A Review of Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown


Behind the Laughter: “Black Humor” in Brazil

by | Dec 17, 2004

Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown By Donna M. Goldstein Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

The personal lives of the poor and disenfranchised are often not examined by researchers concerned with political and socio-economic forces that make their impact on poor communities, and with good reason. The debate about how to appropriately approach the culture of poverty from the personal perspective have left researchers, particularly in the social sciences, without a clear understanding of how to objectively represent the most vulnerable populations without effectively victimizing them at the expense of academic discovery. Adding to these difficulties are the inherent psychological, class, and economic distinctions of academia which can prevent researchers of all types from creating solidarity with their subjects, a problem yet to be solved in many fields where research often tends to center on subjects more similar—at least in socio-economic status—to those studying them. Yet re-personifying the poor and understanding the true impact of political economy on those most affected by it is of undeniable value for those choosing to work in such communities and for recentering the social sciences, especially anthropology, on the life and work of “the common man.”

Negotiating this academic and ethical debate to uncover that which is definitively representative of and the forces which contributes to the status of the poor is the goal of Donna Goldstein, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado and Harvard alumna (M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology 1995), in her ethnography on the shantytown-dwelling poor of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Far from timid, Goldstein boldly chose to directly address the class differences that often separate researchers and their subjects by focusing on perhaps one of the most ethnographically dense subjects, humor. With humility and appropriate personal commentary, Goldstein leads the reader through a series of humorous stories and jokes told by her study subjects, an Afro-Brazilian family and its social and economic network living in the fictitious favela(shantytown) Felicidad Eterna in Rio. The jokes—many of which shock and mystify the reader—serve as a guide to Goldstein’s exploration of the economic, historical, and political forces that have shaped the favela, this family, and the humor that they use to cope with life in it. Rather than explaining the jokes themselves, Goldstein instead challenges the reader to use the information given to question his or her own values and to understand the issues and situations which create (to the reader’s perspective) “distasteful” humor.

What results is a masterful exploration—reminiscent of Scheper-Hughes’ Death without Weeping—of the complex forces of race and class that help produce the inequality and hardship in the lives of Glória and her family and others like her in Brazil. Particularly impressive are the ways in which Goldstein challenges the usual assertion that Brazil is “different” that is, a racial democracy. In the chapter “Aesthetics of Domination: Class, Culture, and the Lives of Domestic Workers,” Goldstein examines the class and racial divisions inherent in domestic workers’ relationships with their employers and the paternalism seen in them, including an intricate comparison of modern day employer-worker relations and those found under slavery. Most intriguing about this chapter is the no-holds-barred inclusion of interviews with employers of both middle and upper classes and their perspectives on the lives of their employees, which are unblinkingly presented alongside Goldstein’s own experiences as an employer of domestic workers.

Likewise, Goldstein also examines as another holdover from master-slave relationship roles of black and mulatta women, particularly the idealization of the “hot mulatta” in the chapter “Color-Blind Erotic Democracies, Black Consciousness Politics, and the Black Cinderellas of Felicidad Eterna.” The chapter also gives an unapologetically feminist exploration of the reality of interracial sexual relations in Brazil and their intimate relationship to class standing including the role of coroas (white male sexual liaisons and financial providers) on the economic prospects of poor black and mulatta women. Goldstein also briefly explores the self-hatred seen among poor black women for typically African physical characteristics and desire for whiteness as another motivation for interracial relations, alongside a fascinating expository of the history of “whitening” campaigns in Brazil.

The book on the whole is deeply engaging in part due to the compelling, emotionally gripping and personal subject matter and also as a result Goldstein’s remarkable writing abilities that makes the book read almost like a novel. Using fluid, accessible, and remarkably direct language Goldstein also provides a brief overview of pertinent recent work and local history for each ethnographic analysis that help to enhance the scenarios presented, helping to balance the book’s almost excessive breadth, perhaps the one weakness of the work on the whole. Goldstein also unabashedly details anecdotes from her experiences working in Brazil which showcase her own personal journey from an employer to a filha blanca (literally, white daughter) to Glória and a part of the Felicidad Eterna community. Many authors would not choose to include such details, but Goldstein’s openness in discussing her personal journey aids the reader in understanding of the world of thefavela and humanizes her presence in the lives of her subjects.

Finally, this book, with its wellbalanced ethnographic analyses and thorough dissection on the politics of race and class, makes an important contribution to Brazilian studies, where committed exploration of race and class is still relatively rare and where, as Goldstein noted, further work is desperately needed in order to begin to unravel the roots of inequality in a country that is home to some of the world’s most dramatic socioeconomic disparities. The details of Goldstein’s personal journey as an anthropologist and cultural outsider—how eventually she learned how to “get the joke” and laugh alongside Glória and her family—is also of great value as a guide to those seeking to study poor and disenfranchised populations from a personal perspective. Perhaps most importantly, however, Laughter out of Place sets an important precedent by giving a voice to the residents of Felicidad Eterna and other favelas, whose lives are often acknowledged only in statistics and news reports, leaving for others in her own and other disciplines a legacy of social consciousness and solidarity with the poor.

Winter 2004, Volume III, Number 2

Tarayn A. Grizzard is a 4th-year medical student pursuing a combined MD/MPH program at the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. A recent intern at the Universidad de Chile’s CEMERA (Centro de Medicina Reproductive y Desarrollo de la Adolescencia) clinic in Santiago, her research interests include adolescent sexuality and cultural aspects of women’s health in Latin America.

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