Self-Imposed Discrimination in Brazil

Self_Imposed_Disc_Photo_thumb.pngWhen I arrived in Brazil seven years ago as an American anthropologist seeking to discover if Brazil would be a good place to do research for a book, I had no idea about the degree of class discrimination that existed and the depths of its penetration into the cultural fabric of Brazilian society. Clearly, I was familiar with “racial” discrimination growing up in America and struggling against it for the opportunity to advance socially.  That is to say, I was confronted with it in the military, in the ivy halls of the university and in the sterile workplaces of corporate American offices. And yet, in spite of it all, I still believe that America is the best country in the world to live in primarily because of the high quality of life, the advanced standards and conditions within the society, but perhaps most important is the plethora of opportunities and benefits for everyone. And believe it or not, because it actually protects its citizens (i.e., the very nature of the American legal system is one that is built on protecting the rights of its citizens – they call it the “commonwealth” – not like other countries whose legal systems are designed to exploit and plunder its citizens).

Here in Brazil, I found a different twist to an old socio-cultural phenomenon, perhaps not as dangerous as racial discrimination but just as demeaning and debilitating  – class discrimination. A type of bias, institutional and personal, that closes the doors of opportunity and upward social mobility for poor people and people of low income. Clearly, it is no crime to want to live a better life and to employ whatever survival strategy at one’s disposal that maximizes one’s well-being – this is an integral component of life. But how do you explain a survival strategy that works against you; one that is inverted and deprives you of a better life – a sort of reverse form of discrimination?

In 2012, an article appeared in the International Journal for Equity in Health concerning research conducted into the links between discrimination and its impact on the health of individuals.  The study used secondary analysis of a regional representation – that is, 24,000 respondents from 7,500 households in the Belo Horizonte Metropolitan Region of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Also, it employed a series of bivariate, covariate and multiple logistic regression tests of “any” type of discrimination in specific settings, including healthcare services, the work environment, the family, social occasions among friends or in public places and finally, in “other” situations. The respondents were made up of a cross-section of self-reported ethnic groups based on those in the Brazilian census categories including white (branca), black (preta), brown (parda), and yellow(amarela). The researchers believed that a study in discrimination in Brazil would be particularly helpful given the country’s large, multi-racial population, complex race and social relations, and considerable social and economic diversity.

The results showed that the relationship between poor health and discrimination was positive and consistent for each discrimination type and was highest for those in the worst health, low subjective social status, and low social trust categories. Also, the study reported on the links between stress and the subsequent deterioration of physical and mental health due to cumulative exposure to discrimination. For example, those that self-identified as black consistently showed higher odds of reporting discrimination – almost twice that of whites. Also, women were consistently likely to report more discrimination than men. Those in the white group were less likely to report less than 4 years of formal schooling and more likely to report more than 12 years of schooling.  On the other hand, those in the black group were more likely to report 4 years of schooling or less and fewer with 12 years of schooling. When we consider wealth, the white group had fewer members in the lowest wealth quintile and the black group had the highest followed by the brown (pardo) group. In terms of health, the black group had the highest proportion of those with health problems followed by the brown group. In fact, the presence of health problems was consistently associated with those that reported higher incidences of discrimination.

In terms of the discrimination categories, health services, at work, in the family, in social occasions, and in other situations, higher odds were reported among those that self- identified as black. Now, this was particularly interesting due to the category “other situations.” What was most interesting is the higher percentages for the brown vs. white category, female vs. male category, 4-7 years schooling, and lower social status vs. highest 2 tertiles. Of particular interest is the Belo Horizonte black city resident vs. Belo Horizonte white city resident category which almost triples in comparison in the “other situations” of discrimination category and the Belo Horizonte brown city resident vs. Belo Horizonte white city resident which almost doubles in the same category.

The question therefore is exactly what are “other situations”? Actually, I have found that this vague category has a variety of different forms. For example, when people deliberately avoid attending certain functions such as birthdays, anniversaries, christenings, and graduations because the event is held in a particular upscale neighborhood is one form. Another such example would be when people refuse to patronize certain restaurants, supermarkets, attend certain churches or events because they believe that when they arrive people will look down upon them and snob them because they think they come from a low-class background. Still another example is the fear of some people to seek housing in good neighborhoods even when their financial situation may allow them to live in those neighborhoods. Finally, there is the fear of seeking good medical care at some of the better hospitals simply because the hospitals are located in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems to me that all of these situations are created by a self-induced psychological fear of rejection by others. You see, Brazilians have a tremendous fear of being embarrassed or shamed (i.e., vergonha) and will do almost anything to avoid situations that might expose them to it.

Perhaps, this form of critical analysis is culturally relativistic in some way demonstrating my own shortsightedness because of my American background.  However, it seems odd to me that anyone, any population, from any country in the world would not want to improve their life, health, housing, education, and opportunity for happiness. Also, it seems to me that the role of any worthwhile government is to provide conditions for the betterment and advancement of its citizens, and that citizens should seek to take advantage of every opportunity for the improvement of their own individual lives without fear of discrimination in any form.

Source: Macinko, J., Pricila Mullachery, Fernando A Proietti, and Maria Fernanda Lima-Costa, (2012). Who experiences discrimination in Brazil? Evidence from a large metropolitan region.International Journal for Equity in Health. 11:80, pp.11. Photo: courtesy of the internet.


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