Can black women exist within a feminist movement dominated by white women?

A Mulher negra e o Feminismo

Note from BW of Brazil: It’s a common issue. Many a movement or organization that have specific ideals, goals and demands attempt to build coalitions with other groups that may have similar goals although representing a different segment of the population. Is it possible for a group or organization to maintain its autonomy and have the freedom to express its specific goals and have its goals respected within the context of a larger movement in which these demands are not the immediate goal of the coalition or movement with which they have joined or are joining? For example, historically, although socialists have sought to represent the working classes of the world, black militants have long accused socialists of not having the capacity to deal with issues of race that affect non-whites in ways that working class whites have never had to deal with. Similarly, black women struggling against sexist oppression have often found that their specific needs are not always the concern of white feminists. Activists like Sueli Carneiro have long called for the necessity of “blackening feminism” or “rendering feminism blacker” and the article below is a good example why. The piece below written by Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto addresses this issue which became glaringly obvious because of a seemingly meaningless incident at the recent Slut Walk (Marcha das Vadias in Portuguese) in Brazil’s capital city. 

Do trágico ao épico: A Marcha das Vadias e os Desafios Políticos das Mulheres Negras
(From the Tragic to the Epic: The Slut Walk and the Political Challenges of Black Women)

by Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto

Saturday, June 22nd, the Marcha das Vadias (Slut Walk)* occupied streets and spaces of downtown Brasília, with the slogan: “If being free is being a vadia (slut), then we are vadias (sluts)”. According to official estimates, about 4,000 people attended the protest. Days before, the black activist Maria Luiza Júnior had invited me to be with her that at that manifestation, as “Mãe de Preto (Black Mother)”, carrying a banner with the message: “Brasil, troque sua polícia racista por uma política humanista. Dê um basta ao genocídio da juventude negra! (Brazil, trade your racist police for a humanistic policy. Put a stop to the genocide of black youth)”. I declined the invitation explaining that I would not go for personal reasons and in line with the decision taken by the Coletivo Pretas Candangas (Collective Black Candangas), of which I am a part.

Pretas Candangas - Coletivo de Mulheres Negras do Distrito Federal (Collective of Black Women of the Federal District)
Pretas Candangas – Coletivo de Mulheres Negras do Distrito Federal (Collective of Black Women of the Federal District)

On the day of the march, I came to find a picture on Facebook of Luiza raising her poster in the middle of the crowd, which gave me a hint of joy to know that an important issue for many black women was present in some way. What was not my surprise when the same Luiza shared with some friends a video about a unfortunate episode that also occurred in the March and that made her leave the activity before the end. It was the recording of the moment when a black man, using crutches to compensate for the lack of a leg, maybe homeless and mentally challenged stood on the sidelines of the March making obscene gestures. The action caused an instant reaction. A group of women, almost all white, surrounded him, coercing him with shouts, horns, posters, not to mention the amount of photographers recording the phenomenon. Maria Luiza Junior also appeared immediately but not to be part of the chorus of the others. She tried to protect the man with that poster about the extermination of black youth, but her action wasn’t understood by he nor by the others.

Marcha das Vadias (Slut Walk) em Brasília

I confess that those scenes left me stunned at first, but after a while I decided to share my distress with Janaína Damaceno, a very wise friend. We talked briefly about it and, hours later, she posted the following question also on the social network: “Someone explain this: how can mostly white female, college students, harassing and persecuting a poor, disabled, mentally ill black man be equal to the fight against sexism? Would it be that he personifies the enemy? Does the anti-sexist fight exclude common sense? Did he do something extremely serious that was not captured by the video?”

I shared that reflection and an interesting discussion developed. Jurema Werneck (1) promptly contacted the organization of the March and got the response that “this scene – and another one – was the result of the action of the security committee of the March against the aggressors. And, in this case, the aggressors. The organization of the March should release a note today about this episode.” As we followed the debate and waited for the note that until the afternoon of Wednesday (26) had not yet gone out, someone came to consider whether the video had even shown all that happened. The report of Maria Luiza Junior herself, however, confirmed what was already obvious to many: “I will speak as an eyewitness. The man lifted his shirt just because there were people in the March bare-chested. He was displaying the ‘six pack’. After the first screams, he turned and went in the opposite direction of the March. Then, photographers and people surrounded him and he lifted his shirt again. I, who was close, fearing that the shorts tied with cord would lower exposing his genitalia, put the poster up. He responded by hitting the poster. Having heard me request that this not continue, he gestured for me to back away. Then I left the March because I was truly disturbed by the exacerbated racism of the protesters who flocked to him like vultures looking for carcass. In the video it is clear that he is walking or trying to go in the opposite direction of the March. The film ends when he throws the crutch toward the parking lot. I was there, and this is in the video. What was missing from the video was my outrage at the aggressiveness of those who shouted at the man and still kept him from leaving the confusion.”

Judging by the positions sent, the episode has had such repercussion for condensing a number of grievances that have long disturbed several black women who put themselves in dialogue with feminist, mostly white organizations. Aline Maia, for example, pondered: “Is it really possible to build a feminism with white women articulating our demands? I have many questions! Because, in the experience I have, I see that most of the time this is always what happens: we expose our issues, we expose our black bodies, our passions and pains and the white multitude doesn’t care, and at the end says: ‘Long live female solidarity’”. The position of Carla Akotirene is just as compelling: “I’ve been rethinking these articulations with women’s movements that fight gender violence starting from other forms of oppression against black corporeality, against the racially excluded and they want to establish themselves as revolutionaries”. For Aline Matos, what happened fits the problematizations made by Audre Lorde: “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.”

Sign: "Fight, don't give in for the honor and force of being a woman and black."
Sign: “Fight, don’t give in for the honor and force of being a woman and black.”

When the first editions of the Marcha das Vadias/Slut Walk took place in 2011, I was in the period of my doctorate in the United States. I was a double outsider, but I tried to follow what was happening simultaneously here and there. As the experience of being treated negatively as a slut is something that is part of the experience of black women, the proposal did not sound at all unreasonable. But soon there were some questions raised by black women in both countries. The first of them remembered that such treatment has not been reserved for us just when we go out into the streets with short clothes; the denial of our right to our own body regardless of the clothes that we wear. The second was the fact that many black girls, youth and adults from the peripheries and ghettos don’t consider it a violation to go out anywhere wearing shorts and a small blouse or tight clothes. They do this routinely and the agitation even sounds strange for something so trivial. On the other hand, the proposal could make sense because Puritanism never saved us.

Being as it was, I did not participate in any street activity. The reason was because of the way these questions were treated by white feminist organizers of the editions of the Marcha das Vadias/Slut Walk at that time and later. Upon returning the US, it was not difficult to keep my decision, because the reports of black activists reinforced my difficulty of approach and belief in productive dialogue with that feminism. As reported by Paula Balduino de Melo in virtual debate of the last days: “We, Pretas Candangas, were at an organizational meeting of the Marcha das Vadias/Slut Walk last year (or before that, help me to remember Juliana Cézar Nunes), at the invitation of some organizers. Along with other black women present, we voiced our differences regarding the March. Differences of principle. We talked about how we face daily hegemonic society to show that we are not sluts, we do not have the ‘cor do pecado (color of sin)’ (2). We said that we didn’t want to claim the right to be sluts, but to be doctors, lawyers, professionals (3). The fact occurred in this year’s March reinforces the differences.”

Again on these reports, I think that the ease with which this man – I visualized as the embodiment of a tragic Saci (pererê, one-legged Brazilian folkloric character) (4) – was transformed into the target of protester catharsis is directly associated with the difficulty that white feminists organizing the March must understand and incorporate the questions posed by black women, feminist or not. We said, we received a friendly smile of “I see you”, and this is still done according to their wishes, as if expressing the certainty that “That that you (all) say may be interesting, but what we established from the outside is more.” After all, the Marcha das Vadias/Slut Walk has achieved wide legitimacy and therefore should be taken as the right decision period.

There is no doubt that man was unhappy and foolish in his actions to the point of putting at risk his own already degraded bodily integrity. But to label him with the status of “The aggressor”, it now seems at least emblematic of what one doesn’t manage by means of debates almost always unique to GTs (Grupo de Trabalho or workgroup) of Race and Gender. Even knowing the unintentional limitations, this was not expected from people who say they are sympathetic to the pain of crazy, drug users, homeless, etc. The feeling is that the representatives of society’s rejects are super welcome as long as they behave in the way established by the white classist left.

I’m not putting it into question the legitimacy of feminism or the viability of a collective struggle. This only deals with another attempt to displace the comfortable centrality of white feminism, maintained for decades, something that allows you to exercise your power by default of the experiences of other women, especially in this case for black women. I say this because one thing that hardly enters the head of several of our interlocutors is a need that we, black women, have to defend the existence of black men. We don’t speak only of the oppressive father. Through our history, we also co-exist with the records of the enslaved grandfather, the jailed father, unemployed brother, executed son, all paying the price of being seen as vadios (vagrants)!

Fortunately, even at a sensitive moment like this, there are people who seek to break with the privileges they enjoy for being white women, they expose the errors of their own socio-racial group and stand for an open debate with us, like the teacher Edlene Silva, who said: “Unfortunate!! I was talking about the gender, race and feminist movement issue in a talk I gave on Saturday for teachers of the GDF (government of the Distrito Federal or Federal District in Brasília) There are identity issues in the feminist movement dating back to the nineteenth century, since the suffragist movement that are still current, unfortunately.” Or professor Alexandre Magno, when he exhibited his reflections: “Some feminists say that women’s action were very correct, that that place was the place to talk about them and that their cries for freedom would be the only speech. I imagined the same situation with another perspective, that of a poor, disabled, possibly uneducated black man, stunned by those sound horns, full of gas (from the cans) and very close to his ear, suddenly faced with the lines printed on the posters and quickly, perhaps by his understanding of the world and construction of the sexist model, directed all that fala ‘ao falo’ (talk ‘to the phallus’). Is he the enemy? And the street, he probably lives in every day, the place to which he was assigned, separately, the leftover, not like the masculine place, but that of the exclusion (of so many excluded black men/women ), now has an owner? They clean the street and get out of the way so that the March will pass… But once again that black man, without one of his legs, without support, has no place. How this is the craziest formula of one striving for equity! Against sexism and racism.”

When I put all of this together, those video images assume an epic dimension, they condense a lot of violence against which we black men and women have kicked around and debated amongst ourselves. At this stage of the game, if the note of the organization of the Marcha das Vadias/Slut Walk comes, it will only serve as another important record for our reflections on this unstable partnership between white feminists and black women. What they say will not erase what happened at the March. Antiracism verbiage is already easy, but putting it in practice remains difficult. This is the place where we are. Where are we going? This depends on the path that all and everyone are really committed and willing to tread.

Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto
Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto

Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto responds by blog at Por falar em liberdade (Speaking of freedom), is pursuing a PhD and is a Master of History, a journalist, and member of the Coletivo Pretas Candangas, and author of the book Imprensa negra no Brasil do século XIX (Black Press in nineteenth-century Brazil) (Selo Negro, 2010).

Source: Source: Pretas Candangas

"Saci-pererê" character of Brazilian folklore
“Saci-pererê” character of Brazilian folklore

Notes

* – The SlutWalk protest marches began on April 3, 2011, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, with subsequent rallies occurring globally. Participants protest against explaining or excusing rape by referring to any aspect of a woman’s appearance, and call for an end to rape culture. The rallies began when Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, suggested that to remain safe, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” The protest takes the form of a march, mainly by young women, where some dress as “sluts” in revealing attire. There are also speaker meetings and workshops.Critics say that this approach is an example of women defining their sexuality on male terms. For more on SlutWalk or Marcha das Vadias see here in English or here in Portuguese.

1. Activist of the black Brazilian women’s movement, coordinator of the the NGO Crioula and a member of the Articulação de Organizações de Mulheres Negras Brasileiras (Articulation of Black Brazilian Women’s Organizations). Jurema is featured in various articles on this blog.

2. A term that has been used for many years in Brazil in reference to the skin color of African descendants. The term was also used as the title of a 2004 Globo TV network novela starring actress Taís Araújo.

3. Women of African descent in Brazil have long been stereo typically portrayed in the media, and one could argue, in the nation’s imagination as Carnaval dancers, prostitutes or maids. For examples, see here, here or here. This association with work or sex can be noted in an old popular saying: “Branca para casar, mulata para foder e negra para trabalhar (white woman for marriage, mulata woman for fucking, black woman for work)”.

4. Saci or Saci-pererê is a character commonly regarded to be the best known character in Brazilian folklore. He is a one-legged black or mulatto youngster with holes in the palms of his hands, who smokes a pipe and wears a magical red cap that enables him to disappear and reappear wherever he wishes (usually in the middle of a dust devil). Considered an annoying prankster in most parts of Brazil, and a potentially dangerous and malicious creature in others, he will nevertheless grant wishes to anyone who manages to trap him or steal his magic cap. However his cap is often depicted as having a bad smell, most people who claimed to have stolen this cap often say they can never wash the smell away. There are several variants of the myth, including: Saci-pererê, black as coal (the best known); Saci-trique, mulatto and more benign; Saci-saçurá , with red eyes. Source: Wiki

About Marques Travae 3375 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

2 Comments

  1. no black woman should have ANYTHING to do with any white feminist organization or agenda……EVER.

    before white women are women they are WHITE. their fathers are WHITE, their brothers are WHITE, their husbands and sons are WHITE.

    In other words, they will never relinquish white supremacy and any black woman who thinks that they can be real “friends” with a white woman over the feminism issue is deluding themselves.

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