Bias at Carnival Unmasks Harsh Reality of Brazil’s Race Relations


The annual carnival parade put on by Ile Aye was long a symbol of the African roots of this colonial-era capital, the undisputed center of Brazil’s black culture. But some white residents had a problem with it.

Ile Aye (ee-LAY eye-YAY)--Yoruba for, roughly, “House of Life”--was an exclusively black group. No whites allowed. That’s racist, some claimed, an unacceptable practice in a nation that proclaims its racial tolerance.

Nonsense, answered the group’s founder and president, Antonio Carlos dos Santos. He created Ile Aye in 1974 because the city’s elite “blocos,” or carnival groups, didn’t accept blacks, only whites. He was merely following a long-standing, if little-mentioned, practice.


Racism at carnival was the dirty little secret in Salvador, a city where 80% of residents are descendants of African slaves. People quietly accepted that the prestigious blocos required photos of applicants so they could weed out the poor, the black and the ugly.

But before last year’s carnival season, the issue was forced into the open. Venusemar Andrade, 25, didn’t leave quietly when her application to parade with the A Barca bloco was rudely rejected.

“When I handed them my application, they just laughed and said, ‘Are you crazy? Blacks don’t get into this bloco. Are you trying to dirty the bloco?’ ” Andrade recalls.

She decided to press criminal charges, citing Brazil’s 1988 constitution, which classifies racism as a crime punishable by up to three years in prison (although no one has ever gone to prison for it).

Her decision touched off other lawsuits and brought an investigation by the Bahia state prosecutor’s civil rights office and a special probe by the city council. It also laid bare the tensions simmering beneath the surface of Brazil’s apparent racial harmony.

The result was an agreement from top blocos to change their ways before this year’s carnival, March 3-7 in Salvador. While they didn’t admit to racist practices, the blocos agreed to provide justifications for any applicants rejected for membership and to allow appeals.

Carnival in Salvador dwarfs the pre-Lent celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities. Racism is not such a problem in the other cities because it is mainly a black event there.

“Carnival is a good place to attack racism because of its enormous importance as a symbol of Brazil’s racial democracy,” said Juca Ferreira, the city councilman behind the racism probe. “That myth is actually an instrument to mask the reality of race relations here.”

About half of Brazil’s 165 million people are of African descent, the largest black population outside Nigeria. Yet only 6% of the population classify themselves as black.

In a recent census, black and mixed-race Brazilians used more than 100 terms to classify their color. Many used vague terms like “crioulo” and “moreno,” which can loosely mean anything from dark-skinned to brunete.

Two years ago, Marcio Meirelles, artistic director of the Vila Velha theater, touched off a scandal when he offered a 50% discount to theatergoers who would admit they were black. Whites accused Meirelles of racism, but he said he was simply trying to get the black majority to identify with their African roots.

“Brazilians like to say we all have some African ancestry, but all that does is keep us from developing public policy to deal with the problems of the black community,” says Lidivaldo Raimundo Brito, state civil rights prosecutor. “Not just during carnival, or in fancy malls, but in education, health care and employment.”

The facade of tolerance and the myth of “racial democracy” make it harder for Afro-Brazilians to identify the enemy, says Jorge Conceicao, who teaches a course on black self-esteem at the Black Community Development Council.

“In the United States you had segregation, so black people knew where they stood,” he says. “But here intermarriage is natural, and the children of these unions tend to identify with their European ancestry because society tells them everything African is bad.”

For Conceicao, encountering discrimination can be a healthy experience for Brazilian blacks because it forces them to see how others perceive them.

It certainly was an eye-opener for Leia Virgina Jesus Santiago.

Santiago, a 29-year-old high school teacher, didn’t consider herself black because of her light skin, wavy hair and European features. But when she was rejected by one of the city’s elite blocos, her suspicions grew.

“I’ve always suspected they discriminated,” she says. “When you watch from high up in the stands, you can see that there are whole blocos without a single black face.”

To test her theory, Santiago applied to another prestigious bloco, while a white friend applied separately.

“She got in; I didn’t,” Santiago says. “This thing has definitely woken me up.”

In addition to highlighting racism in bloco memberships, the city council found black blocos faced discrimination by TV networks covering carnival--a $1 billion-a-year industry in Salvador, with corporate sponsors backing top groups. Carnival organizers ensured that white blocos paraded during the day, when there was ample TV coverage, and relegated black blocos to the night, which made sponsorships less attractive.

That arrangement will change for this year’s carnival under an agreement between organizers and the state prosecutor’s civil rights office. The five most popular Afro-Brazilian blocos will parade during the day.

The settlement on opening up membership doesn’t affect Ile Aye. The group was determined not to be guilty of racism because it is a cultural rather than a commercial entity.

Dos Santos, the founder, says Ile Aye is a counterpoint to the flood of white-is-beautiful propaganda.

“You have more blacks on television in Europe than you have here,” he says. “This just reinforces the message that white people are beautiful, white people are intelligent, and that they represent everything positive in Brazil. We are trying to get people to value their blackness. Instead of making speeches, we do it through music.”