21 July 2014

The Brazilian Palette

In the past week, my Brazil Fund balance reached $2500, the snag with the Passport Office over my name change was resolved, I Skype-d with Meg (a friend who spent a good part of last year in Brazil) and learned some important new information about the place, passed the "2000 new words" mark in my Portuguese language program and I made the acquaintance of a native Brazilian who has agreed to meet me on Skype for conversation practice.

Excited. Scared. Amazed -- that after all these years of latent desire, it's beginning to look like this thing is gonna happen. I am going to Brazil.

The tortured history of race relations in the U.S. has been a spectral presence my whole life. Is it like this everywhere? I have wondered. Growing up in a small town northern town where less than 10% of the population were people of color, I often wondered what effect demographic density might have on the social climate:  if "we" were in the majority, would race-based social tension be diminished? Would I feel 'at home'?

My perspective and impression, after living in Boston, Louisville, Colorado Springs and Boulder, San Francisco Bay Area, New Orleans and now Holly Springs, MS (to name a few sites of sojourn) is that New Orleans stands out as a place where a) people who look like me are in the majority, b) race is neither swept under the carpet nor placed at the center of focus, and c) I felt at home in my skin.

Throughout this essential but unscientific traveling survey, I have believed in my deepest heart that race is not the primary issue; but in this country, for a variety of reasons, most people are hard-pressed to consider issues of class and psychology in their discussions and analysis of the American situation. In an essay entitled "The Elephant in our Room" at the HyperAllergic website, Aram Saroyan quotes James Baldwin:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.
Though I grew up in a town where Blacks were a literal minority, the darkest clouds and most
debilitating injuries I sustained were not the result of racism -- at least not overtly. The discrimination, insult and neglect I experienced stemmed from human ignorance, greed, fear, etc. Sometimes the perpetrators were "white" and sometimes they were "black." While the ostensible basis for black peers taunting me with terms like "Uncle Tom" or "blackie" is race, I believe their behavior was mostly a reflection of their feelings of inadequacy and a multitude of psychosocial deprivations.

I allow that the race-based social dysfunction of the U.S. impacts such behavior but given that not all American children behave in this way, it seems clear that there is more than race at issue here. It is the resistance and failure to address the "more" that is most appalling and frustrating for me.

In the research I'm conducting in preparation for my trip to Brazil, I have encountered the criticism that Brazil is reluctant to face the race-based inequities and injustices in Brazilian society. So far I've only heard this criticism from American observers and their Brazilian colleagues. I empathize with the critique with reservation:  might there be some advantage to pursuing a social justice movement that is NOT based on skin color? What if the focus of a campaign for social changed is fixed on healing the hatred and despair in the hearts and minds of all people -- the elite and the dispossessed, the old and the young, the blue eyes/brown eyes/green eyes and all the skin tones and hair colors and body types of the community? What does the New Day look like then?