Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

‘My parents prepared me for the war’: Filmmaker Sabrina Fidalgo reveals what it’s like being a black girl born into the elite


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Note from BW of Brazil: The objective of this blog has always been to reveal the black experience in Brazil with a special focus on black women. And in revealing this experience, we frequently discuss the topics of racism, racial identity and racial inequality as being black in a decidedly anti-black world is not simply about having black skin and African characteristics. Having these features and the experiences that one has specifically due to having such characteristics is one of the mechanisms that helps us define the black experience.

In a place like Brazil, it is often assumed that one can only find the black experience in favela slums and low-income areas as this is where stereotypes associated with race would have us believe black Brazilians live. And while it is true that Afro-Brazilians are more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, there is a small population of black people that lives as well as the white elites who make up the overwhelming majority of the nation’s upper class. But even in these cases, it is often physical characteristics that make their upper class experiences different from those of their white counterparts, directly debunking the idea that in Brazil, “dinheiro embranquece”, meaning ‘money whitens’, ie, the idea that if one has money they won’t experience racial discrimination or incidents of stereotyping. Numerous previous posts have consistently proven this as does the story below. 

‘My parents prepared me for the war’: the life of a black girl born into the elite

Courtesy of Capital Teresina

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Filmmaker Sabrina Fidalgo says her parents prepared her for the war that is being black within elite circles

Sabrina Fidalgo was born and raised as a member of Rio’s elite. Born and raised in elite environments in which, as a rule, she was the only black woman. During her childhood, at school, at parties, in English classes, in ballet, in her group of friends, in stores and in so many other areas frequented by families with income equivalent to hers it was common to look around and not see anyone of her color.

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“I grew up with whites, in social settings where there were virtually no blacks,” she recalls.

At 36 and divorced, Sabrina continues being the exception in the area in which she works, the film industry. In the festivals and events she attends, she’s used to being looked at with an already known amazement. Prejudice, even unintentionally, often comes in the form of a compliment that reveals, in fact, the surprise of by the false paradox between blackness and beauty.

For these admirers, Sabrina is not simply beautiful. She’s a beautiful black woman.

“If they tell me that I’m uma negra linda (a beautiful black woman), I reply: I really am. I don’t think that we have to thank (people) for something natural and that even needs to be mentioned,” she said.

She also says that, on several occasions, the color of her skin is the first mention made to her as much in social as professional environments, which doesn’t occur with people of other colors.

“Sometimes someone approaches, and even before knowing my name or knowing me, they first make mention of the fact that I am black, complimenting my color, noting that I’m the only black filmmaker or saying I’m uma mulher negra bonita (a black woman beautiful). It may even be well intentioned, but for me it makes no sense to see my negritude overlap my personality.”

‘White World’

Sabrina is part of the parcel of Brazilians that occupy the richest 1% of the country. She speaks Portuguese, English, Spanish and German. She studied theater and performing arts at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Unirio), has done cinema in Brazil, Spain and Germany and has on her resume five short films, a documentary and various music videos.

She travels constantly representing Brazilian cinema abroad or to divulge her films, as she’s already participated in more than 50 festivals around the world.

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Sabrina’s parents Ubirajara and Alzira featured in a theater flyer

Her trajectory differs from many blacks that today are also at the top of the pyramid of social income. She had no poor childhood or humble parents. To the contrary. From her father, Ubirajara Fidalgo, she inherited not only goods like a combative stance against prejudice and a passion for film and theater.

He was an activist, playwright, director, actor and founder of Tepron – Teatro Profissional do Negro (Professional Theatre of Blacks), an organization founded in the 70s which encouraged black actors to write their own texts based on the race question.

Her mother, Alzira Fidalgo, also an activist, was a costume designer and set designer. Both raised Sabrina with every possible comfort and ready to live in a mundo de brancos (white world), since life in the theater gave the family favorable social conditions, which allowed them to live in expensive addresses in Botafogo and Urca, where Sabrina lives today.

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Filmmaker says she grew up with “open minded” friends free of prejudice

From two to 13, she studied at a Catholic and traditional private school in Rio. During this period, she was the only black girl. And because of being known since childhood by peers, this didn’t cause estrangement.

“Only there in the 4th grade did another black girl appear, but she straightened her hair, she had that whole issue of embranquecimento (whitening),” she reports. In the case of Sabrina, the mother braided her cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), of which she had pride.

And her parents prepared the school environment, pressuring the school.

“Before even enrolling me, they warned the nuns. If I suffered discrimination, they would tell everybody and denounce the school for not educating children and families about the issue of racism,” recalls Sabrina.

But in adolescence everything changed. In the new school, no one knew her. She went on to face discrimination, but was ready to defend herself.

“I was born dressed for war,” she says. “And the weapons that my parents gave me since childhood were racial and political consciousness.”

Proud

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Her father, Ubirajara Fidalgo, founded a theater company that touched on the racial issue (Photo: Phil Clark Hill)

She says that very soon she heard from her parents the history of África, slavery and the importance of African culture for Brazil. Thus, she learned to take pride in herself and to believe that she could be anything she wanted.

“My parents told me: você é linda (you are beautiful), your hair, your color, our history. Never be ashamed of your race and don’t lower your head for anything. If you want to be a doctor, you will be. If you want to be an actress, you can be one also…. dancer, Miss (of a beauty pageant), whatever you want. They said I was intelligent enough for that,” she recalls.

The advice served to empower Sabrina and give to her the necessary condition to face racism when it emerged.

“In my new school, there were two teachers who were very prejudiced. One of them referred to a black student who was in my class as ‘negão‘. He couldn’t call the boy by his name and it shocked me even more because the boy didn’t react. If he would have called me negona I would obviously have made a scandal,” she recalls.

“The other teacher boasted for having a racist grandmother and told horror stories of her against blacks as if it were the best thing. So I told him that racism was wrong and bizarre, and that he had no right to tell those stories with two black students in the classroom. Very embarrassed, he apologized.”

For Sabrina, marked episode of her adolescence taught her to impose herself on others.

She says that, as an adult and filmmaker, she was in a fair of the audiovisual sector in Buenos Aires when she heard a comment that left her stunned.

“There was a delegation of Brazilian directors, and I was the only black woman among them. One of them came and said ‘how lucky’ of mine for being black filmmaker, I would take advantage of the release of my film. I was puzzled. He spoke in a way that transpired that my expertise didn’t count and that, if I were contemplated, it would be the fact of being black rather than a film professional,” she recalls.

“No one mentions the ethnicity of a director, be he white or Asian. Why cite it when the professional in question is black? I see in this highlight a very clear, rancid racism and I will never agree to this.”

And Sabrina is not wrong to think so. The researcher from the University of Brasília and sociologist Emerson Rocha says that Brazilian society has lower expectations about black people because they, in their majority and because of historically social factors, occupy less prestigious positions.

“The person says that he/she isn’t racist, but discriminates because of simply not believing that a black can be someone different from a position that was assigned to him in the world in which we live. And every time a black leaves out of this natural or expected ‘place’, it will generate an estrangement. And that’s racism, which is ‘activated’ when the black leaves from that captive space,” he sustains.

Advancements

Sabrina was born in the 80s, in a less discriminated generation of her parents and grandparents, according to a 2005 study by Maurício Cortez Reis, IPEA researcher (Institute of Applied Economic Research), and Anna Risi Vianna Crespo, PhD from the University of Princeton (USA).

They compared generations of blacks born between 1922 and 1981 and discovered that the income gap has been decreasing gradually over time.

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Ballet: as part of the elite, Sabrina frequented areas where there were almost no blacks

In the 1950s, a white earned a salary 100% higher than for a black – ie, he earned double. In the 60’s, this difference dropped to 60%. In 1990, when Sabrina was 10, blacks accounted for 15% of the richest population and owned 6% of the total income of the country, a percentage that was unchanged throughout the decade.

In the 2000s, affirmative action of reducing poverty and educational inequality and other factors have caused blacks to jump to 17.4% among the richest from 2014, according to the IBGE.

For researchers, this trend can also be explained by the reduction of discriminatory practices among younger generations, which is confirmed by Sabrina.

“I always had friends of all ethnicities and very open minded. As a teenager, I frequented a more underground world that made me get out of that reality of standard resident of the South Zone. My friends and I were far above all these ties, and it helped me to grow up free from prejudice in the world in which I lived.”

For her, the difficulties experienced by blacks should indeed be brought to light, but also the positive experiences.

“It’s very troubling these discourses that only oppressive experiences are legitimate. They sound almost like a reaffirmation of the racism that, we blacks, we can only earn something through the imposition of an experience of pain, humiliation, trials and oppressions,” she says.

“I discovered that portraying every black person in a place of oppression is debilitating, depressing and doesn’t suit me.”

According to the IBGE, the total number of blacks in this group increased by five percentage points in the last 12 years (from 12.4% to 17.4%), but still far from representing the weight of the declared black population (the total of pretos/blacks and pardos/browns), which corresponds to 53.6% of Brazilians.

Source: Capital Teresina

4 comments on “‘My parents prepared me for the war’: Filmmaker Sabrina Fidalgo reveals what it’s like being a black girl born into the elite

  1. Bamabrasileira
    August 30, 2016

    Another fascinating story about the Black elite of Brazil (those who are not football players or dancers). It is interesting to see the experience of a very Black woman (as opposed to a Black morena/mulatta/parda) who has always been a part of the elite, rather than having to make her way into that class. It is also interesting to see the story of a Black Brazilian child born to extremely conscious parents, who could empower her with all that they had. Hopefully. we will continue to see the normalization of Black faces in monied circles all over the world. I can’t help but think that this is one of the greatest difficulties that Black people face – that we, as a collective, are very late to the game when it comes to knowing how the world truly operates. Thankfully, have have begun to master it just like everyone else.

  2. Realist
    August 31, 2016

    Notice that because of her political consciousness she rejects these supposed “terms of endearments” like negao, negona. Seems to me that the vast majority of Brazilian Blacks accepts this form of condescension without blinking. It is a subtle reminder to Blacks to not get too “uppity”. One must congratulate her parents on doing a fine job.

  3. Mark Jacobs
    September 1, 2016

    Reblogged this on mark jacobs lives!.

  4. Mark Jacobs
    September 1, 2016

    My parents prepared me for the war
    yep! we are at war 🙂

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