Note from BW of Brazil: A few years ago, when the film Hidden Figures (released as Estrela Além do Tempo in Brazil) made its debut, the question of black women in the world of the sciences came to fore and then, naturally, it became a discussion piece in Brazil. The image of the black Brazilian woman has long been associated with certain images and stereotypes that give us insight into the place she continues to be placed in Brazilian society. A few weeks back, I shared a new video that had popped up on YouTube in which a group of black women actresses ironized a situation that many black women across Brazil are familiar with: If a black woman answers the door of a nice, middle-class home, it is automatically assumed that she must be “the help”.
Even with the increased presence of black women in institutions of higher learning, whether student or professor, the stereotype continues. If it’s difficult to believe that a black woman on a college campus is possibly a student rather than a member of the cleaning staff, there’s an even bigger shock when it is discovered that she could actually be a university professor. But then when people come to accept the idea that she could possibly be a professor, then the stereotype becomes that she must be part of the social sciences staff, as Katemari Rosa remembered.
Adriana Alves, not to be mistaken for the actress of the same name, also has her own experiences of people automatically assuming what she might be doing on a college campus. But the geology professor overcame enormous odds to make it to where she is today and with the still microscopic numbers of black professors in Brazilian universities today, she is yet another “Hidden Figure” in the science world that is helping change the image of black Brazilian women.
‘I bring my story to the science I do,’ says black USP researcher
By Juliana Pereira de Souza Silva
Geologist Adriana Alves tells of her trajectory permeated by racism
The earliest memory that geologist Adriana Alves holds is that at the age of five she had disputed with other children in a nursery school who could throw their own socks over the wall that separated the establishment from the vacant lot. Adriana tried something different when it was her turn: she put a small stone inside the sock. It was the only one that managed to break through the partition wall.
When she got home at night, she was questioned by her mother about what had happened to her socks. She ended up telling the truth. The matriarch then took a candle, a knife and, with her daughter, went to the vacant lot to retrieve her lost socks. They were the only ones Adriana had.
The memory, which the geologist recounts without showing any sign of resentment, illustrates both the young woman’s intelligence, which later helped her become one of the very few black professors at USP, and the environment of material precariousness in which she grew up.
“I remember my mother’s disgusted face. Not because of what I had done, but because we have to go through that situation,” says Adriana, 37, in her class at the Instituto de Geociências, where she has been teaching since 2009.
The unlikely trajectory was recently crowned with a massive aid of BRL$100,000 from Serrapilheira, the first private national research support institution, to develop her project.
The geologist wants to understand why two very similar geological events that occurred at different times — volcanic eruptions in Siberia 250 million years ago and in south-central Brazil 136 million years ago — had such different outcomes. While the former produced the largest extinction ever seen on Earth, the latter apparently caused only mild disturbances in the climate and life continued on its normal course.
Adriana Alves was born in Diadema, of the greater São Paulo region. His mother was a maid; her father, whom she only met later on, a bus driver. Despite the financial difficulties, the researcher says she had a happy childhood with her twin sister, Luciana, and her older brother.
The mother, who didn’t make past the fourth grade, demanded from her daughters full dedication to their studies. “She is the most voracious reader I know,” says the geologist about her mother, “but she had to withdrawn from her right to study very early. She didn’t want history to repeat itself with her children.”
When Adriana was 12, her parents separated and the family moved. The mother and three children began to live in a basement consisting of a bedroom and a bathroom. The environment was unhealthy. “The sewage from the upper house was running down the middle of the room,” she says.
At the new school, the teenager discovered racism. “I had scored a ten on a math test, but the teacher, instead of congratulating me, said that next time I would sit right in front of her. For her, I could only have cheated to get that score.”
The following year, her parents got back together, and everyone moved to a place in the extreme south of São Paulo. “It was a terrible place within a community, but racism diminished because there were so many black people.”
At the age of 15, she entered a technical school. In addition to the high school subjects, she took a data processing course. She was the only one in the room who had never turned on a computer. She began working at that time as an office attendant. The home-work-school-home trip cost her five to six hours a day on the bus.
During the technical course, Adriana’s good performance caught the attention of a teacher. “He asked if I had thought of taking the vestibular (college entrance exam).” Never, she answered.
She chose to take the geology course because of a computer game she liked. In it, a team of scientists was sent to a meteor on a collision course with Earth. “The geologist was who made the most interesting observations.”
She was approved. In her class, she was the única negra (only black woman). Adriana describes her difficulty in connecting with that environment. “Since I didn’t see myself reflected in my colleagues, I thought they didn’t see me as a partner.”
Gradually, however, she was making friends. Her strategy for social survival was to alienate herself from the racial issue. “If I hadn’t done that, I would have ended up being isolated. The result is that I realized that there are good people of all colors and all walks of life. This is liberating.”
The attitude, however, didn’t protect her from widespread racism on campus. In her sophomore year, she passed the class of a professor, who called her, “young lady, young lady, they haven’t taken out the trash in my class for three days. This is absurd, can you take care of this?”. “I told him I was a student and there was that horrible atmosphere of embarrassment.”
Adriana graduated and entered the doctorate program. She was the first graduate student to finish her thesis with an article accepted in a renowned journal. “After the defense, my advisor, who never complimented me, told my mom that maybe I was the most scientifically savvy person he had ever met.”
In the first professor’s contest she participated in at USP, one episode contributed to her failure. “One of the board members told me, ‘Your scholarship is surprising for someone like you.’ It completely disrupted me. If I had had a different internal matrix, I might have taken it as a compliment. At that moment I took it as pure, broad and unrestricted racism.”
In the following competition, she was approved. She then went on to become a part of an even smaller group than that of alunos negros (black students) of USP: that of black professors of USP. This group makes up only 0.3% of the university’s approximately 5,500 professors. At the top of her career, the situation is even worse. Of the 700 full-time professors, only three are black – two of them, foreign.
“Scientists like to pretend to do science outside of a social context. That does not exist. Do you think I didn’t bring my story to the science I do? Of course I brought it. Because I had to think differently from the status quo, my science is very different, for example, from that practiced by the older researchers here.”
As a professor, she saw in the struggle for racial quotas – approved last year at USP – an opportunity to offset the alienation of the past.
“Racial quotas mean representativeness. And that matters because, in general, people need to be reflected in order to consider following a certain path. If you’re black, you need to have the luck of someone on your trajectory for you to dream. To increase representativeness is to allow that person to say: I see someone like me there, I can dream (of this for) myself.”
Source: Brasilidade Negra