‘Sir, please get me the Manager’: Brazil before and after Bolsonaro


I remember arriving at the Banco do Brasil agency in Ilha do Governador, the working-class neighbourhood I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, at the end of the last century. I must have been around thirteen or fourteen—the age in Brazil when every Black boy ceases to be a child and, in the eyes of society, become a potential Emmett Till. Holding my father’s big hands, we get stopped at the rolling door by the bank seguranças.

‘Remove everything from your pockets, sir.’ That ‘Sir’ means exactly the opposite of a honorific. Every Black person knows how it sounds: angry and imperative.

The security man, brown skin—perhaps a couple of shades lighter than mine—a small afro tucked in under his police helmet and a thirty-eight revolver in his hands told us.

My father released my hands and placed them in his tethered jeans pockets bringing out a black leather wallet, a metal key chain, and three coins. He also placed his myopia glasses on the check-in table, showing he did not intend to challenge the segurança’s authority.

As he passed through the dreadful revolving glass doors, it was then my turn to get across it, and indeed—I thought—they would see I am a kid and clearly have nothing on me.

‘Remove everything from your pockets!’ The guard said—I was too young to earn myself the sir badge.

‘I have nothing to remove,’ I said, opening my arms wide, palms facing up.

He proceeded more harshly this time, speaking through his clenched jaw.

‘Lift your t-shirt then.’

I obliged.

By then, although young in age, I already knew about those rituals of humiliation and how they were part of my Black family’s lives. I also knew that surviving those daily interactions required putting my head down and following the instructions received with no hesitation. I must have had ‘the talk ‘with my parents when I was eight or nine. Life was just like that. Being Black in Brazil means living in a war. No one should ever go to war underprepared.

Racism is so ubiquitous in Brazil that I believed it was natural for years. This was my reality. My entire worldview is seen from that prism. Years later today, living a somewhat comfortable life in Australia will not alter what I absorbed early in life.

 

Another point of view? 

Imagine a white boy the same age as me and similar life circumstances growing up in Brazil at the same time as me.

I can only begin to conceive how it is for someone learning precisely the opposite lessons. Learning that they deserve to live hassle-free. Learning that they are destined to be lawyers, accountants, actors, or anything they want. Learning that, because they look the way they look, they will be part of the crème de la crème of society. Believing that they are genetically and morally superior.

Learning in every textbook that their people were kings and queens and that they were descendants of great conquistadores. Most importantly, learning that the ‘other’ (Blacks, Indigenous and other non-whites) deserve their suffering because they (we) are ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’. Yet that we placed ourselves in this condition and inequality is a myth.

Imagine entering every bank in Brazil and being invited to the VIP room, studying at the best schools with people with the same skin colour as you and seeing those same people in leadership positions. Imagine never having to put your head down to the police or anyone because you are a ‘good citizen’.

Now imagine that that subhuman they invented in their heads for centuries manages to pull a miracle of perseverance and luck and get a job better than they have. That same Black/Indigenous person flies on the same aeroplanes that they do. And after five centuries of dominance, we demand the minimum requirements for citizenship.

I can see how, for this person, something may look absurdly wrong. I imagine that for that person, it will feel like they have been lied to for their entire life.

The thing is: They have been, not by us, but by their own people who sold them an impossible dream of white supremacy and a delirium of being better people just because of having less melanin.

 

This was the Brazilian election in 2022

In the country that historically kidnapped and forcefully trafficked the most significant number of enslaved peoples during colonialism. In the last country to abolish African slavery, in 1888. In the country that kills one Black person every twenty-three minutes. A place where a Machiavellian plan of extermination and eugenics allowed the European population to grow and thrive. In this country, it is not surprising that today the Black population is on one side of the fence and the white on another.

The vote was split racially. The majority of Black cities voted for Lula, as high as 90 per cent in some cases, whereas the majority of white cities voted sevent-to-one for Bolsonaro.

Mirroring the USA, where African Americans often are the last defence against tyranny, Afro-Brazilians are Brazil’s ultimate defenders of democracy.

 

Of course, it is not that simple. Nothing is.

People make choices or are induced by external or circumstantial forces to make them. There are plenty of Afro-Brazilians voting for Bolsonaro and plenty of whites fighting side by side with me against fascism. However, without understanding the racial roots of Brazilian slavocrat society, it would be impossible to comprehend how we got here.

Dr Michel Gherman, a scholar in Social History at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has argued in a book and in interviews how this government is not only white supremacist but also that many of its members are unashamedly Nazi sympathisers.

 

The Manager

As we entered the Banco do Brasil, after the humiliating welcome, my father and I waited an hour for our turn to be served by the cashier. She was a typical federal employee type—well-dressed with her hair in a bun, a reddish dress and well-polished nails.

After a quick glance towards the paper my father handed in, the cashier said:

‘It is not this line, Sir’.

We knew we were in the correct line; however, it would require her to see my father as a person worthy of his humanity and of her time, which she was unquestionably trained, like that imaginary boy, not to see.

My father remained calm and asked her to please call the Manager. The Bank’s policy was that if a client called for it, they had to respond. It took a while, but the Manager—a middle age white man with glasses, a checked shirt and expensive black shoes—came. Upon finding out that my father was a member of the Brazilian Air Force, he treated us incredibly well. Coffee for my father, an ashtray so he could smoke and even hot chocolate for me. We got what we needed and left the bank.

When this episode occurred, full democracy was slowly returning to Brazil after a long Military Junta Dictatorship. Being part of the Air Force protected my father, but this was a tool he only used in an emergency. As I said, no one is wholly good or bad. More often than not, evil is circumstantial—the worse we see in our enemies also lives inside of us.

As we walked out, my father explained something I carry to this day: ‘My son’, he said, looking down at me as we crossed the road towards our suburban block of flats.

‘Never fight the cashier! It is always the Manager. Fight the Manager’

This was Marxism and Ubuntu philosophy combined. Class warfare and racial resistance wisdom all in one. I could feel the words running through my veins, entering my brain, and stamping themselves for eternity. I knew I was learning something important. For pre-teen me, It was enlightening.

These moments Brazil face are similar to those we met at that bank all those decades ago.

As two Afro-Brazilian men (well, boy and man) entered that bank, we recognised we were facing structural oppression. The foot soldiers of racism have many faces, genders, and social classes. Those that chose or got chosen to perform the tasks for the oppressors or to become the oppressors themselves, as Freire argues, come from many walks of life.

Still, we accepted our fate until we had to use our own set of evils. Until, after being pressured to fight back, we had to become the circumstantial oppressors.

 

Who voted for Bolsonaro?

The part (about half of the voters) of the Brazilian (mostly white but not only) that voted for Bolsonaro was led by a selfish intellectual elite of men and women that sees race, gender and, most importantly, class as its main enemy.

Right now, I am tempted to fight them. To entrench myself in a metaphorical urban guerrilla war. To combat the foot soldiers, the lost, the misguided, and the confused. I am tempted to attack the cashiers of fascism.

Is Bolsonaro the Manager? Yes, but he is not alone. The Brazilian oligarchs are destroying Pantanal and the Amazon for soy and other profitable plantations—caring nothing for climate change, fauna, and flora; those stockbrokers at the São Paulo stock exchange who care about the dollar even if thousands will not eat tonight; the unscrupulous business owners who underpay and overwork, and those women who shamelessly perpetuate the enslavement of modern maids; the academics who help support those ideas with fallacies and false dichotomies. All of those are the Managers—and as my father taught me, those are the ones I require to keep an eye on. We may have to unleash our evils to get to the Manager’s room. I hope not.

Either way, that is where the war for democracy will be won or lost.

 

Image: Matheus Câmara da Silva

Guido Melo

Guido Melo is an Afro-Brazilian-Latinx multilingual author, poet, and Literary Workshop Facilitator based in Naarm. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Writing & Digital Media from Victoria University, his words can be found in Meanjin Quarterly, Kill Your Darlings, Peril, Colournary, Mantissa Poetry, Ascension Magazine, SBS Voices, SBS Portuguese, Cordite Poetry Review, Voz Limpia, Alma Preta Jornalismo, and Guia Negro News. Guido is a member of the Sweatshop Literacy Movement, a columnist for Negrê, and a contributor to Growing Up African in Australia (Black Inc., 2019), Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate & Bigotry (Sweatshop, 2021) and Resilience: A celebration of poetry, fiction, and essays from Mascara Literary Review (Ultimo Press, 2022)

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