Is Neymar Black? Brazil and the Painful Relativity of Race

Ever since his “It’s not like I’m black, you know?” comment, Neymar has served as a focal point in Brazil’s cultural reckoning with racism, whitening, identity and public policy.


Years before he became the most expensive player in the world; before his Olympic gold medal; before the Eiffel Tower lit up with his name to greet his professional move from Barcelona to Paris, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, the Brazilian forward known to the world simply as Neymar, faced his first public relations controversy.

The year was 2010, and Neymar, then 18, had shot to fame in Brazil after a sensational breakout season. During an interview for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, in between a conversation about Disneyland and sports cars, he was asked if he had ever experienced racism. “Never. Not in the field, nor outside of it,” he replied.

“It’s not like I’m black, you know?”

His answer was heard like a record-scratch across the country. Was this young man in denial about his racial identity? Particularly when in the same interview he outlined his meticulous hair care regime, which involved getting his locks chemically straightened every few weeks, then bleached blonde.

Or was there a less alarming explanation behind his comment? Could Neymar merely be pointing out that, as the son of a black father and a white mother, his lighter skin tone shielded him from the racist abuse directed at other players? Had he, at least in his context, reached whiteness? Whatever the interpretation, Neymar’s words revealed the tricky, often contradictory ways that many Brazilians talk, and fail to talk, about race in a country with the largest population of black descendants outside of Africa.

When audiences tune in to watch Brazil play, they are treated to a rich spectrum of skin tones flashing vibrantly across the screen. The racial makeup of the Brazilian squad, in fact, generally reflects the demographics of the country. According to 2017 data released by the census department, 47 percent of Brazilians identify as mixed-race, while another 8 percent identify as black. One third of marriages happen across racial boundaries. Such numbers confirm the common belief held by Brazilians, and the millions of international travelers who visited last year, that the country is a racially fluid society.

Unlike the national team, however, the upper echelons of most professions in Brazil — be it medicine, media, business, entertainment or government — are occupied by whites. The nation’s raw demographic data paints an accurate portrait of a diverse people; yet it also adds patina to the old myth, promoted for generations by the government and first intellectualized by sociologists nearly a century ago, that Brazil is a democracia racial, or “racial democracy.”

Because Brazil never had an apartheid system like South Africa, or a ban on mixed-race marriages like America, went the argument, a spirit of warm relations blossomed across racial divides.

Never mind that Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888; or that after abolition, the ruling class mounted a campaign to whiten the majority-black population, by fully subsidizing the immigration of over four million white Europeans, giving them free land, and compelling Brazilians to take up with them.

Robin van Persie and Luis Suárez prepare for a battle of striking wits


The pantomime season is just about over, though anyone missing his fix of princely heroes and dastardly, hissable villains needs only to switch attention to the player-of-the-year contest or tune in to Sunday afternoon’s matinée at Old Trafford, where Robin van Persie and Luis Suárez go head to head and no special effects will be required to guarantee drama.

The season’s two outstanding performers have been dominating the headlines from day one, almost writing their own scripts. Suárez has carried a limping Liverpool into a position where they could bring in another striker in the January window. Asked a little unreasonably to be a one-man attacking force, he has responded with 19 goals where others might have sulked or agitated for a move, and many of his goals and assists have involved the sort of jaw-dropping brilliance that few other players could supply.

Exactly the same could be said of Van Persie’s 20-goal tally and in addition to the sublime skill that saved Manchester United late on in the Cup at West Ham last weekend, the Dutch striker has rescued his side from so many unpromising situations that even Roberto Mancini recently admitted he is likely to make the difference between United and City this season. “He has changed the situation between the two clubs,” the City manager said, arguing that United would not be seven points clear had his own pursuit of Van Persie last summer proved successful.

Perhaps Mancini should have turned his attention to Suárez instead if goals are an issue at City, because any player who can fill his boots with the current Liverpool side would find the sky the limit playing alongside David Silva and Sergio Agüero. Yet as his friend and Liverpool colleague Lucas Leiva says, adversity seems to have brought the best out of the Uruguayan. “There are lots of good strikers but Luis this season has been amazing,” Lucas says. “The good thing about him is that he doesn’t need others to help him to create chances because he creates on his own. That’s what makes him special as a player and he’s exactly the same in training every day. He doesn’t like to lose and that’s what makes him so successful.” >>CONTINUE READING