Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

“When I discovered that I’m black”: How racism is so cruel, that it makes it difficult for black people to recognize themselves as such


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Note from BW of BrazilFor the understanding the context of race and how racism functions in Brazil, it is necessary to comprehend the unique brand of social engineering that has taken place in the country over the past five centuries. Brazil’s particular form of racial ideology has perhaps more in common with that of other Latin American countries than with the United States and South Africa, two racist regimes to which comparisons are often to made. But regardless of comparisons and contrasts with those two nations, Brazil’s manner of discriminating against its population of African descent is every bit as brutal and arguably more effective in maintaining its hierarchy. Simply put, Brazil’s particular form of psychological enslavement was such that many people who are seen as black and/or treated as black (even having varying degrees of mixed ancestry) don’t necessarily see themselves as such. Which is a potent mechanism for the maintenance of white supremacy. After all, if the victims of racist treatment don’t perceive this treatment because they don’t perceive themselves as being part of the discriminated against group, racism has effectively disarmed its victims without any necessary struggle.

We’ve dealt with this issue of black identity, lack thereof and its development process(“becoming black“) in a number of very personal posts over the past few years. As such, today’s material is a very fitting addition to the discussion, especially considering a recent post over at the Colorlines website detailing the fact that Afro-Latinos in the United States are more likely to Identify as White Than Black. For some familiar with understandings of racial classification/identity in the US, this may be puzzling. And this is exactly why personal reflections such as the one featured today are so important to untangling a web of complexities in understanding racial identity in a country like Brazil.

When I discovered that I’m black: “I’ll tell my story, because I also have one.”

By Jônatas Cordeiro da Silva

Today I feel the necessity of telling you how I discovered myself (and I’m still discovering) as black, which I will cover in a brief discussion of miscegenation.

When I see some cases, such as for example, (futebol star) Neymar who says that he’s not preto (black) or Caio (You Tuber Jout Jout’s boyfriend) who declares himself pardo (brown). I remember how difficult it was for me to recognize myself as black. I always knew that I wasn’t white, not only by the color of my skin, hair, and features, but also because of the places that neither I nor my ancestors occupied, however there is a big difference between not being branco (white) and being black.

It’s important to point out that in some way miscegenation in Brazil was historically simple, also one of the factors for miscegenation was the rape of black women enslaved by their colonizers, indigenous women were also violated. Black people were blamed for the backwardness of the Brazilian nation, there was a eugenicist plan, which envisaged that through the “mistura de raças” (melting pot or mixture of the races) the extinction of black people by 2012, so then Brazil would be a developed nation.

Like much of the population I come from a context of miscegenation, in which my mother’s family is composed of the relationship between indigenous and white, while the family of my father resisted and is constituted of only black people. The only non-black person who transitioned in this family was my mother, who declares herself parda (brown/mixed); she was the first person, perhaps the only one that I saw get offended for being called white.

In my early environments of socialization, family and school, I remember being called a morenomulato, pardo, moreno jambo, marrom bombom (chocolate brown) and several other euphemisms that black people are tired of hearing, because really being black was and still is for many a problem, an insult.

One of my main problems to understanding myself and assuming myself as black, still difficult for me to explain, will probably being confusing, but I’ll try. As I said my father’s family is composed exclusively of black people, so there are people darker than me. So for me these people were black, while I was similar, but not equal. There is a non place, in the words of today, I had the impression that positioning myself as a pessoa negra (black person) is to rob the place of speaking of these people, who by what they relayed to me was more complex than what I experienced.

Years later I discovered that I experienced (and still experience) the same things, I just didn’t know it. Gradually I began my process of empowerment, a never-ending process, and there have been some discoveries. One day when I was 15, due to my appearance, I never thought of myself me as handsome, while combing my hair unwittingly I pulled it up, I realized that although it was cabelo cacheado (curly hair) (type 3c), it was, pulled all to top and I saw that it formed a Black Power (afro), I felt incredible, beautiful and powerful …

black power

I was intrigued, I knew that Black Power meant poder preto (black power) or something similar, and as the internet already existed I went to Google it and discovered the Black Power movement, from then on I started to mount a Black (afro), now conscious of its meaning, though I remained in the non-place of not assuming myself as black. It was as like a fight very close to me, but didn’t belong to me, I felt that I should be at the side of it and not at the front of this fight, maybe I declared myself as pardo at that time. I certainly did not know that negros (blacks) were pretos and pardos.

I felt amazing, beautiful and powerful, I went into the street and it was very complex, different looks, some of admiration, others of estrangement, rejection, fear, the “jokes”, requests and opinions that were never requested began:

  • – “It looks like you have a termite house on your head”
  • – “it looks like a microphone”
  • – “Why don’t you cut that hair”
  • – “You look like a beggar”
  • – “I can’t see the blackboard because of his hair”
  • – “Can I cut your hair?”
  • – “Can I touch your hair?”
  • – “You can’t afford to cut your hair?”

Among other classics that black people are also tired of hearing, I was shocked by some things that I heard, but at the same time I had never felt so good, like this, I had never been so noticed, I stopped being unnoticed, I believed it would be worth cultivating the Black Power and I believe that through my hair I understood many things.

I changed my circle of friends, began to attend a popular preparatory course in USP (University of São Paulo), there in class and history I discovered the resistance of black people, from there I began to identify myself more with the “possibility”. But the penny dropped only when I entered the university. Maybe for some people it’s necessary to be put in an extreme situation to understand racism, it’s not that I hadn’t experienced racism before, I just hadn’t noticed.

I entered UNESP, a state university, and there I saw tones of white that I didn’t even know existed in Brazil. As always lived in the periferia (outskirts of the city) I always saw many black people, within the University it was rare, even being a small campus, with less than one thousand students. There was in my classroom, another student and an exchange student from the Congo, as my class had about 25 students, three black people was an almost significant number.

Within the entire campus, which had an average of 860 students at the time (2012), in addition to people in my class, I would see another black person in October, classes began in February. It’s not that I didn’t see black people in that room, it’s that they were almost nonexistent.

As happens with many black university students, we unite quickly, we formed our quilombo. It was a relief to talk to people going through the same situations as I, a social reality shock, veiled institutional racism, not adapting, being the first family member to go to a public college, or in a college and making demands on this issue.

Often having such shaken emotions, having the desire to drop out, but knowing that this is not an option, especially when you have an outdated high school, nothing guarantees that you will pass the vestibular (entrance exam) again. If this happens the problems faced will be the same.

The solution found is like many times in our lives, endure while you can. Find coping strategies, strategies to not go crazy, my solution was to get away for a week, with time, like many things in the lives of black people, we get used to it, we strive, remain silent. We get stronger, more by obligation, by necessity, than by will, because if we don’t get stronger, we get sick, we die.

Africa in Brazil

From all these reflections, I began to wonder and reflect daily, could it be that I’m black? Caio in his video wonders, “is it that to be black in Brazil it’s necessary to have suffered racism?” When asked myself that question years ago the answer was yes, I believed and still believe that racism is structural. For a long time I believed that I had never suffered racism, but by seeking stories from the past, I saw that I was very much mistaken.

I began to understand that there was a reason when a person from nowhere ran off when she saw me walking alone at night in a dark street, IT WAS RACISM.

I began to understand why when I went to buy something miraculously a security guard appeared from nowhere to monitor “surreptitiously” all my steps, IT WAS RACISM.

I began to understand that in school when they made fun of my thick lips (beiço as they called them) (1) it was not bullying IT WAS RACISM.

I began to understand why often the GCM (Metropolitan Civil Guard) at night walked side by side with me, from the subway station up to and close to my house, it was not to protect me because the potential danger was me.

Besides some situations that probably only happen in the adolescence of black people. The panic when your colleagues begin dating. After all in school they tell you from an early age, how ugly you are. Soon I knew that I wouldn’t date, I wouldn’t get with anyone from school, but as (actress) Taís Araújo mentioned in an interview, you end up playing the role of matchmaker.

Obviously, as a teenager even outside of school I believed I wasn’t handsome, so when I started to feel the desire to get into relationships, I thought, since I’m not handsome, I have to be at least intelligent, so I studied hard, trying to stay on top of everything that happened and have as much a critical opinion as was permitted to a 15 year old teen.

Reflecting on the aforementioned issues, I made myself understand that I am black, I met many black people, the internet was essential, I started reading the texts published in Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra (Black Women’s Institute) and Blogueiras Negras (black women bloggers) (2), I joined militant groups on Facebook.

I accepted myself as preto in 2013, the year in which many tears were shed, when it found that it’s the shit, was the shit and will be the shit. When I saw a criança preta (black child), especially a girl, it gave me a tightness in the chest, I thought of all I went through in childhood and in all that beautiful and innocent child who was in front of me, would also go through.

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Then it seemed obvious to me that I was always black, I began to question myself, because I spent 2009 to 2013 in an attempt to understand myself as black. Was it my phenotype (appearance in summary) that put me in doubt? No! Phenotypically I’m black.

Although, as I said above, I come from a context of blended families, so when I think of my father’s family, I see that there are people darker than me, although I also knew that I’m darker than many other black people.

I agree with several scholars who point out that racism in Brazil is from the phenotype, so the more apparent the blackness of a person, the more aggressive racism will be towards him/her. I try then to fight from the point of my privileges, I try to understand that I have privileges in relation to persons with  darker pigmentation than I, and I also had access to knowledge, to the university.

I realized that racism is so cruel, that it makes it difficult for black people to recognize themselves as such, since every time you speak of black people they are in situations of inferiority.

9-year old black children that hear in history class that his or her ancestors were enslaved, as docile bodies because they were disunited, will not want to identify with these people, will not want to be that, I knew that I wasn’t that, I didn’t want to be that.

If they would say to these children that in Africa, his/her ancestors were people, they may have been queens and kings, if they would say that there was resistance of the enslaved, through escapes, battles and formation of quilombos, it would be easier for black people to recognize themselves as such.

If legislation such as Law 10.639/2003, mandating the teaching of and African and Afro-Brazilian art, culture and history, and Law 11.645/2008, which also makes it compulsory the teaching of Indian and Latin American art, culture and history. If pedagogy and undergraduate students had their training in specific disciplines to address these issues, so that when they began to practice teaching they would have mechanisms for implementation and enforcement of these laws, it would be even easier for black people to assume themselves as such.

If there were various books, movies and newspaper covers, with black people, if in the novelas (soap operas) black people were not represented just as enslaved, maids, drivers, security guards, favelados (slum dwellers), or objects to satisfy the desire of white, upper middle class characters (an imagery that is perpetuated in real life), it would be easier for black people to discover themselves as such.

It is important to clarify that maids, drivers, security guards and favelados are worthy and deserve respect and representation, but the representation of these groups need to be fair to all its complexities. In addition it is necessary to show the existence of other possibilities for black people.

I think some of the issues I have just mentioned, will take a while to materialize, although at a slow pace, some advances will be achieved. But we must fight with the weapons we have and struggle.

I believe that uniting black people is fundamental, I believe that people who already consider themselves empowered can be critical, as references for those who are empowering themselves. It is also necessary to strive for positions of power within society, when we can remember ours, it’s also necessary to tell our stories with our own mouths.

I started this huge text with an epigraph of Ericka Huggins, and with a comment of hers that I close. In 2013, when she came to Brazil, I heard her speech in the auditorium of Geography of FFLCH at USP, the quote that I describe here illustrates what I said previously.

Ericka Huggins, asked all the students present, how many of you come from the periphery, despite being at USP, and as it was the speech of a black activist, there were many black male and female students in the environment, so many raised their hands. Ericka then asked how many of you will be teachers, and again many hands were raised. Then she said, promise me that when you graduate, you will go back to your places of origin to share this knowledge you acquired.

Ericka_Huggins_01B

Ericka Huggins (black woman, activist, American, member of the Black Panther Party)

Since then I have believed that the anti-racist struggle, only makes sense when shared, after all it is impossible to fight alone. It is also necessary also not to dissociate the anti-racist fight from other struggles such as the struggle for education, health, transportation, after all we are also marginalized on these issues. In addition to remembering that social oppressions happen concurrently, then you must also fight against sexism, lesbohomotransphobia, gordofobia (fear of fat people). It’s necessary to fight.

Thanks for the reading: Thaís Santos, Bito Santos, Juliana dos Santos, Mariana Egydio, Leonardo Machado, Vivia Santana.

Source: Hey Fala

Note

  1. A pejorative term used to describe thick lips usually used for animals.
  2. An important collective of black women bloggers from all over Brazil. Some of their material has appeared on this blog (see here). Readers of Portuguese should visit their website.

4 comments on ““When I discovered that I’m black”: How racism is so cruel, that it makes it difficult for black people to recognize themselves as such

  1. bamabrasileira
    March 4, 2016

    This is quite a fascinating read – I think particularly for non-Brazilian Black people. This is actually one of the first times I have read someone be able to actually articulate the experience of “discovering one’s Blackness”, in a way that doesn’t make me want to scream “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE BLACK????!!!???” It is the way I feel toward many Black Americans who – somehow – didn’t know their hair was really nappy up under the straightening chemicals!

    One of the most interesting parts of this is how this author explains HOW segregated this society is, even though many people here LOVE to point out how there were never any segregation laws. It is quite interesting to read the story of an emotional-yet-intellectual person’s journey into his own “darkness”, because, usually, I just read a lot of “it really hurt my feelings when they said xyz, and I am still in pain, but one day, MAYBE I will feel good enough…” This man took the journey in a way that I wish that we could all journey into self discovery – with pride, curiosity, innocence, and wonder, rather than fear, shame, and regret. In fact, for me, the “I didn’t know I was Black” always sort of sounded like all these people were consciously DENYING their Blackness, rather than contextualizing Blackness completely differently than societies that did not heavily practice miscegenation. He is able to offer those of us who are ignorant to this phenomenon the kind of “hitting the nail on the head” insight that makes the whole thing crystal clear in an instant. This piece was like watching a short film for me and I hope many others will read his story and be inspired by it!

  2. Tyrone
    March 6, 2016

    A great read and very insightful testimony. Colorblind racism is the most evil of all forms of anti-blackness, because it enslaves the mind. Despite being the majority in Brazil, our kinfolk see themselves as less than. Envy of black people knows no boundaries. It’s irrational thought. Another race of humans make it their mission to brainwash us to hate being African because they’re not. Is this gonna stop?…I don’t see it ever changing. But, we have no control over minds. Our responsibility is to love ourselves, family, and tribe. Outside of that, it’s not our concern…Bottomline! As a side note, the baby is adorable. Beautiful bundle of melanin she is, her parents are blessed greatly. As always, another great article from BWOB!

  3. Mark Jacobs
    March 22, 2016

    the shit we go through
    have to read again when am much calmer and make a better comment but am happy for the writer

  4. Mark Jacobs
    March 22, 2016

    Reblogged this on mark jacobs lives! and commented:
    nobody knows the troubles….

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