Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s piece is not exactly a follow up, but the subject of the post was presented to our readers several months ago with the arrival of the film Hidden Figures in Brazil. With the sharp rise in the percentages of black Brazilians that hold college degrees, we are beginning to see a sort of second stereotyping of Afro-Brazilian capability. Whereas before, and in fact, still today, Brazilians were/are surprised at the realization that black Brazilians have attained a college education, that was/is considered an achievement strictly for whites, nowadays, the idea of what a college graduate looks like is slowly changing, but with this change, another image idea is coming along with it: the idea that if a black Brazilian is a university professor, he or she MUST be connected to estudos africanos or some sort of social science. I won’t pretend that it isn’t true that black Brazilians tend to have college degrees in some area of the social sciences, but this doesn’t mean one should automatically assume that a black college professor MUST be involved in the social sciences. It’s kinda like assuming a black Brazilian man of middle-class status must be a jogador de futebol (soccer player). This is stereotype is quite common and reminds me of the first time I covered this topic, when a black woman scientist was refused entry into a plush hotel because she was thought to be a Carnaval dancer. As you will see in the piece below, Professor Katemari is doing her part to change this common perception.
“Blacks don’t have to speak only about race’, argues professor
By Fernanda da Escóssia
The teacher Katemari Rosa still remember a day in which he was waiting for the bus to the Universidade Federal de Campina Grande (PB), where she taught physics. She was a graduate of Physics from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), with a master’s degree in Philosophy of Science at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and a Ph.D in Science Education at Columbia University, in the US. At the bus stop, students, technicians and employees of the university waited. She told a girl that the bus was coming, and the girl asked what she did. Katemari replied that she was a professor.
“When I said that I was a professor, she asked: ‘Professor of African Studies, right’.” Katemari is black.
“She not only took some time to believe that I was a university teacher, but also, when I said what I did, immediately I put myself in my place. A woman like me could only be, of course, Professor of estudos africanos (African studies), she analyzes, alerting of a form of racism that society often takes time to identify: reserving to blacks just the place to speak of africanidades (Africanities), negritude, Africa, prejudice and related themes.
“I say to students: Blacks don’t have to go to spaces to speak only about race. I think it’s great talking about this, but I believe that it is necessary to see black people talking about everything, mathematics, Portuguese, law, science, particle physics. When the girl said: ‘you’re a professor of African Studies’, I’m sure she didn’t say it to be mean or with intent to offend or be racist. She said it because it is the construction that we have, it is this inference. If you are there as a teacher, you can only be speaking of africanidades“, she analyzes.
Katemari was bothered with the question of the girl but ended up not responding. It was as if a black woman could not do what she did. “Physics? It’s not a place for me, blacks think. Several times they mistook me,” she says.
Throughout her academic life, the discomfort appeared at other times, such as in a day when she was sitting alone at the table of her classroom, with her name written on the door. A young woman came and asked her to call professor Katemari. “Again, even my name being on the door, it was difficult to believe that the teacher was me.”
The discomfort caused Katemari to devote herself to search the trajectories and experiences of pesquisadoras negras (black researchers). “I was looking for a specialist in the genre here in Brazil and she asked me: ‘Why study it? Why not just women? Black women are a very complicated topic, you won’t be able to do it.’ She told me that there were different categories, that I couldn’t analyze this.”
Her doctoral thesis, defended in the USA, it is about mulheres negras na física (black women in physics). One of the difficulties at the time, she recalls, was obtaining data about the race of Brazilian scientists, which led her to focus on research in the US. Only in 2013 the CNPq (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico) would inquire with Brazilian researchers about color or race.
“I remember that there was a great critique for requesting this information. And it was something internal, not a given public, so, it was difficult to know,” she says.
Database of cientistas negros (black scientists)
An expert in electromagnetism and philosophy of the sciences, Katemari incorporated the theme of the racial question to her interests and had conducted, since 2015, the oral history project “Contando Nossa História: Negras e Negros nas Ciências, Tecnologias e Engenharias no Brasil” (Telling Our Story: Black Women and Men in Science, Technology and Engineering in Brazil).
Financed by CNPq, the initiative seeks to recover trajectories and create a new database open to the public with the story of these scientists. “We did not have this, no one spoke of blacks in physics. Here in Salvador, Bahia, a cidade mais negra do país (the blackest city in the country), we didn’t talk about this,” she says.
Learning of the project, students from different parts of the country have sought her, interested in participating. In Tocantins, a girl requested that she orient her work on biólogas negras (black biologists), in view of the difficulty of finding someone who was interested in guiding her. A disinterest that, as in the case of estrangement in seeing a black woman professor, is a sign of what Katemari, today 39, identifies as structural racism, but that often takes time to recognize.
“Everyone experiences racism because it is structural in our country. You may not recognize it in a few moments, but there’s no way not to experience it. The fact that you will be the only black in some environments is a manifestation of structural racism, because it makes it so that that environment is intended mostly for whites. You need to have a consciousness in relation to these things to identify it,” she argues.
“There’s a concept by Derrick Bell (one of the first black professors of Law at Harvard, in the 1970s) that I like very much, that is to show how difficult it is for a black person to admit that something was the fruit of racial discrimination. Admitting it is to understand that the other thinks less of you, that you are less of a people, it’s something that is painful to acknowledge. There is resistance in assigning to racism these sensations that happen in life. Certainly, I went through situations that were racial prejudice and didn’t attribute them to this.”
‘Deciphering the puzzles’
Coming from a lower middle-class family, a student from public schools, raised only by her mother, Katemari is Adjunct Professor of the Instituto de Física da UFBA (Institute of Physics of UFBA) and became a reference name against the invisibility of blacks in academic research.
In January 2017, she was one of the organizers of the 1º Encontro de Negras e Negros na Física (1st Meeting of Black Women and Men in Physics), within the debates of the Simpósio Nacional de Ensino de Física (National Symposium of Teaching of Physics), which occurred on the campus of USP (University of São Paulo) in São Carlos.
The professor also participated in Diálogo Elas nas Exatas (Women in Exact Sciences Dialogue) held in Rio in March of this year by organizations such as Fundo ELAS, Instituto Unibanco, Fundação Carlos Chagas and UN Women. She is one of the researchers called by CNPq to write, for the next edition of the Pioneiras das Ciências (Pioneer of the Sciences), entries on black scientists.
Other initiatives in this direction are being conducted by the Associação Brasileira de Pesquisadores Negros (ABPN or Brazilian Association of Researchers Blacks), created in 2000 with the aim of organizing meetings and publications with a focus on research produced by blacks or dedicated to the theme.
“We have to talk about the representatividade negra (black representation) and talk about other things. My next academic article will be on electromagnetism,” says the woman who teaches about how to understand the concepts of physics in the light of philosophy.
Passionate about physics – (“despite the terrible classes from middle school,” she jokes – Katemari says she became interested in the area since she was a child, when she spent hours observing the sky and said that she would be astrophysicist. The technical college where she studied, today IFRS (Federal Institute of Rio Grande do Sul), was beside the planetarium of the UFRGS. She lost count of how many sessions she watched.
“Physics is exciting. I liked understanding the things happening, I liked when I couldn’t decipher the puzzle. My connection with physics is for the challenge,” she says.
In the classroom, one of her concerns is working in what today is called the “decolonization” of education, with a proposal which will bring new concepts, knowledge, and schools. In this battle, Katemari says that it is necessary to think of a different order to do differently.
“We have to produce a science that is living in a more harmonious way with nature, which is not exploitation. Everyone disregards knowledge produced by Asia and Africa. I don’t want to teach a science that put the centrality of knowledge as only being done by Europeans and men.”
“And astrophysics?”, asks the BBC Brasil. Katemari found it boring. She preferred electromagnetism, philosophy and a busca por outras estrelas – negros e negras que brilham nas ciências (the search for other stars – black men and women that shine in the sciences).