Folk conceptualizations of racism and antiracism in Brazil and South Africa
Scholars are increasingly aware of the importance of studying how racism works in different countries (Goldberg 2006). However, few studies have analysed cross-nationally how people identify racism and how these experiences relate to antiracism strategies (Twine 1998; Lamont 2000; Essed 2002). In particular, previous studies have largely ignored how people explain racism what I call folk conceptualizations of racism. Folk conceptualizations of racism are people’s interpretations of the causes of racism and its present persistence.1
I argue that folk explanations not only work as equalization strategies as narratives to rebut black inferiority by denying legitimacy to racist narratives but also justify social action by guiding the beliefs about which antiracism strategies are more effective and justifiable (Lamont and Bail 2005). I explore folk explanations of racism among black professionals
in Brazil and South Africa. These two countries are exemplary cases in the race literature due to their opposite histories of race relations. Brazil, historically defined as a country with weak or blurred racial boundaries, has recently implemented racial quotas in prestigious public university access. Meanwhile, South Africa went from being an apartheid state to being defined as the model of a real ‘rainbow nation’. Thus, Brazil and South Africa provide extreme cases to observe the different dynamics of racism. In addition, both countries have a growing class of black professionals, the group that more commonly crosses racial boundaries, and similarly to the USA is most likely to say that they experience racism in their everyday life (Feagin and Sikes 1994; Figueiredo 2002; Luhabe 2002; Silva and Reis, 2011). However, we know very little about how these stigmatized groups understand the sources and resilience of racism. Drawing on sixty interviews with middle-class blacks in both
countries, my results show that, indeed, respondents across the two sites say they are aware of the persistence of racism, but interpret it in very distinct ways. In Brazil, racism is conceptualized as an historical lingering and as a product of ignorance, and Brazilian respondents commonly believe racism is likely to disappear. In South Africa, racism is perceived to be much more resilient, since it is understood as part of human nature and as a consequence of the competition for resources. In addition, these contrasting conceptualizations of racism are closely related to the antiracism narratives that are salient in these two contexts and closely related to the hegemonic philosophies of integration at each site (Favell 1998). The remainder of the article is organized in the following manner.
Next, I review different approaches to comparing racism and discuss how a focus on folk conceptualization can contribute to understanding the dynamics of racism and antiracism across national contexts. In the sections that follow, I detail my methods, discuss my findings and present my concluding remarks.