Friday, March 04, 2005

 

regional specialties

I find that most people think of foreign countries as all one thing, or all another. France has berets and baguettes. Russia is snowy with vodka and chronic depression. We all know the stereotypes, and surely there are places in these countries that fit the stereotypes rather well. But rarely do we pay attention to variation within countries. I remember being shocked to learn that Swiss people, near the Italian border, spoke Italian. But they’re Swiss! How could it be?? How could someone wearing leiderhosen speak Italian? Oh wait, they don’t wear leiderhosen there either. Specifics aside, I think that most people are unaccustomed to the very idea of such variation, don’t remember that countries contain interlocking cultures and linguistic groups, and that national boundaries don’t always fall along the natural fault lines.

This is equally true of foreigner’s opinions of the US. Probably the most common question I am asked regarding the US is, it is hot there? Well, that kind of depends on where you are, and when. The US is a big place. There is a lot of variety within the US, with regards to weather and nearly everything else. There are parts that speak Spanish, and parts that speak English, parts that are tropical, freezing, liberal, conservative, and on and on. We Americans are used to this by now, with regard to America, but for a lot of people here it’s news. And likelwise, most Americans don't extend the insight to other countries.

Brazil is also a big place. In fact, it’s slightly bigger than the continental US. And, unsurprisingly, it contains a lot of variation. It contains far more variation than I’ve had opportunity to see so far—the Amazon region to the northwest is gigantic and purportedly different from everything else, with a much stronger Indian culture than elsewhere. But I have seen Bahia, and I’ve seen a little bit of the south, and now I’m in São Paulo. (Moving from Bahia to SP is a little like moving from New Orleans to Chicago, and about the same distance.)

Regional differences in Brazil are stark—geologically, racially, linguistically, and culturally. I’ve already talked enough about Bahia and the northeast that if you are a regular reader you are probably crying mercy. But to recap, the climate is tropical, the people are almost entirely black, and the region is a font of arts and culture: much of the music, dance, and religion and many associate with Brazil as a whole are in fact endemic to Bahia. It’s the sort of place where you actually encounter dancing in the streets regularly. Márcia likes to take her pandeiro around with her and start little parties: on the bus, on the ferry, waiting in line. People join in.

In contrast, I spent a few days in Belo Horizonte, a little north of SP, and one night I went to a club. A club, I thought—time to cut loose. But everyone was standing around. A couple of the Brazilians I was with started to joke around and try to get the gringo to dance, but within a minute or two it became clear I was actually the only one who could dance, or at least the only one who was willing. One of them, it all seriousness, came up to me afterward to say that I danced really well. It was bizarre—I was like, aren’t you guys Brazilian? In Bahia my fairly unskilled dancing ensured I was nearly always the worst on any dance floor. There is in fact a classic bossanova tune called “Falsa Baiana” about the Bahian girl who doesn’t know how to dance, and therefore isn’t a true baiana. And in fact I saw four year old girls in Bahia who could samba the pants off most professionals. But there in Belo Horizonte they don’t grow up with it. They receive it second-hand, and try to imitate it sometimes, but it’s not part of their culture.

Down south near Porto Alegre, things are different yet again. The people are mostly Germanic and Scandinavian. There are cities in which German is the main language, and is taught in schools. The music is polka-rhythmed and accordion-heavy. The accent, for reasons I don't understand, features r's that are almost exactly like American r's. There are also many Spanish-speakers from Argentina and Uruguay. Everyone goes around sipping those crazy addictive maté things, which make you look like you’re drinking grass-clippings through a smoking pipe, and taste about the same.

I’m interested in how culture and context effect how one thinks and acts and interacts. For instance, I found it incredibly difficult to do anything in Bahia besides hang out. Now that I’m here in SP I’ve been a little flurry of activity. (Though I don’t know if this is culture or desperation.) It was very easy in Bahia to strike up conversations with random people, but here it feels harder for the simple reason that it’s less commonly done, and therefore perceived as weirder. (It is still, however, far easier than in Boston.)

My perceptions of race have also changed. In Bahia, virtually all of my friends were black. I was in fact the only white person at my surprise birthday party. After just a day or two in the city this felt really natural, more natural than I had ever expected. I think that when everybody is X, X starts to feel like the normal order of things and you kind of forget about it, even if you yourself are not X. It’s just the norm, and other salient characteristics arise that distinguish people.

In the US, I sometimes feel a barrier in interacting with black people. I don’t particularly think this is my fault, or “racism.” I just think that in the US, still, a white person and a black person being friends is a thing, and any friendship you might have will have that thing-ness hanging over it. Brazil has a much different history, and though it also had slavery, things have since worked out quite differently (not necessarily better, mind you). For one, there’s been a lot more intermarriage. I’ve often heard people say “tinha um monte de missegenação,” which means “there was a mountain of miscegenation.” Sometimes they’ll say this while narrating the features of their faces: curly hair from Africa, a straight nose from Europe, wide cheekbones from South America. In any event, there has always been more intimacy between races in Brazil than in the US, and a white and black person being friends is definitely not a thing. Given this context, I found it extremely easy to slip into a mostly black social milieu.

But here in São Paulo, for the first time in a long time, I’ve been getting a little twist of nervousness when I'm on the street and a couple of young black men turn the corner toward me. What is this? Did I suddenly get racist? Well, I think it’s context. In Bahia, being black is the norm. It doesn't give the observer much information. In mostly-white São Paulo, being black means you’re more likely to be poor, more likely to be desperate, more likely to mug me. People I wouldn’t have blinked at a week ago, or might have considered potential friends, I now find myself eyeing warily. It's unfortunate, but I can't help it.

To take another example, in Bahia I spent a lot of time with working-class people. In Belo Horizonte, I stayed with a family solidly in the upper middle class. Driving around town in their car (something I hadn’t done in months), with the mother compulsively locking the doors whenever someone the slightest bit raggedy came close, the fear became infectious. And I realized, if someone up to no good saw me with the folks in Bahia they’d leave me alone, but here sitting in this car with a bunch of nervous rich people I became a potential target. It's a lot more likely, to the observer at least, that I would have money. Context influences a lot. We’ll see how things go in this new context.

Comments:
I enjoyed your post on stereotypes, but I also had some comments about it.

For one, I felt like you could have taken it even further. The same things happen with states, and with cities and towns, with schools and classes and everything else. Basically what you're getting at is the difference between generalizations and specifics. It's a problematic thing that causes a lot of conflict. It is difficult to go to war against someone who you view as an individual rather than a generalization. Personally, I have experienced this a lot since moving from the New England to Houston, Texas. Most people (many of whom are liberals or leftists) will pretty comfortable with the assumption that Houston must be populated exclusively by fat, fuck-head republicans driving SUVs and shooting assault weapons at black people on their way to church. Very few people understand the fact that I might actually know black people as well as white people, or that despite Texas tending to vote republican, Houston tends to vote democratic, has a democrat for a mayor, and is filled with people who are in many ways more open minded than say, Boston, Massachusetts.

I’ll get back to this later, but first I wanted to comment on this statement:

> I think that when everybody is X, X starts to feel like the normal
> order of things and you kind of forget about it, even if you
> yourself are not X. It's just the norm, and other salient
> characteristics arise that distinguish people.

Although there is some truth in it, this also speaks much more to the experiences of someone like you or I who grew up with a specific and dominant racial identity. For you, being around all black people makes it easier to get to know them as people. The one black kid at my rural New Hampshire high school didn't feel that way, though, and neither did the one Asian family. You were lucky enough to be in a cultural context where even though you were Y and everyone was X, they accepted you. I don’t mean to say that you didn’t have any awkward moments, but just that I think it’s wrong to assume the logic model mentioned above works the same no matter what race or ethnicity is plugged into what slot.

Finally, the one where I think that we may just disagree on the definition of racism. You said:

> But here in São Paulo, for the first time in a long time, I've been
> getting a little twist of nervousness when I'm on the street and a
> couple of young black men turn the corner toward me. What is
> this? Did I suddenly get racist? Well, I think it's context. In
> Bahia, being black is the norm. It doesn't give the observer much
> information. In mostly-white São Paulo, being black means
> you're more likely to be poor, more likely to be desperate, more > likely to mug me. People I wouldn't have blinked at a week ago, > or might have considered potential friends, I now find myself
> eyeing warily. It's unfortunate, but I can't help it.

Your point that race is very different in different contexts stands. And if I remember correctly, Jesse Jackson actually said that he felt nervous when he turned a corner in Washington, D.C. and saw a group of young black men headed his way, and that the problem was much deeper and more systematic than racism. Still, I only partially buy this explanation.

Merriam-Webster has this to say about stereotypes:

Main Entry: stereotype
Function: noun
Etymology: French stéréotype, from stéré- stere- + type
1 : a plate cast from a printing surface
2 : something conforming to a fixed or general pattern;
especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment

I think that what you're doing is flawed in two ways. The first is that you may be taking information uncritically. Why do you think what you think? Is it based on verified crime statistics? What are the percentage of black on black crimes vs. black on white crimes? The idea that in many places, white people have more wealth and power and are scared of black people beating them up and taking it is well established, but to my understanding it is not always particularly accurate.

I ride a bike through Houston’s Third Ward every day, and most white people who have any idea where Third Ward is will tell you that I would be lucky to do that once without getting jumped. White people will sometimes see black people coming into my shop and immediately apologize for not being able to give them any money, when they’ve actually got money and are coming here to buy something. To me, I work in this neighborhood and when I see a black person I don’t judge them as a black person: I judge them as an individual. When other white people don’t do that, I think it’s racist and offensive. I don't know for sure about your situation, but what I felt your posting lacked was any assurance that the difference in Sao Paulo was anything more than perception.

Even if there are statistics to back you up, however, I still believe that you were oversimplifying the situation and moving from general information to specific situations in a way that was mildly racist. According to the census, 90% of the people in my neighborhood are black and 70% live below the poverty line. Chances are very good that anyone who walks through our door is poor, but it’s still wrong to assume that about any specific individual.

Even if black people as a group are more likely to mug you, it still is racist see black people and think of being mugged, because it means that you're not viewing them as individuals, but only as the embodiment stereotypes that you have about their race. These stereotypes may be based on fact, but they’re still stereotypes. If you lived there long enough, you'd probably start to identify some people, both black and white, as threatening and scary, while you would view others, black and white, as innocuous.

I think that you're right to say that race functions differently in different places, and since you're traveling I don't expect you to necessarily develop a more refined sense of race in a city that you're about to leave. But what concerned me about your post was that it seemed to imply that if you lived somewhere in which racist stereotypes were common and backed by statistics, then it was all right to let those guide your impression of individual members of that race. Instead, in any place that you actually live, it seems important work to overcome this barrier and learn to draw a finer line between people who just happened to be black and people who might actually mug you.

One final note: It occurred to me during the course of writing this that our hypothetical young black muggers probably are also functioning on the basis of stereotypes. They’re poor, they’re victims of racism, and when they see white foreigners walking down the street they probably see stereotypes and assume that these are people who were born rich, who don’t deserve it, who are likely to have money on them, and who deserve to get beat up for it. And any feelings of resentment that they hold will certainly be increased if all of the white people who they pass avoid eye contact, clutch their wallets and quicken their pace.
 
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