Note from BW of Brazil: It would actually be quite a daunting task to try to list the countless ways that black bodies are seen, judged and reacted to when compared to people of the dominant society. It’s crazy. From the mundane, ordinary things to other things that take planning and thought to carry out, when you have brown or black skin and physical characteristics that signal African ancestry, you will always be looked at with an eye of suspicion.
Hard as it may be to believe, but nearly 70 years after Frantz Fanon first described a white child seeing him and screaming, “Mommy, look! A negro!”, it can still be a challenge being black in certain environments. Even when there isn’t outright, obvious discomfort, the black being can still sense a certain monitoring of his or her every move wherever they may go.
To be sure, I’m not saying this happens all the time, everywhere, but the possibility is always there, again, always lurking, depending on the setting. Black Brazilians are quite familiar with that feeling. Whether it’s always being a suspect of shoplifting, people not believing they living in particular building, or that they cannot own a certain type of car, Brazilian society always maintains the black body in the scope of the target.
I’ve had this feeling many times in my own life, whether due to encounters with police, crooked looks when I met a (white) girl for a date or passing through a check point at an airport. In fact, my experiences O’Hare Airport in Chicago in 2003 had to have been one of the most frustrating “nigga moments” I had ever experienced in my life.
I was on my return to the States after my fifth trip to Brazil. I had flown from Salvador, Bahia, to São Paulo and then on the way to Chicago. By that time, I was already visiting Brazil every year and, as usual, I was always on the hunt for items of black Brazilian culture; music, magazines, books, whatever. There, in “Black Rome”, I was flipping hundreds of old albums at this little hole in the wall record store near Avenida Sete de Setembro. Over the years, I’ve been able to amass quite a collection of Brazilian music shopping at these little “sebos” and that particular year, I felt like I had hit the jackpot.
I must have walked out of that record with about 50 albums on that day. The owner of the store took the time create a cardboard box in which all of that vinyl could fit, taped it closed and even wrote “Careful! Do not bend” on the box in a black magic market as he knew I would be going through security checks at Brazilian and American airports.
On the end of that trip, on my way back to the US, my flight from Bahia to São Paulo was no problem, but my arrival at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was definitely an experience I will never forget. When I went through a security check, the woman at the desk seemed to take an interest in not only my trip but also my baggage. On previous trips, upon arrival back to the States, there were usually only a few questions, followed by and a “Have a nice flight”. But this question and answer session turned into a full interview. This woman’s questions just didn’t seem to stop.
“Why do keep going to Brazil?”, “What are you bringing back?”, “How many cities have you visited there?”, “Do you have family there?”, “How much money do you have on you?”, “What’s in this box?”, referring to the box of 50 albums I had purchased in Salvador. Then, after every 2-3 questions, she would excuse herself, dip into the back room for a minute and return with more questions. WTF was she getting at? Let’s be real…Every man with brown skin doesn’t aspire to be Freeway Ricky Ross, but apparently, she didn’t get this memo.
I swear, she must have questioned me for about 25-30 minutes. Side note. As I was going through this interrogation, I saw an older white couple pass through with a rack full luggage and security might have asked them two questions before they were on their way. I mean, their rack had to have about eight pieces of luggage on it, stacked up about 5-6 feet high!
Me? I had two pieces of luggage and a carry on. After about 15 minutes of questions, the woman told me she would need to check the contents of my luggage. She called in a male assistant, and all I could do was stand there and watch as they opened up both pieces of luggage and my carry on. She broke open the neatly packaged box of albums the record store owner had made for me and was pulling each vinyl album out of its cover. When she opened my video camera bag, she actually popped open the cassette door and took the tape out. Really? Let me guess. I just got back from South America, I’m black, so a video cassette door would be a logical place to stash cocaine, right? Un-effin’-believable!
As I wrote, this interrogation must have gone on for about 25-30 minutes. When they were finally done, they passed everything they opened on the belt and told me I was free to go. WOW, thank you, so much. I had to spend about 10 minutes just putting albums back in the covers and the box that, after all of that, looked nothing like the one the record store owner had made for me. By that point, I was worried that I would miss my connection flight back to Detroit. And for good reason!
By the time I got to the gate of my flight, there was no one there waiting to board. Why? When the check in lady saw me coming, she called out to me BY NAME. “Please hurry, your flight is leaving!” Ain’t this ‘bout a…? All because of that security lady who decided to give me the “Mr. Nigga” treatment. Shout out to Mos Def/Yasiin Bey.
So, with more and more black Brazilians having access to global travel, when they say “the traveling black body causes discomfort”, I know EXACTLY what they’re talking about. The start up company Diaspora.Black created an entire company to help give black travelers the opportunity to be treated as just regular people. Of course, this wouldn’t have helped me at O’Hare in 2003, but the very fact that black folks have to create such things to put us at ease while we are “traveling while black” should tell you something.
Black women explore the world: “The traveling black body causes discomfort”
Courtesy of UOL Universa
“When you are a traveling black body, you make others uncomfortable. They are used to seeing black women in a situation of subordination.” The journalist Kenya Sade is emphatic. “Prejudice occurs in many ways,” she explains. “They never insulted me, but racism is disguised in the subtleties and discomfort of others. When we are outside of submission, we cause shock. Even more for white Brazilians than for foreigners themselves,” she says (see note one).
Kenya’s first plane trip took place in 2010, when she was 16 and went to Vancouver to do an exchange program. “It made my world expand,” she says. Since then, she has visited almost a dozen countries in America and Europe. “Traveling makes us see the world in a different way. Every time you come back, a different light comes on in your body,” describes the young woman, who now lives in São Paulo.
Kenya’s last international experience was a year and a half exchange in Dublin, Ireland, where she had a surprise. “They told me that I wouldn’t find black people there. But in reality, it’s just a matter of seeing. As soon as I arrived, I became friends with a group of Brazilians and I was intrigued, wondering why I didn’t see black women in the travel pages,” Kenya asked. Based on this motivation, she created the profile Pretas Pelo Globo on Instagram, where she shares experiences of black women traveling around the world.
“We are historically invisible in almost all areas of our lives and we are at the bottom of the social pyramid. Society puts some people in some places and says that others cannot belong or participate in those spaces. I want to show that we exist,” she justifies. The page is collaboratively fed by black Brazilian women who are in different corners of the world.
Visibility to narratives
The profile created by Kenya is not the only one to give protagonism and visibility so that black women can tell their stories in first person. Among others, Bitonga Travel, Negras Viajam Também (Black Women Travel Too) and Diáspora Black stand out in this proposal to make narratives visible. “We can no longer bear to be bombarded every day by negative news regarding the black population. Is it death, misery, poverty? We want to talk about happy black people. For younger girls to know that it is possible to see the world,” she explains.
She adds that the importance of a black woman traveling comes from the ability to pluralize the point of view, placing her as belonging to society. However, it is important, according to Kenya, to take some precautions before you hit the road. “Just like the LGBT community, for example, it is necessary to know in which countries you will be most respected. It’s essential to understand who accepts you and which communities tend to be more racist,” she points out.
However, while planning her next trip, Kenya believes that there is a support network that allows black women to leave the comfort zone without fear. “We live in a macho culture, but there are incredible people and there will always be a woman at your side to help,” she points out. “It’s important to talk to people who have gone before and made this path possible. Our steps come from afar,” she adds.
It’s good to have company, but alone is better
Publicist Sophia Costa also followed this trail of discoveries and became an inspiration for other women who want to know the world. The young woman got on a plane for the first time in her life at the age of 20 and made her first international trip to Buenos Aires, with the aim of celebrating the completion of her master’s degree. Since then, he has visited 15 countries. She says she has already taken trips as a couple, with family and friends, but nothing compares to traveling alone.
“I love the feeling of freedom. When you travel with someone, you become very focused on that person. Alone, I met a lot of different people and did a lot of new things,” she explains. “Brazil is loved all over the world. If you arrive at a place and say you are Brazilian, you already make friends,” she adds.
But the whole journey isn’t usually as easy as it looks. “While the white person may simply be a traveler, I never go unnoticed,” she says.
Sophia says that in many places people stop her on the street asking to take a picture, asking if she is a model or someone famous. “They think I’m very different, I’m not seen as a normal person”, she points out. “It’s common, on the street, for strangers to ask to touch my hair. It’s the placing of the black person in the non-place, a kind of exotification. However, even in Brazil I go through this, ” she comments.
Different countries, different receptions
For the publicist, the perpetuation of stereotypes is frequent in some European countries. In the countries of Africa and Latin America, the most common feeling is enthusiasm. “People are very interested in knowing what our lives are like, and some knew more about things in our culture – like novela (soap operas) – than I do,” she jokes. However, she comments that, on all trips, the only place where she really co-existed with black people was Africa.
“Meeting only white people creates a feeling of non-belonging. We see how the world is uneven and the income is concentrated,” she explains. She explains that even more practical issues are compromised by the scenario, such as finding the right hair cream in other countries. This feeling, however, is not exclusive to travel. “If you are a middle-class black woman, you are probably the only black woman in the places you go to,” she says.
Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive
For always sharing her experiences on social networks, Sophia has become a reference on the topic. Several people began to ask for advice and tips on itineraries. “My travels have transformed me and I would like other people to be transformed too – and especially for black women to feel inspired.” It was with this objective in mind that she created a website, Pretas Pelo Mundo, a portal in which she helps people to define their destination, think about the itinerary, buy tickets and choose accommodations.
“People think it’s very difficult and expensive to travel, but it’s possible to visit several places without spending so much money. I’m not rich and my trips are super cheap,” she explains. Sophia understands that traveling alone is scary, but believes that it should not paralyze anyone who wants to have such an experience. “Look for other black people who are traveling and talk to them. Exchange experiences, try to understand,” she explains. “Traveling takes us out of the comfort zone and makes us reflect on the world. It makes us think differently.”
Courtesy of UOL Universa
- This last comment reminds of recollections of other black Brazilian friends of mine when they travel to the United States and mingle in Brazilian communities. At least three of my friends have told stories of how when they encounter other Brazilians, usually white or something close to white, they are greeted with surprise in a sort of “What are you doing here?” sort of way. One young black woman recalled being in a super market in Massachusetts near two Brazilian women who were speaking in Portuguese in a check out line. After a few moments, having understood everything they were talking about, she decided to join in the conversation. According to my friend, the two women reacted with a look of shock as they most likely assumed she was a black American woman. Some might interpret this scenario in another way, but it is clear from the numerous examples on this blog alone that white Brazilians don’t expect to see black Brazilians in certain places.