At the 2009 summit of the G-20 in London, Brazil's President Lula (Luiz Inacio da Silva) said of our President "I am a fan of Obama. He is the first US president who has our face. If you ran into him in Bahia you would think he's from there." This comment seemed insensitive to some Americans, who heard it as saying "We have blacks like you in Bahia."

I used to teach psychology in Brazil, and I have heard such comments before. When an American interracial couple was at a party in São Paulo, a Brazilian anthropologist (with a British doctorate) who was chatting with them said to the black husband, "We have a lot of people who look like you in Bahia." Anthropology is the discipline most knowledgeable about race and most sensitive to it, so the remark--made in a friendly tone and in all innocence-is a reminder that there is no escape from culture. Brazilian anthropologists are culturally Brazilian and may unintentionally offend Americans (and American anthropologists are culturally American and may show similar inadvertent insensitivity to Brazilians.)

Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia (and the first capital of Brazil), is often referred to simply as Bahia. West African influences are omnipresent there, especially in the food, music, and religion. When African dignitaries visit the country, they are often brought to Bahia to show them how much like home life in the city appears. Brazilians view it as a predominantly black city with an easygoing tropical life style. The character of this port city can be traced back to its history as the center of the Brazilian slave trade. Slavery in Brazil was much more widespread than in the United States, and came to an end in 1888 only after it had been abolished in the rest of the New World.

Unlike the US, where our concept of race is based on ancestry (called blood), Brazil's concept of race (tipo) is based on appearance. Your race is what you look like, regardless of what your parents, relatives, or ancestors look like--and numerous descriptive terms are used. Thus, Brazilians say that one of the proofs that Americans are racist is that we call people black who aren't black. (Brazilian racism is indicated in their assumption that darker is less desirable, so that it is derogatory to call someone black who has tan skin, or wavy hair, or blue eyes, or simply a lot of money.)

While race is a fraught topic for Americans, Brazilians are more comfortable and even playful in talking about it. For example, when I didn't recognize the name of one of my students, a secretary referred to him as "aquele queimadinho"-"that slightly burned-looking guy."

Brazilians also tend to assume they are of mixed background. There is an expression that "Everyone has one foot in the kitchen," meaning that we all have an ancestor who was a slave. During one poor people's Carnival on the outskirts of the city of Campinas, I watched a Samba School called Miscegination. They had three floats, representing Europeans, Africans, and Native Brazilians-and their message was one of pride in mixed ancestry.

Without an understanding of the meaning of Bahia to Brazilians, Lula's comment might sound both offensive and a bit bizarre-as if a white American President were to say of an Afro-Brazilian President, "I am a fan of his. He is the first Brazilian president who has our face. If you ran into him in Mississippi you would think he's from there."

Lula probably meant to convey something like "Afro-Bahians are warm, informal, and friendly; and Obama in his resemblance to their looks and personality feels like one of us."

Image Source: Ricardo Stuckert (Lula and Obama together at the White House)

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