Note from BW of Brazil: In order to adequately tackle the problems of racism, the racial hierarchy and white supremacy in Brazil, there are several issues that must be addressed. One, is simply providing more opportunities for afrodescendentes to climb the ladder of success in society. Affirmative action policies that have been implemented over the course of the past decade have opened many doors to attaining the education to make this possible, although there is still a long ways to go for Afro-Brazilians to reach full equality with the white population.
Another issue that must be discussed and addressed is the image that is associated according to the race of each group. Brazilians live under a number of myths that dominate the collective consciousness of the nation. Of course, the myth of racial democracy is the first that comes to mind. But another myth is such that people, when they do accept that racial discrimination actually exists, they also often believe that 1) the problem is over-exaggerated or 2) once persons from the discriminated group attain a certain education, level of success, high salary and higher class status, this problem will cease to exist. Well, as we’ve seen in a number of previous articles (here, here or here), it doesn’t quite work out that way. As racial stereotypes have existed for centuries in Brazil, people often automatically make assumptions about black and white Brazilians simply based on racial associations.
For example. If a white man is wearing a suit and tie and walking around in the business district, one will assume that he is a businessman, CEO or a lawyer. But if one sees a black man pull up in an expensive car and enter a ritzy restaurant, many will automatically assume that he must be 1) an athlete, 2) a musician or even 3) a foreigner. These stigmas also apply to black women. As such, even having an advanced scientific degree, if a black women is seen in an upper class establishment, it will often be assumed that she is either a Carnaval dancer or worse, a prostitutea prostitute. Which is why society must become more accustomed to seeing black people in a variety of social settings. The subject of the story below knows this quite well as she is part of the small group of Afro-Brazilians who are a part of the country’s 1% income bracket.
‘I was mistaken for a prostitute on my honeymoon’
By Noemia Colonna
The public servant Mônica Valéria Gonçalves, 47, was born in Rio de Janeiro, has two top-level degrees, works as a legal adviser in a court in Brasília and is married to a judge.
She often travels on vacation inside and outside the country. With family or friends, she goes to starred restaurants and the elite social events. She lives in Lago Sul, an upscale neighborhood of the Federal District, and leads a typical life of Brazilians who, like her, are part of the 1% richest.
The difference is the color of her skin. She’s a minority in the statistics and often the only “non-service” black woman in environments she frequents. In social events accompanying her husband, she has been mistaken for his secretary. In academia, for an employee.
“I’m mistaken a lot,” she says. “In the academia, it’s common to see black people doing housekeeping, teaching a class or tending to reception. Outside of these activities, I never saw another black student,” he says.
The “confusion” that most impressed her, however, occurred 22 years ago while on her honeymoon in Fortaleza.
“My husband and I were staying in a luxury hotel. We were taking a walk on the edge of the beach, on New Year’s Eve when a man touched my body and openly harassed me. I was shocked and yelled at him, who apologized saying he thought I was there with a white man fazendo programa (turning a trick),” she recalls.
“It didn’t cross his mind that this man was my husband, married with a Bachelor of Law and owner of my own income,” she says. “It’s as if, as a black woman, I could not be such a person, or be there in that place. I have been harassed several times, even when young. I even came to think that it was my fault.”
Obstacles of prejudice
The only person in her family to ascend socially, Mônica has overcome many obstacles in her way.
“All my life I had to prove I was very good in everything I would do. I ended up getting used to it because, if I am the exception, I have to be the exception for excellence. If not, I can be judged as much by the quality of my work as for my color. I’m judged twice,” she says.
“At work, the two times I managed to get to the office head it was with black ministers. My expertise is the same, but only other blacks recognize this. Why does this happen?”
The public servant reports often being the only black in elite environments
She says that her social position “softens prejudice” in some situations, making her better treated in some places. At other times, however, discrimination speaks even louder.
“I can most see the bias when, for example, if I ask the price of a product in a store, the person, instead of telling me, says, ‘It’s expensive.’ This has already happened to me. I went to buy a jacket and the salesperson, after telling me it was expensive, was disconcerted when I requested paid in full. I will impose myself, showing that I am exactly the opposite of the idea that people make of me.”
The estrangement of the society to the presence of the public servant in elite places is explained by Emerson Rocha, sociologist and researcher at the University of Brasília (UnB), in his 2015 study on the participation of black people among the richest.
According to him, blacks are still seen as a “foreign body” in these spaces.
“In Brazil, there is no open racial segregation as in the US. Here, this inequality is accommodated in the class structure that fulfills the role of segregation,” he explained to BBC Brasil.
But this, the researcher noted, doesn’t mean that it’s enough for blacks to ascend economically to be accepted. On the contrary: the more steps he climbs the socioeconomic ladder, the greater the distance from the “natural space” and hence the racism faced on a daily basis.
“When a black occupies a profession that is expected of him – that is, the subaltern – people don’t notice now, when it comes to exercising more privileged functions or attending elite spaces, it becomes something unusual and then there is an estrangement from society, which often comes in soft or aggressive form of racist attitudes,” he adds.
Rocha also highlights a second feature of the life experience of the civil servant: she not only represents an exception to the part of the richest 1% of the country, but also for being a black woman married to a white man of equivalent educational level.
The teacher’s study indicates that intermarriage between people at the top of the Brazilian pyramid, like that of Mônica, happen more between homens negros (black men) and mulheres brancas (white women) than the other way around.
Black women marry less than white women and, when rich or highly educated, they tend not to marry. And when they do, they do so with partners of lesser social status, which can be white or black.
“White women are racially endogamous: they marry more with partners of the same race. Contrary to black women, they don’t experience loneliness or social demotion because, when rich, they marry with men of the same social level and white,” explains the sociologist.
In his assessment, this reality would be one of the reasons why women like Mônica may suffer the harassment experienced by her on her honeymoon.
Common sense says, still seeing the black woman in a sexualized way: if she frequents luxury places like hotels or five star restaurants accompanied by a white man, she’ll be liable to be mistaken for a prostitute.
“All this is due to the naturalized vision of society that sees this woman in the stereotype of the sensual figure or servant or maid,” says Rocha.
Mônica today letter strip living with a small number of blacks among the richest, but worries about the future.
She is the mother of an eight year old girl and wishes the changes for a more egalitarian society in the category of race would come faster.
Her daughter, Letícia, studies in a traditional and bilingual private school, which is also exception. “There are more than 200 children. Negras (black girls), only my daughter and another girl who is the daughter of an employee,” says the civil servant.
This report is part of a series about the experiência de negros (black experience) that, like Mônica, are part of the richest 1% of the population.
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 is still far from representing the weight of the declared black population (pretos and pardos) which corresponds to 53.6% of Brazilians, according to the 2010 Census.