A new fable: the blind men and Brazil

It often happens that people from different backgrounds come to Brazil, visit one or two parts of the country, and reach general conclusions based on their own specific experience. It is like the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, each of whom concludes that the creature is a  rope, spear, wall or tree trunk based on the part they have been able to touch – a slender tail, a sharp ivory tusk, a broad flank, or a a stout, round leg. Well, Brazil is just like that elephant – the sum of its very different parts.  Not only that, but the response a visitor will get depends on several factors: national origin, skin colour, and above all, money – or lack thereof.

A wealthy white woman who can afford assistants, nannies, tour guides and the best hotels, will find herself showered with love. If her baby scatters food all over the table and crawls on the floor of a restaurant, the waiters and cleaners will grit their teeth and only speak up when the tyke gets too close to the stairs. If the visitor is a woman of colour with a small baby, she might get some sympathy. Then again, people might assume she is the nanny. If she finds herself in the wrong neighbourhood, she could get caught up in the sweep of “undesirables” leading up to the World Cup. And if the woman of colour has money, she had better show it – appearances are everything.

An African American clad in Gucci or Prada will never feel the sting of racial discrimination, but woe betide a member of that community who turns up in an old T-shirt, flip-flops and bermuda shorts. Until they open their mouths and display their accents – or complete lack of Portuguese – they could find themselves lined up with the usual suspects, or worse. Younger African American women will be considered sex objects in Brazil. If they stay at a fancy hotel, they could find themselves treated like hookers and refused service at the restaurant. Unless they’re wearing Gucci or Prada…

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