Racism is a crime in Brazil and even though we Brazilians like to claim that our country celebrates cultural diversity, we would be naive if we said that there is no racism here. Xenophobia is one of the shapes this racism adopts and the “harm” it causes to the population varies according to where the foreigner comes from.
A country made out of immigrants
Just like most colonized countries, Brazil was made out of immigrants. Some of them came here for economic reasons (gold, wood or sugarcane exploitation); some were expelled from their home countries and sent to exile in Brazil; and some others were forced to come here, like the Africans who were enslaved and brought to the American continent.
Added to the immigrants, there are also the indigenous people who already lived in Brazil when the colonizers arrived. There was an intense miscegenation among the ethnicities and this cultural melting pot is a strong particularity of the Brazilian identity as a whole.
Racist and xenophobic practices may not occur openly in Brazil, but they constitute a reality for many people living in the country. Xenophobia is defined as “the fear or dislike of people from other countries”. In Brazil, however, what we see is much more related to ethnicity than nationality.
How Brazilians see immigrants
Brazil has this international image of a warm, welcoming country that is open to every nation in the world. This is just as false as saying that there is no racism in Brazil. Brazilians do complain about immigrants and they do it for two main different reasons: or because immigrants supposedly take their jobs or because the xenophobic act is an extension of an incubated racism.
However, what we see in Brazil is nothing when compared to countries like France or the US and this is probably due to the fact that Brazil does not receive so many immigrants as these two countries do.
The gringo term
Brazilians do not tend to exclude foreigners from community (as long as they can communicate in Portuguese, of course). However, even when you’re born in Brazil, you may be referred to by your heritage. For example, if you’re Asian, you will probably be referred to as “japa”, which is the short form of the word “japonês” (Japanese in English). Being called “japa” when you are actually from a Japanese heritage may not be a problem as in most cases the word is used tenderly. However, most Brazilians call Japanese any person with an Asian heritage, even if they are Chinese, Korean or Singaporean.
The same happens to Europeans and Americans. White, blonde people are very often referred to as “alemão”, which is the Brazilian word for “German”, even if they come from France or Norway, Sweden. In most Brazilians’ minds, German people are all blonde and all blonde people come from Germany. Just like it happens in the case of Asian people, the use of this term is not pejorative (with some exceptions, of course) and it is just a way Brazilian people find to refer to others.
Most Brazilians tend to deny signs that denote an African or Indigenous heritage. In Brazil, the definition for white people is only one: white. But when it comes to black people, the attempt to deny the heritage is so strong that being called black is still seen as offensive by some people, so different “shades of black” were created, such as “mulato”, “moreno”, “pardo” and some other terms that try to disguise the black heritage.
These terms are directly related to the level of “whitening” of the person. It is not uncommon to see a black person hearing that he/she is not black, but “mulato” as if this could somehow bring some comfort to the black person.
The good and the bad immigrant
In Brazil, there is this general idea that some immigrants are better than the others. Most people who descend from a European heritage will be proud of it and try to expose it as much as possible. A European family name in Brazil (with the exception of Portuguese names that have become so common among the poorest ones) is seen by many people as a sign of prestige.
The same behavior is not so often observed among Brazilians with an African or Indigenous heritage. Actually, many Brazilians with an African heritage try to hide it by straightening the hair, using products or makeup that would make their skin look whiter and so forth.
These values are transferred to the immigrants who come to Brazil. If most Brazilians see the white as a positive pattern, this positivity is transferred to Americans, Australians, Europeans and any other white immigrant who comes here. The same treatment is not granted to immigrants who have an indigenous (Bolivians, Peruvians, etc) or black heritage.
When an immigrant comes from rich countries, the major concern Brazilians have is regarding their jobs. There is this general idea that the foreigner will be better educated and, therefore, the competition for a job position with a Brazilian would be unfair.
This general idea is very much applied to Brazilians with an Asian heritage, who are seen by Brazilians as being naturally smarter and therefore more likely to take the best job positions and guarantee their vacancy at the best universities in the country.
Just to give an idea, a research made by IPEA has concluded that 37% of the students with an Asian heritage in Brazil finish higher education, a percentage that surpasses four times the national average. Also, 20% of the students at Universidade de São Paulo, the most prestigious university in Latin America, come from an Asian heritage. If we take into account that Asians correspond to 0,5% of the national population, we would have an idea of how this number is expressive for the Brazilian educational patterns.
When the immigrants come from developing countries like Bolivia, Paraguay, Nigeria and Angola, things change a little bit. The major concern in these cases is that these people will become a problem to local governments as many of them come here to work in precarious conditions such as the Bolivians who come to sew as indentured servants.