Becoming a black woman: an identity in process

Becoming...Fernanda

Note from BW of Brazil: If you have followed this blog for any amount of time you’ve probably noticed that the question of identity is something discussed frequently here. That’s because it is a question and discussion that is necessary in order get a better understanding of the racial maze that Brazil can be. If one was born in the United States, for example, it may appear a confusing to understand how Brazil can be proclaimed the nation with the second-largest black population in the world when only about 7-8% of percent of the people identify themselves as preto (black) (see here and here). As Brazil never mandated a “one-drop rule”, for many, who is black in Brazil is still a debate. But simply because the “one-drop rule” was never mandated by law, the country’s power structure still carries itself as if this rule of “hypodescent” (as some have called it) does actually existed.

The lack of an official “one-drop rule” combined with the policy of embranquecimento (whitening) and a widespread negative stigma associated with blackness contributed to a deeply ingrained avoidance of blackness that remains dominant in the society today. Unlike in a country like the US where one usually learns from a very young age that they are black, this type of discussion often doesn’t happen within Brazilian households which often makes the development of a black identity a struggle for many persons of visible African ancestry (Elaine Vilorio, an American of Dominican origins, explains her process as “Coming Out As Black” in a two-part piece at Huffington Post). The piece below written by Fernanda Souza (photo) exemplifies this struggle perfectly. 

Becoming a black woman: an identity in process

by Fernanda Souza

“(…) We are born preta (black), mulata, parda, brown, roxinha (a little purple) among others, but becoming negra (black) (1) is an achievement.” (Lélia Gonzalez)

“How (does one) to form an identity around color and non self-acceptance of blackness by the majority whose future was projected in the dream of branqueamento (whitening)?” (Munanga, p. 137, 2004)

My entire life I saw myself as a parda (brown), morena, mulata, mestiça (mixed race), but never, under any circumstances, negra (black). Although having blacks uncles and cousins, besides my late grandmother being black, I didn’t not recognize as such because of not thinking my parents were black, because I believed in the idea that blacks were only those people who had darker skin and my father and my mother could be seen, even by themselves, as mestiços and not as negros. That’s where we have one of the great subtleties while one of the biggest problems for racial consciousness in the country: the mestiço. The mestiço, as an intermediate category between white and black, is a result of the long process of mestiçagem (racial mixture) that marks Brazil. Mestiço here should be understood primarily as someone who is the child of a interracial couple (in this case, I refer to the union between a black man/ white woman and white man/black woman) and can also, to facilitate understanding of the text, be understood as someone who, even though not being the son/daughter of an interracial couple but of black parents, having lighter skin and had/has difficulty in defining themselves as black. Again I reiterate: this extension of the concept of “mestiço” is only to help in the understanding of the text and not to have to use the term “non-white” because it encompasses other ethnic groups, such as indigenous and neither “pardos (browns)”, because I find it politically innocuous for a text that will discuss mainly mestiçagem and the difficulty of asserting a racial-ethnic identity.

Miscegenation constitutes the cornerstone of the myth of racial democracy, whose central idea is that we are mestiços, the result of interbreeding between the three races – white, Indian and Black – which occurred through a contact and a harmonious coexistence between the three – forgetting that this process started from the rape of black women enslaved by plantation masters and there is nothing harmonious about it – and, in this sense, here there doesn’t exist so much discrimination and racial prejudice and people recognize themselves first as Brazilian than from a racial-ethnic identity of the oppressed, because as the myth of racial democracy dissolves, it mitigates and obscures the tensions, conflicts and racial prejudices present in Brazil, as Kabengele Munanga (2004) pointed out.

This can be exemplified by the discourses of those who oppose racial quotas because “we are all mestiços” or because in Brazil “it’s difficult to know who is black” (although the police know exactly who is and who is not, even in recent times, with so many blacks being murdered in the suburbs, right?), besides the discourse, very convenient for those who are mounted upon a number of privileges and have never been oppressed, of that “prejudice is in the head of who sees it”, coming to the extreme of saying, in a demonstration of complete ignorance and bad faith, that “racism was invented by blacks themselves.” After all, we are victims of an invented and historically consolidated discrimination invented by ourselves and has nothing to do with the development of commercial capitalism from  European expansion in the fifteenth century, which resulted in the contact of Europeans with non-white populations, like Africans, in which racism was constructed ideologically and politically as a system of exploitation and domination from the denial of humanity of blacks, that as such, then justified the enslavement of millions of Africans.

The myth of racial democracy, coupled with the ideal of branqueamento (whitening), refurbished, maintained and distributed by ideological apparatuses such as school, family and the media, which convey values ​​that reinforce a supposed white racial and cultural superiority, makes a challenge the process of affirmation of a black identity in a racist society like Brazil. A challenge not only because black is inferiorized, discriminated against and constantly made invisible, but also by mixing, which creates a continuum of colors that are expressed in different skin tones, existing then, as many people say, “negros mesmos (really black)” the “negros de verdade (true blacks)” (people of darker skin) and “mestiços”, “café com leite (coffee with milk)”, “moreninhos (people of lighter skin).” These, in turn, in a racist country, where branqueamento is a value and a hegemonically established model to which we must seek to achieve, tend to deny and not assert any identity linked to blackness, trying at all costs to whiten oneself, once internalizing a negative self-image of one’s self, reinforced, for example, by a media that exalts and advertises only the beauty of white women.

Accordingly, we seek to erase, uselessly, any trace that refers to afrodescendência (African ancestry) starting with hair straightening, stimulated, often times, from childhood, which reaches centrally women. Here we have a standstill, in that the whiteness is configured primarily as a set of features that are inevitably linked to biological factors (skin color, straight hair, etc.) that a mestiça woman will never reach in a way that isn’t “artificial”, in spite of never being considered as white, after all, even straightening the hair, the skin color and features such as the mouth and nose will still refer to a blackness that one tries so hard to deny. This so widespread and ingrained ideal is, thus, impossible to be achieved and it constructs one of the greatest anxieties and also a form of violence that destroys the self-esteem of many women. Not being white and not considering oneself black, how is the process of affirmation of ethnic and racial identity of a mestiça woman or what we can later call lighter-skinned black women? It is here that I enter again into history.

"Tornar-se Negro" by Neusa Santos Souza. A classic study of the psychological tramas of blackness and identity in Brazil*
“Tornar-se Negro” by Neusa Santos Souza. A classic study of the psychological traumas of blackness and identity in Brazil*

Since I was eight years old my hair started to gain a lot of volume, showing itself as kinky/curly and remaining that way ever since, until, after several people, including my mother, encouraged me to “tame” my hair and “lower the volume” , I has my hair relaxed twice when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Besides the product stinking, it felt like it was attacking my hair rather than taking care of it, but as it was necessary to lower the volume, (because) after all, “kinky/curly hair is too much work”, I ended up settling for the situation. To radicalize then, once I used a flat iron and looking at myself in the mirror I thought it was horrible, because I thought that straight hair did not suit someone with such thick lips and a nose like mine. Everything seemed disproportionate and I felt ugly. Even today I look my graduation picture from elementary school, where I had straight hair with some distaste. From then I thought, “Well, if straight hair is ugly on me and I do not like my hair relaxed, I’ll take it as it is and this way it will be beautiful.” I informed my mother about this decision and she said she had no problem, though every now and then she would tell me that I should relax it again.

Upon arriving at high school, with my hair gradually losing the relaxing chemicals, I still didn’t feel good about myself, and to make matters worse, I was called “Maria Bethânia” (2) sometimes on the street and once they asked me if I didn’t know what a comb was. Because of not seeing myself as black, I didn’t like I was the target of racial discrimination, even though they would say that I had a “big mouth” or otherwise speak ill of my hair or even “play with it” in a way that bothered me deeply, trying to “hide” pens and pencils in it without me noticing. Even though I could be harshly criticized, I didn’t feel ashamed of my hair, really because one of my cousins, a hairdresser in a salon took care of kinky-curly hair, encouraged me to leave it natural and I then considered that taking care of my hair was crucial to my self-esteem. Throughout high school, I allowed people to call me morena or mulata and thought this was really a compliment, as I did not realize the burden of hyper-sexualization and objectification that those words brought. Anyway, at that time I didn’t have any possibility of me accepting myself as black, even though I was minimally conscious about racism. There were black men and women and there was me, in limbo between not being white but also not considering myself black.

Upon entering the University of São Paulo, in the course of Literature, a new world unfolded in front of me, where I had my first contact with not only upperclassmen, professors and freshmen like me, but also with the student movement, feminism and numerous other discussions and movements that I didn’t know. The process of discovery, scares and surprises in that I began to understand myself not only as a mere student, but also as a political subject and getting involved with the feminist collective course, I also understood as a conscious woman about sexism, oppressed by it and that I should also fight against it. It was then, from a friendship developed with a black woman, also a Literature student, Mayara, to whom I dedicate this text, that I began my process of “tornar-se negra (becoming black)” (Souza, 1990), that is, having consciousness about my blackness, in the measure in which she saw me as a black woman, she always considered me that way and talked to me a lot about racism. To be perceived by the other as black and at the same time still not perceiving myself that way made me reflect (on this) a lot.

At the feminist collective itself, primarily composed of white women, I realized that most of the girls considered a black woman and one of them even told me that I should help build and lead the freshman activity on the representation of black women in Brazilian literature (3), because there were few black women active in the collective and I was one of them. I was surprised when I heard this because I still didn’t consider myself black. (This person told me that maybe until today I didn’t know the importance that it had in the process for me, but when reading this text, I hope that she recognizes herself here and knows of my gratitude). After much thought, I concluded that it was obvious to everyone but me: “Eu sou uma mulher negra (I am a black woman)! I need to accept this!” Building the activity about the black woman and being able to count on the help of the other girls, who have always been very nice to me and contributed to what I am today with the numerous self-organized meetings, I could, then, in fact, feel like a black woman, I accept myself in that way and speak from that place. If they call me and tell me that I’m a morena, today I correct them with no problems: “Não, não sou morena, sou negra (No, I’m not morena, I’m black).”

Photo of the activity about the representation of the black woman in literature, organized by the feminist collective Marias Baderna in freshman reception week of 2013
Photo of the activity about the representation of the black woman in literature, organized by the feminist collective Marias Baderna in freshman reception week of 2013

I understand that the process of “becoming” black is primarily personal, but it also takes a political-ideological dimension in a highly racist society like ours, where branqueamento (whitening) still stands as an ideal, in that being white is a privilege that mestiçagem fragmented ethnic and racial identity in that mestiços try to position themselves closer to an unattainable whiteness than a blackness that is explicitly accepted in the heart of racial relations in Brazil, establishing itself as both resistance as a way to combat racism – before they get me wrong, it’s obvious I’m not opposed to mestiçagem, because it really is a natural process, but one needs to think about the implications that flow from it, much more political than merely biological, such as the desire to “lighten” the family and reduce the segment of the black population itself (Munanga, 2004). One must be conscious that, regardless of whether your skin is darker or lighter, you have features that refer to afrodescendência (African ancestry), a blackness, making you part of the large portion of the population that is oppressed by racism. Accepting one’s self as a black woman is an attitude, above all, politics. Black women of darker skin or black women with lighter skin, we are not in positions of power, we are not teaching in universities, we are not in the media as journalists or presenters, are not in the most prestigious courses, but we are cleaning the ground of these spaces, we are working as maids, we are living in the periferias (peripheries/outskirts of the cities), being rendered invisible and disrespected every day.

From straightening to black power (afro hairstyle), there is in all of us a path of resilience and resistance. And overcoming doesn’t mean forgetting, but knowing how to make of a bad experience a learning experience and a way of transforming it. Our transformation is the affirmation of black identity in permanent construction and constantly challenged from the moment we need to impose ourselves in all spaces with our hair, our color and our ways of being, creating and constructing ways to resist and respond to racist and sexist stares and discourses that try to reduce and objectify women simply because of being black, because we dare to leave the kitchen and the slave quarters to occupy, though not being in a expressive way as we wish, spaces of universities, businesses and all other spaces occupied mostly by whites. However, we know that our struggle is great, daily and for our entire lives. Black women who are still in the kitchen and in too many precarious jobs, it’s fitting for us to also help free them and pride themselves in who they are, and it’s fitting for us to encourage us who, attracted by the trap of branquemento, still not accepting themselves as black and suffering trying to achieve the unachievable: whitening themselves. This is all because our black identity is, above all, a collective identity. If unity is strength, the unity of us, black women, makes us, quoting Elza Soares (4), “subtly fighting for respect, fighting bravely for respect, fighting for justice and respect, of some ancestor of color.”

References

Munanga, Kabengele. Rediscutindo a mestiçagem no Brasil: Identidade nacional versus Identidade negra. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2004.

Souza, Neusa Santos. Tornar-se negro: ou as vicissitudes da identidade do negro brasileiro em ascensão social. Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1990.

Source: Blogueiras Negras

Notes

* – One of the works that most marked militants of the Movimento Negro (black movement) in Brazil was the book of the warrior Neusa Souza Santos Tornar-se Negro (Becoming Black) that “remembers how the negro rejects in many ways the exterior aspect of his being black and disguises when he/she can. It takes a rare degree of consciousness and value of identity for this accepted rejection or silent suffered reverses itself, and for the color and the body of the negro to come to be felt as the value of beauty without the duty of disguise.”

This book seeks to break the precariousness of studies on the emotional lives of blacks. Given the flaccid omission that psychoanalytic theory has dealt with this subject, the author presents profound and unsettling reflections on the emotional cost of subjection and the denial of their own culture and body. The black man or woman that strives to conquer the social ascension pays the price of the massacre of their identity, taking the white man/woman as a model of identification. Source

1. Although both the terms preta and negra mean black, for Movimento Negro activists, preta/preto signifies the actual color black while negro/negra refers to race or ethnicity. The term negra is not actually used in the Brazilian census although preta is one of the five categories. Preta and negra are also different in the fact that preta is generally used as a color, generally by darker-skinned persons of African ancestry while negra is used as an all-encompassing political identity that runs the gamut of phenotypes of persons who identify with their African ancestry. For more on color and racial classifications, see here.

2. Maria Bethânia Vianna Telles Veloso; (born June 18, 1946), known by her stage name Maria Bethânia, is a Brazilian MPB singer. Born in Santo Amaro, Bahia, she started her career in Rio de Janeiro in 1964 with the show “Opinião” (“Opinion”). Due to its popularity, with performances all over the country, and the popularity of her 1965 single “Carcará”, the artist became a star in Brazil. Bethânia is sister of the singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso and of the writer-songwriter Mabel Velloso, as well as being aunt of the singers Belô Velloso and Jota Velloso. The singer has released 50 studio albums in 47 years of career, and is among the 10 best-selling music artists in Brazil, having sold more than 26 million records. Source

3. Brazilian Literature is yet another genre that has rendered black women either completely invisible or presented them in stereotypical representations. For more on this, see here.

4. Featured in a few posts on this blog, read more about singer Elza Soares here.

About Marques Travae 3114 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

6 Comments

  1. Fascinating article! It illustrates just how complex the issues of race, identity and pride are for those with African ancestry left from slavery and miscegenation, not only in Brazil but I would say throughout the Americas. Even places that many think of as bastions of Black pride like Jamaica continue to struggle with the issues of color and blackness. Though the little island has produced the likes of Bob Marley (a mulatto or prado in Brazilian terms, yet a self identifying Black Man) and Jimmy Cliff (a Brazilian favourite who performed at the Maracana); I remember when Buju Banton a popular Jamaican dancehall artist courted controversy with his song “Love Mi Browning” which professed his attraction to light-skinned women, causing an uproar amongst many dark-skinned Jamaican women who viewed such comments as an insult towards their looks. To which, he quickly released a follow-up song “Love Black Woman”, to demonstrated that he had love for everyone.

    • Dear post/comment moderator,
      As you have determined that this is not a place for open debate and chosen to delete my other comments from other posts please remove/delete the aforementioned comment as well.

      • Juan: What comment of yours has been deleted? This blog supports open discussion as long as the language does not become vulgar or disrespectful. Very few if any comments have ever been deleted from the comments section.

  2. While I thank you for you response, I must insist. Two of my comments have been labeled awaiting comment moderator’s approval and then disappeared in response to comments which were equally egregious to any of the comments I’ve posted, yet their comments remain.

    • Hey Juan. It is possible that I may have overlooked your comment and not approved it because there are so many messages and ping-backs that must be approved I will search the archives. Do you happen to remember what post you commented on? As I wrote before, unless your comment was disrespectful or used very vulgar language it wouldn’t have been deleted, even if you disagreed with something. The blog encourages debate and discussion.

  3. This is why I prefer the term ‘afro-descendente’ over the term Black or ‘Negro’. I am 70% European and my skin is yellow, but it doesn’t stop the discrimination I face on a daily basis. I would like to simply identify myself as Black or ‘negro’, but a lot of my darker-skinned brothers do not like it, especially the ones who are from Africa, the Motherland. They are proud of their features even though they sympathize with my struggle as well, so I decided to call myself a ‘mestiço’ of African descent. My friends seem to like it that way and I think it will unite us all far better than saying we are all Black. A lot of ‘mestiços’ have been too contaminated by the White supremacist media in Brazil and elsewhere, but they are not stupid enough to believe they are not ‘afro-descendentes’ so uniting our people under the umbrella of ‘afro-descendencia’ seems to make things easier.

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