Originally published in Africa Is A Country.
By the time you read this, it's possible that every single person on the planet will know who Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior is.
This is Neymar from last week:
This is Neymar from one year ago:
This is Neymar from five years ago:
This is little Neymar with his family:
You could come to any number of conclusions from Neymar's remarkable transformation. For instance, you could conclude that race doesn't exist in Brazil, which is the favorite line of a specific tribe of Brazilians—impeccable liberals all, who just happen to be upper-class, white, and at the top of the heap.
Or you could conclude that everyone in Brazil is indeed mixed—which is, incidentally, the second-favorite line of the selfsame tribe.
Or you could wonder what happened to this boy.
It's too easy to condemn Neymar for pretending to be white: Judging by the images, he is partly white. It's silly to accuse him of denying his mixed-race ancestry, because the simplest search throws up hundreds of images of him as a child, none of which he seems to be ashamed of. There is this: When asked if he had ever been a victim of racism, he said, "Never. Neither inside nor outside the field. Because I'm not black, right?"
Actually, the word he used was preto, which is significant, since, in Brazil, when used as a color ascribed to people—rather than things, like rice or beans—it is the rough equivalent of the n-word, negro and negra being the acceptable ways of describing someone who is truly black (and moreno or morena being standard descriptors for someone dark-skinned, as well as, occasionally, euphemisms for blackness). Technically speaking, however, his logic was faultless—and even kind of interestingly honest: The Neymar who made that statement was an unworldly 18-year-old who had never lived outside Brazil. And in Brazil, Neymar is not black.
In 1976, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics ran a household survey that marked a crucial departure from other census exercises. The Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios (PNAD) did not ask Brazilians to choose a race category among pre-determined choices; instead, researchers went out and asked people to describe the color they thought they were.
This is what came back.
|Agalegada||Somewhat like a Galician|
|Alva escura||Dark snowy white|
|Alvarenta||(not in dictionary; poss. dialect) Snowy white|
|Alva rosada||Pinkish white|
|Bem branca||Very white|
|Bem clara||Very pale|
|Bem morena||Very dark-skinned|
|Branca-avermelhada||White going on for red|
|Branca-morena||White but dark-skinned|
|Burro-quando-foge||Disappearing donkey (i.e. nondescript) humorous|
|Cabocla||Copper-coloured ( refers to civilized Indians)|
|Cabo-verde||From Cabo Verde (Cape Verde)|
|Café-com-leite||Café au lait|
|Canelada||Somewhat like cinnamon|
|Cardão||Colour of the cardoon, or thistle (blue-violet)|
|Corada||With a high colour|
|Cor-de-leite||Milk-coloured (i.e. milk-white)|
|Cor-de-ouro||Gold-coloured (i.e. golden)|
|Fogoió||Having fiery-coloured hair|
|Galega||Galician or Portuguese|
|Galegada||Somewhat like a Galician or Portuguese|
|Jambo||Light-skinned (the colour of a type of apple)|
|Morena-bem-chegada||Very nearly morena|
|Morena-canelada||Somewhat cinnamon-coloured morena|
|Morena-trigueira||Swarthy, dusky morena|
|Mulatinha||Little mulatto girl|
|Pouco-clara||Not very light|
|Pouco-morena||Not very dark-complexioned|
|Pretinha||Black – either young, or small|
|Puxa-para-branco||Somewhat towards white|
|Retinta||Deep-dyed, very dark|
|Rosa||Rose-coloured (or the rose itself)|
|Saraúba||(poss. dialect) Untranslatable|
Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, an anthropologist at the University of São Paulo, has a range of astonishing insights around this historic survey; her paper, " Not black, not white: just the opposite. Culture, race and national identity in Brazil," from which the table above is reproduced, is a gem. (She also has a book that examines the early history of the subject: The Spectacle of the Races: Scientists, Institutions, and the Race Question in Brazil, 1870-1930.)
Schwarcz's work is filled with thoughtful, original analysis, and is characterized by an unusual fearlessness. (Unusual, that is, for a subject so complicated). Reading her is a revelation; it turns out there is a real place hiding under that avalanche of clichés. If you've ever wondered how crushing racism can flourish in a country where, apparently, race itself has been crushed, consider that everything Brazil is defined by—from its "we are all mixed" anthem, to feijoada, capoeira, and candomblé, right down to samba and soccer—is the result of an insidious, revisionist, far-sighted political maneuver of the 1930s, courtesy the combined skills of popular intellectual Gilberto Freyre and populist dictator Getúlio Vargas. The battered body of slave culture was abducted by national culture in order to renew white culture.
Among the many eye-popping results reported in the PNAD survey, the one I am most drawn to is burro quando foge. You'll find it up there in the table at No. 34. Google inexplicably translates the phrase as "saddle," which is awesome, since it means that Lusofonia still keeps some secrets beyond the reach of the behemoth. Burro quando foge is translated by Schwarcz, within the constraints of a column slot, as "the disappearing donkey" and explained as a humorous phrase that denotes a nondescript color.
Which it is—and then some. The metaphor is unique to Brazil, and signifies a color. That color could be nondescript, ill-defined, elusive, or ugly—and, just to make things really clear, also fawn, beige, or a tricky shade of brown. The sentiment conveyed in the phrase is just as interesting. Used between friends, it could pass for a joke. Otherwise, it almost always denotes something unpleasant. It's usually used an insult, although—oddly enough, given the colors and sentiments—it's not specifically a racial insult.
Of all the 136 colors of race in Brazil, this is my favorite. It's flippant and factual and fictional all at once, and as such, suits me perfectly. Race is not a term that has much currency in India, where I live. It is, however, a central feature of Johannesburg and São Paulo, the two cities I occasionally work in, and as much as I'm aware of how privileged I am not to be wholly subject to it, I feel curiously bereft of race in both places. Certainly, I grew up with color: Being a dark-skinned child in a uniformly light-skinned family meant that I had to regularly contend with well-meaning relatives who'd pinch my cheeks and chide me for "losing my color"—as though my skin tone was something I had brought upon myself in a fit of absent-mindedness. To choose a race then: Indian might work for some people, but it is both my passport and my residence, and that's quite enough. Brown is too generic, and black, a bit too unbelievable, all things considered. Given that I spent my childhood reading Gerald Durrell and dreaming of donkeys, adopting their color seems right in so many ways.
And where does that leave our boy wonder? We might start with the Estado Novo, Vargas's authoritarian reign between 1937 and 1945. Only a few years earlier, Freyre had published the crowning achievement of his career, Casa-Grande e Senzala (The Big House and the Slave Quarters, released in English as The Masters and the Slaves), and the book was catching fire. Freyre's central theory was something he called Lusotropicalism. It told a soothing story of the past (by casting the Portuguese as a kinder, gentler breed of imperial slaver), offered a handy solution for the present (by turning the mixing of races into a virtue),and held out an appealing conclusion, namely, the idea that Brazil was a racial democracy.
Upon publication, Freyre's work immediately attracted the ire of the Portuguese nation for suggesting her citizens were prone to miscegenation. At home, however, it became Vargas's blueprint for the country he had seized—and his strategy for political survival. Three quarters of a century later, Freyre's big think remains the enduring idea of Brazil, an idea whose appeal grows in leaps and bounds across the globe and, to be sure, often escapes the clutches of its creators to dazzling effect. Still, consider the irony: The country's sense of itself as a racial democracy was smuggled in to its soul by an autocracy.
The term Estado Novo refers to a few different periods of dictatorship, and it literally translates as "new state," which is prophetic, since the words also describe a peculiar duty that is incumbent upon at least half the Brazilian population. That duty, of course, is the business of branqueamento—of whitening—of transforming, quite literally, into a new physical state. (For all his pro-miscegenation advocacy, Schwarcz notes in The Spectacle of the Races, Freyre was as keen as his critics on keeping the structure of Brazil intact: as a hierarchy with whiteness on top). In that sense, Neymar is only the latest in a long line of celebrities and Brazilians of lesser value who get it. Who get the fine print on the contract; who understand that national identity rests on racial harmony, which, in turn, rests on a kind of potential access to opportunity. Not the opportunity to be equal, mind you, but the opportunity to be white. We may gawk at him all we like, but in straightening his hair, extending it out, and dyeing it blond, Neymar was fulfilling his patriotic destiny just as surely as he was confounding the Croats and leading his team to victory last month.
I'll venture that the disappearing donkey colour fits Neymar to a T. After all, he is both undoubtedly and elusively brown. Yes, there is the matter of his blond ambition. O burro fugiu, we might well ask—has the donkey left the building? I'd really like to think not. For one thing, the boy's only 22. He's got a whole lifetime to change his mind—and his hair. For another, I've got a whole World Cup to watch. Have a heart. I spend hours every week learning Brazilian Portuguese; I'm devoted to the country; and I come from Bangalore, a city in which Pelé is god. I do not mean this metaphorically. In a neighborhood called Gowthampura, around the corner from where I live, residents have erected a lovely shrine to four local icons—the Buddha, Dr. Ambedkar, Mother Teresa, and the striker from Santos.
So you see, my hands are tied. I've got my own patriotic destiny to fulfill, and it involves rooting for Brazil, which means I'm going to need to love Neymar a lot.
I can do it.
Anyway, donkeys are famously stubborn animals. They're good at waiting.
Achal Prabhala is a writer and researcher in Bangalore, India. Bottom photo via Flickr. Neymar game photos via Getty.