Color Prejudice and São Paulo Fashion Week

After reading Douglas Massey’s Categorically Unequal — I book I found both tendentious and extremely insightful on the way stratification works in the United States — I stumbled on this video São Paulo Fashion Week from Cool Hunting, one of my favorite webzines.

I was shocked by the utter absence of black faces. I’m sure that this doesn’t reflect São Paulo Fashion Week as whole. Perhaps there were Afro-Brazilian designers and models featured somewhere in the course of the event. But overall, I was left with an impression of what scholars call hegemonic blanqueamiento, or whitening. In an essay on four modes of ethno-somatic stratification in the Americas and Europe, Orlando Patterson briefly surveys the staggering challenges faced by Afro-Brazilians, who constitute the majority of Brazil’s population — poverty levels that approach 50 percent, an illiteracy rate of 40 percent, chronic unemployment, intense segregation, extremely high incarceration rates, and, most depressingly, a population of abandoned children that is in the neighborhood of 7 million. In Patterson’s account, these children are regarded as “human vermin,” and have been literally targeted by death squads. Amazingly enough, there is reason to believe that anti-black discrimination has grown more intense over time.

Also interesting is the fact that, as the sociologists Edward Telles and Ronald Soong have found, Brazilians of mixed ancestry fare little better than Afro-Brazilians with regards to family income.

One of the core conclusions of Patterson’s essay is that black diaspora populations throughout the Atlantic rim suffer from a number of shared burdens, the most significant of which is a shattered family structure. You’ll note that many of the challenges faced by Afro-Brazilians are also faced, though not to the same degree, by black Americans. As Massey argues, it is pretty clear that the increasing concentration of poverty and affluence plays a big — perhaps even the central — role in the persistence of racial segregation in the United States. Yet when one considers the segregation experienced by highly-educated and affluent African Americans, it is hard not to conclude that cultural and psychological barriers to what Randall Kennedy referred to as “interracial intimacies” deserve much of the blame.

A few years ago, there was a somewhat odd debate over whether Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s treacly French fairy-tale, was racist — as I understand it, the argument was the film represented a highly dishonest somatic “cleansing” of the modern French landscape. At the time I found this ridiculous, and I still do — but that video of São Paulo Fashion Week made me think of this idea of somatic cleansing as something real and awful. These highly cultivated, stylish Brazilians — who, one suspects, think of the United States as worthy of contempt, and who implicitly embrace and delight in the long-discredited notion of Brazil as a “racial democracy” — have constructed for themselves a Europeanized Brazilian fantasia, in which black faces are almost completely absent, and fine-boned, Nordic-but-tan Giseles are the norm. One journalist featured in the video briefly references Brazil’s “mixture of racism,” and judging by the video I have to assume she is referring to the mixture of equally lithe hollow-cheeked Swedes and almond-eyed Finns.

Yet at the same time this somatically cleansed environment has the advantage of honesty: representational diversity, in which stylish black faces are represented as part and parcel of Brazil’s cosmopolitan elite, would be even more of a sham. Leaving aside the fraught political question, you’d think Brazil’s fashion industry would capitalize on the frisson of interracial intimacy, which is of course parasitic on racism itself.

There is something a little strange about an American criticizing another country for its color prejudice. But that’s not what I’m shooting for. A few months ago, The Economist quoted Lant Pritchett something utterly brilliant:

Some economists see India’s malfunctioning public sector as its biggest obstacle to growth. Lant Pritchett, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, calls it “one of the world’s top ten biggest problems—of the order of AIDS and climate change”.

If climate change is a problem (and it is), and if we thus have reason to demand or cajole or induce Brazil to preserve its rainforests, surely citizens of all countries can make similar claims about the destruction of human lives.

Okay, this is all very high-flown. I do wonder, though, if color prejudice is this persistent, deep problem that underlies a lot of the poverty and misery that scars the world — the survival of caste in India is totally entangled with the persistence of poverty; the difference in life chances between light-skinned and dark-skinned Latinos in the USA is highly suggestive. You probably remember the DuBois line about the problem of the 20th century being the problem of the Color-Line — perhaps it is best understood as the problem of the millennium.