Is the Brazilian racial situation anomalous, exceptional, unique? I say no and I would also suggest that at least some of the insistence on the mutability of race and the multiplicity of the ways in which racial meaning is and is not created, is a hedging device intended to screen racist practices from view.
I will have to find out about all of this but in the meantime I have remembered an exchange I could use in my introduction, to head off at the pass the tiresome repetition of the belief that only Brazilians can understand Brazil (and only fish, presumably, can be icthiologists).
A historian, indeed a well known historian of slavery, told me that as an American I could never understand Brazil because we in the United States did not have mulatos. I looked back at him saying “Sir, Frederick Douglass was only the most famous of the mixed-race slaves living on my family’s plantation.”
Of course that was not what this historian meant, literally. He meant that outside Louisiana the United States did not have a separate racial category for mixed Creoles, and that Brazil did not have Jim Crow style laws. What I mean, though, and this is important, is that many structures were in fact the same (not quite all, I know). These excuses the Brazilians have –that their relationships with slaves were marked by love and affection, and so on– are recognizable as excuses (and not historical explanations) because one hears them here, almost word for word.
Color means differently, race is articulated differently with nation, and so on but the hierarchies, the strategies of oppression, and the techniques for denying the fact of oppression are remarkably similar worldwide. I am making this hypothesis from a rather well informed, scientific point of view. I am not saying it out of feeling, or because it is something I have been taught to say. Neither am I saying it because I am projecting my view of reality in one place onto another.
I could just shake these exceptionalist Brazilians sometimes, hoping to wake them up. I want to say Gentlemen, I am a trained academic, are you not? And I realize now, some of those against whom I feel I must argue may not be –not in the way I am– because of the nepotism that has reigned in the Northeast.)