When you’re black and foreign in Brazil: an African medical student shares his story

Brasil Observer - Jan 10 2017
Fleury Johnson, who's from Togo, in the Sugarloaf trek in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Taisa Sganzerla | Global Voices

In 2011, when Fleury Johnson decided to move from his hometown of Lomé, in Togo, to study medicine in Rio de Janeiro, he had the same ideas about Brazil as most foreigners. He thought Brazilians were joyful and had a positive attitude towards life. Johnson knew the country’s economy had been growing, but that its population still faces problems similar to those of Africa. But most of all, he thought Brazil had no racism, and that blacks and whites live there in harmony.

The 24-year-old student didn’t expect such a rude awakening, especially when it came to racism in Brazil. “I was shocked as soon as I arrived in Guarulhos airport in São Paulo. There were just whites. I wondered if I was really in Brazil,” he told Global Voices.

In 2016, while still halfway through his undergraduate degree in medicine at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (one of the most prestigious in the country), Johnson decided to start blogging about his life in Brazil, writing in Portuguese, which he now speaks fluently. He practices a kind of free-form blogging that went out of style a decade ago, writing about absolutely everything, from hiking trails around Rio to the meaning of African names. He’s especially keen to educate Brazilians about his home continent, particularly his homeland Togo.

But the subject that has probably gripped his readers the most is his shock about the racism he’s encountered, since crossing the Atlantic.

In July, his post titled “Brazil vs. Reality” went viral, getting republished by several mass media outlets and generating an enormous amount of feedback. “Some people contacted me to say they wanted to use my post on their Master’s and PhD thesis, which made me very happy”.

In the text, Johnson described his personal encounters with racism in Brazil, such as trying to apply for an internship at a hospital, when the attendant doubted his identity as a medical student. Another time, a patient refused to accept Johnson’s care because he is black. And these experiences aren’t rare among black people studying medicine in Brazil, Johnson says.

“After that post went viral, many young black Brazilians who wanted to study medicine contacted me, saying that I was an inspiration to them”.

Johnson’s blog is also remarkable for his accounts of how being both black and a foreigner plays out in everyday life. The legacy of more than 300 years of the transatlantic slave-trade in Brazil mixes with the country’s place in the developing world, where Brazilians are known for their open-mindedness and curiosity towards foreigners.

Johnson described the following incident on his blog:

“Here at home, my friends (all black) told us to go to the supermarket well-dressed. The first time that I was badly dressed, a woman in front of me crossed the street quickly. Afterwards, she realized that I entered the supermarket, she entered it, too, and went to talk to me because she realized I was just going to shop. She then realized by my accent that I was a foreigner and was excited to talk more. Imagine how a black person from a favela might have been treated.”

Elaborating on this episode, Johnson told Global Voices:

“I think the black foreigner is seen in a different way from the black Brazilian, because we have an accent, we speak another language, and Brazilians like that. We suffer prejudice until we open our mouths. When they realize we’re foreigners, they forget our skin color and are more interested in the histories and experiences we have to tell.”

Johnson also describes the time a Brazilian friend assumed that Brazilian beauty standards (which usually involve features like white skin and straight hair) were the “worldwide” standard:

“Back in 2012, a friend asked if I knew which Brazilian state better represented the country’s “beauty standards.” I thought: “Bahia has more blacks, so it must be Bahia.” She said no. So I guessed Rio de Janeiro, which after Bahia is the blackest state. She said, “No, it’s Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina” [two southern Brazilian states that received a large influx of German migration in the early 20th century, rendering their populations distinctly “whiter” than the average Brazilian]. She also said, “That’s the beauty standard in the whole world.” I kept wondering: Really? In what world did I live that I did not know this? […] I have visited seven countries in Africa, and I’m sure that in black Africa, the beauty standard is another one entirely. It’s beautiful to have curly hair, full lips, and a large nose.”

Brazilians might be curious about foreigners, but Johnson also highlights their general ignorance about Africa. For him, it would be important that Brazilians knew about Africa from Africans, not Europeans, which is how the country gets its information about most places throughout the world.

He told Global Voices:

“Many Brazilians don’t know Togo. It’s sad, because Brazil has many historical connections with Togo. Many [ancestors of] black Brazilians came from Togo, and many returned to Togo after slavery was abolished [in 1889]. The first president of Togo was a descendent of a Brazilian. Brazilians think we live in complete poverty, and many don’t know we have an airport there. Many people think that in Africa there’s only misery and war, and they think it’s just one country. Or that Africa is a country within Angola, or that Togo is a country inside Angola. It’s true that there is war and there are problems, but it’s not in every country. Each has its own organization and system, and all are different from one another, like here in South America, where Argentina is different from Brazil or Bolivia.”

Johnson points out that one reason why his post might have gone viral is precisely because he’s an outsider. “I wish the point of view of black Brazilians on those issues was taken into account as well,” he says.

What’s next for Johnson? He plans to return to Togo after he finishes his studies, though he loves many aspects of Brazilian life: the people, the happiness, the diverse culture, and the beautiful landscapes. But he worries about what kind of future his children would have in Brazil. “I don’t want their hair or their physical features to be the subject of jokes while they’re at school,” he says.


Taisa Sganzerla is a freelance Brazilian journalist, video editor and translator based in São Paulo, Brazil.

This article was originally published at the Global Voices website.