Asked in the street if she does “cleaning work,” black historian Luana Tolentino replied, “No, I’m working on my masters. I’m a professor”

Luana Tolentino
Questionada se ‘faz faxina_, historiadora negra responde – ‘Não. Faço mestrado. Sou professora_
Luana Tolentino

Note from BW of Brazil: A native of the state of Minas Gerais, Luana Tolentino has been featured in a few previous posts on this blog. She appears today and touches on an issue that affects millions of black women across Brazil: the assumption that every black woman must do some sort of service work as an occupation. It speaks volumes on how the place of black women (and black people in general) in the social imagination has changed very little since slavery officially ended in Brazil in 1888. Over the years just on this blog, we’ve seen stories of professional black women being mistaken for prostitutes, a Carnaval dancer, a nanny and a makeup artist when they are in fact lawyers, scientists, dentists and television reporter. As I’ve been covering this for a number of years, I’m not surprised, but what does this say about Brazil when so many black women struggle so much to attain success in life and they continue to be thought of as “the help”?

Luana Tolentino

Asked if she does “cleaning work,” black historian replies, “No, I’m working on my masters. I’m a professor”

In a revealing story, the historian Luana Tolentino, who was once a nanny and domestic servant and who received the Medalha da Inconfidência (Medal of the Inconfidência) (see note one) in 2016, told of this and other experiences that she went through in her life due to institutional racism rooted in our country. “In the social imagination, the idea is that we blacks should occupy only functions of low pay and that demand little education.” Read the whole story below:

By Luana Tolentino

Today a lady stopped me in the street and asked if I did cleaning work

Aloof and confident, I replied:

– No. I’m taking my masters. I’m a professor.

I didn’t hear another word from her mouth. I think incredulity and embarrassment prevented her from saying anything.

I wasn’t offended by the question. During one passage of my life, I cleaned houses, washed bathrooms, and cleaned yards. It was with the money I received that on several occasions that I helped my mother to buy food and I was able to pay the first period of college.

What makes me indignant and saddened is to realize how numbed people are by racist ideology. Yes. She only asked if I did cleaning work because I carry in my body dark skin.

In the social imagination, the idea is that we blacks should occupy only functions of low pay and that require little education. When it comes to black women, our place is expected to be that of the maid, cleaning lady, general services, nanny, scrap paper collector.

It was this look that made the doorman ask me on my first day of work if I was looking for a general service vacancy. It is this mentality that led a doorman to ask if I was the cleaning lady of a friend I visited. It is this racist construction that induced a receptionist from awarding ceremony of the Medalha da Inconfidência, the highest honor granted by the Government of the State of Minas Gerais, to question if I was invited by someone, when in fact, I was one of the honorees.

It doesn’t matter the paths that life leads me, the spaces that I pass through, the titles that I will have, the prizes I receive. Questions like that made by the lady who doesn’t even know my name will at some point echo in my ears. This is what the great Master Milton Santos reminds us:

“When one is black, it is evident that one cannot be anything else, only exceptionally will one not be the poor one. (…) He will not be humiliated because the central issue is daily humiliation. No one escapes, no matter how rich.”

This is what Angela Davis also says. And it goes beyond. According to the black American intellectual, there will always be someone to call us “macaca/macaco” (monkey). From an early age, whites know that no other insult hurts our soul and our dignity so deeply.

Racism is a scourge of humanity. Racist demonstrations will hardly be completely extirpated. As a result, Angela Davis encourages us to focus all our efforts on combating institutional racism.

It is institutional racism that creates mechanisms for the construction of images that depreciate and undermine us.

It is it that pushes the black population into poverty and misery. In Brazil, “a pobreza tem cor. A pobreza é negra” (poverty has color. Poverty is black).

It is institutional racism that prevents crimes of racism from being punished.

It also imposes on the black population the highest rates of illiteracy and school dropout.

It is institutional racism that “authorizes” the police to execute young blacks with rifle shots to the head, nape and back.

It is institutional racism that makes black women the biggest victims of maternal mortality.

It is institutional racism that alienates blacks from power spaces.

Institutional racism is our greatest enemy. It is against it that we must fight.

The recent approval of the quota policy in UNICAMP (University of Campinas) and USP (University of  São Paulo) shows that we are on the right track.

SourceRevista Fórum


  1. The Medalha da Inconfidência (Medal of the Inconfidência) is the highest commendation granted by the government of the state of Minas Gerais, attributed to personalities that contributed to the prestige and projection of Minas Gerais.
About Marques Travae 2924 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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