Note from BW of Brazil: Stories such as this one featured here today are perfect examples of why this blog exists in the first place. This short article touches on a number of the very issues that are usually discussed here. One, it’s a black woman. Two, a woman who only recently came to identify herself as black. Three, a person who managed to get access to college through the affirmative action program. Four, another student who silenced naysayers by proving that students entering universities through quotas often get equal or better grades than non-quota students. Five, a black Brazilian who had never experienced a discussion on race/racism before entering college. Six, the racism she experienced on the college campus. Seven, the imposition of Brazilian society that women straighten their hair. And eight, the consistency of pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) being socioeconomically equal and disadvantaged in comparison to those that classify themselves as brancos (whites). As the saying goes, “conhecimento é poder” (knowledge is power”) and today’s report once again shows why we need to continue to push for black access to institutions of higher learning!
How the racial quotas transformed the life of Mariana Fernandes
She was the first in her family to earn a postgraduate degree and credits her success to policies of inclusion
By Mariana Areias
Pride in her origins is in every detail of the look of Mariana Fernandes, 26 years old, with a Master’s in history from the University of Brasília (UnB). The cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair) and the African-oriented accessories are a statement of resistance in a society that discriminates by the color of the skin.
Mariana learned about prejudice when she started high school in a private school in Brasilia. Before, she went to public schools. In her new reality, in a crowded classroom, she became accustomed to looking to her side and not recognizing herself in what she saw. She was the only black woman in the class.
Having curly hair, dark skin, living in the periphery and participating in a religion of African matrix was not common in that space. This is because whites and blacks don’t have the same opportunities in Brazil, as data from the Todos Pela Educação (All for Education) movement, published in November 2016, shows. The figures help to understand a broader scenario of which Mariana is a part.
The majority of the country’s white adolescents (70.7%) are in high school, in step with their age. When looking at the população negra (black population) in the same age group, only 55.5% of pretos (blacks) and 55.3% of the pardos (browns) attend their appropriate grade.
The illiteracy rate is 11.2% among pretos; 11.1% among the pardos; And 5% among brancos (whites). Unemployment is also higher among pretos (7.5%) and pardos (6.8%) than among brancos (5.1%).
At age 19, after successfully completing high school, Mariana found herself faced with yet another challenge: that of entering a university. After completing a preparatory course for the vestibular (college entrance examination), she was approved in History at UnB (University of Brasília) through the system of racial quotas. In college, several times she heard a question that embarrassed her: “Are you a cotista (quota student)?” they would ask in an tone of disapproval.
“It was as if I had to justify that I was qualified to be in the university, besides being black” – Mariana
The debate on racial issues had only rarely arisen in the student’s life prior to higher learning. “Until the university you’re not prepared to face racism. They didn’t present me with reflections on what the quota system was,” she explains.
UnB was the first university of Brazil to apply the system of racial quotas for students. In 2016, according to the Brazilian Center for Research in Evaluation and Selection and Promotion of Events (Cebraspe), there were 226 vacancies offered to blacks in the Vestibular of UnB.
Mariana credits much of her success to the opportunity that the selection system offered her. “The quotas were important for me to direct my education and learn more about my history and my origins. Besides, after I entered college, I began to accept myself as black.”
During the university, Mariana took full advantage of the four and a half year course. In the center of black coexistence at UnB, she could observe and live with realities similar to the one she experienced. With good grades, she silenced the prejudice of many colleagues about students entering higher education through the system of reservation of vacancies.
One of those responsible for generating in Mariana reflections and changes in the way of seeing herself was the professor of the discipline “Pensamento negro contemporâneo” (Black contemporary thinking) at UnB, Rafael Nunes. He is one of the few black masters of the university. While co-existing with Mariana, he considered her a super-interested student.
“Because it was an optional subject, I felt that those interested were, for the most part, blacks who sought to understand a little more about their own experiences, in an epistemological way,” said the professor who taught the discipline for two years.
Mariana specializes in irmandades negras (black brotherhoods) in colonial Brazil. She was the first in her family to earn a Master’s. While attending graduate school, of the 200 students in the program, only 10 were black. Quotas are defined by her as the gateway to the professional world.
She was an intern trainee at the Fundação Palmares (Palmares Foundation), a public institution focused on the promotion and preservation of Afro-Brazilian art and culture. “The coexistence and space of blacks in the university was made possible by quotas. But I hope we have even more black people as authors, theoreticians and professors,” she says.
With a master’s degree, Mariana feels prepared for a brilliant career. Still, she reflects on the prejudices that may emerge along the way. “We know that the labor market is racist, prejudiced and requires things like alisar o cabelo (straightening the hair),” she says.
Her channel on YouTube is Foi Lossa. The master of History is proud to bring debates on racism and feminism to the internet, too. She wants to multiply what she has learned in the university and amplify her voice.