African students come to terms with the cruelty of racism in Brazil
In a previous article posted here about a black Cuban woman who was referred to as “black shit” on a Brazilian volleyball court, we posed a question in reference to that situation:
“So, the question here would be, we already know that racism clearly exists in Brazil, but is there also a rejection of immigrants that the country needs to address? Better yet, is there a rejection of immigrants of color?”
Looking at a few studies that I came across online may provide a sufficient response to that question. According to data collected from the year 2000, 13,897 students from countries outside of Brazil were enrolled in Brazilian universities. Of this total, 49.3% students came from North, Central and South America, 26.4% came from European countries, 12.5% came from Asian countries and 11.7% came from African countries. In recent years, Brazil has also attracted students from other countries under their Student Graduation Agreement Program (Programa Estudante Convênio de Graduação or PEC-G). Under this program in recent years, the country received students from Cape Verde (205 students), Guiné-Bissau (182), Angola (118), the Congo (54). Paraguai (29), Equador (28), Bolívia (12) and Peru (11). I highlight this data to show that Brazil attracts a diverse pool of foreign students to its universities. Although it is not possible to decipher the racial classification of these students particularly when considering the Americas, suffice it say that a large percentage of students coming from European countries most likely look white while students coming from Asian countries undoubtedly look Asian and a large percentage, if not vast majority, of students from the Americas, probably look white as well.
I make this point because I haven’t heard of any incidents in which European or Asian students have faced any form of discrimination due to their presence in Brazilian universities. Two recent incidents have again shown that this is not necessarily the case for African students studying in Brazil. Invoking memories of an incident in March 2007 when the dorm rooms of several African students were firebombed on the campus of the University of Brasília, African immigrants are learning that Brazil is not the racial paradise that it promoted itself to be in the second half of the 20th century. So, for those who continue to take offense to Brazil being labeled as a racist, anti-black country, I ask this question: If there is a large contingent of white and Asian students from Europe and Asia studying in Brazil’s finest universities without any denunciations of racism or xenophobia, why does it seem that this is only happening to students from Africa?
In February, in the city of Porto Alegre in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, a military police officer approached two African students on a bus, gun drawn, stopped the bus and forced them off of the bus and into police custody. A few days ago, on a college campus in the city of Araraquara (state of São Paulo), racist graffiti in reference to African immigrant students was discovered written on a wall. Revisiting my previous question, I ask, in Brazil, is there a rejection of immigrants of color? Read the stories and come to your own conclusions.
‘She just wanted to humiliate us’ say African students about police racism in Porto Alegre
February 4, 2012
Africans are still trying to understand racist actions of the police in Porto Alegre.
When they came to Brazil in search of professional development, Sagesse Kalala Ilunga, 21, and Tibule Sedjro Aymar, 22, thought they were landing in the country of football and beautiful beaches. Little did the two Africans that, besides meeting people and learn a new language, know of the most negative attributes in humans. Words such as racism, discrimination and prejudice would become a part of the everyday vocabulary of the two young men.
Sagesse, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tibule, from Benin, have been in Porto Alegre since the beginning of last year to study Portuguese – a compulsory requirement of an agreement between the Brazilian government and African countries, then the two will enter the Federal University of Rio Grande (FURG), where they will study Biology and Oceanology respectively.
Having been in Brazil for almost a year, Portuguese flows with relative ease, though with an unmistakable French accent. They still can’t avoid the sound “tri” coming out from time to time.
But this is definitely not the best word to describe what happened to the two on Rio Grande do Sul soil. Perhaps ignorance and unpreparedness are two words that fit well with the attitude of the military police on the morning of January 17 when they pointed a gun at Sagesse and Tibule on a bus simply because they were black.
They were going downtown to meet a friend and then to the Federal Police to renew their visas to remain in Brazil for another year. Sitting in the back of a bus coversing in French, they realized that the police officer that was present wouldn’t stop staring at them.
Sagesse: “She only wanted to humiliate us.”
“I started to feel sick. Why was she looking at us like that?” Sagesse questions, still trying to understand what happened that morning. After a phone call for reinforcement, the police ordered the bus stopped immediately, drew her gun, pointed to the pair of Africans and yelled: “Get off the bus with your hands on your head.”
Immediately, all passengers lowered their heads. Sagesse Tibule and wanted to do the same, not understanding that, for the present authority, the problem was exactly them. “It was then that I realized that she was talking to us. I said that we were foreignors and asked what we had done, but she just kept telling me to shut up,” recalls the Congolense man.
Terrified and not knowing what would make an officer point a gun at them on a full bus, the two went down, with their hands always on their heads and in front of the scope of the revolver, and were received by three cars and a Military Brigade motorcycle. On the way off the bus, Tibule even dropped his cell phone, and when he stooped to pick up, he was stopped by the police officer, that cocked her gun and did not allow him to make any movement.
With his hands leaning on the bus, being observed by all who were on the public transport, besides the crowd of onlookers who had gathered, Tibule and Sagesse were searched by other police officers, while the officer stood there with her gun pointed at them.
She asked why the two were talking among themselves and looking at her. Little did the officer know the two Africans themselves were wondering about the continuous, suspicious looks coming from her direction. Outside of the bus, when asked this question, Sagesse did not hesitate to respond. “Yes, we were talking. We no longer have the right to talk?”
As the officer understood everything he said, he was reprimanded with a cranky “shut up!” Sagesse decided to say nothing more. In French, he advised that Tibule also keep quiet fearing the wrath of the police. “Don’t say anything else, Tibule, they can take us anywhere,” he said.
Tibule, visibly upset with the situation, shaking his head from side to side as a sign of disagreement. As a reward for his dissatisfaction, he was put in a chokehold before being handcuffed to Sagesse and taken to a Military Police station.
“I thought that maybe we had been mistaken for wanted criminals. I thought they would let us go after they frisked us because they didn’t find anything. I wasn’t understanding this anymore,” recalls Sagesse. In the police station, the two confirmed with their documents what prejudice had prevented the police from seeing: that they were foreigners that were studying Portuguese at UFGRS. They were released, but refused to leave.
“We wanted to know why we had been detained. As we insisted on asking, a black police officer said, pointing to his skin, ‘Don’t you know that in Brazil this has always happened and will happen again?’”. Thus, hearing this from the military brigade itself that they had been taken off the bus, handcuffed and taken to a police station just for being black, the two Africans left the scene and immediately got in touch with friends to find out how to deal with the incident.
“In my country, the police do not suspect a person just because he is white.”
The first time that Sagesse Ilunga Kalala felt that he had been discriminated against for being black was in Brazil. It was more specifically in a supermarket city in Igrejinha, another city in Rio Grande do Sul. “The security guards were behind me the whole time. There were a lot of people inside, but it was only me and my friend that were followed by security as if we were criminals. I didn’t understand,” says the Congolese man, who decided to leave the premises without buying anything.
Tibule Aymar Sedjro also feels the burden of what it is to be black in a country where, despite centuries of miscegenation, racism is still a daily reality. “When a negro walks into a store, it is common for security guards keep looking to see if he will steal something. I don’t know why, if everyone is equal. But they don’t observe whites in the same way,” laments the youth from Benin.
Living in Rio Grande do Sul for nearly a year, Tibule has learned a sad lesson of history that needs no national studies to be proven. “Racism is stronger in the South than elsewhere in Brazil,” he explains.
Nearly three weeks after the traumatic episode of the detention on a bus in Porto Alegre, the two Africans now speak calmly about it and are still trying to understand why a cop would have done all of this just because they were black. In the history of their lives, there is no cultural, social, political or psychological reference to justify the attitude of the Military Brigade on January 17th of this year.
Coming from African countries, they can’t understand how someone can be discriminated against solely because he is black. “In my country the police do not suspect a person just because he is white. Never. I’m only experiencing racism in Brazil,” he explains.
Tibule is still piecing together the ethnic and behavioral board in order to try and find an answer. “I don’t know if it all happened just because I am black or because I am African,” he says.
The two young men have not told their parents about the incident. Sagesse doesn’t want to worry his mother, who was always against his visit to Brazil. “As a kid I liked Brazil. In Africa everyone knows it is a wonderful country. My mother would not let me go, she was afraid of drug trafficking and the slums (favelas), but I told her that this was only shown in the movies. I have friends who have already lived here and told me that there was racism, but I didn’t believe it, I thought they were saying this to scare me. I never thought that it would be true “, says the Congolese, who still thinks of a way to tell his mother that he was handcuffed by the police just for being black.
Tibule only told his brother what happened and is still trying to find something parallel to something that may have happened in their homeland. “I’ve never seen police pointing a gun at someone for no reason in Benin” he says. And he confesses that he was afraid of being unfairly prosecuted by the Military Police. “I was scared, I thought that they could put drugs in our backpack, that would change everything,” he believes.
Sagesse account: “She said something about my shoes, I didn’t quite understand. I said what’s the deal with my shoes? My shoes didn’t do anything!”
Tormented with a loaded gun pointed in his direction, Sagesse had no time to do many mental conjectures. Nearly three weeks after the episode, he confesses that he also felt fear. But not of being arrested. “I was afraid of dying because she had a loaded gun pointed at us. She could have done something wrong and someone on the bus could have died. It was a great shock, I thought my life would end that day,” he confesses.
Today, he believes that the cop wanted to humiliate them. But I still do not understand why. “She just wanted to humiliate us. Everybody was talking on the bus, only the two of us didn’t have that right?” he asks.
The Military Brigade have not divulged the name of the officer that initiated the arrest and have already initiated a Military Police Inquiry to investigate the case. Furthermore, the commander of the unit has met with both young men and apologized for what happened.
Despite the episode, Sagesse and Tibule are following their convictions to stay in the country. “We want to stay in Brazil. But we are suspicious of the police. How is it that the police force that should protect people threatens us? It’s complicated … I do not want that to happen again,” he laments.
Racial intolerance at UNESP in Araraquara
April 16, 2012
On April 5, 2012, students from the Faculty of Letters and Science of UNESP in Araraquara passed through the underground area on their way to the academic space, when they came across the following graffiti on the wall: “No quotas for African animals.” The sentence was directed at African students from the Student Program-Undergraduate Agreement – PEC-G, which offers the opportunity for higher education to citizens of developing countries with which Brazil has educational and cultural agreements.
According to Professor Dagoberto José Fonseca, there has already been a request to open an inquiry to the internal management of the campus, which is responsible for taking necessary measures for the resolution of this episode. The teacher points out that in May, there were several events to commemorate the anniversary of Africa. “The Group African Union – (UA- Grupo União Africana) during the celebrations, will put this matter on the agenda for discussion. We will then formally submit this case to the Ministry of Justice, Education and Foreign Relations”, he says.
The post-doctoral student in chemistry Phanuel Saroni Arwa, a native of Kenya, said he was surprised by the incident. According Phanuel, cases like this can’t happen within a university as important as Unesp. “I do not study Letters here, I study Chemistry. There, I have a good relationship with other students, not only Brazilians but also foreigners. When I studied in Germany I went through some trouble, because there the people are very closed, unlike the Brazilians that are very friendly and responsive”, he says.
To Saroni, what happened at UNESP in Araraquara was an isolated incident. “When In return to my country I want to take a good picture of Brazil. This incident has to be fought in order not to tarnish the image of Brazilians out there.” Sumbunhe N’Fanda , a student from Guinea – Bissau said that he is afraid that events like these can affect your day-to-day routine in the city of Araraquara. “We don’t know what what the intentions were of those involved in this episode of racial prejudice. We are participants of a legal agreement. In Brazil there are not only Africans who are part of the PEC-C G. We have students from other continents. But why is it that only Africans are persecuted. Is it that the animals are really the African students?”
A student of Social Sciences, Maxwell Martin, said that he was embarrassed when he came across the graffiti with the repudiation against African students. “I support not only the presence of Africans, but also other students. The world view, the experience and knowledge they bring is extremely essential to our learning”, he said. For Maxwell, “those responsible must be punished. In Brazil, students and academics, we cannot remain silent about this situation, “he concludes.
The reaction of the Board of the Faculty of Letters and Science of UNESP in Araraquara was sought, but so far they have not released a statement.