By Paulo Scott
Translated by Daniel Hahn
Toward the middle of Paulo Scott’s latest novel, “Phenotypes,” Federico, the protagonist, finds himself in a neighborhood bar in his hometown, Porto Alegre, Brazil. The journey home has been anything but nostalgic. His niece has been arrested and he has abruptly left his life in the nation’s capital to support the family he left behind. But when the owner of the bar recognizes him from their childhood, the thorny racial antagonisms that Federico has built a career trying to resolve surface aggressively. “You’re worthless, man,” the bar owner says. “You don’t know what it is to be part of the race.”
“The race” here refers to Blackness and though Federico is of African ancestry, the relationship between his genealogy and racial identity is fraught given the entanglements of race, skin color and indigeneity in Brazil. His encounter at the bar stands as one flash of many in “Phenotypes,” a rather brisk novel that punctures the country’s fantasy of being a post-racial state and leaves readers scrambling for a sense of closure that it cannot possibly provide.
Despite longstanding challenges to the contrary, the idea that Brazil constitutes a “racial democracy” devoid of anti-Black discrimination continues to circulate. Federico, a light-skinned man who often passes for white, finds his footing within this national discourse by becoming a noted researcher of race and colorism in Brazil, using that research to start nonprofits and consult for multinational corporations. Given this experience, he is appointed to a committee debating the ethics and implementation of software that would “objectively” assign races to students and “figure out who was sufficiently Black, Brown or Indigenous to reap the benefit” of racial quotas in higher education. As the bar owner stresses, however, these efforts — some of which Federico himself finds dubious — are futile; they all teeter around the symptoms of a problem without addressing the problem itself.
At the novel’s center is an altercation, prompted by a racial microaggression, whose implications don’t fully bear out for decades. In 1984, as Federico and his brother, Laurenço (who is dark-skinned and “considered Black”), wait with some friends to enter a club, their cousin Elaine confronts a white woman in another party who tells her she needs to straighten her hair better if she hopes to gain entrance. A heated exchange ensues and Federico escalates the situation into a brawl that becomes a lasting feud. When the rivalry turns lethal, one of the men in the other group, a future cop, ends up holding a grudge that endangers Federico’s niece after she is arrested at a protest some 30 years later.