Note from BW of Brazil: I must say, when you listen to stories of highly qualified, professional black people and what they have to deal with in their world, you learn that it’s true what the reports say: the higher up the social ladder black people climb, the more racism they will experience, not less. The fact is, lower class, poorer black people will experience racism strictly based upon their phenotype, and that is true. But in reality, it won’t be as bad because they remain on the bottom of the totem pole, exactly society expects black people to remain. What society is not accustomed to, and it proves it time and again, are black people who managed to rise to the top of their professions and are the ‘shot-callers’. They face rude treatment, being ignored and stereotyped as holding down less prestigious occupations because society doesn’t want to see them where they are. As such, Brazilian society doesn’t want to see poor black people nor well-to-do blacks, but given the choice, it would rather deal with those of the lower classes. Brazil simply can’t deal with a black man or woman being in a position of authority and possibly having white subordinates under them. I mean, “who does that black think he/she is?” Today is the latest feature on the experiences of blacks in corporate Brazil.
‘I’m not going to talk to a black’: black executive reports racism in Brazilian corporate world
By Ingrid Fagundez
Cesar, who has worked in multinationals such as Microsoft and Thompson, says he has been barred from reception areas of companies
Cesar Nascimento can wear expensive jackets, designer glasses, and Italian shoes. He frequents sophisticated São Paulo restaurants. Have staff under his command, goes to meetings with international partners and speaks English. Cesar Nascimento can do all this but says he won’t be treated as equal among his peers. He can’t change the color of his skin. He’s an executivo negro (black executive).
As such, Nascimento, 63, many of them spent with multinationals like Microsoft and the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, always had to prove to his clients that he was, indeed, the financial director – and not an assistant. To BBC Brasil, he said that prejudice also hit him when he opened his consultancy in the 1990s. But then he discovered how racism could help him: he took advantage of the strangeness caused by his clients to close deals.
“I used racism as a driving force. I had been through experiences of arriving at some companies identifying me as Cesar Nascimento, partner of company X, and leaving me at the reception. Because someone warned, people would come (in the waiting room), (they would) look at me … and I wouldn’t pass through.”
Nephew of Abdias do Nascimento – a poet, professor and one of the greatest exponents of black culture in Brazil -, the paulistano (São Paulo native) says that the racial question has always been debated in his family, a descendant of enslaved blacks. Despite the distance of his uncle, exiled during the military dictatorship, he also carried the theme throughout his life. In 1999, he was one of the founders of Integrare, an association that connects micro and small businesses of blacks, people with disabilities and indigenous descendants to large corporations. He recently recounted his career in Executivos Negros, a book by anthropologist Pedro Jaime published this year.
Read the following excerpts from his testimony to the BBC.
Businessman or assistant
“Whoever who do not suffer from racism or discrimination don’t exactly understand. Today, the feminist movement has been able to expand this concept, but it is not the same thing. What these groups suffered has never completely taken away the possibility of economic development. With us, blacks, we have always been hindered in two aspects: education and the labor market..
We didn’t have credibility or were not accepted as an entrepreneur because we were black. I went through (complicated) situations as an experienced professional setting up a company but losing the important career surnames. Before, it was Cesar from the (auditing) PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Cesar of Thompson, Cesar of Microsoft. They are very important surnames. When I became the Cesar of my company … there came the question: ‘who?’. Everything I learned as a professional was forgotten.
The construction of my company was even funny. I used racism as a driving force. I had been through experiences of arriving at some companies identifying me as Cesar Nascimento, partner of company X, and leaving me at the reception, not receiving me. I didn’t meet the stereotype of the businessman, the executive. They stopped receiving me because of that. Because someone warned, people would arrive (in the waiting room), (they would) look at me … and I would not pass through.
Nascimento says he has used racism as a ‘driving force’ for his business
I started to grow because of foreign companies coming to Brazil. They ended up hiring me without knowing what I was, they liked my service and they radiated this. The racial issue was falling, even though it made no difference to them, I was just another Brazilian.
Then, thanks to a former colleague, I had a large entrance in a group from the foods area, which allowed me to find someone to help in the commercial part. Then I started to use (racism in my favor).
He was the typical Italian descendant, so the doors were open. There were situations of entering (in the companies) and all the initial attention to the ‘great executive that comes to visit us’ go to him. And I realized they pictured me as the assistant or something. I would let the thing run. Then when I took the reins (of the negotiation) – ‘ah! It’s he who makes the decision’- I noted the embarrassment of the people. This was the time to close the contract because they were fragile and afraid to say no so as not to be accused of racism. It’s an interesting mechanism.
I’ve always been pragmatic in my goals. What were they? Close a contract, make my business grow, pay employees and take some for myself. Being honest, I’m not worried.
If society has such a mechanism, why can’t I use it? And it worked, I created a respectable portfolio of clients.
Two-minute or two-hour interviews
There was only one person, in interviews for executive positions, who asked me about racial question. Only one. Guess the origin of this person? Jewish. Because he suffered it up close. The question he asked was how I would react, being one of the main executives of his construction company, to a racist market. It was a surprise because he was the first one who asked me without misrepresenting.
I don’t think (people) ask these questions out of fear. I often say that Brazil will never solve the racial problem until it admits that it is a racist country. You don’t cure anyone who has pneumonia if he does not admit (he has) the disease. That’s Brazil. Brazil has 60% of the black population and does not admit to being a black country. It’s sad. And every time you touch on the theme it’s ‘ah, mas tenho um amigo negro’ (ah, but I have a black friend), ‘ah, mas jogo futebol com um negro’ (ah, but I play football with a black guy).
Employment interviews never had normal duration, says businessman
Admitting is not a weakness, on the contrary. You only admit certain faults and shortcomings when you are mature. I admit to having a certain prejudice against women, against gays, and I’m trying to work on it inside myself. For Brazil, the lack of admission that the country is racist and needs to adopt educational measures does not solve the problem.
In the case of (job) interviews, there were two extremes: the extremely short interview or the very long interview, never the normal one. I remember an interview for an executive position. I was already an executive and a headhunter came to me, probably on the recommendation of someone. He asked for my resume and I sent it. When I got the interview, the guy looked at my face, he was scared, and the conversation didn’t last two minutes. He didn’t expect a black man to come to that position as chief financial officer. He did a quick interview and never made contact again.
“Admitting is not a weakness, on the contrary. You only admit certain faults and shortcomings when you are mature. I admit to having a certain prejudice against women, against gays, and I’m trying to work on it inside myself.”
There is also has (the long interview) when the staff wants to know until the last second how capable you can be.
Racism in the restaurant
I feel that there has been a change in prejudice, even as we of the first generation of black executives – that is not necessarily first, because there were some before – we help to make exist the possibility of a black executive, a negro empresário (black businessman). Then it became more common.
That makes it easy. Even those who are declared racists know that we can exist. So they will search, since racism today is a crime, a means of not facing you. They will find a way to welcome you and, within the normal canons, tell you no. Earlier it was possible for you to listen to absurdities like ‘eu não vou falar com preto’ (I won’t talk to a black).
I never heard of it, but one of my bosses heard about me from a client. I was having a hard time getting the information I needed with a particular person. He was a very big client by the way, a company of French origin, which shocked me a little.
I told the head of the team that I could not get the information. He thought it was strange, he went there and the guy said he was not going to ‘talk to that kid, who on top of everything, was black.’ My boss was completely embarrassed, he talked to the director. The guy had to swallow me.
It frustrates you. You start to wonder. What’s wrong? Is it just fear of being inferior to someone more prepared than you? That always affected me.
While working on auditing, a client refused to talk to Cesar because he was black
(Today there are) these subtleties. You notice jokes behind your back, giggles, ironic faces. I’m in an interracial marriage. My wife, born in Brazil, is the daughter of Portuguese. You know, we got married in 1978, what it was like.
(Today I realize the prejudice) when I’m with my wife, sometimes in some more trendy restaurant, some more exclusive place.
There is a scene that is not so old. We were in an important event and it was like we were with a lot of American black businessmen and executives. After the event, we decided to go to a famous restaurant in São Paulo. That bunch of blacks arrived in a fancy restaurant, all extremely well dressed.
It caused a certain strangeness because the group was not small, we must have been about fifteen people. At the beginning, it was that (climate) ‘did they screw up at the bar?’ But we were treated with respect.
“It’s funny because when you’re speaking English, the treatment is different”
It’s funny because when you’re speaking English, the treatment is different. As I speak English fluently it happens that if I’m with a gringo (foreigner), when we enter a restaurant it’s ‘wow, there’s an American here’. Now, if I walk into the same restaurant alone, it does not matter that I’m wearing the best outfit, that question is, ‘does he have the money to be here?’
Cesar Nascimento says he is still watched with curiosity when going to an expensive restaurant
You notice the curiosity in people. When you are speaking in English or Spanish, it is another category. Now, when you suddenly turn to the maître d ‘and speak in Portuguese, the table next to him unlocks that question:’ Who is the famous one who is there? Does he play futebol? Is he an artist? ‘. And you still have this stereotype.
I have a hat obsession, and in the summer, (I wear) a chapeuzinho de malandro (hustler’s hat). I’ve been stopped by people who said, ‘I know you! Do you play in such and such a group? Are you a songwriter? I’ve seen you on TV.’ It’s funny…
I made an observation (over the years): my really rich friends never had a problem with me or my family, because they have nothing else to prove to anyone. Now, the ascending middle class is discriminatory because it doesn’t want to be frowned upon by having a black friend or going to a restaurant where there are blacks. The rich guy doesn’t give a damn, you’re no threat to him.”