Note from BW of Brazil: Brazil has a very sophisticated form of racism. In it, you will find both the subtle and difficult to detect forms in which the victim either doesn’t know that they’ve been victimized, question the possibility or flat out deny that the treatment they received had anything do with the color of their skin. The incredible part is that, if it was and still is difficult to get the white population to admit that racism plays a huge factor in the life outcomes of the black population, for a long time, it was actually difficult to convince the black population itself that racism did in fact exist in Brazil. But racismo à brasileiro also has the very obvious, blatant forms of racism that can be every bit as potent as that practiced in any other country with reputations for being racist.
These two styles of racism have deceived and psychologically as well physically assaulted the collective psyche of black population since the days that Africa’s descendants were enslaved. One of the key pillars to Brazil being able to effectively deny that it was a racist nation was the fact that its discourse that all Brazil are part of the great, big, happy mixed race nation and that racism had no place in the country and the culture. Due to this fact, over the years, millions of persons of more or less obvious African ancestry didn’t come to see themselves as black. For many, only those with jet black skin and the kinkiest of hair textures, along with the other physical attributes often associated with African ancestry were black. If didn’t clearly fit into this description, they were persuaded to define themselves with colored-coded terms in order to avoid saying they are preto or negro, but meaning black. Unlike in the US where the belief in the infamous “one drop rule defined anyone with any known African ancestry as black, in Brazil, the opposite was true. If one didn’t look like an African, they could and often define themselves as anything but black.
This is why I often share stories like the one featured today by Conceição Freitas. In the short piece below, Freitas explains her process to finally recognizing herself as black. As you read her story, remember, even with the rise of black consciousness reaching a lot of people and making a lot of “would be blacks” into black people in recent years, there are still countless tens of thousands, if not millions of people who still haven’t “tornar-se negro” (become black).
Black? Who me?! It took me over 30 years to learn to be black.
By Conceição Freitas
I wasn’t born black, but from the time I was a very young girl my hair told me that I was from another class. I was raised in Belém, the land of caboclos (European-Indian mixture), half Indians, half blacks.
If my skin was not black as coal, maybe I wasn’t black. It is probable that something in myself the girl has formulated this conclusion not to complicate my life even more.
Meu cabelo pixaim (my nappy hair) and I went to study in an elite school that today is the oldest private school in activity in Brazil.
My closest friend, with whom I was joined at the hip, her skin was tinted black and her hair straight. We’d stick together and I didn’t know why. As I recall, éramos as duas únicas negras na escola rica (we were the only two black girls in the rich school). (Black? Me?!)
There was something about me that displeased the nuns at school, and I didn’t know exactly what it was. Maybe I knew, but didn’t realize it. The teachers also didn’t pay much attention to me, they didn’t pay attention to me at all, although I did very well in the tests and was humble, like someone who is thankful for being received no meio dos brancos e ricos (in the realm of the rich and whites).
Looking back now, I realize that I accepted my condition as someone out of place. I swallowed the discomfort and kept it moving; I was distressed and distanced myself
There was a consolation: the school’s most important authority would greet me every morning with a loving look, a serene smile, and a golden mantle. She was the image of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré (Our Lady of Nazareth), who spends the entire year in the chapel of the school and only goes out for the Círio (‘Candle of Nazareth’ feast).
I was already at the school when a white friend asked me suddenly: “Are you white or black?”.
I found the question offensive. I don’t remember what I said. I must have mumbled something that didn’t mean anything.
A few years later, a police reporter, I heard a white police chief – my best source – ask on the phone, “Aquela repórter negrinha?” (that little black girl reporter?)” A new discomfort, mine and his.
I was about 25 years old and still not black. Maybe I thought I was a mulata, which was nothing. It was a void, as anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro says in O Povo Brasileiro (The Brazilian People): “Between the two conflicting worlds – that of the black, which he rejects, and that of the white, who rejects him – the mulatto humanizes in the drama of being both, which is to be nobody.”
Another time, a friend of mine, on a beer night, attacked me: “Sou mais negra que você” (I’m blacker than you). Again, I pretended it wasn’t me. I didn’t know what it was to be black. In my house, of a mother that is the daughter of black Bahian and Indian from Parintins (state of Amazonas), we were ghosts dressed up as whites.
I continued for some time suspended in the abyss, until one day, as a sub-editor of Cidades in Correio Braziliense (newspaper), I heard the painful outburst of a reporter, the admirable and much-loved Juliana Cézar Nunes. Assigned to cover a show at the Ginásio Nilson Nelson, she was attacked by a group of young white people who accused her of having pele preta (black skin).
Juliana never knew this, but I didn’t think she was black because she had long hair with big curls and is sublimely beautiful. You understand, right? If she’s beautiful, she’s not black.
The pain, the indignation and the feeling of impotence in the face of the suffering of the dear Ju gave color to my body, to my hair, to my soul.
Under Juliana’s inspiration, I did a series of reports on blacks in the capital of the country – pele preta (black skin) is confined to the poorer satellite cities, the entrances of the blocos, the service counters and, because it’s now chic, in the designer stores of the Vogue style magazines.
During the publication of the testimonies of negros e negras brasilienses (black men and black women of the capital city of Brasília), I received several emails from indignant readers – not exactly from the story of the personalities, but with what they considered an exaggeration and an invention of the reporter and her interviewees. The series won the Prêmio Abdias Nascimento (Abdias Nascimento Award).
What made me black, after all this course of denial, fear and emptiness, were the pretas (black women) and the pretos (black men) who put before me the mirror of my color, shoulder to shoulder, equal to equal. The reading of Um Defeito de Cor (A Defect of Color) by Ana Maria Gonçalves, was fundamental.
There is a story that constitutes me: it is the history of my country, of the people of which I am a part. It is tragic, it is cruel, it is suffering, it is deep, it is strong, it is powerful, it is creative, it is joyful, it is solidary. It is a wound that does not stop bleeding, but only from it will we be able to actually build, one day, one nation, the one with the maior população negra fora da África (largest black population outside Africa).