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Playing the Race Game in Brazil’s Shopping Malls

Rio Sul shopping mall in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sociology teaches us that spaces are not neutral; just as race or color are
attributed to persons, groups, and organizations, so too are the spaces we
occupy racialized. In other words, either the spaces are projected with the
express intention to serve certain groups or certain groups use them more and
end up attributing to them a given race or color.

Shopping malls – or “shoppings,” as Brazilians call them – are examples of racialized spaces. That may happen as a result of the intersection of race with social class. Through their stores and location, malls communicate to people which level of purchasing power is welcome there.


Because in Brazil, even more than in other countries, purchasing power is so connected to color that many still insist that Brazil does not have a racial problem, but only an economic one (as if it were impossible for both problems to coexist), the higher the purchasing power of the customers, the lighter their skins tend to be.


Such is the case of several Brazilian malls. Their hundreds of stores display exclusive merchandise, such as clothing by international designers and expensive sneakers. Clearly the goal of those malls is to cater to dwellers of neighborhoods so privileged that their Human Development Index (HDI) is as high as those of Scandinavian countries (whereas the HDI of some other areas in Brazil are as low as those of some African countries).


And if all customers do not exactly look like blond Scandinavians, at least most of them are white. In many cases, they go as families, often accompanied by small children.


All of that is reasonably expected. However, when friends of mine suggested an outing to a mall located in Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone this past July, my anthropological eye had not expected to capture the contrast between the skin color and overall appearance of the women customers and that of their helpers.


The customers – long-haired brunettes, in excellent shape, fashionably dressed in T-shirts, jeans, and platform sandals – were followed by young women: all mulatto, all dressed in white, all in inexpensive sneakers, all carrying the shopping bags in addition to minding the customers’ small children. I insist on referring to them as “mulatto” because none was very light- or dark-skinned.


Why the white “uniform”? It occurred to me that that standardization made no sense, given the nannies’ job. Since the nannies maintained physical contact with the children, they were in constant risk of soiling their clothes with candy, chocolate, soda, or worse. In other words, those white uniforms were far from practical.


They were, however, powerful markers of the nannies’ racial space in that they served to keep them undifferentiated in a collective of servitude. Their clothes made them at once invisible (because they made it difficult to tell one nanny from another) and, paradoxically, highly visible as poor non-whites who were temporarily occupying a space reserved for whites with means.


Those repetitive images brought back to mind the pre-abolitionist paintings by Rugendas and Debret, in which well-to-do families strolled in Rio accompanied by their house slaves. At that time, downtown was the chic part of town; the splendor of the South Zone would remain unknown to most of the population for years to come.


I do not mean to deny the end of slavery or to equate the status of the nannies with that of the slaves. And I do not intend to insinuate that the mall forbids blacks from shopping in it either; after all, no one stopped me at the entrance or prevented me from strolling freely in the stores.


I suggest, however, that the city continues to be racially demarcated. Some spaces are indeed open to non-whites only if they do so in a position of inequality. The mall is an illustration of the fact that, after so many years after the abolition of slavery, most black Brazilians have yet to reach the necessary conditions to be fully integrated in society as equals.


Attached to that is the high economic inequality that characterizes Brazil. Income and wealth distribution is such that most of the population is poor, the middle class is small, and the upper class, much smaller yet. Class intersects with color, so that the upper class is almost completely white.


On the other hand, the lowest class is more evenly distributed; Brazil is not South Africa. Thus, I am sure that poor whites also feel intimidated in economically privileged spaces.


Historically, Brazil has admitted the existence of its deep economic inequalities without having done much to eradicate them. With the establishment of an affirmative action program, Brazil has started to recognize the insidious presence of racial or color inequality as well as to combat its old economic inequalities.


Those who carry the flag that Brazil is not racist insist on reducing all our social inequalities to an unfair wealth distribution. However, a simple visit to a better-off mall demonstrates that race, or color, and purchasing power walk hand in hand in Brazil.


Vânia Penha-Lopes, a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (2006-07). She is an associate professor of sociology at Bloomfield College, in New Jersey, and a columnist at Afropress, a Brazilian online publication.

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