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Racial Socialization in Families: Freeman Establishes Research Collaboration in Brazil

August 27, 2009
Elizabeth Hordge Freeman

Elizabeth Hordge Freeman is a fourth year student in the Department of Sociology. She recently returned from a pre-dissertation research trip to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Her research exemplifies the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary research by spanning the fields of race and ethnicity, family studies, social psychology, and mental health. Additionally, in recognition of the international component of her research, she was awarded a Graduate School travel grant.

My dissertation research explores how racial ideologies permeate societies and families, particularly how Brazilian families process racial hierarchies in ways that lead to differential treatment and diverse mental health outcomes for family members. Current research often conceives of racial discrimination as race-specific experiences associated with external sources, such as job discrimination, educational inequality, and residential segregation. This project aims to highlight the ways that the dominance of racial ideologies leads to discrimination at every level of social relations. The family as a social institution is not exempt from functioning in ways that reproduce inequality. Feminist theorists have made this link very clear in their work on gender socialization in families. This project hopes to make a unique contribution by analyzing the practices and discourses associated with racial socialization and differential treatment (based on color and race) in families.

This was my second research trip to Brazil and to the city of Salvador. I was attracted to Brazil because, outside of Nigeria, it is the country with the largest population of African descendants. It is the largest country in Latin America and its history of racial mixture has created a type of physical diversity within families that seems unparalleled. Moreover, the city Salvador is considered a major hub of African culture in the Americas. All of these factors together make Salvador an ideal location for my research. What I enjoyed most about this trip was connecting with the extensive network of researchers who study racial inequality in Brazil.

My dissertation advisor, Professor of Sociology Eduardo Bonilla-Silva strongly encouraged me to meet with Brazilian scholars and helped me secure funding to do so. In order to identify key researchers in Brazil, I had to draw extensively on Duke faculty. For example, Susan B. King Professor of Public Policy Studies and Professor of Sociology, Community and Family Medicine, and African and African American Studies Sherman James, who has published work on health disparities in Brazil, was absolutely fundamental to helping me establish my initial connections to researchers at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). In fact, his academic connections to Brazil include having mentored several Brazilian researchers, physicians, and even the current President of UFBA! Additionally, Gladys Mitchell, former postdoc at Duke, provided me with incredible contacts who ultimately helped me select my research site. Fortunately for students, the wealth of resources at Duke is linked to both its financial capacity and its human capital. I made it a priority to tap into both of these resources for this project.


The main purpose of this second research trip was to meet with researchers and activists in order to speak with them more explicitly about my project. The group of people that I found most memorable during this trip was a group of Afro-Brazilian activists associated with the Steve Biko Institute and the movimento negro (black movement.) These activists have been instrumental in articulating the role that historical and current racist practices play in maintaining inequality.

I spoke with the institute’s director, Silvio Humberto, who has done tremendous work in developing programs to help disadvantaged Afro-Brazilian youth enter college. In Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, I met with Dr. Maria Ines Barbosa, activists, and researchers at the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), who offered incredible insight about the social psychological aspects of racial socialization in families. Seeking feedback from these activists and researchers was important because my research addresses very sensitive issues. Indeed, initiating a conversation about how racism impacts the way that people are treated within their own families is a conversation that is necessary but difficult. This is especially true because one of the primary goals of the movimento negro is to unify African descendants, both pardos (browns) and pretos (blacks). I was concerned about how my project might be viewed–whether it would be seen as undermining the efforts of the movement. Therefore, it was important to receive feedback from community members, researchers, and activists about my project.

I was excited that upon hearing about my research, they overwhelming asserted the importance of the project. Moreover, they worked closely with me to consider several factors that contribute to racial socialization and helped me frame the research question in a way that was respectful to and appropriate for Brazilian family dynamics. For decades there has been this transnational dialogue occurring between Brazilian and North American researchers, my interactions with researchers and activists in Brazil suggests that this dialogue is continuing to grow and there is a great sense of responsibility that goes along with me now being part of this. I would encourage my fellow students to pursue opportunities that allow them to connect with international communities or connect their research agenda to global concerns. For those already engaged in such projects, I encourage them to work collaboratively with community members both when developing research ideas and throughout the data collection process. In addition, it is important for researchers to be reflexive enough to discuss how our positionalities (class, race, gender, nationality) impact the types of questions that we ask, how we collect data and how we interpret that data. My collaboration with the community and researchers will be a continual process. I think that fostering a spirit of collaboration is absolutely essential to international and even local research. In the past, researchers have valued personal distance or indifference as the presumed mark of objectivity. Given the ethnographic nature of this project, I believe that establishing a collaborative research relationship and personal connections with the community will allow me to me produce a rich and insightful dissertation makes a compelling contribution to sociology.

Contributor: Elizabeth Hordge Freeman