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O Brazil Visto de Fora (Brazil Seen From the Outside)

Ana Loso

Thomas Skidmore began his academic career focusing on Modern European History, particularly Germany and Great Britain. It is not, however, as an Europeanist that Skidmore has gained the respect and recognition that has made him a esteemed name among us. Though his resume undoubtedly speaks for the accomplished historian, it only provides a glimpse of Skidmore’s tie to Brazilian studies. It was his storytelling capacity and his surprisingly good Brazilian accent that captivated me from the first moment we sat in his living room. After making it clear that he appreciated the title “Professor,” jokingly alluding to the stiffness often associated with German national character, Professor Skidmore engaged me in an hour and an half long informal conversation on how foreigners perceive Brazil.

O Brazil Visto de Fora (Brazil Seen From the Outside), the only book on Skidmore’s résumé never published in English, combines ten essays representing Thomas Skidmore’s lifework as a Brazilianist. Developed either in the format of conference talks or specialized publications, they provide an outside look, as the title implies, to understand contemporary Brazil. The book’s structure reveals three different units, representative of Skidmore’s three main research areas: first, the construction of national identity; second, racial relations; and third, a comparative study on Argentina and Brazil’s political and economic development. What might be seen as unrelated topics in a top ten list of Skidmore’s work, are, in fact, correlated points of view. Only combined can these converging points of view provide one with an interpretation of Brazilian exceptionalism.

Without denying that Brazilians are indeed a genuinely exceptional society, Skidmore argues that their insecurity, due to Brazil’s sensitive position under the “shadow of Uncle Sam,” shaped a desire, conscious or not, to demonstrate their originality. After I questioned Skidmore on his choice for the title, which he proudly stated to be his own idea, Skidmore stated that he soon learned that, as a foreigner, his view of Brazil would always be that of an outsider.

This approach implicitly recognizes its problematic component: Can an outsider provide a valid interpretation of the facts? This question leads us, however, to what I would consider an even more pertinent question: Can an outsider fully participate in a dialogue with “the insiders,” especially if that dialogue attempts to decipher the meaning of Brazilian exceptionalism? In all ten articles, Skidmore maintains one consistent stance. He never claims to offer the answer that explains national identity, racial relations or the complex classic comparison to Argentina. His only stated aspiration is to provide alternative interpretations of the facts “with the expectation of stimulating new points-of-view.” This unpretentious outlook suggests a self-defense mechanism, which has possibly contributed to Skidmore’s academic success.

Unarguably connected to his academic success is the notable critical method that characterizes his historical practice. I shall provide one single example that illustrates Skidmore’s analytical process. In his article “The Bi-racial U.S. vs. the Multi-racial Brazil: is the contrast still valid?,” though Skidmore recognizes in the first paragraph that a comparative study is a “risky enterprise,” this acknowledgment does not prevent him from pursuing it, nor does he hide that the difficult task makes it even more tempting.

Skidmore questions the persistent explanation for the differences in racial relations between the United States and Brazil. For decades, the distinction was simply put: the United States is an example of a bi-racial system, based on a legal and social structure allowing for only two categories (black vs. white) while Brazil represents a more diverse racial spectrum. His goal is not to completely contradict what has been articulated, nor does he argue that Brazil’s racism is manifested in the same shape and form as American racial discrimination is shown. Skidmore stated in our interview, “We all know that Brazilian racism is more suave, you know, they don’t do things like back of the bus or get out of the line!”

What Skidmore proposes to do is to provide an alternative explanation that better fits the contemporary reality of both countries. Skidmore emphasizes that the polarization understandable in the context prior to 1950 is no longer acceptable. With the help of graphs and charts, Skidmore provides hundreds of bibliographical references, always abundantly commentated, that begin to delve into a more current view of the issue.

Skidmore’s analysis of Brazilian racial relations should not be misconstrued as a rejection of the theory of Brazil’s exceptionalism. Rather, the author concludes by restating that no matter how close American and Brazilian societies become in terms of their social and racial relations, they will never be identical. Implicitly he argues that the struggle to define such exceptionalism should never come at the cost of a real understanding of Brazil’s contemporary, mutable, and dynamic society.