Note from BW of Brazil: In Brazil, the discussion of racism is often one of the denial of its existence, even on the part of the Afro-Brazilians who may suffer it while not exactly realizing it. Of course we have numerous examples of how racial insults and racist acts are the more obvious and easy to identify experiences with prejudice, but often times, the cases are so subtle that one who isn’t trained to understand how discriminatory behavior works won’t even notice it. This is often the case for persons whose physical appearance isn’t what we define as indisputably black. Clearly, persons of African descent who are lighter-skinned do experience racism and racial insults also (see here and here), but it is often of the more subtle variety. The strange looks. The rude comments or different treatment. The security guards that seems to always be looking at you just over your shoulder.
These types of incidents combined with the lack of conversation about race and racism in the home, an ideology of whitening oneself and the promotion of the idea that racism doesn’t exist in Brazil often makes it a difficult process for African descendants with lighter skin or a looser type of curl texture in the hair to develop a black identity. This discovering oneself as black is what has been defined as ‘tornar-se negro/a’ or ‘becoming black’. Adding to previous articles in which others described their development of a black identity, below, Bianca Santana explains a bit of her journey which she recently released in a book.
“Subtle racism is still evident for those who suffer it”
By Cinthia Rodrigues
“Subtle racism is still evident for those who suffer it”
Journalist who ‘discovered’ being black 10 years ago tells how she always suffered without naming her feelings
“I am 30 years old but I have been black for only ten.” The phrase with which the journalist Bianca Santana opens the book Quando me descobri negra (When I discovered myself as black) (SESI-SP) explains in just nine words that Black Consciousness that is the holiday and what is still such an extensive debate.
A university professor, author of a textbook and feminist, she says that, unfortunately, much of the population does not name racism and ends up suffering, “When you don’t have a black consciousness, you ask yourself: what did I do wrong?”
In the interview, Bianca talks about the discovery process of her black identity, about how her own family finds it difficult to accept themselves as black and about prejudice felt in the everyday.
Carta Educação: We are going to celebrate the Day of Black Consciousness. When did yours happen?
Bianca Santana: It was a long process. Speaking of this, of when, sometimes it refers to an immediacy that never happened. It begins in the university, with readings, provocation of professors for us to write about our origins and connecting to other experiences like that that I tell in book, the episode of Educafro (the interviewer of volunteer teachers said she would be a great reference for students for being black). I have a white colleague who has a very similar formation as mine and had also volunteered. I commented on how receptive they were and he told that to him they were not. I first thought that was strange, why was that? Then I thought and think I know why: he was treated like I am in all other places.
CE: The book mainly illustrates cases of people who suffer a less explicit racism. Why the choice?
BS: When someone publishes a racist term on a Taís Araújo photo it’s very obvious. The situations of the book are subtle for those who don’t experience it. It gives rise to various interpretations, one can say that there was confusion because of clothing, or that the other is not on a good day, but for those who experience it it’s blatant and doesn’t depend on a variable. It may sound like a veiled racism, for those who don’t feel it, but in the everyday it’s anything but subtle. I feel like this most of the time. They’re those situations when you don’t have a black consciousness, you ask yourself: what did I do wrong? Before it clicks in, you can’t necessarily name that it’s racism. Not that you didn’t perceive this before, only that you didn’t name it.
CE: Do you think it’s common for many people to discover them themselves as black late or even pass through life without discovering this?
BS: Unfortunately yes. In Brazil, we live under the myth of racial democracy and one doesn’t talk about racism and being black. It appears in the school context in a shallow and disconnected way, we speak of slavery as something in the distant past, as if it had no connection to anything current. All the time you see the fact of being black as negative; many people go through life without connecting to this.
CE: In the book you talk about your family examples. Was there a lack of this naming?
BS: My grandmother didn’t talk about it. In my mother’s family my grandfather is descended from Italians, but my mother and my uncle are black, each has a skin color and a (type of) hair. My father has lighter skin than mine, but if you look at his document he’s defined as pardo (brown). For my family he was branco (white), but this was not the reading taken by the police or those who filled out the document. Often when you’re with other blacks, factors joined together such as hair, social class and someone is judged as black and another as not black. When going to a white or richer environment, the reading is another. It’s like the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: you want to know if someone is black, note the supermarket security’s reaction. But people sometimes prefer not to see this.
CE: Can you give an example?
BS: My mother. At the release of the book, we did a circle at the Casa de Lua with black women giving testimony. She gave hers and said: “The least of my problems is being black because my father left home when I was two months, I was a babysitter at five years old, fought hard to go to college and when I went to work in a multinational they already told that I had to straighten my hair and it would always be operational. With this history of life, the least of my problems is being black.” She doesn’t understand that everything is connected with the fact of being black.
CE: What is the most racist environment you’ve ever seen?
BS: My neighborhood of Sumaré, close to Perdizes, is by far is the most racist place that I frequented. I work at the Academy, where the debate is placed. Even prejudice occurs too, like the case I cite in the book of preparing a lecture and them thinking that I was messing with the projector without authorization, but in my neighborhood, it’s much more common. I have lived in this house for three years and don’t know all my neighbors, as I think is normal. The other day I went into a neighbor’s house and when I realized it, the movement was for seeing. It was a lady, I asked if she wanted water and she measured me up and down and was trying to read me. I saw that she wondered: could it be that works in these clothes? For us, it’s evident that it’s really racism when it’s not spoken.
CE: What was your reaction?
BS: It leaves a person indolent. Once I was in the preferred customer line at the bank and a man came to point me to the regular line. I replied that I saw it. He insisted, I explained that I was there because I was a preferential customer. The worst is that the person perceives and feels motivated to talk later. I don’t have the least desire to talk to these people.
CE: You talk about your hair and accessories reaffirming your identity. What is the importance of this?
BS: The hair is very striking to many women and men as well. I spent my childhood and adolescence wearing my hair up. Sometimes people said that they wanted to see it down and I thought: this person has no idea what they are saying. I was desperate. I grew up always speaking of cabelo ruim, feio (ugly, bad hair). My mother always straightened hers her whole life. She used an iron, heated it on the stove, dryer. In my childhood, she no longer did so and I remember her saying that she is disgusted by people’s houses full of hair on the stove. When I did escova, everyone complimented me, especially the boys, but I soon wanted to stop that. So, I thought crespo (kinky/curly) was horrible and disconnected myself from the straightening. In the process of taking black consciousness I cut it short and, as I wasn’t used to it loose, I made little rollers because I had a connection with negritude (blackness). Even in therapy I say this. I wore it like this for 10 years until two years ago when I adopted the turban.
CE: What do you think of the style of the turban and its use by white people with straight hair?
BS: I think it’s wonderful that people wear them. Culture presupposes appropriation. If we dispute hegemony, it’s necessary to celebrate what one recognizes as beautiful, valid. The more people wear them, the more it will be accepted that them I use without getting the odd look. If all this fighting was to prohibit whoever is in the right to wear, I think we should stop. Of course there’s the limit of respect, but becoming a valid standard of beauty is positive. I honestly don’t want to do something to prohibit anyone.
CE: In the chapter “O racismo nosso de todo dia escancarado no meu cabelo” (Our blatant everyday racism in my hair) you say that every day it is reminded that there is a place for black people. That’s a figure of speech or literal? You could tell the story today?
BS: I come to the work by bus, it’s usually the time that the domestics are coming. There’s that look of astonishment. It’s happened to me that they ask if I was a nurse and took care of some elderly nearby. It doesn’t fit for people to be black, still use public transportation and want to live there. Usually they don’t understand the clothes, the way of my hair. It’s a racism of estrangement, the most common.
EC: What is the situation of racism in Brazil today? Have there been improvements, which ones?
BS: I think the big improvement is what we are doing now: we talk about it. The amount of publications, seminars, this is a breakthrough. Social indicators that today are given to the division of skin color. Other than that, just looking to see that people are still very racist, even consultations of prenatal care last less time with black women. Access to university, for example, has improved because of quotas, yet 26% of those in higher education are black. It’s little despite advances. The indicators show an improvement, yes, but it’s still small. Obviously it’s small, 300 years of slavery and 127 of abolition mostly without reparative policies. There’s a long way to go.
CE: You are also a feminist. How do racism and feminism connect?
BS: It has a lot of connection. Much of what I constructed, of the readings of that I constructed from racism comes from readings and theories of black women. The United States has the black feminism, Angela Davis, for example, and here Sueli Carneiro and now Djamila Ribeiro, have spoken of this intersectional feminism, of racial inequality overriding gender inequality. The lives of all women are not equal. Even between poor and rich white women, we see a great distance. I am a black woman, but my problems don’t compare to the life of a poor black woman. Sometimes it seems that talking about difference weakens or divides us. It’s not true. I can be a rich white woman and fight for all and the poor black woman can fight for all.
Source: Carta Educação