Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What does a Brazilian look like?

Yesterday I had a meeting with another professor and a Norwegian Master's student who wants to write her dissertation on Brazil. When I arrive in his office they are already there and he (professor) introduces me to the girl (student): "This is Samba, she's from Brazil."
The girl's eyes pop, she stares at me and then lets out: "But you don't look Brazilian!"
Me: "It's hard to define what a Brazilian looks like..."
The professor chuckles, and says: "You mean that Pelé looks different?!"
Student: "Yeah, he does..."
Professor: "Samba, what's the proportion of European descendants in the Brazilian population?"
Me: "48%"
Student: "REALLY??"
Professor, clearly enjoying himself: "And what is the percentage of Afro-Brazilians?"
Me (thankfully, by coincidence I had just looked up some other info in Wikipedia recently and remembered the numbers): "About 7%."
Professor: "And native Americans?"
Me: "Less than 1%."
Professor: "So what is the rest?"
Me: "About 1% is of Asian origin and the rest is mixed race (44%)".
Professor, turning to girl: "See, Brazil is a big mix".
Student: "I guess so..."

Yes, Brazil is a huge mix! And race does not come into the equation as often as in other countries. I am proud to say that walking down the streets in Brazil is the place A. and I feel most inconspicuous: no one even notices us! But this was not the first time I've had such a conversation. Shortly after I got to the US for my Masters I was told by a professor that I was "too white to be Brazilian". Obviously my opinion of him dropped a few points...

And then there are other seemingly unknown facts about Brazil:
- Language: we're the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese. And yes, the only official language is Portuguese. You can go from one end of the country to the other and all that will change is the slang and some accents. People that get this wrong usually assume we speak Spanish (even though we're surrounded by Spanish speakers VERY few Brazilians speak it)... but once a friend was asked if we spoke Russian!!!
- Location: South America. On the Atlantic Ocean. Once in Florida (3 hours flight to the North of Brazil) a guy asked me where I was from and after the answer he replied: "Wow, I've never traveled that far, the furthest I've been was China...". Maybe he thought I meant Mars...
- Size: Brazil is big. It is larger than the continental US, which means it is approximately 3 times the size of India. It occupies 47% of South America and is as wide as it is long (could be made into a square :P ). No one believes this one...
- São Paulo is twice the size of New York. And Rio de Janeiro is the same size as the Big Apple.
- The national capital is Brasília (not Rio) and was built where before 1950 there was absolutely nothing, right in the middle of the country.

So maybe before the student decides to write a dissertation about Brazil she could start with the wikipedia page...
In her defense the dissertation will not be about Brazilian society.


  1. I love how you laid the smackdown, Wikipedia style! ;) As a White Midwesterner, I was blissfully unaware of White privilege -- particularly the privilege of never having your race be questioned or be your defining feature -- until the age of 21 or 22, when I learned about it in a multicultural psych class. I still haven't "experienced" it, except as a WOI -- Wife Of Indian.
    My mom spent a year in Brazil as an exchange student, so I do at least know where it is and the language. (I also know that some areas depend on cattle and fish as important industries, because when I did a project on it in fifth grade, I remember gluing a plastic cow and some Goldfish crackers to the posterboard.) I'm very intrigued by the history of Brasília!

  2. Hi alittleofthat,
    I also never wondered about being white while growing up... until I moved to the US :D

    I also find the history of Brasília interesting (I summarized it here: http://sambameetssambar.blogspot.com/2010/05/brasilia.html ). But A. wasn't impressed, saying that in India's history there has been several cities build from scratch in the middle of nowhere and turned into capitals overnight ;)

    :): Thanks!
    I like the WOI acronym by the way.

  3. Don't you love these stereotypes?
    I remember once long time back when I guess it was my stepmom saying that "Brazilian'as the official language.
    I went looking at the wiki page last year because back then DH was in the process of maybe being sent to Rio for 6 months for work, never happened though :(

    In India they are sometimes puzzled when I say I'm from switzerland because apparently I don't look Swiss enough, they seem to have that picture of Swiss people all being very fair and blonde.
    But funnier was when a lady from France (our immediate neighbour) was shocked that me and my friend were speaking French! She thought swiss people all spoke "Swiss" whcih doesn't even exist, she just couldn't believe it LOL