Race in my native Brazil is a complex thing: we grew up with the idea that our nation was a racial democracy, that we did not exhibit prejudice against someone because of the colour of their skin. But the case of João Alberto Silveira Freitas, a black man who died after he was allegedly attacked by security guards at a Brazilian branch of Carrefour last week, prompting protests across Brazil, highlights that prejudice still exists.
Many like to point out that Brazil never officially sanctioned racism: when slavery was abolished – and we were the last country in the Americas to do it – it wasn’t replaced by discriminatory laws, as it was in the US, where lawful segregation lasted well into the last century. This might be true but the only real difference is that we didn’t need such discriminatory legislation for these attitudes to become entrenched. Even now, the darker your skin, the more likely you are to live in a favela, to be paid less than a white person for the same job and to be shot by the police (or indeed to die while on duty if you are a police officer).
For many decades the subject of race was taboo but in recent years this has been changing: we are discussing it more – and more openly. Even the way we see ourselves is shifting: more people now identify themselves as black or pardo, our term for mixed race. In municipal elections this year, 42,000 candidates declared themselves as belonging to a different race than they had previously: remarkably, 36 per cent of them moved from white to pardo. The number of elected mayors who are black or pardo also increased (slightly) compared with the previous election.
I too have reflected more about my race. I was adopted by a white family and usually people described me as moreno, another term for mixed race. I remember as a child how rare it was to see people with my skin colour in a position of power or even to see it considered beautiful. There are slow advances in our society in this regard. But the death of Freitas shows that much more needs to be done.