Before teams representing their countries from around the world arrived in Brazil, the country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, took the opportunity to label 2014 the “anti-racism World Cup.”
The declaration came after a wave of racist incidents in soccer around the world targeting black players, many of whom are Brazilian. While it’s a well-intentioned gesture and a particularly important one for a World Cup being hosted in the country that’s home to the largest population of people of African descent outside of Africa, Brazil has a complex past and present when it comes to race.
That complexity can perhaps best be illustrated by the fact that many black Brazilians don’t think of themselves as black. Brazilian soccer star Neymar is a great example. Asked during an interview in 2010 if he had ever experienced racism, his response was, “Never.” He added, “Not inside nor outside of the soccer field. Even more because I'm not black, right?”
This denial of blackness may seem confusing to many Americans, because despite his long, straightened and occasionally blond hair, Neymar is clearly black. (Take a look at a picture of young Neymar with his family.) But for Brazilians, being black is very different from what it is in the United States.
“The darker a person is in Brazil, the more racism she or he is going to suffer. Light-skinned black people don’t identify as black most of the time,” says Daniela Gomes, a black Brazilian activist who is currently pursuing a doctorate in African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas. “A lot of people choose to deny their blackness. They don’t believe they are black, but they suffer racism without knowing why.”
Gomes calls it a “brainwash” that Brazilians go through in a country that likes to hold itself up as a model for racial harmony. But she also points to differences in the histories of the United States and Brazil. “We never had segregation, we never had the one-drop rule, we never had those kinds of things that are so normal for an African American,” she said. “What happened in Brazil was the opposite.”
Integration and miscegenation were actually government policy in Brazil. Around the time that slaves were freed, in 1888, the government sought to whiten its population through the importation of European immigrants. This idea was made law by Decree 528 in 1890 and opened the country’s borders to foreign immigrants, except for those from Africa and Asia.
The goal of this immigration effort was depicted in an 1895 painting by Brazilian artist Modesto Brocos known as The Redemption of Ham, which features a black grandmother, mixed-race mother, white father and white baby. The grandmother stands to the left with her hands raised in prayer, praising God that her grandson is white. This, says Brazilian entrepreneur and activist Carlos Alberto David, is the “final point” of racism in Brazil.
“Racism in Brazil is very sophisticated and structured,” says David. “The racism here is not physical. It works on people psychologically.”
Neymar, whose son looks very similar to the grandson in The Redemption of Ham, seems to have had quite a different experience in the four years since saying that he wasn’t black. The star forward has been subjected to monkey noises made by his own teammates, had multiple bananas thrown at him during international matches and even confronted an opposing coach he thought called him a monkey during a game.
That harassment may have been at the heart of a campaign he started after fellow Brazilian team member Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him by fans during a match in Spain. Rather than protest, Alves picked up the banana, peeled it and ate it, then continued playing. Later, Neymar posted a photo to Instagram of himself and his son holding bananas with the slogan, “Somos todos macacos” (“We are all monkeys”).
The campaign took off in Brazil, with many of the country’s notable artists and personalities also tweeting photos of themselves with bananas. But many in the country protested the movement, citing it as a trivialization of a very serious problem in soccer and in society.
“The comparison between blacks and monkeys is racist in its essence,” wrote Brazilian activist and history professor Douglas Belchior on his NegroBelchior blog. “However, many people don’t understand the seriousness of using the monkey as an offense, as an insult to black people.”
This can be a particularly complex issue in a country full of people whom outsiders see as black but who don’t think of themselves as such. That divide is evidenced by growing monkey taunts of black players and officials in Brazil.
In March, Brazilian midfielder Marcos Arouca da Silva was called a monkey during a postgame interview, an event that he said wasn’t an isolated incident. Brazilian referee Marcio Chagas da Silva says he’s been subjected to more than 200 racially based attacks during his career refereeing matches in the country. During a recent game between Brazilian clubs Esportivo and Veranopolis, fans reportedly yelled at him from the stands, “You belong in a circus. Go back to the forest, you monkey.”
Such events are what led Rousseff, along with FIFA, to push for this year’s World Cup to become “a global marker against racism.” Before the start of the World Cup, Brazil’s soccer federation also commenced a campaign against racism that is less controversial than Neymar’s, called “Somos iguais,” or “We are equal.”
As the World Cup moves forward and more fans see their teams bounced from the tournament by teams led by star black players like Italy’s Mario Balotelli, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, Belgium’s Vincent Kompany, France’s Paul Pogba and others, Brazil’s hopes for a global marker against racism may be tested.
Dion Rabouin is a freelance writer currently based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.