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Everyday Racism and Violence in Brazil’s Favelas

Everyday Racism and Violence in Brazil’s Favelas

Photo credit: Leszek Wasilewski via Wikipedia

This article summarizes and reflects on the following research: Håndlykken-Luz, A. (2020).Racism is a perfect crime”: Favela residents’ everyday experiences of police pacification, urban militarization, and prejudice in Rio de Janeiro. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 43(16), 348-367. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2020.1800774

Talking Points

In the context of Brazil:

  • Favela residents’ everyday interactions with and resistance to racial hierarchies reveal how racism is both overt and hidden, shaping Brazilian society in significant ways.
  • Although progress has been made to dismantle the racial hierarchy, racism still has a significant impact on favela residents’ daily lives, visibly through police killings but also invisibly through everyday interactions of discrimination and distrust.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • Although symbolic violence is often hard to challenge because it is covert, resistance is possible by forming a collective identity amongst the non-dominant groups to challenge, rather than normalize, dominant power structures and consequently disrupt symbolic violence.


In the absence of outright racial policies such as apartheid or segregation, the “myth of racial democracy” emerged in Brazil, which denied the existence of racism in the country. However, the myth was eventually disavowed by anti-racists and Black activists in the mid-20th century who called attention to state-sponsored eugenics policies in the 1930s aimed “to eliminate the black population through ‘whitening’ and miscegenation” through immigration of exclusively white European populations. Even today racism exists in Brazil, and scholars have coined the term “racismo à brasileira” to describe its ambiguity in a multiracial society.

The pervasiveness of racism is revealed in police killings and strategies of security, namely the “pacification” program implemented in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, informal neighborhoods significantly inhabited by Afro-Brazilians. Since 2008, there have been 38 Police Pacification Units (UPPs) deployed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. The UPPs were meant to pacify the favelas amid increasing levels of violence attributed to criminal and drug gangs. Amidst this pacification program, however, police violence has killed thousands of Black men each year in Rio’s favelas. Racism must be considered in the context of rising police killings of Black men in the identified “area[s] of risk” of the favelas.

Åsne Håndlykken-Luz unpacks the “‘racialized aspects’ of the politics of security” through interviews with favela residents (2011-2016 and 2018) about their experiences with racism amidst the pacification program.

The favela residents’ experiences with racism illustrate the nature and complexity of racism in Brazil. Few favela residents spoke of direct discrimination. Instead, they described experiencing differential treatment and distrust based on their poor economic situation, residency in a favela, and/or racial appearance as Black or brown. Residents of darker skin tones often described being subject to “looks” from people of lighter skin tones. Another interviewee referenced the fact that lighter-skin favela residents were preferred for more desirable jobs. Similarly, a Black woman recalled being advised by her mother to marry a lighter-skinned man for the benefit of her children. The favela residents’ experiences of racism demonstrate the nuances of the Brazilian racial hierarchy beyond the black/white dichotomy.

Although the racism experienced by favela residents, as described in interviews, did not manifest itself in explicit policies or racially motivated killings, the author notes that favela residents live in the context of increased police killings of Black men and necropolitical violence. No one referenced police violence in the interviews possibly because they did not want to associate themselves with criminality, which in Brazilian culture can warrant death. Both white and Black respondents emphasized that Black and darker-skinned people experienced more racism because they were viewed as potential bandits. The association of criminality with Blackness—and its corollary, the association of civility with whiteness—is further reinforced by the comments of contemporary political elites.

Necropolitical violence: a “‘[form] of subjugation of life to the power of death’ by drawing on the fiction of ‘race’ to demarcate certain bodies as ‘killable’.”

Author drawing on definition by Mbembe, A. (2003). Necropolitics. Public Culture (15)1, 11–40.

Respondents pointed to emerging resistance to the stigmatization of Blackness, specifically among youth. One resident described an emerging trend of young darker-skinned girls choosing to embrace their natural hair rather than straighten it. In one instance, the author recalls witnessing an interaction that demonstrates resistance to the vestiges of intentional whitening policies directed at darker-skinned favela residents. Historically, Brazil has pursued immigration policies designed to whiten its darker-skinned Black population. Although these policies are no longer in place, multiracial favela residents still experience intentional whitening and, in some cases, demonstrate resistance. During an informal conversation with a favela resident, a passerby from a middle-class white neighborhood remarked they knew someone “[B]lack like you [the favela resident], with white skin” to which the favela resident responded, “I am not [B]lack with white skin, I am [B]lack!”

To describe the color prejudice and “racism à brasileria” experienced by favela residents, the author coins the term pigmentocratic everyday practices (PEP). These behaviors and actions unfold in the everyday interactions with and resistance to these racial hierarchies, revealing how racism is both on the surface and veiled, shaping Brazilian society in significant ways. PEP is indicative of Brazil’s pigmentocracy, which governs people based upon their skin tone. Afro-Brazilians are at the bottom of the Brazilian social/racial hierarchy. Although progress has been made to dismantle the social/racial hierarchy via affirmative action and large protests in favor of racial equality erupted in 2013 and 2018, this research demonstrates that racism in Brazil, even without a history of institutional racial policies, still has a significant impact on individuals’ daily lives, visibly through police killings but also invisibly through everyday interactions of discrimination and distrust.

Informing Practice

A key takeaway from this research is that racism and violence can manifest in both visible and invisible ways, and oftentimes in a reinforcing cycle. In the case of this research, necropolitical violence visibly manifested through police killings of primarily Black men and was reinforced by a racial social construction of Black bodies as “killable.” Likewise, the research demonstrates that non-physical violence can manifest as a result of unequal power relations in Brazil. Amongst many things, Afro-Brazilians in the favelas are subject to symbolic violence through pigmentocratic everyday practices (PEP). As the author demonstrates in this research, the symbolic violence of PEP has a tangible impact on the everyday lives of Brazilians.

Symbolic violence: “the subordination, domination and exploitation” experienced by individuals from the non-dominant social class in everyday interactions, social practices and institutional processes.

Thapar-Björkert, S., Samelius, L., & Sanghera, G. (2016). Exploring symbolic violence in the everyday: Misrecognition, condescension, consent and complicity. Feminist Review, 112(112), 144-162.

Managing conflict without violence is about more than just prevention of direct/physical violence but also indirect violence, be it structural or symbolic. This research demonstrates how militarized approaches to violence prevention can actually exacerbate the problem. Police pacification programs in the favelas only served to increase the killing of Black men, compounding the symbolic violence already present. Likewise, symbolic violence can also legitimize and sustain other forms of direct, physical violence. Therefore, it is necessary to consider how to counter symbolic violence as a requisite first step in (direct) violence prevention.

Resistance to symbolic violence is hard to cultivate because symbolic violence itself is invisible. Symbolic violence rests upon a naturalization of power relations, in that minority groups internalize the discourse of the dominant group such that intolerable things are viewed as normal or accepted and people begin to accept their own domination.

Challenging this status quo by questioning and resisting dominant power structures is key to disrupting symbolic violence. This was notable in the resistance of Afro-Brazilians documented in the research. Police killings of Black men are normalized in Brazil due to the racialization of society, in particular the association of Blackness with incivility and criminality. Yet, Afro-Brazilians affirming their Blackness challenges this norm and the racial hierarchy. Moreover, research suggests resistance is possible by forming a collective identity amongst the non-dominant groups to challenge, rather than normalize, symbolic violence. This mentality is emerging among youth in favelas and provides an entry point for stakeholders engaged in violence prevention. Members of the dominated groups have several competing struggles to manage in their daily lives, but to the extent possible favela residents can cultivate collective identity along racial or class lines to build power. Forming a collective identity critiquing symbolic violence—namely the undesirableness of Black bodies as determined by racial hierarchy—can contribute to the delegitimization and eventual mitigation of the physical violence experienced by favela residents. [KH]

Discussion Questions

  • What are some ways in which collective identity can be cultivated in the context of unequal power dynamics and necropolitical violence?

Continued Reading

Samuel, C. (2013). Symbolic violence and collective identity: Pierre Bourdieu and the ethics of resistance. Social Movement Studies, (12)4, 397-413. DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2013.823345

Thapar-Björkert, S., Samelius, L., & Sanghera, G. (2016). Exploring symbolic violence in the everyday: Misrecognition, condescension, consent and complicity. Feminist Review, 112(112), 144-162.

Key words: Racism; police violence; symbolic violence; Blackness; Brazil

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