Note from BW of Brazil: Before I present today’s text I would like to provide a little background of how it came to be. It all started back in April of this year when I received a message from a guy who had read something on this blog. His name was Léo, a black man originally from Rio de Janeiro and who was currently working on his doctorate at a university in Finland. He came across an article on this blog that was written by Stephanie Ribeiro and approached the topic of black women being passed over by black men in their pursuit of white women. Numerous black women have written material, particularly in 2016, on the topic of what they call ‘palmiteiros’ and ‘palmitagem’. ‘Palmiteiro’ refers to black men who seem to have a preference for white women for romantic, long-term relationships, while ‘palmitagem’ relates to the phenomenon itself. ‘Palmitagem’, in the view of many black Brazilian women, was a least partly to blame for their difficulty in being able to secure long-lasting relationships. According to this theory, as both white AND black men fight over the affections of the white woman, black women are often left in a sort of imposed solitude/celibacy or continuously falling into the category of the woman who is good enough for a short-term/sexual relationship but not worthy of something more serious and long-lasting.
As I’ve pointed out in numerous articles, many black men who I’ve personally discussed the topic with or with whom I’ve debated the issue in social networks don’t seem to want to even engage in a discussion on the issue beyond the cliche that “amor não tem cor” (love has no color). I’ve always seen widespread usage of such a phrase as a cop-out in order to avoid a deeper analysis of the subject or as a way to avoid the idea that they in fact DO have a preference for white skin, straight hair and light-colored eyes but with the rise of black identity politics, they simply can’t/won’t admit it. And as the thought-provoking essays written by black women began to pile up, I wanted my readers to be assured that if any black men wanted to address the issue beyond “amor não tem cor” his opinion would be welcome on this blog. Since that time, Caio Cesar dos Santos expressed his thoughts in “We need to recognize our ‘palmitagem’, the preference for white skin”, Fala Pretinho brought us “Hyper-sexualization and the self-esteem of the black man”, and Fabio Esteban presented a pretty strong argument in his response piece “Why do black women blame black men for wanting white women when they too worship white men? We, as black people, have ALL been conditioned!” And the responses continue to come…
Getting back to Léo, after his initial message expressing his interest in analyzing his own identity and dating choices, he said he wanted to develop a piece directly discussing the topic but as he was busy with his studies, he didn’t know when he would have the time to compose the piece. His follow up e-mail revealed that he had indeed given the issue some thought. I didn’t know if and when he would follow up on that e-mail that was in itself already worthy of publishing. As months went by I just kind of figured that he got busy and penning a piece was either too time-consuming or he had more important things to do. But then in late September he sent a message informing me that he had not only written the piece but that he had already published it on his own blog! Léo should be applauded here for having the courage to look within and come to some very uncomfortable conclusions. So with no further delay (four months have passed since this material was originally posted online), here it is!
How are palmiteiros born? A reflection of someone who always preferred white women
By Léo Custódio
Palmitagem exists. I know it exists because eu palmito (I prefer white women). It’s uncomfortable and discomforting to assume this, but I must speak: I am a palmiteiro.
It’s also urgent. The rule of privileged black men having relationships with white women seems like one of the cruelest faces of structural racism in which we live.
Palmitagem is a cruel racist act because of its subtlety. At first glance, it seems only a matter of affection (just as uncontrollable and irrational as passion and love) combined with individual choice for those with whom they will live in a relationship.
But it’s not only that. It’s complex. It’s a combination of affection with structural issues (inequality, sexism and racism) that we experience since childhood and with relationships and power struggles in various everyday relationships when growing up.
Because of this urgency and complexity, I decided to write. This is not a text of self-defense. As I said, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, I assume myself as a palmiteiro.
What I want in this text is not to create a rule or prove a truth. I just want to reflect in search of answers. What factors influenced me to the point of all my lasting relationships, including my marriage, having been with white women?
My idea is to use my experience (things that I experienced and what I saw people experience) to suggest a possible genealogy of palmitagem.
I think this kind of conversation is essential if we are to confront palmitagem as a social phenomenon that particularly affects the lives of black women.
First, I must present the context in which I was born and grew up since the late 1970s. I grew up in Magé, in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro.
From my childhood until my late twenties, blacks and whites lived close together and distant at the same time. As the city is small, co-existence was very close. But at the same time, whites were and still are proportionally better off in life than blacks.
In this context, I was in the middle. Because of being black and living in a lower middle class neighborhood, I lived on the street with my black peers, the majority poorer than me. At the same time, I had the privilege of studying in private schools and taking English courses, where I coexisted with white people who had a higher standard of living than I had.
The roots of palmitagem in childhood
Since childhood, this social setting already presented social and racial conflicts.
I vaguely remember situations in private schools when I felt shy and nervous in the presence of loirinhas (blonds) and clarinhas (white) girls (1). They were the girls that all the boys, black and white, wanted to spend more time with. We did favors, we wrote limericks and we would protect them from the most annoying classmates.
They seemed to enjoy the attention, but the charm ended for us, “neguinhos” (little black guys) when the chorus began: “She’s dating! She’s dating!” In these moments, some reacted with a “God forbid!” or “Stop it! My boyfriend is [the white boy with the face of a TV commercial].”
And where were the meninas negras (black girls)? In the corner (2). Some suffered exactly the same kind of thing that white and black boys were suffering in the hands of meninas brancas (white girls). Black girls played together but when the cries of “she’s dating” started, all of us, black and white boys, came out saying “God forbid!”
The implication – or bullying, as one calls it today – was also very common. It involved clothes, the lack of money for meals and other marks of poverty. The poor, white and black, were targets. It also implied the color of skin, hair and other racial marks. Blacks were the targets.
For us, meninos negros (black boys), a way of not being a target of the ridicule was to ally one’s self with the white boys who dished out the ridicule. Then you saw blacks calling others “macaco”(monkey) (3) in disputes of who was or was not black (when we self-declared ourselves to be “moreninho” (little brown one), “mulatinho” (little mulato) and other little terms to alleviate the “problem” of blackness).
And the meninas negras? They were everybody’s targets, boys, white and black, and white girls. They were the “feias” (ugly ones), those with “cabelo ruim de henê” (bad hair in which the girl needed use henê ((4)), those who had “cara de empregada” (a maid’s face) (5), those who looked like an animal, that looked like jabirus and other brutal adjectives.
All of this was before and during pre-adolescence.
We were children who already reproduced adult rules of distinction between pessoas bonitas e feias (beautiful and ugly people), boas e ruins (the good and the bad). The basis? Class prejudice and racism. In this reproduction, we learned that the nervousness of child love came with branquinhas (white girls). For the negrinhas (little black girls), remained widespread depression (due to constant criticism).
Palmitagem in adolescence
In adolescence, this distinction between black and white girls was already settled and widened in the heads of us black and white boys. At this point, inequality and privileges had still more relevance, even if the brutal ridicule had remained behind.
In my time, the private school where pessoas brancas (white people) were the majority, male and female students who were hooking up or dating each other tended to be white. I don’t remember seeing – and certainly didn’t experience – some interracial relationship in that context.
For white boys and white girls, black boys and black girls seemed to be more loyal companions and confidants than candidates for boyfriends or girlfriends (6). For me, it was the time of platonic passions, as it may now seem obvious, for white girls. For black girls, the feeling was one of deep friendship. Or contempt.
An important factor of that moment, in the 1990s, was the “appreciation” of the homem negro (black man). With the ascension and increase of space of blacks on television and on the radio, being a “negão” (big, black man) was gradually becoming something “positive” in society.
I put “appreciation” and “positive” in quotes because the time was nothing but the hyper-sexualization of the black man (7). Objectification is bad, but think about from the side of the black teenager who until then was rejected by the mulher branca (white woman) that he had always fantasized about and craved?
Being a black guy and with a good physique, friendly and/or able to dance fed the fantasy of meninas negras… and meninas brancas….“Adoro um negão” (I adore a negão), some of the blonds and white girls would say.
For many of us, homens negros, it was the chance to finally have a white woman like those in the novelas (soap operas) in our arms. For many others, it was a chance to feel their white bodies like those of the porn actresses that everybody watched on the sly.
And the menina negra? If those from the school were inseparable friends, those from the street were the disposable objects of sexual desire of black and white boys. It was with them that we liked to play hide and seek. They were the ones who we kissed behind the speakers at the baile funk (funk dance). It was with them that we left with on the sidewalk for secret nights of pleasure (8).
If hyper-sexualization of the black man won a “positive” force in the 1990s, the same type of process had already occurred with the black woman since forever. Only there was nothing positive. The idea of the mulher “fácil” (“easy” woman) of the street has always been, in our imagination, related to the black woman. And we knew that.
So much so did we know that when there was a black girl who exited from the standard of the easy woman, adjectives like “preta de respeito” (black woman of respect), “preta linda” (beautiful black woman) and “preta de elite” (elite black woman) sprung up among us, black and white boys, like a categorization.
At the same time, I don’t remember hearing among black boys that kind of comment about white girls. Mesmo que fossem consideradas feias, eram brancas (Even though were considered ugly, they were white). The only ones who denounced the ugliness of white girls were the white guys. So then many of us, black boys, took advantage of their disposal to have our desire for a white girl satisfied.
Were there serious relationships between black men and women at that time? Yes, of course. But in general the boyfriend and girlfriend in these cases had a lack of privileges in common. They were similarly poor.
Thus, they were also similarly excluded from the possibilities of having an interracial relationship (unless, of course, there were white people on the same social level). From what I’ve read on the internet, deprivation of the lack of choice affects black women of other social classes as well. (9)
Palmitagem as privilege
This that is the issue of choice – that many of those who feel offended by the term palmitagem use as a defense – is problematic.
Choosing who to hook up with is a privilege generated by privileges.
In this case, the probability of a poor black boy being able to choose to hook up with a white girl is significantly higher than the probability of a black girl choosing to hook up with a white boy.
He, as a negão encorpado (black guy with fit body), charming and hyper-sexualized might choose to experience an interracial romance. For the poor black girl, she remains being chosen by white and black guys and hope that it’s not just for the pleasure of the flesh.
With all this, the conditions of life that I had in adolescence seemed to have been key factors that facilitated my palmiteira decisions. I had many privileges.
I was polite, nice and knew how to reproduce white ways that the poorest blacks could not. I had a certain financial condition that inserted me in predominantly white contexts. Very soon I became an English teacher, which generated a privilege and a great respect in my small town.
These types of factors contributed to my having conditions to be respected and liked by white girls and later white women with of which I coexisted.
That is, I could choose. And considering all the negative burden with which I lived in relation to black women, combined with all the fantasy nurtured from childhood by white women, my choices for long-term relationships have always been white women.
The choice for palmitagem and the reproduction of structural racism
Was being a palmiteiro something deliberate and intentional? My honest answer is yes.
The fact is that I never opened myself emotionally to a black person. I never opened myself on purpose.
Another fact is that I chose to date white girls and white women in a more long-lasting way than the black women with whom I related to. I chose because I had the chance to choose without even thinking about these choices.
And how do these choices relate to the structural racism of our day-to-day? This is another question that arises among us that gives chills. It’s also what leaves many palmiteiros like me on the defensive, desperate and/or angry.
I’ve gone through this phase of denial, too, but now I understand and admit that I reproduced in my relationships the structural racism of the society in which I grew up.
Because of this I experience the paradox that many other politicized blacks experience: I am a palmiteiro even though today I feel much more engaged in anti-racist causes than in any other period of my life. I admit that I acted racist for my whole emotional trajectory even having suffered and now fighting against racism.
Is it uncomfortable to assume this fact? Yes. It is also too confusing to deal with prejudiced characteristics that we perceive in ourselves. But it is very accurate. It is necessary and, as I said at the beginning, very urgent. But how?
To deal with palmitagem by the root
I always catch myself wondering how my life would be today if in my childhood and adolescence there were many discussions about the more subtle nuances and cruel racial prejudice among blacks.
Today, for example, I see young black men seriously dating black women in a quantity that didn’t exist in my teens. In my view, this relates a lot with the rise and popularity of black feminism in Brazil.
Be it in the visual and aesthetic question, be it in the question of debates and questioning of prejudices. The collective strength of black women have forced black men like me to question privileges and prejudices themselves. At the same time, it has contributed to black boys growing up appreciating the beauty of black women and opening their affection for them.
And it’s in this way, discussing, conversing, discussing and facing the issue of palmitagem that we will be able to deal with negação da mulher negra (denial of the black woman) – the essential problem of this whole conversation – by the root.
And for the success of this reflection in society, it is essential that black men contribute to this kind of self-reflection. And the most important thing: that the issue of palmitagem and structural racism are not only on the net. Daily life is still replete with situations of racism among us blacks.
Occasionally, for example, I hear children on my street when I’m in Magé reproducing the same ridicule of my time. How do we intervene? How do we act?
How do we talk to children and young people about the relationship of affection among blacks in a society that values, above all, feminine beauty as something white? How from early on do we stimulate questioning sexism that humiliates, objectifies and discards the black woman?
Dealing with palmitagem from its root is an emergency in everyday life. And black men isolate themselves from this fight as if it weren’t ours too. To do this, putting out your face to be slapped, assuming our own prejudices and listening (not just hearing) to the women is the first step.
Source: Léo Custódio
1. We see here that from an early age, Léo already seemed to have developed a certain adherence to the racial hierarchy.
2. Fitting to remind readers that John Burdick also described a scenario in which black girls in Rio were often found at dances in the corners among themselves in his 1998 book Blessed Anastacia: Women, Race and Popular Christianity in Brazil.
3. Something that is not uncommon in Brazil as the oppressed often times oppress the only group that they feel they can oppress: their own group. See here, here, here or here.
4. An inexpensive chemical that straightens and dyes the hair. The base ingredients include pirogalic acid and mineral salts such as copper and iron.
5. Yet another example of how race is often associated with social status. The phrase “you have/don’t have the face of…” is quite commonly heard in Brazil when telling someone that they “look like a maid” or “don’t look like a judge”.
6. A common experience among a number of black women who have written about their difficulty in securing long-term relationships.
7. Fala Pretinho also expressed this idea in his article. See here.
8. Here, Léo admits to a type of behavior that black women have long complained about.
9. As one report demonstrated, “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.”