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'Little rolls' swing through Brazilian malls

Young, black Brazilians - largely from poor neighborhoods - are taking a new approach to receiving second-class treatment in shopping malls. The appeal of their protests has triggered a public debate: Is Brazil racist?

Within seconds, the shopping mall turns into a dance floor. Ten, then 20 and finally 100 or so young people begin singing, as if on command. With their clapping hands, they develop a rhythm everyone can move to, and in no time, nearby shoppers are keeping the beat. But then the guards surface, and their grim-looking faces send a clear signal to the teenagers: the show is over.

Rolezinhosis the name given to these instantaneous musical gatherings organized in large shopping centers by young, mostly black Brazilians from the favelas, or urban slums. The word "rolezinho" translates roughly as "small roll," and describes this special type of flash mob - where young people discreetly "roll in" for a brief time.

Organizing via social networks

The gatherings are organized via social networks like Facebook. Dozens and even hundreds of young people show up. Singing together is just one way to draw attention - sometimes, they fall to the floor together, or form dense clusters on escalators or in the indoor courtyards.

Through these and other activities, young Brazilians are fighting against being treated as second-class customers. Private shopping mall owners are free to choose whom they allow inside. Often the poor and mainly black Brazilian teenagers have to stay outside.

Rolezinho in Brazil

Rolezinhos are rolling over Brazil

Since the first rolezinho last December, the shopping malls have drastically tightened their security measures. Now anyone who looks more like a dancer than an interested shopper isn't admitted inside.

Measures at the shopping centers have resulted in the rolezinhos drawing attention from the Brazilian media, which are debating whether the country has a racism problem. Some media outlets believe it does.

"We see no beggars or drug addicts in shopping malls," wrote the newspaper "Folha de Sao Paulo" on Tuesday (21.01.2014). "These young people no longer come to the malls not because they don't like air-conditioning on hot days, but rather because security personnel won't let them in."

Debate ahead of the World Cup

The newspaper views such action and the general aversion to young people as out of line.

"We live in a stage of civilization where certain types of social and ethnic discrimination are not acceptable," it wrote, adding that no one is being forced to allow beggars to enter the malls. "We shudder at the thought that people are rejected because of their skin color or income."

The discussion about racism ahead of the World Cup soccer tournament takes place in a country where social differences is related to skin color. The differences still persist in the labor market, although dedicated social programs have helped reduce them.

Favelas in Rio

Many of youth taking part in rolezinos come from Brazil's urban slums, or favelas

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 53 percent of those seeking employment over the past 12 months have dark skin, as do 60 percent of those who have been looking longer.

"Everyone knows where they belong," said sociologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, referring to the rules of the game in the labor market.

For the rolezinho activists, this is about more than just the right to enter shopping malls unhindered, according to Rosana Pinheiro Machado, a Brazilian anthropologist at Oxford University. "The participants are refusing to accept being rejected," she told DW. "Many speak of their difficulties to always be viewed as a favela dweller."

Causing some buzz

Many black Brazilians must deal repeatedly with discrimination, in addition to their economic problems. Currently, Cassio Lannes - who is participating in the recently launched Brazilian edition of "Big Brother" - caused a buzz in 2011 when he tweeted that he longed a return to the days when it was not a crime to have slaves. Lannes' father referred to the remark as a failed joke, but this was unable to halt resentment directed toward his son.

And a 16-year-old is facing some serious legal issues after posting on a social network that he has a "versatile black" to offer for the price of one Brazilian real (about 31 euro cents). He currently stands trail in a juvenile court.

Luiza Bairros, head of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Ethnic Equality, views the rolezinhos as an expression of a stronger social consciousness among black Brazilians. They know the circumstances of their problems, she said in an interview with the "Folha de Sao Paulo" that "racism dehumanizes a black person; it doesn't see a human being but, in case of doubt, a dangerous animal."

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