“Morena!” a man shouted, trying to get the attention of my friends and me as we walked through a market on our way to Pelourinho, a historic barrio in Salvador, Brazil. “Negras belleza! De onde voces sao?” In Portuguese this roughly translates to “Beautiful Black girls! Where are you from?”
It was a simple enough question mixed in with a kind, if not gaudy compliment. My friends and I drew a blank, glancing at each other and weighing our options. We were five exceptionally thrifty black girls relatively new to Brazil, trying to shop in peace. We were not about to let this loquacious stranger blow our cover. “Zimbabwe!” one of my friends promptly replied, putting on her most confident smile.
“Nigeria!” I inserted, trying to execute my best Portuguese accent. My remaining friends claimed Ghana. The man, seemingly pleased by our diverse African heritage, beamed in approval and continued to stare us down as we resumed our shopping, giving each other silent, excited grins. We had gotten away with it and our secret was safe with us.
In truth, we are all members of the UC EAP Language and Culture program in Salvador, Brazil. We all hail from various cities up and down the California coast; our American citizenships intact. So why are we masquerading as the African United Nations?
Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t exactly lying. I am in fact of Nigerian descent and my friend that claimed Zimbabwe actually grew up there until she was 14 years old. My other three companions are African-American, meaning their lineage was taken from them and they may very well be Ghanaian. But clearly, by the broadest of definitions, we are all American. So why didn’t we just say so?
Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall, crucial to the development of cultural studies, describes identity as “the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” I decided to further explore this concept here in Brazil after a revealing discussion section in my Afro-Brazilian culture class, titled “Brazil and the Black Atlantic.” During this particular class we explored the idea of identity, how we defined it and how we defined ourselves. The discussion somehow boiled down to what it meant to be American, and whether or not we each felt as though we fit that description. The distribution of opinions was generally what I expected, with many whites declaring themselves “100 percent American,” many blacks rejecting that title and the rest in the middle. What was really interesting about the responses was the different levels of importance we all placed on our self-given identities, how hard it was for many of those that considered themselves American to understand the amount of power there is in the identity society gives you and how the perceived American identity benefits some and oppresses others. This is similar to groups of people being able to smoke weed, dance in the park and listen to Bob Marley, while failing to understand the messages behind lyrics such as those from “Buffalo Soldier”: “Stolen from Africa/Brought to America/Fighting on arrival/Fighting for survival.”
This is also similar to a UC EAP student saying that he doesn’t see race or color and using that same blindness to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the oppressed and impoverished in Salvador, Brazil are the same color. I can only attribute this to unrecognized privilege, differences in upbringing and a certain level of blissful ignorance.
Because I have two Nigerian parents that immigrated to the U.S. as adults, these concepts of identification are not hard for me to digest. My parents will always place the fact that they are Nigerian over their American citizenship, not only because of their ethnic pride, but also because, from the beginning, they recognized the U.S. for what it is: an oppressive force that is monopolizing the resources of their country among countless others, as well as discriminating against its own people who don’t fit the standard heteronormative American identity. As a friend of mine stated during our discussion section, “I don’t identify with America because America doesn’t identify with me.”
This issue of identity is especially important in Brazil, where racial classifications are numbered in biblical proportions, from simply “branco” (white) to yellow, yellowed, “pardo” (brown), coffee with milk, cinnamon, shadow-in-the-water and just plain “preto” (black), among others. Categories are further complicated when hair texture is taken into consideration, with the degree of straightness, regardless of skin color, being a major factor in classification. Brazil is a prime example of the importance of identity society places on you in that although miscegenation has had a huge impact on the racial makeup of the country, in most cases, the way one looks has immense influence over one’s quality of life. This is why there are several ways for black people to identify themselves in Brazil, and these ways are always changing. However, the only identification that really matters is the racial conclusion that if your skin is dark and your hair is curly, you’re most likely going to be poor and without power in Brazil.
It’s a reality no visitor can deny – American or not – when all your maids, waitresses, janitors, service workers and those living on the streets are black, but nearly all of your politicians, university students and consumers are white. Afro-Brazilians can check whatever box they want on the Census, but the police, education and health care systems are the ones who can tell you who’s black and who’s not in Brazil.