Dani Alves represents a Brazilian nation that has had its fair share of race-related cultural issues.
Dani Alves represents a Brazilian nation that has had its fair share of race-related cultural issues.
Antonio Calanni/AP

In a week where Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling paid a suitably heavy price for spouting racist bile, the issue of racial abuse was also hitting the headlines a few thousand miles to the south in Brazil.

The remarkable moment when Brazilian full-back Dani Alves peeled and ate a banana thrown by a supporter during the Spanish league game between Villarreal and Barcelona, and the Neymar backed "We Are All Monkeys" campaign that followed, put the question of racism in Brazilian football (and by extension Brazilian society) under the microscope.

Initial responses to the Alves incident in the Brazilian media seemed, ironically enough, inspired by that not so distant cousin of racism: jingoism. "This country has a thousand problems. But there is something that we can teach you -- and it's not just football," trumpeted an article on the website of Globo, the country's biggest broadcaster.

Brazil is "incapable, or almost always incapable, of accepting intolerance," continued the piece, which featured an alternating white on black, black on white typeface and was illustrated with pictures of bunches of bananas. The message was clear -- as far as Brazil, with its long history of miscegenation, is concerned, racial abuse of black soccer players is a foreign disease.

There was a similar reaction in February, when Tinga, a midfielder for the Cruzeiro club in Belo Horizonte, had to endure choruses of monkey noises every time he touched the ball during a Copa Libertadores tie against Real Garcilaso in Huancayo, Peru. "The racism in Peru was lamentable...all Brazil is with Tinga today," tweeted Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff, before announcing that she had agreed with FIFA and the UN that the forthcoming World Cup would be "the Anti-Racism World Cup."

It was an impressively impassioned response to contemptible behavior, from a country that likes to believe that its modern population is the happy (superficially at least) result of historical coupling between white European colonizers, black slaves from Africa, and Brazil's indigenous peoples. And nowhere has such miscegenation been more joyfully expressed than on the soccer field.

"Our national heroes -- players such as Friedenreich, Domingos da Guia, and Pele -- transformed a sport that was British, aristocratic and white into a passion that was Brazilian, popular and pardo. Brazil took an English raw material, football, and created a sophisticated cultural product, football as art," wrote Jose Roberto Marinho in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper in 2008.

Yet the idea of Brazil as a kind of racial paradise was dealt a blow soon after the Tinga incident, when the player talked about the racism he suffered in his own country. "You can see it in people's eyes," he told Globo TV. "Look, there goes the black guy with the white, blonde girlfriend. In Brazil there is so much prejudice, not just racial, but also social." He went further in a newspaper interview. "In Brazil we talk about equality, but we hide our prejudice. We pretend that everyone is equal."

The Tinga controversy was only one of a number of recent race related incidents in Brazilian soccer. In March, Santos player Arouca was called a monkey by a group of Mogi Mirim supporters as he gave a post-match interview. Around the same time, in the south of the country, a referee was racially abused during a game and had bananas left on his car afterwards.

And just over a week ago, in an incident not entirely dissimilar to the Sterling case, the newly elected president of Sao Paulo FC, Carlos Miguel Aidar, stated that he would love to bring former idol Kaka back to the club. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, except that the form in which Adair chose to express his enthusiasm - "He's a typical Sao Paulo player, he can read and write, he's got all his teeth, and he speaks well" -- was redolent of racial and social prejudice (words such as analfabeto (illiterate) and sem dentes (toothless) are often used to refer to black, poor Brazilians in a derogatory fashion).

Most famously of all, of course, was the Alves incident and subsequent seismic reaction. For most people, the "We Are All Monkeys" campaign, planned several months ago by Alves, Neymar and a marketing company, was the perfect response to the idiotic actions of a minority -- humorous, clever and belittling, as well as making the fairly obvious point that underneath the skin, everyone is essentially the same. It certainly proved popular in Brazil, and within hours celebrities and politicians were posing with bunches of bananas.

For others, however, the question was more complicated. "No, dear Neymar, we're not all monkeys, at least not in the way you use the expression, as a tool to combat racism," wrote the black rights campaigner and university professor Douglas Belchior. "I'm not a monkey, nor a rat...I'm a human being, so please respect me," said another journalist, Monica Raouf El Bayeh. The criticism seemed split between those offended at the monkey comparison, devout Brazilians unhappy with the implied reference to the theory of evolution, and troublingly, those who seemed to believe that the color of one's skin really does matter. "I'm not a monkey, I'm white," ran one reader's online comment on Globo's coverage of the story -- and there were plenty of others who seemed to feel the same.

Race has long been a controversial subject in Brazil. Back in the 1930s, anthropologist Gilberto Freyre wrote in his masterpiece A Casa Grande e A Senzala (which translates as "The Big House and the Slave Quarters" but was renamed "The Masters and The Slaves" in its English language version) that "every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body...the colour, or at least a hint of the colour, of the indigenous people of the country, or the negro."

The idea caused quite a stir among Brazil's social elite. "To Brazilians in the 1930s the image Freyre held up of their own society was quite startling. The Brazilians who shaped Brazilian institutions -- the white Brazilians -- had always lacked confidence in their racially bastard society. The blacks and the bastards were so many and the honorable white fidalgos so few" wrote Peter Robb in his excellent study of Brazilian culture and society, "A Death in Brazil."

It is this mixing of the races that gives Brazil a reputation for being a cultural melting pot, with black, white and everyone in between intermingling happily on the beaches and in the football stadiums.

The reality, however, could hardly be further from the truth. Broadly speaking, in the poorer parts of Brazil's towns and cities, in the public hospitals and public schools, black or brown Brazilians will hugely outnumber their lighter skinned countrymen and women. And in neighborhoods filled with expensive restaurants and luxury apartment buildings, the few black faces are generally those of the cleaners and security guards.

Earlier this year a survey by IBGE, a research institute, found that black or mixed-race Brazilian workers earn around half of what their white counterparts make, while another research foundation, IPEA, revealed that the murder rate among black Brazilians is twice that of other ethnic groups.

As new World Cup stadiums have resulted in increased ticket prices, Brazil's social and racial divisions have even become visible in the stands. "The average ticket at the new Maracana is [$70 US]! The only way a black fan will get in is if he's working there," wrote respected journalist Juca Kfouri in an article entitled "They Whitened Our Football."

Another journalist, Rodrigo Mattos, noted that of 20 clubs in the Brazilian Serie A, 19 have a white president and eighteen a white coach. This in a country where, according to 2010 census figures, more than half the population, or 97 million people, consider themselves to be black or brown skinned.

"One hundred and twenty five years after the abolition of slavery, demonstrations of racism have exploded in Brazilian stadiums," wrote the historian and writer Joel Rufino in the Folha de Sao Paulo. "But since football became a profession back in the 1930s, our black stars...have been racially abused and discriminated against." With only a few weeks to go until the World Cup, the debate over race and racism in Brazilian football and society has rarely been as loud.

James Young is a Brazil-based contributor for SI.com. He can be followed on Twitter @seeadarkness.

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