Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A discussion on "race" in Maré

So in order to be an official fighter on the Fight for Peace team, one must participate in what is called “Citizenship Classes” which from what I've been told is a way for students to learn more about their fellow community member, see them more as people and treat them as such. I’ve never actually sat in on one of the classes so last week I decided to see it for myself.

I walk up the stairs and see Mara, Michel’s girlfriend now fiancé. Mara is looking at a small collage with the title “Slavery and Its Effects Today”. She is staring at this picture of half-naked women posed in a line with their posteriors facing the camera and one woman sitting down in the middle of them with a huge smile.

“What do you think of this picture, Nick?” she asks me. I look at it for a moment. At first I’m a bit confused as to why the picture is included in a collage about racism. I tell her just as much.

“See,” she says, looking over at Michel. “It shouldn’t be here.” 

Michel is from Cameroon, and I’m guessing the issue of slavery is a bit more touchy for him than it would be for Mara, who is what you would consider a lighter-skinned white Brazilian. Michel begins going into this very emotional explanation of historical slavery, talking about how slaves were sold naked and how the degradation continues today. Some of it is lost in translation, mostly because Michel is nearly hysterical. I’ve punched this guy in the face and had him punch me in mine, yet I’ve never seen him get this out of control.

I look at the photos next to it. On the left there is a photo of a black nanny taking care of a white baby, dated back a few centuries ago. Below it is a photo of a black nanny pushing a stroller behind a white couple, dated in 2014. I look above the aforementioned photo and see a drawing of nearly naked slaves being traded to their white owners, only a few clothes covering their privates. Now I see the connection.

“I understand why this is placed here,” I say to Mara. She kind of looks at me a bit accusingly for an explanation.

“Well, first let me ask you,” I begin to clarify. “What do you think of beauty contests?” She thinks about it for a moment.

“I think they’re okay…Well, depends on how they’re run,” she says.

“I think what they’re trying to say is that slavery continues today and that beauty contests are a form of slavery.” I say. I notice that all the women included in the photo are either black or brown.

“But you’re not forced into entering beauty contests,” Mara protests. “Slaves were forced to work.”

“I guess they’re saying it’s a form of mental slavery.” I finish. 

Mara isn’t satisfied with the response. She starts arguing in the same passionate manner as Michel was earlier and is literally, right up in my face. Michel touches her arm lightly and prompts us to go into the class. I like Mara, so I try my best not to argue with her, but I also wasn’t going to let her bat down what I thought this piece was communicating. I figured I just wouldn’t talk about race with Mara, but little did I know that it was going to be a main topic of that evening’s “Citizenship Class”.

I step into the upstairs tatami room, one that I never really experienced aside from taking photos. Inside is a large group of children sitting in a circle, maybe 50 or so. And it’s not just the athletes that are here, but nearly everyone that’s part of the organization. The night’s class is about “Affirmative Action” or what they call here in Brazil as “Quotas”. The moderators take two representatives in the middle of the circle to argue the traditional viewpoints. The pros argue about the institutionalized racism that keeps minorities from entering places like the university. The cons argue that the best person should be selected for the position, that it is a form of reverse racism. After they’re finished, other students are allowed to chime in with their opinions.

An overwhelming amount of the students are against affirmative action. Many of them use anecdotes of friends and family that have managed to get through the system and say that they’ve gotten there on their own accord. Supporters of the “reverse racism” claim chime in, saying that one should be judged based on their hard work and merits, and shouldn’t be given a leg up simply based on the color of their skin. Mara is right next to me, whispering to me over and over again why quotas are wrong. 

I’m a bit surprised at the responses, since affirmative action is a mandate that would benefit many of those who are sitting in this room. Maré, after all, is one of the largest Afro-Brazilian favelas in Brazil, and it’s history is one ripe with plenty of institutionalized and actual racism affecting how the community is today. But at the same time I respect their resolve. It’s a typical fighter’s attitude. They don’t want handouts. They’re willing to work for their place in the world. I’m not necessarily in support of the way affirmative action is carried out, but I do believe in the purpose it serves. After about seven people, no one has yet spoken in favor of it, so I figure I’d put in my two cents.

“I don’t know about the situation in Brazil, but I’ll tell you how it is in the U.S.” I start. “The design of quotas is to balance the injustices of the past, because racism in the past affects the present. For instance, we have this thing in the U.S where if your mother or father went to a university, you have a preference in entering that university. But even if you don’t have a system like that, people who go to university earn more money afterward, they have a better status, more education. Life is easier for their children.”

The moderators are nodding their heads.

“These universities used to prohibit students of color from entering,” I continue. “It was law. So logically there are going to be more alumni who are white and rich as time goes on, and they got there by the benefits of racism. Affirmative action is a crude way of balancing that.”

Some of the students seem to get what I’m saying, but others look a bit confused, or just plain don’t agree with me. I try to put it to them other terms.

“Imagine you’re having a fight. But imagine that if you’re black, you have to spar three rounds before the fight, and your opponent comes in fully rested and healthy. Is that a fair fight?” 

Some of the students shake their head, but don’t seem to catch the translation of my analogy.

“Ok, now trade in the sparring session for what it takes you to get here everyday to train.”

Now I can’t say I know the individual stories of each student, but I do know they live in a favela that has recently been taken over by the Brazilian military and before that was caught in a shitstorm of public neglect, drug trafficking, and heavy stigmatization from the rest of society. I’d guess that there’d be 101 reasons for someone to be doing something else instead of showing up to train at a gym. 

My two cents doesn’t really go over that well as most of them continue on their con position, though a few of them sit around quietly, the opposite of how they began. The moderators close the session by having two girls race across the room, one of them with their legs taped together. On the first run the girls with the taped legs actually reaches the other side of the room at the same time of the other girl, though she ran straight into a post since she hopped the entire time through. There’s plenty of laughter at the whole thing once everyone realizes the girl is okay. When they tell the two to repeat the exercise walking, the untaped girl easily wins. The moderators then say that the tape represents the history of slavery, and that weight is what weighs people down from getting ahead. I’m relieved that the moderators share my view and that I didn’t speak out of turn.

The final word comes from one of the main moderators who tells her own tale of getting into college. I don’t understand it all that well, but she’s from the community, and she said it took her much longer to get into college than her well-off colleagues. She ends by taking a survey. She asks how many of the kids’ parents went to college. Nobody raises their hand. She asks how many completed high school. Seven. The majority of these kid’s parents only finished middle school, some only elementary. That’s not to support any kind of “culture of poverty” theory, but it is pretty apparent that whoever has a personal experience in going to school are more equipped to pass on their experience than one who hasn’t. 

She tells the kids to go home and ask their parents why they never finished school. Some of the kids yell out because they had to work instead to survive. 

“That’s the point,” she says. “Go home and ask them, and we’ll talk about it next week.” 

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