Note from BW of Brazil: New times, new tactics, new faces. I’m never one to place too much value in reports that come out of the mainstream media, even when the report is decent. And since I began studying the racial issue in Brazil nearly 20 years ago, I’ve also kept pace with how the subject is reported in the mass media. Don’t get me wrong, mainstream news pieces are definitely better than complete silence on the issue, but these sources are often problematic for the things they don’t address while presenting the material as if they’re covering all of the bases. The “game” is very deceptive in this way. This is one reason why I’m so happy that nowadays, there are new voices going even deeper into the subject and presenting narratives that you’ll never find in the top media outlets. As such, the struggle is divided into two sides: One side presents the racial struggle in a more popular manner, and though it will disgruntle people, it’s message still remains “soft” enough for the mainstream. The other side is on the underground, speaks with less restraint and is willing to say things that its more popular counterparts won’t and as a result, won’t get the same financial/mainstream support as their counterparts. The article below is very good in addressing many of the issues that BW of Brazil addresses every week. But of the two sides I previously mentioned, which side would you say this piece represents?
The new faces of blackness
By Carlos Rydlewski
Other forms of approaching the racial question in Brazil are gaining strength, and its results can already be felt in the fight against inequality
In advance, a warning: this report contains small tests. But don’t be alarmed. They are of simple solutions, even though they bring complex conclusions. Here is the first. In an environment of a more elitist character, look around. Count how many blacks the space accommodates. The response will be anything between zero and very few. Don’t be surprised, however. In Brazil, this emptiness, so to speak, common. Moreover, afrodescendentes (African descendants), who make up the majority of the Brazilian population and 55% of the total, do the same test. They call it the “teste do pescoço” (neck test), in reference to the part of the body that rotates to the sides, like a periscope, during this type of inspection. The result, we all know, is invariable and historically the same.
Surveys of all sorts have confirmed the prevalence of whites in these places in Brazil. A survey of the Instituto Ethos (Ethos Institute), only by way of example, shows that blacks occupy only 4.7% of executive positions and 6.3% of management jobs in the 500 largest companies in Brazil. In the case of black women, such presence is even rarer. The numbers are, respectively, 0.4% and 1.6%.
All of this is undeniable. But the so-called “racial question” presents today, intriguing nuances. Although incipient, they are on the streets, acting jointly. Here is the list. The first great wave of blacks is coming out of universities formed within the system of quotas. In parallel, groups of African descent have seized digital spaces, giving new scope to debate and the complaints about racism. Policies of diversity management, which result in the inclusion of blacks in skilled jobs, have also gained traction in companies installed in Brazil. Finally, firms, advertising agencies and research institutes have begun to be interested by Afro-Brazilians under an hitherto unusual aspect – as consumers.
Consider, now, a survey conducted by the Instituto Locomotiva in 2017. It noted that the average level of education of blacks rose from 5.9 years in 2002 to 8.6 years in 2015. It was a leap of 35%. Among non-blacks, there was also an increase, but it was lower: 22%. In addition, the percentage of pretos e pardos (blacks and browns/mixed) – as the IBGE defines the group of negros – with a college degree doubled between 2007 and 2015. Furthermore, 75% of people who ascended to the middle class in the last decade were Afro Brazilians, even though part of this escalation has been compromised in the recent years of recession. It is estimated that, in the long run, blacks moved R$1.6 trillion in last year’s economy.
The labor market is an important aspect in this transformation, albeit slowly. The anthropologist Pedro Jaime, author of Executivos Negros, Racismo e Diversidade no Mundo Empresarial (Black Executives, racism and diversity in the business world) (Atlas), identified a natural change in how two generations of afrodescendentes reached positions of leadership or management in national companies. “One group ascended in the 1970s as a result of individual initiatives,” says Jaime. “The other began to occupy similar positions, but its trajectory is the fruit of a different action, because it is collective.”
For the academic, the turning of the individual to the collective was the result of two factors. There was, on the one hand, greater politicization of debates on racism, in large measure, intensified by the discussions about quotas. The other component was the adoption by companies of diversity policies. This type of management technique comes of the principle according to which heterogeneous teams of workers, and this applies to ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation and age, bring benefits to the business: reduce employee turnover, attract and retain talents and, among other advantages, create teams more likely to be innovative. Jaime observes diversity mitigates social tensions as the demand for the presence of “minorities” in the business environment.
The research of the Instituto Ethos, whose latest edition is from 2016, found that only 3.4% of the 500 largest Brazilian companies have goals and actions planned to expand the presence of blacks in executive positions. The percentage is small, but these firms are giants in their industries. The list includes big names like Bayer, BASF, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Avon, Dow. It should be added that, in some of them, there is a cultural rupture, with the formation of nuclei of officials to discuss and forward the issue of racism within the four walls of the company.
Ricardo Gonçalves, senior IT executive at Bayer; Raphaella Martins, account manager of the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson; and Leila Luz, in the area of communication for BASF Latin America, are part of such groups. Gonçalves says that he only became aware of the racial problem within the corporate environment.
Raphaella, in turn, had worked 15 years in advertising agencies and was “full” of being the única negra (only black) in an executive position at these locations. When entering at J. Walter Thompson, in 2014, she decided to include afrodescendentes in her team. This provision found resonance at the top of the company. At that time, Ricardo John, vice-president of the creation of the agency, touched the theme of diversity. It was not difficult that the interest of both converged. As a result, the blacks in strategic positions of the company increased from 2 in 2014 to 30 (20% of employees) today. “But the experience is not summed up in the numbers,” says Raphaella. “It has triggered a process of consciousness that struck everyone in the agency.”
In such debates, however, often times emerged push back – and not a consensus. “But some type of discomfort can also be useful,” says Leila Luz, of BASF. On one occasion, she hired a black employee. A colleague asked him if the candidate’s skin color had influenced the decision. “Now, pessoas brancas (white people) hire white people all the time, and nobody does this kind of questioning,” says Leila. “In this case, I explained my point of view and it was good. This has helped to overcome the problem.” She observes, however, that the net result of the performance of these groups is not always encouraging. “I look forward to listening to a transforming dialog but, in practice, people tend to reproduce the common sense.”
Therefore, if there is a discussion that young blacks consider completely innocuous it is if there is racism in Brazil. And the reason is simple: they are permanent targets of prejudice. The communications consultant Rodrigo Fernandes, for example, was standing in front of a restaurant of high standard in the Jardims region of São Paulo, where he ate lunch with a friend. A man descended from a Mercedes and handed him his car key. “I was mistaken for the valet,” says Fernandes.
Another point of transformation is a technology which, as in everything else in actuality, opens space for other changes. “Until now, the revolutions in the media, radio, television and the first phase of the internet, were white,” says Adilson dos Santos Junior, known as AD Junior, an exponent among the black influencers in social networks. “The difference is that, now we have this,” he adds, pointing to a smartphone. “We are more than 110 million pretos and pardos in Brazil and we’ve gained a voice in the digital world.”
There is a long list of afrodescendentes ranking high in social networks. In this case, the presence of women such as the architect Stephanie Ribeiro and Djamila Ribeiro, former secretary of Human Rights in São Paulo, calls attention. The collectives from the web, such as Blogueiras Negras and Levante Negro, also compose this digital gallery. Levante, for example, was created in 2015. It publishes works of blacks in areas such as communication, education or gastronomy.
“The idea is to take to the audience a concrete representation, which will serve as an inspiration for young people in the beginning of their careers,” says the writer Oswaldo Faustino, author of A Legião Negra – A Luta dos Afro-Brasileiros na Revolução Constitucionalista de 1932 (The Black Legion – the Struggle of Afro-Brazilians in the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932) (Selo Negro). “But, by a cruel irony, the group has been the target of frequent attacks. The accusations as ‘vitimismo’ (playing the victim) has become routine in the life of its members, who work with the curatorship and production of high-quality educational content.”
AD Junior is an expert in digital marketing with degree from the University of California, Irvine (USA). Today, he lives in Germany. In 2012, he created a travel channel on Facebook. He was startled by the comments. “Some people wondered how a ‘macaco‘ (monkey) could speak English,” he says. The offenses piled up until AD decided to turn the channel into an anti-racist platform.
Djamila Ribeiro, prominent among the current blogueiras negras (black women bloggers), says in one of her texts that, in her childhood, a friend invited her to go to a party. Arriving there, she and her siblings didn’t enter the house because an uncle of the girl didn’t like blacks. Djamila and her siblings were served on the sidewalk. That is until, indignant, they stampeded away. It is Djamila who makes the question that composes the second test of this reportage: “Has any white person has already gone through this exclusively because of being white?”.
Not infrequently, situations of such strength lead to resignation. In other cases, produce a strengthening of identity. Patrícia Santos, HR specialist, lost a job for having braids in her hair. “My boss told me that I was not in accordance with the ‘dress code’ of the company,” she says. In response, and with time, she founded EmpregueAfro, an HR consulting firm specializing in the placement of blacks in the labor market. Fernando Montenegro, in turn, has not complied with the fact of blacks and browns being invisible to many sectors of the market. He created a research institute focused on the analysis of the behavior of consumption of Afro-Brazilians: Think Etnus.
Tired of secondary and stereotypical roles, the actress Maria Gal also reacted. She began to produce, and will play the lead, in a film about writer Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977). Black, from the favelas (shantytowns), semi-illiterate, Carolina recorded her everyday life in papers she collected from the trash. She became a writer, translated into various languages, author of books such as like Quarto de Despejo (1960).
“Only 4.4% of the films produced in Brazil have black actresses in its main cast,” says Maria Gal, justifying her decision to undertake the project. “And I did a test, because the director thought white skin was more commercial than mine.”
The debate on racism in Brazil always was always placed in the field of forbidden, slipping between false assumptions, ambivalence and taboos. At the end of the 19th century, science constructed the idea that the races were biologically determined. Here, such logic, racialism, found shelter in doctor Nina Rodrigues (1862-1906), of black origin. This current considered blacks inferior. So, he spread in his thesis that it was necessary to branquear a população no país (whiten the population in the country). Something that actually was tried by means, for example, of the policy of attracting European immigrants.
Starting form the second half of the 20th century, this theory collapsed. With the advances of science, the racial categories have come to be seen as socially constructed, and not inbred. But the demobilization of racialism had no great practical utility. As Kwame Appiah, professor of philosophy at the University of New York (author of Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity) said, we continue to classify by race, despite what genetics tell us. Whether we like it or not, as the Brazilian anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz stated, in practice, race is still a powerful concept and persists as a social marker.
Already during a good part of the 20th century, Brazilians lived under the sweet myth of democracia racial (racial democracy). In a rough manner, it propagated to the world that Brazil had escaped prejudice and discrimination. At first sight, this concept may seem like a genuinely national product. But it is not. Deborah Yashar, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, pointed out in an article published in the magazine Foreign Affairs (“Does Race Matter in Latin America?”) that the same fable seduced several Latin American countries. They spread the twin myths of national unity and ethnic homogeneity as part of the process of construction of national identity.
In 1925, for example, the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos coined the term “cosmic race” to glorify the inter-racial character of that country. The Italians used the expression “cafe con leche” to celebrate the amalgamation between Africans, Europeans and Indians. Ecuadorian general Guillermo Rodríguez Lara, after assuming power in 1972, said: “There is no longer an indigenous problem. We all become white men when we accept the objectives of the national culture”. In Peru, the general and former president Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968 to 1975) went further. He banned the term “índio” (Indian) in the official speeches. In 1969, he changed the name of the day of the Indian to Day of the peasant.
Here, it was Gilberto Freyre, the author of Casa-Grande & A Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), interpreting Brazil as a país mestiço (mixed race country) and the Brazilian, as a meta-raça (meta-race). The racial paradise erected by Freyre began to crumble in the 1950s, with sociologists Roger Bastide and Florestan Fernandes (this author of the classic A Integração do Negro na Sociedade de Classes (The integration of the Black in the Society of Classes). In the same demystifying tune followed Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Octavio Ianni. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, incidentally, was the first Brazilian president to admit the existence of racism in the country.
Today, however much they point out individual actions, what is called the black movement is a set of groups that operate in different areas. They are articulated in specific situations and maintain among themselves a sort of communion of principles. “Even so, there remains the challenge of building a synthesis,” says Douglas Belchior, of Uneafro, an entity that prepares young blacks for the vestibular (college entrance exam) and public competitions for job vacancies.
In this sense, the formation of the Frente Alternativa Preta (Black Alternative Front), the outline for the formation of a party of ethnic basis is considered. The agenda for a good part of these groups includes demands for advances both in affirmative actions as in policies of historical reparation. The first are punctual and transitional measures, such as the dimensions, the other aim to tackle structural inequalities, with initiatives of long term and permanent investments in specific areas.
Affirmative action policies, although having been born in the United States, in the 1960s, are a global phenomenon. They were widely used in Malaysia, for example, at the end of the last century. Today, the theme crosses the world, including Europe, reaching the stage of permanent migratory flows. As the Indian philosopher Kenan Malik says, this debate is the fruit of the “fiasco of multiculturalism”, of which the European countries are bogged down.
For Graham K. Brown, of the University of Western Australia, and Arnim Langer, of the University of Leuven, Belgium, authors of the book Building Sustainable Peace, such affirmative action programs had similar successes and were victims of similar failures. The majority reduced economic disparities, albeit with less frequency than its policymakers would like. The actions, observes the duo, tend to highlight ethnic divisions, although the racial unrest may yield to the extent that inequality decreases.
In Brazil, six years after the Federal Supreme Court (STF) have confirmed the constitutionality of Law of Quotas, in 2012, the balance of the largest affirmative action already adopted in the country have been positive. The data indicate that, between 2012 and 2015, the number of preto or pardo students went from 933 thousand to 2.1 million in federal universities. It was a leap of 132%. Several studies blew away fears according to which quota students would have a low academic performance or thicken the statistics of drop outs.
The greatest difficulty of the system relates to the definition of who is black, an arduous task in a country of “quase pretos” (almost blacks). To escape this confusion, universities use interviews to evaluate the phenotype of students (such as nose, hair), an analysis subject to inaccuracies or the self-declaration of the candidate, which gives rise to fraud. But such problems, say experts, not undermined until now the attempt to equalize, even minimally, opportunities for education in Brazil.
But an indigestible alert on the racial question sounded last month, in an article by the economist Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize, in 2001, with the title “Quando vamos superar o racism?” (When will we overcome racism?). In the text, he indicates that, in 50 years of fighting discrimination in the United States, there has been progress in some sectors (in case of politics, with the election of Barack Obama), in many areas the framework remained the same (disparities in education and employment) and, in others, the situation has worsened (inequality of income and wealth). This balance is detailed in the book “Healing our Divided Society”, organized Fred Harris, former senator and professor at the University of New Mexico, and Alan Curtis, the CEO of the Eisenhower Foundation. Stiglitz, who collaborated with the project, defines the reading of the text as “bleak”.
As for the aspirations of African descendants, they seem to have been raised recently by an unusual source: Hollywood. Considering the effect produced in the audiences, Black Panther (released as Pantera Negra in Brazil) consolidates a kind of “utopia of negritude”. In the film, a super-hero assumes the throne of Wakanda, a small African country. It passes for being a poor and rural nation, but holds a technology as evolved as it is powerful. The protagonist is faced with a dilemma. He must save the secret of this wealth, and thus ensure the prosperity and security of its people, or he needs to share this knowledge with the world, notably with black communities massacred around the planet. More than a delirium of pan-African power, the history attracts by the way it presents black men and women. They appear on the screen as proud protagonists of their destinations. There seems to be another longing in real life.
Source: Movimento Black Money