Writing in The Guardian some time ago, and dealing with the issue of racism in Portugal, Joana Gorjão Henriques, a Portuguese journalist wrote that ‘Even though Portugal has racial profiling, race crime and the daily subordination of black people by whites, most Portuguese would deny that their country has significant "racial problems" – that's what they have in America, France or the UK. Such attitudes are a hangover from the dictatorship years and the “luso-tropicalism” ideology created by the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre in the 1950s, which spread the idea that the Portuguese were better colonisers – and that ongoing British or French soul-searching over race was a result of “bad colonizing”.
This is the curious feature of Portugal, in that as much as they aver that things have changed since the bad days of the Estado Novo, and things have changed, some things still remain; perhaps not the same but they linger. But this is another matter, and perhaps we should stick to discussing racism.
The problem perhaps lies in the fact that when we (or ‘the Portuguese’) think about racism, we think of dramatic occurrences, ‘significant racial problems’. In doing so, we seem to excuse the small, hidden acts of racism that we effect on a daily basis, that lay the basis for the more significant acts to emerge. If we acknowledged these small acts, we would realize that racism inheres not in the dramatic acts, but in these small quotidian actions. Take for example the simple act in which we brush away the ‘coloured’ peddler of wares, or jump back, even if ever so imperceptibly, when a person of colour approaches us.
Bairro Alto, one of Lisbon’s more popular night-spots has a number of street-vendors who seem to have racially divided their occupations. If ‘the Africans’ sell you beads and trinkets, the South Asians sell you roses and toys that flash with light, and the Portuguese-Gypsies politely offer you ‘drugs’ of various sorts.
It is with this background that the reader should imagine me setting off, rather dandily, on one of my first evenings in Lisbon to a dinner party. Being ever so well-brought up, I had in hand a designer bouquet for the hostess. Stopping enroute, at the Jardim Principe Real, not too far from Bairro Alto, I approached (what I presumed to be) a lady to ask for directions. The response left me bewildered for what I received was a rather rude brush-off as she rushed away saying ‘No, no, no’. Scratching my head in bewilderment, it too me some time to realize that the bouquet in my head (and probably the colour of my face) gave the good lady cause to assume I was trying to sell her my bouquet! Or take the example when another lady, seemed somewhat nervous – she actually jumped back - when I approached her (admittedly in the less secure Intendente neighbourhood) for directions to my destination.
Two swallows admittedly do not make a summer, and this is not to argue therefore that ‘the Portuguese’ are racist. It merely illustrates some of the possible flavours of racism. Indeed, one should inquire into my own South-Asian racism, when my response to such racism is to point indignantly to my class location, given that our class locations allow us so often to operate as white. One could also inquire, whether like most South Asians from a certain background, I am also not reading race whenever my ego is bruised by someone whose respect I merely take for granted. And yet, each of these inquiries should not prevent the partner in these encounters to inquire if they too sniff the odour of racism in their actions.
To repeat a point and elaborate somewhat, racism should be understood as inhering not merely in the dramatic and violent acts that attract our attention, but also in the quotidian acts that draw from gut instinct, preconceptions, and unconscious reactions. It would be impossible to deny that any of us is not racist, given that the contemporary world order is still recovering from its colonial past, a past that was actively based on racial stereotypes. If we can recognize that in this game of racism, it is not just about aggressors and the violated, but also about all of us participating in a market where we use racist ideas as capital to build on in whatever form, then perhaps we can get away from these ridiculous suggestions that we are not racist and begin to examine what exactly are the ingredients that contribute to the peculiar flavour of our individual racism.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 16 Oct 2011)