Note from BW of Brazil: The recent stories we’ve been carrying here on elite blacks that are part of Brazil’s richest 1% are quite revealing in the personal experiences of what’s its like to be black and not restricted to poverty, humble origins and a lack of access to the finer things in life that is expected of this population. These stories wouldn’t be strange if they were told by successful blacks of the United States, Argentina, Peru or any other place in world that is dominated by white supremacy and where blacks are expected to belong to that particular country’s lower classes. Like others who have spoken about their experiences in Brazil’s elite circles, the subject of today’s article provides yet another example of how Brazil’s race-oriented class structure envisions and continuously seeks to keep black Brazilians ‘in their place’ even when they’ve never been part of the popular classes that all blacks are assumed to belong to.
And while we’re on this subject, I would like to make a clarification. There will always be those who, in an attempt to downplay the role of race in social inequality patterns in Brazil, will always say something like, “Why are you making this about race? There are poor white Brazilians too!” In response I would say, yes, there are many poor white Brazilians, no one denies this. But the issue is race because there is simply no way to deny this factor.
Of the 16.2 million Brazilians living in extreme poverty (approximately 8.5% of the population), with income equal to or less than R$70 per month, 70.8% are black. And even with the gains made by the black population over the past decade, these vast inequalities still persist. And beyond the actual numbers, the association between race and class affects black people in ways that it doesn’t affect whites. If a poor white person were ever to climb out of his/her humble beginnings to middle or upper class status, no one would automatically assume that they started off poor. The privilege of white skin, which certainly exists in Brazil gives them a “pass” in terms of who is assumed to be poor. For blacks, on the other hand, they are ALWAYS automatically assumed to be poor and if they are part of the middle/upper classes, it is assumed that they are recent additions to these classes, even if they’re not, as the story below shows us.
Why I invented a ‘poor childhood’ to fit into the stereotype of the successful black woman
By Noemia Colonna*
I never had a poor childhood. But the “overcoming of poverty” was part of my biography as I reported throughout my life, often answering questions about “how I got where I am.”
I was born in the mid-70s, in a family of 11 children in the newly built Brasília (1). My father, an engineer surveyor, my mother, a housewife. A black man who could maintain his wife and many children with three cars, his own home, appliances, domestic workers and with annual holiday travel could not be poor.
My mother had two maids to help her with the children during the long absences of my father, who, with his theodolite in hand, lead land measurements in the Planalto Central. In addition to the two girls, there was a housekeeper that also acted as a driver for the sports car and two vans owned by my father, used especially to drive his “nursery” – as he referred to us, his children.
Our life changed after the sudden death of my father in 1988, at age 52; he lost his life stupidly in a car accident. Months before, my older brother died of diabetes at age 21.
My mother couldn’t maintain the standard that my father had given us. She took work as a farmer’s market vendor. I was 13 and, with my older siblings I started to help her maintain the family. We plummeted from the top of the pyramid.
Looking at these two stages of my life, I begin to wonder: why did I cling to the narrative of poverty that I faced in adolescence and not to the solid middle-class background in my childhood that I reported above – and that I hardly mention?
The answer lies in the disbelief that I got used to confronting early on.
I remember the day in which my father had to go to school to confirm the story of my brother that we had traveled to Rio de Janeiro and seen the Atlantic Ocean.
His account after the vacation was met with laughter by colleagues. We were branded as liars. To mention any sign of the privileged life that we had was treated with suspicion, derision. “Are you relatives of Pelé?”, some would say sarcastically.
Interestingly, I only stopped to think about it when, working with BBC Brasil in the series of articles about blacks that are part of the richest 1% of the country, we came across a picture of my father, surrounded by children in front of the mahogany bookcase that we had in the room with the best of Brazilian and world literature.
“What poor family has a mahogany bookcase?”, was the question asked by the publisher, remembering an initial conversation in which I reported the difficulties faced by my family.
Transiting in elite places, whether at work, socially, and even in the neighborhood where I live, I notice that, to the eyes of common sense, an educated black woman, well-groomed and self-confident astonishes many people.
Almost always, the first impression is that I am “stuck up” or arrogant. It’s the stereotype: if a black person is not subordinate, he/she is subversive. And as such, unpleasant and dangerous. You have to lower yourself in order not to bother (people).
I went through traumatic experiences at the university and at work. Already a journalist, I had a boss who ridiculed my opinions, using sarcasm disguised as a joke. In meetings of the agendas, when I said something, she cut me off saying, “Oh, this neguinha (little black girl), I’ll tie her to the tronco (slave whipping post), she’s talking too much.”
Everyone laughed except me. That hurt. Unmoved, I asked to continue, in which she replied: “Go my Glória Maria (2), continue, but not too much, otherwise the tronco will have to be very thick.” You know how it is, affectionate jokes (after all, I was her Glória Maria, which implied competence) pardons any discrimination.
These facts were unfortunately not isolated. I had to leave the country and become a foreigner to discover that the color of my skin and my way of being didn’t have the least importance in the eyes of different people than from my surroundings in Brazil.
I lived in Denmark, a predominantly white country. There, I have done my Masters in Communication. I had classmates and teachers of all colors and from every part of the planet. All spoke English with an accent (to the Danes).
Everyone there was “strange.” And there, strangely, I felt “normal”. My opinions were heard and I didn’t perceive that instant dislike that I was used to provoking. In that place, my color was not relevant, it didn’t make the least difference (3).
I have great faith that my son could feel like this in his own country. I think, to get there, we must continue denouncing racism. It’s shocking to see the constant attempts of some people to sort of “mimimi” (whine about) (4) any attempt of groups that are known to face discrimination, including blacks, to denounce what is, in many cases, a crime.
“It’s whining”, they cry mainly under the protection of distance and often times in the anonymity of the internet. They want to “whine”, or better, mislabel it “whining” to disregard fundamental experiences in order for Brazilian society to go forward not to disunity, but to heal wounds and avoid new ones. Is it “whining” to complain about the tronco joke?
But we can’t reserve for blacks only the space of suffering, humiliation. Positive stories are fundamental, they can’t be ignored. I tried to bring a little of that look to the BBC Brasil series, which led me to analyze my own story.
I won’t ask permission to enter the 1% club, (with my) head down, speaking of overcoming poverty and trials. In order not to be called a liar, in order not to hear the laughter my brother heard when reporting about our trip to the Atlantic, I ended up adopting the discourse of a liar.
Next time someone asks me how I got where I am, I will respond yes, we go through difficulties, but I didn’t get anywhere, I was already born among the 1%, with a standard of living that I would like to see shared by all Brazilians.
* Noemia Colonna is a journalist from the Catholic University of Brasília, a Master in Communication from the University of Copenhagen, media professor at the Centro Universitário de Brasília (Universitarian Center of Brasília – UniCEUB) and a federal public servant. For ten years she was host and audiovisual professional in public and institutional TV. Currently, she does research on Media, Gender and Race and is a contributor to BBC Brasil. This article is part of the series that delves into the world of blacks who are part of the richest 1% of Brazil.
- The construction of the nation’s capital, Brasília, was completed in 1960 and became the headquarters of the Federal Government replacing Rio de Janeiro.
- A reference to the famous journalist Glória Maria, one of Brazil’s first nationally recognized black women reporters. Interestingly, Maria has also pointed out how Brazil has a discomfort with seeing successful blacks.
- It is intriguing to note how successful black Brazilians often feel that they are treated more like people outside of Brazil. For example, see one woman’s experience in Finland, another woman’s experience in Germany or a former maid’s success story in England after having faced racism in Brazil. These stories speak volumes for how Brazil likes to portray itself as place where “we are all equal” but is seen in a completely different light when Afro-Brazilians have a chance to speak on their experiences and tell very different stories.
- This idea that black Brazilians are “whining” when they share experiences with racism has popped up in a number of previous articles. See here.