Note from BW of Brazil: It may seem strange for anyone of African descent who doesn’t live in a Latin American country, but knowing or accepting a black identity isn’t always something that someone learns early on in life. The fact is, the racial strategy in countries such as Brazil was to mix everybody up genetically and make blackness such a terrible thing in one’s conscious that it would be something that no one would want to be. For light-skinned persons of African descent with less kinky hair, the society would gladly convince you that you’re not black, or perhaps re-enforce your own self-exclusion from the category. For darker-skinned persons with kinkier hair, even looking in the mirror in seeing more obvious African features, one may still know a few people who are darker than they and thus see themselves as “not quite” black or maybe something slightly above black. The stories I’ve heard personally and read over the years are quite fascinating, which is why I never tire of sharing these personal stories of self-discovery. Hope you enjoy the read.
Mixed brown girls, mulatas, beige, exotic? No. They are black women!
Women tell how they discovered being black and the difference it makes in practice
By Gabriela Kimura
Discovering oneself as negra (a black woman) involves much more than physical traits, hair and skin color. In a world in which little (or nothing) is heard about the great black leaders, the other side of black history in Brazil, and repeatedly the Eurocentric beauty standards are reaffirmed, to understand oneself as negra and to say this to the world is a long and often painful process.
“It may look like something punctual, but it’s a process that’s going to be drawn up and at one time it sinks in. I already felt things in my childhood connected with my skin color and my hair, which were not considered ‘pretty’, but I couldn’t name it. I perceived something, but I didn’t see that it was the fact of being black. And as clear as it was, I could not understand it,” says Bianca Santana, a journalist, a professor at Cásper Líbero College and the author of the book Quando Me Descobri Negra (When I Discovered I was Black).
There is something in our subjectivity that is very hurt: ‘everyone who looks like this is someone I don’t want to be’
The truth is that Brazil is not a country that welcomes the “pele mais escura” (darker skin): the feminicide rate is the highest since 1980, especially among black women, representing an astonishing 35% increase since 2006. According to Mapa da Violência (The Map of Violence) released by FLACSO Brasil, the tendency is that the index among negras grew, while among mulheres brancas (white women), it reduced. The democracia racial (racial democracy) in Brazil is an illusion. “We have this very wrong idea of racial democracy, of a multiracial country. The black population occupies the same space of subservience as at the time of abolition: there was no movement in that direction. We occupy roles that white people often avoid,” explains Bianca.
The message you get is that it’s not worth being black – and then embranquecimento (whitening) happens. It is a daily suffering of “hiding” the fios crespos (kinky-curly strands), disguising the features of the face, avoiding bronzeamento (tanning); it’s knowing that storekeepers keep an eye on you. “The process of whitening is something that we have experienced for a long time: when you imagine yourself successful, you want to fit into the standard; when you go to buy makeup and don’t find your tone, or the fact of alisar os fios (straightening your tresses),” elucidates Eliane Serafim, the founder of the Encrespa Geral project.
For the American author bell hooks, being black is often in the combination of skin color, hair and features of the face. According to how they are combined, it is easier to pass for “branca” or not in places – which results in that famous cliché “mas você não é negra, é morena/mulata/bronzeada (but you’re not black, you’re morena/mulatto/tanned) (insert here any synonym you’ve heard) .
What we learned to find beautiful aesthetically is not what black women are.
But how, after all, do we reach “sou negra e ponto final” (I’m black, period)? We talked with some women to better understand this complex, long-term identity process that proves how important the struggle is to continue:
“A minha identidade negra (my black identity) began to emerge in 2004, when I began to see other black women, such as Negra Li. At home, my family didn’t make an issue of this empowerment, but they always taught me and talked about racism. Before that, I didn’t like my hair. And I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t like ser negra (being black). I had many problems during childhood and adolescence because I only identified with white women, I only had white friends and I only liked meninos brancos (white boys) (see note one), but I was always the school joke. So when I saw that a black woman was beautiful in her naturalness, I wanted to be that way too. I stopped putting chemicals in my hair, but I had a relapse in 2007. Beginning to have relationships, sleeping and waking up with a person seeing my cabelo crespo made me stumble on this path towards capillary freedom.
I thought I was 100% sure of the construction of my identity, but I was haunted by the words of racism I was suffering at school. Then again I put chemicals in my hair.
I began not to see myself again, feeling the lack of freedom of having my cabelo crespo 100% natural. In 2009 I shaved my head to start from scratch. It was then that I thought that many other black women could be suffering as well, I created my YouTube channel to share my challenges with them. I believed that that way we would not be alone: neither I nor they. Today I am 100% sure of my identity. Nothing will shake this: so much so that I made a tattoo of the word crespo on my arm, because today it is in my head, on the skin, in my soul.”
Jarid Arraes, author
“For most of my life, I identified myself as ‘morena’ or ‘miscigenada’ (mixed). My father is black and my mother is blonde, so I was born with lighter skin but with hair and all facial and physical features understood as black features. I suffered a lot of racism, from bullying at school to situations of discrimination when I went out with my family. My brother, son of my mother’s second marriage, is white. So when we went out together, I was always ‘mistaken’ for my brother’s nanny, even though I was just a kid (see note two). I often opened the door to my house and people asked where my boss was. My hair, which I straightened for many years, was also the target of the cruel racism of society. But it took me many years to realize that I was negra because my skin tone was lighter. Fortunately, I had the support of other black women, who helped me to study the history of Brazil and the consequences of slavery in our culture, and from then on I understood that I was part of something much greater, that the valorization of my negritude was a political act of resistance against racism.
It is also important to understand that within the group of people who declare themselves pardas (brown or mixed race), there are not only black people but also indigenous ancestry. I worked as a census taker in the last census and interviewed hundreds of people who were visibly negra, but identified themselves as pardas or even brancas (white). I marked the option declared by them, but there was a bitter taste in the experience. We still need to fight hard in order for racism to stop being an intimidating power and to have more opportunity to know our origins, the history of the população negra (black population) in Brazil and the importance of valuing Afro-Brazilian identity. In many cases, people do not declare themselves negras because they still fear the word and what it means to be negra in Brazil. If we still live in a culture that relates blackness to derogatory terms and bad qualities, it calls cabelo crespo ‘ruim’ (bad) and still associates black people with subaltern or even criminal roles, it’s hard to break that stigma.
It is easier to say ‘moreno’, even if that individual experiences racism every day, although society sees him as someone black.
When the identity is embraced, it becomes a strengthening factor. I believe that this is a result of the efforts of the Movimento Negro (black movement) and affirmative action policies that have been generating more and more debates on racial issues and the problem of racism in Brazil. With more access to information, people begin to reflect more deeply on their origins and physical characteristics. We are still far from ideal, but we’ve already had some progress.”
Eliane Serafim, creator of the Encrespa Geral project
“I had surgery and stayed at home for 20 days. When I looked in the mirror, he wanted to ‘see myself’. I straightened my hair for many years, but I realized that it no longer fit for me. At home, there was no talk about racism, and when I was a child I heard things like ‘you’re not going to get anything with that hair’, ‘anyone born to a soldier will never be a colonel.’ So I went to the cabeleireiro (hairdresser) and gave the girl $10 to cut off everything. After that my life changed radically! This is not the only way to identify yourself, but it is one of the ways and a strong path. It’s hard for people to realize that crespo is natural: they see it in a very derogatory way, like sloppiness.
The woman needs to be respected for her amplitude, to choose to do what she wants with her hair!
It is a process that involves discovery and strengthens – even more where it hurts. Really because the black woman also suffers at home: being devalued by the family, by the partner is something that hurts more than by others. It turns out that this choice is not just because of the hair, it is for the skin itself. And if you see yourself outside of it, it’s a painful but rewarding movement. In the end, you feel more capable of doing things.
This change made me reborn: I am a fuller woman, more confident, I negreci (have become black), I feel complete in what I do. I specialized in hair therapy (trichology) and wanted to help people in their pain. They put on a turban, makeup and you don’t know where to look, there are so many beautiful people. It’s trying to make people feel stronger. Today the Encrespa Geral project is in 22 cities and seven countries: the pains are very similar, the place changes, but the context is the same. We need to go back to our roots.”
MC Soffia, rapper
At only 11 years old and very stylish, MC Soffia has been destroying the prejudice wherever she goes. Her songs have lyrics that point out how racism affects the lives of black women, children and men daily. “Black people suffer racism in Brazil because whites think they own the country, they can go out and insult (people), but in fact, Brazil belongs to the Indians. Just because they enslaved the blacks and the Indians, does not mean that it’s okay to make a joke,” she says in an interview by WhatsApp.
Soffia’s raps, such as “Miss Pretinha”, teach that it’s beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with being black and having cabelo crespo: “Little girl black/Exotic is not beautiful/You’re not bonitinha (cute)/ You’re a queen.” It delights me to see an empowered child, telling (and singing) to the world that their color doesn’t limit their growth – and even better to see that the world has also gotten incredible references for more girls like Soffia.
Ser negra para mim é ter orgulho da minha cor, do meu cabelo, da minha boca, de tudo (To be black for me is to be proud of my color, my hair, my mouth, everything). I’m not ashamed, I like being like this. I’ve had it (shame), but today I like the way I am!
Nayla Ribeiro, photographer
Nayla Ribeiro fell in love with photography in 2013, and also for the sensual essay of women. For her, this is the way to demonstrate and explore all the beauty that each has, with their particularities. “These essays enchant me! I just help them discover it,” she explains. She decided to create the Mulheres de Raízes (Women of Roots) project to show all the strength, beauty and universe of beleza negra (black beauty). Some photos of the project illustrate this report.
“I’m 23 years old and I spent my whole adolescence hearing that beauty was having straight hair, that cabelo enrolado (curly hair) was a thing of poor people who have no money to straighten. It’s complicated, there are a lot of people who say that racism is in our head or says it’s silly. When I took knowledge that this was a prejudice, I decided to accept … and I have not straightened for almost a year. Because of the transition, I looked for people with similar stories and started talking to them. Then I saw that supporting ourselves was going to be much easier, so I decided to do this project and help other women to accept themselves. And show that we do not need straight hair to be accepted into society!”
Source: M de Mulher
- With the ongoing discussion of palmitagem and the idea that “love has no color“, the time has perhaps come to have an open dialogue about the fact that Afro-Brazilians are trained from very young to worship whiteness, which no doubt influences their concepts of beauty and romantic choices. And while Afro-Brazilian women have placed Afro-Brazilian men under the microscope for an apparent preference for white women (as one man admitted in a past post), it is simply not possible to deny that black women are also very much influenced to worship European features as Patrícia’s words demonstrate.
- Jarid’s recollections are similar to those of Bianca’s and give insight into the particular challenge that lighter-skinned persons of African descent must deal with if and when they ever come to embrace an identidade negra (black identity). Although lighter-skinned Afro-Brazilians often face blatant discrimination, it is the more subtle kind like Jarid described that gives them a sense that people don’t see them as white, regardless of their light skin.