Race and the Brazilian Body: Exploring ‘Comfortable Racial Contradictions’ in Brazil

This post was originally published on March 6th, 2017 on the University of Arizona’s UANews, by Lori Harwood (UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences).

Jennifer Roth-Gordon will speak about her book “Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro” during the Tucson Festival of Books, to be held March 11 and 12. Roth-Gordon will be part of the panel “A Conversation on Segregated Spaces” at 10 a.m. March 11 at the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences pavilion. With scholars Reginald Dwayne Betts, Jeff Chang and Tyina Steptoe, Roth-Gordon will explore the ways in which racially segregated spaces are constructed through language, law and culture in the U.S. and beyond.


University of Arizona anthropologist Jennifer Roth-Gordon spent 10 days in Brazil leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games with her children, two of whom are African-American and adopted.

During the visit, one shop owner yelled at her son, assuming he was a pivete (street kid). In another instance, a restaurant owner told the waiter not to let Roth-Gordon order any more food for the children, assuming they were begging. In Brazil, racism is considered immoral and un-Brazilian and, in both instances, the business owners were excessively apologetic when they realized their mistake.

In Rio de Janeiro, few geographic boundaries separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” This housing project occupies some of Latin America’s most expensive real estate. (Photo: Marcelo Santos Braga)

In her new book, “Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro,” Roth-Gordon explores what she calls the “comfortable racial contradiction” that exists in Brazil, a country that prides itself on its history of racial mixture and lack of overt racial conflict. The book, published by the University of California Press, looks at how racial ideas about the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of blackness continue to play out in the daily lives of Rio de Janeiro’s residents.

The book was 20 years in the making. Roth-Gordon, an associate professor in the UA School of Anthropology, went to Rio de Janeiro in graduate school and has gone back every year since.

Using linguistic and ethnographic analysis, she conducted interviews, recorded conversations and observed the day-to-day lives of people living in the housing projects and in the whiter middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. She hired a youth who lived in the housing projects as a research assistant.

Roth-Gordon, an associate professor in the School of Anthropology, has been studying race relations in Rio de Janeiro for more than 20 years.

Roth-Gordon said that one of the most interesting things about race relations in Brazil is that “there is profound racial inequality in Brazil and yet people do not think of themselves as racist.” Brazilians have a history of promoting themselves as a racially mixed and racially democratic society. Many view their racial tolerance as one of the ways they are superior to other countries, especially the United States.

Roth-Gordon said that Brazilians certainly recognize the inequality that exists in their country, as the rich and poor live in close proximity. All of those famous beaches connect by hills that have favelas, or informal settlements. However, many Brazilians believe that the inequality and prejudice is due to socioeconomic class rather than race.

For her research, Roth-Gordon wanted to dig deeper into day-to-day interactions to explore the discrepancy. “Racial inequality has be reconstructed every single day,” she said. “It has to be reproduced.”

In her book, Roth-Gordon emphasizes how Rio residents “read” others for racial signs. The amount of whiteness or blackness a body displays is determined not only through observations of phenotypical features — including skin color, hair texture and facial features — but also through attention to cultural and linguistic practices, including the use of nonstandard Portuguese and slang, which is associated with “poor, black shantytown living.”

Roth-Gordon made recordings of largely dark-skinned youth and played them for middle-class families. She cites an example of when a youth in the projects was talking about his fear of being robbed.

“I played the recording for a family, and they reacted as if he were the criminal,” Roth-Gordon said. “They ignored what he said. All they could hear, because to them slang is such a clear marker of criminality and poverty, was this is the language of a criminal.

“I have a whole chapter on how the white middle class raise their kids to make sure they are avoiding slang and speaking standard Portuguese. When you ask them why, they won’t tell you ‘I don’t want my kid to sound black.'”

The conversations Roth-Gordon collected include youth in the housing projects talking about their strategies for talking to the police, which include speaking standard Portuguese.

“We don’t just size people up by what they look like, especially in a place like Brazil where people are racially mixed,” Roth-Gordon said. “How should this cop treat this kid? Like a poor black criminal or like a middle-class citizen?”

Roth-Gordon believes that acknowledging or studying only overt acts of racism is like studying the “tip of the iceberg.”

“It’s clearly so much deeper than that,” she said. “What is under the water is creating a base for what we can see.”

For example, with regard to police killing black men, she says many are prepared to punish those instances. “But they are unwilling to go beyond that and say these cops are reacting to these ideas that we have about blackness, linking it to criminality. And these ideas are not just ideas. We have a system in both the U.S. and Brazil that disproportionately locks up people of color, a system of justice that has never treated black men fairly. Those ideas are the rest of the iceberg.”


Avant-Garde Art in Japan and Brazil

Rio de Janeiro’s Paço Imperial is currently hosting an unusual retrospective of Japanese postwar art, ‘The Emergence of The Contemporary: Avant-Garde Art In Japan 1950-1970‘. Curator Pedro Erber is the author of Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan, which similarly examines the uncanny contemporaneous trajectories of the Japanese and Brazilian postwar avant-garde art movements.

The exhibition’s introductory text is below, and Artinfo’s coverage of the exhibition includes an image slideshow as well as an interview with Erber:

BLOUIN ARTINFO spoke with curator Pedro Erber on the eve of the opening to find out more about the existing and underappreciated affinities between the Japanese and Brazilian postwar avant-garde art movements, the fertile yet turbulent situation in Rio in the run-up to the Olympics next month, and the contemporary significance of re-enacting certain seminal performance pieces from 1960s Tokyo as part of this exhibition.

breaching the frame

In the decades that followed the Second World War, Japan was the stage for some of the most radically innovative avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. Visual artists, critics, writers engaged in a common effort to reinvent the place of art in a society that rebuilt itself after the devastation of war and years of cultural censorship under the fascist regime of the Japanese empire.

In 1963, Miyakawa Atsushi, one of the most acute theoreticians of postwar art in Japan, observed that the reach and nature of the transformations taking place in artistic expression was such that the modern paradigm had become obsolete and in its place emerged a new paradigm, which he termed, in almost premonitory fashion, “contemporary art (gendai bijutsu).” Miyakawa’s observation referred not only to Japanese art, which could not be regarded as an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it resonated a general effort to think contemporaneity as the sharing of a common historical time across national, linguistic, and cultural borders.

The Emergence of the Contemporary presents the panorama of avant-garde art in Japan between 1950 and 1970 focusing on artists whose practice and theoretical reflections marked the transition from painting towards three-dimensional space, performance, and conceptual art. The exhibition brings together some of the most representative works of the period, besides documentary photographs, movies and other historical documents. It contextualizes the trajectory of the avant-garde in its dialogue with events that shaped the history of the postwar era, such as the movements against the renewal of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (ANPO) in 1960 and 1970, the Expo ’70 in Osaka, and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in particular.

Frustrating desires of exoticism, postwar avant-garde art from Japan reveals deep affinities with the trajectory of the Brazilian avant-garde, from painting to the object-based art and spectator participation. In addition, in the recurrences and resonances between 1964 and 2016, between Olympics past and present, another meaning of the contemporary emerges, in which the radical creativity and the impetus of social intervention of Japan’s postwar avant-garde art echo here and now, suggesting possibilities and limits for present day art.

Through a division more thematic then chronological, the exhibition highlights three moments of avant-garde art in Japan: Politics of Abstraction presents 1950s abstract and its discursive context; Art and Social Engagement approaches the transformations of politically engaged art from social realism to direct action and urban intervention; Matter, Concept, Act focuses on the inflection of political art into philosophical inquiry, the question of matter and dematerialization of art.

Get your own copy of Erber’s book, Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan, online at IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).


Pedro R. Erber teaches in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University. He holds a Ph.D. in Asian Studies from Cornell University, M.A. in philosophy from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, and B.A. in philosophy from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Erber is the author of Política e verdade no pensamento de Martin Heidegger and articles on intellectual history, art, literature, and aesthetics.