Reporting from BRASA

As the grand conclusion to my incredibly privileged whirlwind summer of travel, observation, and adventure, I ended in London for the Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) conference. Having planned with a group of fellow PhD students and professors in the Spanish and Portuguese department at UT since October, we presented a panel on Race, Ethnicity, and Space in Brazilian culture, which went over quite well despite our relatively small audience.

There were over 500 panelists and presenters on the roster, reporting on topics as varied as Environmental conflicts in the Amazon to Mozambican politics and poetry to Shakespeare in Brazil. The breadth of disciplines, research topics, and institutions being represented quickly impressed me; at the same time I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people I wanted to meet and panels to attend. In a panel about the recent protests in Brazil and the effect of the World Cup, I heard about one researcher’s analysis of social media, particularly gifs and photo sharing on Facebook and how it helped mobilize protests. In a panel on film in Brazil, I learned about the Rondon commission’s exploration of the Amazon through film at the turn of the century (of particular interest for my own research). In another, I listened to how ecocriticism is becoming a developing field in Brazilian literary studies. While these topics varied, they were all representative of the growing and exciting field of Brazilian studies.

After taking a course on the African diaspora in Rio earlier in the summer and tuning in to the racial inequalities in both Brazil and the United States, however, the BRASA conference was also remarkably representative of the overall racial inequality in international academia.

Brazil is a country with a large population of afro-descendants, yet BRASA was made up of almost entirely white academics.  The use of quotas, the equivalent of Brazilian affirmative action, is currently in contestation throughout Brazil (as here in the U.S.), yet at a conference like BRASA which seeks to cohesively represent scholarship of Brazil, the importance of increased activism and affirmative action to improve educational opportunities for marginalized populations was readily apparent. There is a need for varied voices and experiences, not just varied topics and disciplines. The reports from middle class whites on their fieldwork in a favela can be compelling and meaningful, yet when that is the only perspective offered, we’re recreating a system of extraction and to a degree, exploitation. I was thoroughly impressed and greatly admired the people I met and panels I attended; yet this racial disparity, at least to me, seemed to be the elephant in the room that was never directly addressed.

This brings into question issues that consistently pull at me as I study Brazil as an outsider (and write about race as a white woman) – how can we accurately represent a culture or a people that is not our own? And more importantly, how can we, as academics, address issues of inequality and marginalization not just through our papers, publications, or classroom, but through actively promoting a system of equal opportunity? I again end with questions, but would love to move towards a dialogue or some sort of answer…

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