Bri in Brazil

Brianna Edghill is graduate of The University of Tulsa where she earned a Bachelor's in Anthropology. She is currently pursuing a MBA at The University of Tulsa. Her love of culture and language led her to travel to South America. She speaks Spanish and Portuguese and hopes to learn a few more languages. In her career, she endeavors to work in international education.

I was ready! After all, I already learned about Brazilian culture in some of my classes. Once I decided to study in Rio de Janeiro, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into: a chance to experience black people just like me. I could barely contain my excitement, seeing as how I was a cultural phenomenon when I studied abroad before in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There were almost no black Argentines (talk about real culture shock). When I walked down the street, hopped on the 152 bus to La UBA (The University of Buenos Aires), I constantly received stares. It was as if they never saw black people, and, ironically enough, people would ask me if I was from Brazil. It was almost as if I were a sort of exotic being, in some good, yet some very uncomfortable, ways. After having experienced such a transformation of my own blackness from not even really being a part of Argentine society, let alone a minority, I knew that I would want to travel somewhere new where I could truly experience black presence.

The next year, I kept imagining how many black Brazilian friends I would make and what I would learn from them. I was in for quite a shock. Of course, there were plenty of black people around me, but once I got into my daily routine I realized they weren’t part of it. Black Brazilians were everywhere, yet nowhere. My host family was white, middle class, and lived in the south zone of Rio. I quickly learned black families do not live in the south zone, or Zona Sul, the wealthiest part of Rio de Janeiro. Not only that, but even when I did see black people they almost always occupied the roles of service people, bus drivers, housekeepers, nannies or servers. I would walk down the street to catch the bus to class and I would see a black woman walking a stroller with, you guessed it, a white baby inside. I could not believe the distinct divisions in lifestyles. It was like they lived in a totally different world. They lived in the marginal north zone of the city or in the favela, the shantytowns of the city. They would only come to Zona Sul for their work or school. They went to different churches, shopped in different stores, and even partied in different areas than the middle class families of Zona Sul. Their world was a different Brazil than what I became accustomed to.

My expectations were completely altered, to a point where I was saddened by the conditions that still separated upper classes from other with a large disparity between actual communities. However, I realized something truly beautiful about it: Brazilians cannot clearly define what “black” means to them or who is black. Black people in Brazil describe themselves in so many different ways, so much so that “Afro-Brazilian” can’t be clearly boxed into a neat explanation. Brazilians are all “white with this background, or mixed with a little bit of that, or black but with white grandparents, or light-skinned black, dark, half-black,” and so on. There are over 130 definitions of race, in Zona Sul, the marginal communities, and the entire country. I loved seeing the many interracial couples strolling along the Ipanema Beach sidewalk or kids walking from school together. While Afro-Brazilians still stand to be some of the poorest in Brazil from historical segregation and socioeconomic classes, there seems to be some sort of harmony amongst all Brazilians in their very own mix-match way.

My black identity was completely different there; I was not identified as black, but Brazilians saw me first as American. It was nothing like the United States, a place where I can always clearly feel my blackness. In a place where I am shown many opportunities equal to my white counterparts, it is yet so clear to see the not-so-visible divide that we create for our own. We as Americans still segregate ourselves even in a land where minorities are given more chances than Brazilians at better lives. Our barriers come not in the appearance of separate communities, jobs, or education like the physical divides in Brazil. Our cultural barriers are, however, existent. They exist in our minds, where even if we live similar lives there still exists a need to willingly separate ourselves from others that are not like us or share our culture. The mix-match is not a phenomenon in the States: even with the slightest drop of blackness in your family, you still are identified as black, and always will be. That is the blackness that I feel is omnipresent at home. In Brazil, my blackness was morena, negra, preta, parda, all of the above, yet none of the above. My blackness made nobody uncomfortable or ridiculously “curious” about my hair, or speech, or lifestyle as a black girl. My blackness was almost non-existent, a place where I was just me. I was just Bri.