whose Black? Brazil's Amazing Skin-Shedding Trick
Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003

By Zarina Geloo
January 27, 2003

Being white means not being black right? Not in Brazil. Here you can be white if you are rich, like soccer icon Pele. You can be black if you are white and poor. To be more precise, you can also call yourself a"little bit black or a little bit white", depending on how deep your skin is hued.

The situation has anthropologists frustrated. How can racism in its most virulent form be dealt with if it is hidden behind the semantics of colour, asks anthropologist Valeria Aydos from Sao Paulo.

"We do not talk about racism, but it is a big problem. Officially, we call ourselves of mixed race because historically we have integrated with the indigenous Indian the immigrant white and the black slaves," she told a meeting on racism chaired by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).

As a result, Aydos says, there is no policy to tackle the racism that exists in the country.

Afro Brazilians"suffer in silence because we have not admitted that we have a racial problem. It is easier for America or other countries to adress racial tensions because they admit it is there. We have not even began to tackle the issue."

She says Afro Brazilian society itself has only recently began to talk about racism, but it is hard going. There is documented evidence that black people are excluded and discriminated against, have less access to top education and medical facilities and are more likely to be charged with crimes. Racism, she added, is engrained in the psyche of people who have been socialised to think that lighter skin colour is superior.

"The only way black people are going to be respected ... is when they become superstars or have a lot of money."

Gary Leech for NACLA said while the Colombian government had approved one of the most progressive constitutions every written in Latin America which recognises the rights of all its citizens and places premuim on the cultural heritage of those of African descent, the reality is different. He said Afro Colombians suffered economic, political and social marginalisation and victimisation under a political system in which they are excluded. Their life expectancy had dropped to 54 years (the national average is 74). As if that were not enough, Afro Colombians were being forcibly displaced with no compensation, (in the La Guajira area) by US energy giant ExxonMobil, which has bought El Cerrejon the world's largest open-pit coal mine.

"The Colombian government and the multinational mining companies need to be exposed to force them to live up to the contents of the constitution and treat people with dignity and respect."

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