Saturday, March 29, 2008

What Color Are You?

Sitting at the airport in Rio de Janeiro awaiting our flight back to the US, I can’t help but think back on the past 48 hours and what was perhaps the most moving part of our two weeks in Brazil. On Wednesday evening we visited UniPalmares, the first, and to my understanding, only Afro-Brazilian university in Brazil. Even though we were late to this meeting, the smiling faces and enthusiasm that greeted us were readily apparent. After a tour of the school, including a lesson in “Samba Rock”, a dance program offered at the school, we sat down for a discussion with students, faculty and administrators from the school.

One thing we had learned through our experiences in Brazil is that most Brazilians don’t understand, or don’t know, the complicated means by which Americans racially classify one another. Of the nine students who attended the program from UCLA, only three, and perhaps myself as a fourth, identify as “white”. We tried to share this with the group we met with at UniPalmares. We wanted to describe that unlike in Brazil, where people identify as either black or white (despite the tremendous amounts of ambiguity we thought we saw), in the US many other groups are marginalized or discriminated against within our “colorblind” system.

After each of the UCLA students shared their own experiences with race and identification, a student from UniPalmares raised his hand and said that it was obvious how discrimination in the US must exist equally as in Brazil because our group consisted of eight white students and only one black student. Each of us kind of looked around at one another, wondering how we should respond. I think we all thought it was a bit humorous and perhaps ironic that even though many of the students shared their stories of racial discrimination we were still just seen as black and white. However, it also speaks to an important element of this project that we should work on in the future. Each of us was in Brazil not only to gather information for our own individual comparative research analyses, but also to exchange information and to offer our counterparts in Brazil the same opportunity to learn about us that we hoped to gain from them. This was not the first time we were looked at as eight white students and one black one – and it seems that a key to making this project a success, is to identifying a way to frame our experiences in a way people who have never been visited our country can understand.