Brazil’s brutal inequality is so ubiquitous that those who live here simply stop noticing it. An unexpected message from abroad serves as a reminder of the topic that is so rarely discussed here, in society, the media, or the current election.
I’ve been living in Brazil for over four years now, which has been incredible in almost every way, including the ways in which I’ve adapted to the local culture. But there’s the bits I don’t like, too. More than anything else, I hate the way I’ve become desensitized to shocking, brutal, and stultifying levels of inequality. I’ve become accustomed to it, as if it were or ever should be normal.
This, most foreigners in Brazil learn quickly enough, is actually one of the required characteristics of being authentically “Brazilian.” True locals understand that extreme inequality is just a fact of life here, and it is bad taste to bring it up or transgress established class boundaries, so much so that an extreme preoccupation with the topic, or wanting to get to know Brazil outside elite circles, are sometimes considered “gringo” things to do. The more I find myself becoming “local” in this sense (and in this sense only), the more uncomfortable I become.
Recently, a flash of realization came, as they almost never do, via a WhatsApp message, sent to my cell phone from a Brazilian friend visiting my home country for the first time.
From New York:
“Wow, I’m really impressed with the social equality here. Congratulations.”
And then: “Blacks are part of society. They aren’t excluded like they are in Brazil.”
For all intents and metaphorical purposes, these messages caused my head to explode.
I was born and raised in the United States, a country which has many, many, very obvious problems – probably more than Brazil – which are mostly irrelevant here. Apart from our famous propensity to bomb countries, killing hundreds of thousands for no discernible positive outcome, social injustice has always been a major problem of ours. We have one of the worst inequality levels among the world’s developed countries, and it’s clear to me we have a fairly serious race problem, especially when it comes to treatment of our black citizens.
Moreover, on the equality issue, our problem is getting worse, so much so that Obama spoke recently of the need to combat “dangerous and growing inequality.”
Maybe not every Brazilian would immediately see things they way my friend did when arriving in the US or Europe. But the fact that a resident of Brazil can feel that New York, of all places, is a beacon of social harmony was a shocking reminder of how deep and problematic Brazil’s inequality is.
But of course it shouldn’t have been shocking. When I arrived here, I was constantly taken aback by elements of a culture that often seemed from another time. Two separate doors for apartments (one for the family, one for the help). Upper middle class youth who had never washed their own clothes or bathroom (let alone held down a job before graduating university), and who could casually drop classist or racist remarks – of the kind that would get you permanently expelled from polite society many places elsewhere – as if it were nothing.
But much of this had become normal for me, as I imagine it had long ago for most Brazilians.
Of course, it’s easy enough for me to deal with this violent prejudice, as a white man who arrived from the US and Europe, locations that much of São Paulo’s upper middle class look up to, but where they themselves, ironically, may be considered crude, reactionary, or racist, and with very bad taste.
You could argue, sometimes correctly, that people like me benefit from this prejudice at times, even if we would rather not. But for the Brazilian friends and colleagues who were unlucky enough to be born with African or indigenous features, or to working-class parents, it’s common to be shouted down when they complain of this class system, as if they were either dangerous Bolsheviks or lazy, self-interested quota jumpers.
It is absolutely true that Brazil is one of the few countries in the world to have improved income inequality in the last decade. But, in the pursuit of both social justice and increasing economic productivity, the country still has a very long way to go. If you look at how the election is unfolding, however, you would think that what the country needs is mostly some technocratic fixes, or a candidate who is less tarred by corruption allegations than the others. If you look at the media, you would think that the social advances made since 2003 were already revolutionary and frightening enough, or that there wasn’t much to talk about. Of course, if you pick up any major newspaper here, you may come to the conclusion that they are written by the white upper middle class for the white upper middle class, because they are.
Around the ‘rolezinhos‘ which took place early this year, there was a debate as to whether Brazil is an ‘apartheid‘ society. I think that’s the wrong word, as there is no state sanction for the divisions. Another friend suggested we may have a “caste” system, which I think is closer to being accurate. It is at least accurate insofar that the following statement is accurate: For a daughter or son of the ‘middle class,’ the idea of showing up at Sunday family lunch and introducing a member of the working class as boyfriend or girlfriend is basically unheard of. Indeed, I’ve met people from both classes who admit they’ve never had a real, substantive conversation with a member of the other class.
But why don’t we talk about this? Because it’s too obvious.