Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Beaches, Racism, and Classism in Brazil

There's another tantalizing-but-ultimately-frustrating article at New York times on race and class in Rio today. The title "Drawing Lines Across the Sand, Between Classes" hits perfectly on the divisions within Rio, and there are some great examples. Rohter (not the greatest writer on the topic, and that's putting it nicely) does a pretty good job of beginning to delve into how the beaches in Rio are far from democratic, despite Roberto DaMatta's (who loves his stark dichotomies like none other) claims otherwise.

However, the article is also extremely frustrating because it does just that - he only begins to delve into the issue. Thus, we get tantalizing insights into classism (like the poor vendor who says the clients on the beach treat him like he doesn't even exist) and even racism (the wealthy Ipanema resident who complained about the "dark-skinned teenagers with that dyed blonde hair"). However, they are just quotations - Rohter never actually openly points out how indicative this is of the classism and racism that exist in Brazilian society, or that these quotes exist among a large portion of the population even while the citizens protest otherwise (more than once have I heard that America is racist while Brazil is not).

Additionally, there is very little contextualization. For example, while he quotes somebody who claims that "Ipanema is always in the vanguard, but Leblon has more of a family vibe", there's no mention of the fact that Leblon is even wealthier, and far more elitist and snobby (the Leblon woman's complaint about the risks a "defenseless sunbather" faces in such grave threats as the presence of dogs, paddleball, and surfers in the area perfectly hits on the elitism prevalent in Leblon as well, even if there are no surfers in Leblon, something the article itself mentions) than even Ipanema residents (which is saying something).

Even worse, Rohter only focuses on Ipanema and Leblon, which are in and of themselves two of the most elitist beaches (and, to be honest, not coincidentally two of the nicest) there are in Rio (he leaves out Barra de Tijuca). For example, there is no analysis or even inclusion of Copacabana and Flamengo. While these parts of the city are still middle class, there are far more poor people and minorities on these beaches, people who can't afford to go all the way to Ipanema from their homes in the North Zone (the poorer part) of the city. Thus, as somebody who's lived here for the last 5 months, and been here before, it seems rather obvious that Rohter himself never left the Leblon/Ipanema area to explore how the classism and racism spread beyond those two rather-elite beaches.

Despite these complaints, however, Rohter's article is well worth checking out, for it brings up some of the unspoken aspects of beach life in Rio that rarely make their way into the international image of Rio's beach culture.

UPDATE: The story was big enough that it actually made news in O Globo, Brazil's largest newspaper (there is no comparison in the U.S.). I initially saw it on the subway today, in the first section, on page sixteen, in an article titled "NYT overthrows the "myth" of beach-democracy". You can read the article in Portuguese here. Not surprisingly, O Globo goes into absolutely no depth or self-analysis of Brazil, instead just reporting segments of what Rohter wrote (and thus making Rohter's relatively superficial analysis look remarkably deep). It comes as no surprise that Globo doesn't actually ask questions about inequality in Brazil as it plays out on the beach (or anywhere else for that matter), and it is interesting that they put the myth of beach-democracy in quotation marks (perhaps distancing themselves from Rohter's suggestion that the beach isn't a democracy, thus implying Globo's stance that Brazil is egalitarian on the beach and elsewhere, a theme which pops up repeatedly). Finally, it is just interesting that Rohter's article is important enough that it has made national news here, perhaps due to its potential to make Brazilians react against his article or (nod their heads in agreement). Time will tell what (if any) reaction happens here...