Note from BW of Brazil: The rising trend of tens of thousands of Afro-Brazilian women coming to accept and wearing their hair in its natural state or in an African-oriented style is a major theme on this blog and some of our readers may even ask why stories of so many women making the transition is such a big deal here. Well, as the motto of the Encrespa Geral expo presented in yesterday’s posts tells us, Não é Só por Cabelo, or ‘it‘s not just for hair’. Throughout Brazil’s history, almost everything that signaled a connection to Africa has been frowned upon: African-oriented religions, very dark skin and perhaps the greatest reason black women are most likely to face discrimination, cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair). But this discrimination goes far beyond just rude or subtle comments (“you would look so much better if you straightened your hair”) or the socially-accepted value system that dictates what is ‘cabelo bom’ (good hair) and what is ‘cabelo ruim’ (bad hair); it can also be the determining factor of whether or not someone gets a job (see here or here) or keeps the job they already have. And with the natural hair movement becoming more and more popular throughout the country, the issue of the way black women wear their hair is increasingly turning into a battle ground. And today’s story is a perfect example why I wrote that. The Mundo Negro site posted a comment by the former employee at a multinational marketing/PR relations firm summarizing what happened:
“‘I worked in a multinational and like all ambientes brancos (white environments), there was quite a bit of prejudice until one day the president, in front of the whole team, ordered me to remove my braids,” said Luanna Teófilo that had seen several racist comments during the time she worked in the company but never in such a direct way as “Tira isso”, (meaning ‘take that out’), uttered in a loud tone by the president of the company that concluded that Luanna tranças (braids) were inappropriate for the workplace.”
To add injury to the original insult of this story, as you will see, the case actually took on an international relevance as the company’s American headquarters basically co-signed on its Brazilian affiliate’s actions! Global racism at its finest! Here’s the full story.
Black worker employee humiliated and dismissed after denouncing racism
A black employee was ridiculed for wearing braids and eventually fired for denouncing her boss for discrimination; case occurred in a large São Paulo marketing company.
By Matheus Moreira with additional information courtesy of Mundo Negro
A black woman worker, aged 35, working in the sales department of PR Newswire, a marketing and public relations firm in São Paulo, when, during a meeting, the company’s president, Thaís Antoniolli, upon entering the room, humiliated her for wearing braids. According to what was determined by the site Fórum, the boss asked the employee to undo her hairstyle and said he would call his lawyers after his comments were problematized as racist.
The employee reports that since joining the company, she has been discriminated against. In a meeting with her direct boss, she heard that she would need to prove their capabilities because, for everybody, she was “just a negrita”. Ignacio Kimberlan, sales manager, is Spanish and the word is often used pejoratively in her country of origin.
With a Master’s from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 and a Law degree from Mackenzie University (a prestigious school in São Paulo) (1), she says that she addressed her superiors and demanded that the necessary measures were taken. Otherwise, she would make a formal complaint to the Human Resources department of Pr Newswire. In response, she received the suggestion that the case be hushed up.
“So I said, ‘You can talk about my work, but don’t talk about my culture. Because the fact is: a mulher preta (black woman) wearing braids, wearing an afro, is not only a hairstyle, it’s culture. My hair is braided, it’s how it’s done in my culture, my family, my friends … women wear braids. I don’t have to submit myself to this cultura branca invisível (invisible white culture) that there is in the office,” she said.
In a meeting with the Human Resources department, the former employee and the boss were face to face. The president, according to her, quickly said that the reason they were there was because she had praised the hair of the former employee and that this would not have liked. Also during the meeting, the superior suggested that the employee was being “petulant” for requiring an apology to her and to colleagues who witnessed the scene.
“She said that the president was racist, prejudiced and that it was not professional. She then said I was racist and that she was married to a descendant of blacks and that if she was really racist, she wouldn’t have passed through the door,” she said (2). The former employee reports that, during this same meeting, many people complained of insults and the coarseness of the president.
“Then she called everyone to the meeting and told the HR manager to note that ‘no one would be fired as long as they tell the truth.’ When they all arrived, she asked, ‘does anyone here think I’m racist?’. No one answered,” she said.
At the end, the president asked the one responsible for the Human Resources department to call the lawyer because she “doesn’t accept being called a racist.”
The case was reported to the company’s US headquarters and staff was interviewed for over a week. The former PR Newswire employee made the police report against the president, her direct boss and the HR representative.
She also created a website called “Tira isso”, inspired by the episode. In the same week, the response from the US headquarters came back, pointing out that there no racial discrimination had happened. Realizing that there was nothing more to be done in the company, she started to divulge (the case) more intensely on the page.
On Tuesday (19), she had health problems and didn’t work the following day. On Thursday, she decided to resign and took her work card to the company. “When I arrived, I was called by employees, who have shown great support, asking if I could endure a little more because it would be carried out in five days. I was touched and decided to stay,” she said.
But on the same day, Luanna Teófilo was called by her boss into a meeting room, the occasion in which she was dismissed for reason of having a “poor performance”.
Witnesses, aggressiveness and threats
For the Fórum report, a source who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals, said the president went on to say that Luanna’s braids “would not sit well with customers.” As soon as the employee countered the offenses, pointing out racism, Thaís Antoniolli “threatened to call her lawyer to sue her for libel.”
In addition to racist, the source states that the president was known to be aggressive. “I heard that, with women of her team, she speaks like this: ‘Go on rebolar a bundinha (shaking your asses) at customers, which is what they like””, she said.
Another official, who also declined to be named, said the president found out about the Luanna’s publication on her page, where the reports occurred, and that it worsened the climate.
The Fórum report also found that, on Friday (21st), Thaís Antoniolli made a statement to employees, saying that it was all a misunderstanding and that appropriate action would be taken in the legal framework.
Sought for the report last week, PR Newswire hasn’t sent any note on the subject. On Monday (24th), the company assured that it would send its position on the complaint. Fórum received no response to the publication of this report.
Response from PR Newswire on what happened:
“PR Newswire, a global communication services, regrets the misunderstanding that occurred on its premises. The company repudiates any kind of intolerance and prejudice and highlights that it has a code of conduct and internal policies to establish a good relationship in the workplace, as well as ethical conduct in their business. Still, PR Newswire understands that this is an important issue and for this reason has devoted every effort to elucidate the episode, which is being duly properly clarified.”
Plans for the future
Luanna doesn’t intend to sit still after being fired. Her excellent training and international experience in France, Argentina and the US, will be used for her own businesses. “I have a business development company. At the moment I am working in parallel on two projects,” says Luanna who runs BAP Store, the online store of multicultural African products, pending the progress of the case.
- What we see here, once again, is that Afro-Brazilians, even having above average qualifications are held to aesthetic standards that go beyond job capability. This once again debunks the double denial of racism in Brazil in which people first deny that racism exists at all but after that is debunked, the belief is that once black people get an education and a good job, racism won’t apply, another ideology that has been consistently debunked. See here and here.
- A really weak defense here signalling a few things. 1) She doesn’t know that racism and racist sentiments have varying levels and simply because one doesn’t do or say one thing doesn’t automatically mean said person isn’t racist and 2) as is so common in a Brazil that sees itself as a ‘racial democracy’, this woman is either deceiving herself, lying or in fact really doesn’t believe that her comment/demand was racist.