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2 recent incidents have put a spotlight on Brazil's relationship with race

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Everyone has a breaking point. Two Black visitors to Brazil recently reached theirs after being subjected to racism. Their responses are resonating among Black Brazilians. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Rio de Janeiro.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Luis Fernandes Jr. is a post-grad student. He's from the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau. A few years ago, he moved across the Atlantic to study in Brazil. He chose the city of Salvador. Its population is mostly Black.

LUIS FERNANDES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Fernandes says he thought he'd feel at home in Salvador's Afro-Brazilian culture. The other day, he went shopping and found out he was wrong.

FERNANDES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Fernandes says he went to a fashion store in a mall and bought a backpack. After paying with a card, he left the shop and went to a bathroom nearby.

FERNANDES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: There, he was accosted by two security guards. They accused him, he says without evidence, of stealing the backpack. A furious Fernandes returned to the store.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDES: No, no, no, no.

REEVES: The scene was filmed by an onlooker.

FERNANDES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This was about skin color," says Fernandes, "a feeling that a Black person just shouldn't be in a shop like that." Black activists say incidents like this are common in Brazil. What's different about this case is Fernandes' response. He's suing for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He says he's the victim of...

FERNANDES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Defamation, slander, xenophobia and, above all, racism." Fernandes believes the only way to stop this is to hit companies in the pocket. Two days later, a thousand miles to the south, another foreigner in Brazil was lining up to check in to the Hilton on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. His name is H.L. Thompson. Thompson is an African American music producer and entrepreneur who lives in the Bronx.

H L THOMPSON: It's like, I'm there, you know? I'm standing in line, minding my business, waiting for - to get checked in to receive my keys.

REEVES: Thompson is a Hilton Diamond member, so he was standing in the priority line. A couple walks in, a Brazilian woman and a German man.

THOMPSON: And they just storm past me. And when they first stormed past me, they brushed me off, you know, the shoulder to shoulder and this and that.

REEVES: Thompson says the couple cut the line, and when he objected, they turned on him.

THOMPSON: I mean, the language was just unacceptable from right off. I mean, I was called the N-word. She kept grabbing my arm and just grabbing me and getting in my face and yelling, and I was like, slapped the arms off of me and was like, yo, get away from me. Stop touching me. I don't know you. Give me my space. What is wrong with you guys?

REEVES: Another guest, also an American, whipped out his cellphone and started filming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They are still talking. Y'all are supposed to separate the party.

REEVES: The woman attacks Thompson, grabbing his head. The German starts to move towards Thompson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, hey, hey, hey, oh, my God.

REEVES: With a single punch, Thompson knocks him out cold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She touched him. It was all on camera. Everything is - everything is on camera.

THOMPSON: It was just a quick self-defense reaction, you know, because I saw him coming and I'm still trying to get this lady off of me. So it was just like all in an instant. Like, after it happened, I'm like, oh, man, this could have been avoided.

REEVES: A police source told NPR that hotel security cameras picked up the couple's racist abuse. Police have told prosecutors the couple should be charged with causing racial injury. They've also recommended Thompson be prosecuted for causing bodily harm. Both the West African student Fernandes and Thompson say they're swamped with messages of support. Some people are criticizing Thompson for that punch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language).

REEVES: It generated heated debate on TV, yet many are sympathetic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

DJAMILA RIBEIRO: For me, he is completely right because he was attacked at first. The woman hit him first.

REEVES: Djamila Ribeiro is a writer and Black activist.

RIBEIRO: In Brazil, we are fed up of these kind of things.

REEVES: Yet she thinks many Black Brazilians would be afraid to do what Thompson did.

RIBEIRO: Because they know that the response of the society, the response of the police can be very violent. That's why I think a lot of Brazilian people were actually glad to see this kind of reaction.

THOMPSON: The support of the Brazilian people - oh, man, they came in droves to support me. And, I mean, I'm still getting messages daily by the minute. It feels weird to me to be called a hero, but it's like so many of the comments are just coming are you're a hero, man. You're my hero or thank you so much.

REEVES: Thompson says people keep sending him this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLHO DE TIGRE")

DJONGA: (Rapping in Portuguese).

REEVES: ...A song attacking racists. It's by a celebrated Brazilian rapper Djonga, real name Gustavo Pereira Marques.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLHO DE TIGRE")

DJONGA: (Rapping in Portuguese).

REEVES: Marques was caught on video recently punching a security man, who he says repeatedly racially abused him. Just over half of all Brazilians are Black or mixed race. They're mostly poor. A decade ago, affirmative action became mandatory in federal universities. Yet Black Brazilians are still hugely underrepresented in big business and politics and hugely overrepresented in the number of violent deaths. Attitudes to this ingrained racism are changing, says Andre Santana, a leading Black columnist. He says Brazilians watched those protests in the U.S. over George Floyd's murder.

ANDRE SANTANA: George Floyd (speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This made a big impact here," he explains.

SANTANA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "People don't accept being victimized anymore," he says. "They've run out of patience, so they're reacting." For H.L. Thompson, this has a familiar ring.

THOMPSON: In the U.S., I've been discriminated against many times, you know, and - just for the color of my skin, whether it's driving while Black or just walking while Black or shopping while Black.

REEVES: Thompson has been visiting Brazil for years. This time, he came to launch the Slyfox Fest, a festival named after his entertainment company. The idea is to build bridges between New York and Rio, bringing together their art, music, fashion and street culture. Thompson knew from Afro-Brazilian friends about Brazil's racism problem. Yet he was shocked to experience it firsthand as an American abroad.

THOMPSON: Because you feel like you're on vacation and you want to get away from all of that and you're foreign, so you might be looked at a little bit different.

REEVES: He's struggling to get over it.

THOMPSON: You get so sick and tired of being sick and tired of just dealing with racism, racism, racism, racism. And it's like, man, you look in the mirror some time, you're like, when will it end? When will it stop? Man, when will people understand that, you know, we all are God's children?

REEVES: Thompson still hopes to keep coming back to Brazil.

THOMPSON: Oh, man, by all means. I mean, I love Brazil. I mean, it's like nobody will take that joy away from me.

REEVES: Even so, that joy has been tainted now by a nasty dose of reality. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.