The Construction of Otherness “Racism Is Still Deeply Ingrained in Brazil”

Performance by the artist Jelili Atiku 2018 at the exhibition "Ex Africa" in Sao Paulo
Performance by the artist Jelili Atiku 2018 at the exhibition "Ex Africa" in Sao Paulo | Photo (detail): Dario Oliveira © picture alliance/ZUMA Press

What influence did travel journals written by European naturalists in the 19th century have on the development of racist stereotypes? An interview with Brazilian anthropologist Renato da Silveira.

By Tânia Caliari

Mr da Silveira, with regard to the subject of racism, you insist that racist views are still influenced by a “scientific racism” today. To what extent do racist scientific theories affect racist attitudes nowadays?
There are discriminating attitudes in all societies. There are two interesting texts, one by Claude Lévi-Strauss with the title Race and History and another by Xavier Yvanoff entitled Anthropologie du racisme: Essai sur la genèse des mythes racistes (anthropology of racism: essay on the genesis of racist myths). They show how this predisposition to disdain others is something that has been around since time immemorial. The oral traditions, myths, legends, sermons, travel journals and literature of all nations tell a story of distrust and physical as well as moral degradation of others.

“Others” are regularly associated with dishonesty, killer instincts, political tyranny, malodorousness, repulsive diseases and deformation. The religion of others is always superstition, a devil-worshipping cult, its priests are charlatans. These accusations were passed from one generation to the next, even with stories about headless, gastrocephalic or giant-footed people. To sum up, you could say that just as we feel attracted to others, to their differentness, it’s also part of being human to be repelled by them. Depending on the circumstances in question, one or other of these attitudes will surface.

“Scientific” racism has arisen in a specific era, in times of territorial as well as economic expansion of the West with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century. At this moment, science superseded the church as custodian of the truth. Science formulated the theory of supremacy of the white skin colour over the “others” in connection with a civilisational mission of the West vis-à-vis the world. Most of these theories were discredited from the start of the 19th century onwards, when sociology and anthropology sharpened their profile. But we mustn’t overlook the fact that some of these doctrines are still effective today and have been disseminated widely by mass culture. Hollywood films, for instance, have contributed a lot to the spread of the paradigms and stereotypes that arise from these doctrines. Until a short time ago, in the 1960s and 70s, cinema was still a huge promoter of stereotypes.
What part do natural scientists and explorers play with their descriptions of native and enslaved populations of the various colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries in the emergence of scientific racism? Have they contributed to its development?
Yes and no. Many people have contradicted this theory, the writings of others have been falsified. David Livingstone for example was a British missionary in the 19th century who was sent to South Africa. Once there, he gave up his missionary work and became one of the first Europeans to explore Africa. He wrote many books of great importance, in which he provided a more realistic and understandable picture of these societies and environments. For instance he valued the African healers, who were deemed superstitious and despised by European doctors, and described them objectively. The Arabs, who had been condemned to such an extent through a culture of battle literature, were now being described with many more attributes. He describes a very harmonious life in the African villages.

Charles Letourneau was also an important anthropologist, and he used Livingstone’s work to claim that Africans thought about “nothing but their bellies”. It’s true to say that in some sections Livingstone describes the bovine epidemic that destroyed herds of cattle, as well as terrible droughts in some regions of Africa. In those situations, the people were not able to think of anything else anymore apart from eating. This type of falsification did exist. But in general the role played by explorers and anthropologists as well tended to be more a smoothing of the way for the racketeers following behind them. Livingstone described in detail the courses of the rivers, the most fertile regions, showed the colonisers the trading relations and the culture of the people.
Alexander von Humboldt, who was in South and Central America between 1799 and 1805, declared that he would resist the “unpleasant hypothesis of higher and lower races of men” when he postulated: “No tribes are superior to the others.” Did this way of thinking influence the anthropologists of the future at that time in their rejection of scientific racism?
There was a slow transition from the work of naturalists in the 18th century to the anthropologists of the 19th century, and anthropology started out based on the principle of scientific racism. At the beginning of the 20th century, anthropology underwent a kind of revolution involving the German Franz Boas, who lived in the United States, and Bronislaw Malinowski, a Pole living in England. They introduced the concept of participant observation into their research, and the idea that you can’t say anything about a society without looking at the circumstances of that group. That you have to respect the views of the natives as well as learning the local language.

The “armchair anthropologists” can put the world to rights on this subject without even leaving the house. There have been researchers like James George Frazer, one of the founders of British anthropology, who collected habits and customs like the butterflies and insects in the drawers of old museums. Since Boas and Malinowski the prevalent way of thinking has been that if you don’t spend some time at the location, don’t speak the language of the people, aren’t familiar with the detail of their mentality, customs and religious practices – then you can’t say anything scientific about their society. It was these anthropologists who introduced the idea of taking circumstances and history into consideration.
The observations of Humboldt regarding the knowledge of the pre-Columbian peoples of the Andes and Mexico caused natural scientist Maximilian Alexander Philipp zu Wied-Neuwied to call the indigenous populations of Brazil – including the Botocudos and Tupis – primitive, saying that their cultural and moral views were akin to those of animals.
Comparisons of this nature are completely discredited nowadays. Anthropology today views culture as a whole. And this whole is embedded in an environment that favours or disadvantages certain things. For example when it comes to surviving in the ice without vegetation or fertile soil, Eskimos rank highly, above everyone else. For survival in the forest, no one can beat the indigenous peoples. Today we know that 70 per cent of modern drugs originate from the traditional medicine of these societies. When the indigenous cultures of Brazil made contact with the first enslaved peoples of Angola, a lot of information about plants was passed on. To this day the “Angoleiros” in Bahia have a name for everything, and there’s a use for even the simplest little bit of undergrowth.
Is it still possible to spot the legacy of 19th century scientific racism in the institutions and the population of Brazil today?
There are many ways in which racism is expressed in the population, starting with the vocabulary – for instance by referring to black people’s hair as “bad”. And in recent times a further type of discrimination has come about, which turns against the politics of social inclusion. Much has been said on social networks about people who didn’t want to sit next to a black or obviously poor person on a plane. The desecration of Candomblé religious sites has become routine – not to mention the way police treat the inhabitants of the city suburbs. Racism is still deeply ingrained in Brazil.

Renato da Silveira is a visual artist and wrote his doctoral thesis on the Candomblé in Bahia at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in France.