Note from BW of Brazil: OK, so the topic is not new. As I’ve discussed in numerous previous posts, the exact figure of Brazil’s black population can be a tricky subject. This is true for a number of reasons. 1) Brazilian culture has always influenced its citizens to “whiten” themselves when affirming their identities. As such, pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) often define themselves in a lighter-skinned color category. As we saw in a recent report, it seems that a couple of million preto and pardo women suddenly “disappeared” in census reports. These women didn’t die, they simply defined themselves using a color category different from what they really are. 2) The culture also teaches people that only the darkest-skinned of people are/should be considered black. 3) The long history of miscegenation creates a reality in which one could see Brazil as going through a “whitening” process or going through a “browning” process, depending on one’s perspective.
The question of identity is something I witness nearly early day. For example, on Monday afternoon, I was conversing with a young, light-skinned woman who worked in a pharmacy in the north zone of São Paulo. Regardless of her fair skin, the young woman’s features (lips, nose, hair texture, even though she straightened her hair) signaled that she was black or at least of African ancestry. When I asked her how she defined herself, she first said she didn’t know, but later said, “Well, I think I’m negra (black).” One never knows how a woman with her phenotype would respond to this question in Brazil. As proof of this, I highlight a WhatsApp conversation I was having today with one of my most intelligent young, teenage students.
The young man, who is 15 years old, inquired as to whether I had ever been to the city of Boston in the United States. I responded that I hadn’t, but that the city had the reputation for being one of the most racist in the US. He asked, “Really? They don’t like black people?” I responded that it wasn’t surprising as many cities in the US, as well as Brazil, are quite racist. Surprised, he responded that he thought Brazil was a great country for black people. As the conversation evolved, I ended up asking the young man if he thought he was black or not. The student has a light skin complexion and wavy hair that could perhaps grow into a loosely curled afro if he ever let it grow out.
Translation of non-English sentences: (Top box) EUA means USA. “We need to talk about this” – (Bottom left box) “Northeasterner” – “But the northeast has blacks, whites and Indians, also” – “I know. I tried to avoid the question. My whole family is white. So, by family, I’m white.” – “Everyone is white? So, are you white?” – (Bottom box right) “I know this response isn’t satisfying. Yes. My mother. My father. The darkest in my family are me and my uncle. That’s it.” – “OK. I can’t tell you about your identity. It’s not for me to say. I will say this. When I look at you I know that there are black people in your family. Light-skinned blacks, but black.” – “You know, they say that the mother of my paternal grandmother was black. The worst thing about Brazil is that we don’t know what we are. The mother of my maternal grandmother.”
He responded that his whole family was white and thus, in terms of family, he was white. He then revealed that he and an uncle are the darkest people in his family. As identity is a personal thing, I told him that it was not for me to say, but that when I looked at him I knew that there were black people in his family. They may have light skin, but black. It is a conversation that one could have with millions of Brazilians everyday, a large percentage of whom would, like this student, also identify themselves as white and also believe that Brazil is a “racial democracy”. It is conversations such as these that demonstrate why the subject of racial identity can never be discussed too much! With that said, I present to you today’s feature…
“Negra sou!” The construction of identity of university black women
By Antonilde Rosa
On March 8th, women’s day, I launched the series “Escritas de mulheres negras também importam” (Writings of black women also matter), whose objective is publications of texts addressing, above all, studies, researches and productions in general of works developed by black women, both In the academic environment, and in other places of their daily lives, in search of recognition of other forms of knowledge and thus multiplying the spaces and amplifying the echo of the voices of the intellectuals of city peripheries equally.
In the month of March I will make special publications, exclusively with some that deal specifically with the themes of mulheres negras (black women).
In this project what interests me the most is the collective writing process, in which the authorship of the texts will also be of those invited so that we can escape some of this logic and practice of representation and thus promote spaces of protagonism so that there is representation, therefore, I believe that the representation within some contexts and how it is configured in the practice of some movements, is also a form of silencing, considering that, when the intention is represented it is to come to an equivalent, that is, to occupy a place of someone, since representation doesn’t, what one seeks is to ensure that each person or group is the protagonist of their narratives; of their stories!
For the launch, my guest is Érika Costa, who holds a Masters degree in Sociology from the Postgraduate Program in Sociology of the University of Brasília-UnB. For the launch text, I asked her to speak about her monograph presented at the conclusion of her grad work in Social Sciences from the Federal University of Goiás titled: Negra sou (black woman I am)! Affirmative action policies and identity trajectories of black women in UFG.
In her monograph, the author seeks to understand how university and black students can constitute identities within the scope of the Federal University of Goiás. She points out in the final result of the research that spaces such as family, school, social movement and university can interfere in the process of identity constitution, and that these identities can re-signify elements, expressing new forms of identities.
By Érika Costa*
When Antonilde invited me to write this brief text about my academic trajectory as a black woman, I was very happy for this opportunity, because for me it is a way of recognizing my work. It’s also a way of saying that I and my life matter.
The choice of theme about the identity processes of black women started from my experience as a black woman. I come from a family in which my generation is the first to attend higher education. The possibility of studying provoked in me several changes in my trajectory. At the undergraduate level I became acquainted with studies of gender and race, through the production of black women like Bell Hooks, Lélia Gonzalez, Nilma Lino Gomes and others like Gloria Anzaldúa, etc. This was very important because it allowed me to reflect on my condition as a black woman, I immersed myself in a process of self-knowledge, what I am accustomed to denominating the decolonization of mind and body. These changes have awakened in me the desire to investigate the process of building identities for black women.
Early in the undergraduate course I took a course with the anthropologist Luciana de Oliveira Dias and, years later, she accepted the challenge of orienting the research for the production of the monograph. Unfortunately the presence of black teachers in the university is very small, as in other professional categories. Seeing a black woman as a professor and intellectual was very “empowering,” representativeness matters and contributed a lot to my education, as well as to the research we undertook, from the perspective of two mulheres negras.
In my monograph presented at the conclusion of the graduation in Social Sciences at the Federal University of Goiás, Negra sou! Políticas de ações afirmativas e trajetórias de identidade de mulheres negras na UFG (Black woman I am! Affirmative action policies and identity trajectories of black women at UFG), my main objective was to investigate how the process of building the identities of black female university students occurs in the context of the university, since the university is a place that was created for a very specific public, which did not contemplate the black and indigenous population until recently, that is to say a space formed mostly by homens e mulheres brancas (white men and women), which constitutes a barrier in the task of the recognition for black and indigenous students. I interviewed 20-to-29-year-old students. As students are users of affirmative action policies, it was necessary to look at the context of the research, and it is necessary to elaborate an institutional analysis of how the affirmative actions were consolidated in the UFG. The narratives undertaken by the students indicated that there was an identity process in which the racial question was not expressed, and that was being consolidated in the course of its trajectories. According to cultural studies theorists, identities are produced through difference, it is in the perception of the differences that identities are constructed. All this process, from this perspective, occurs in a plural form, the identities are not static. Plurality allows for changes in the ongoing identity affirmations.
In Brazil, we still live in a context where there is a coloniality that permeates the way we pessoas negras (black people) are socialized. History books, for example, tell a story from a Eurocentric perspective, many elements of Brazilian culture have their black roots, such as samba and capoeira, but these books still insist on representing our ancestry only linked to slavery, subordinating those that are also part of the history of this country, and inferiorizing black women, men and children. The social representation of the media also collaborates in the construction of this inferiorization and stigma, through the reproduction of stereotyped and essentialized images. This coloniality tells us that “vidas negras não importam” (black lives don’t matter),” when inter-sectionalizing race and the issues of class and gender, statistics point to alarming numbers about the impacts resulting from the operation of racism among the comunidade negra brasileira (black Brazilian community). Black youth homicide rates are 77%, violence against black women has increased by 54% in the last ten years. All this conjuncture tells us that coloniality is present. Does this in any way impact the way we black people are going to construct build our life stories, in the face of such circumstances, I question how it is to construct identities in a society in which the corpo negro (black body) has no value?
In the students’ narratives, the racial question was not so evident in their identities during childhood, at school racial subjects or the teaching of “Afro-Brazilian History and Culture” was not addressed, and if it was approached it was through negative bias such as slavery. The difference in the school environment was marked by perverse racism, hair was identified by insults that don’t deserve to be mentioned here, but that made the students inferior during childhood. The lack of representativity on television, especially on children’s programs, where the majority of hosts were mulheres brancas, loiras, de cabelos lisos e olhos claros (white women with blond, straight-hair and light-colored eyes), supported the understanding of the differences. In adolescence, all students reported going through hair straightening processes, thereby indicating that beleza negra (black beauty) was/is not socially accepted. Aesthetic genocide is so common in the life of a black adolescent, that I recognize myself in these narratives, and also underwent similar processes.
For Nilma Lino Gomes, former minister of the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, Youth and Human Rights, hair is a relevant symbol for identidade negra (black identity). The narratives of the black university women interviewed indicate the re-signification of identities, such as the valorized affirmation of being a black woman starting from the usage of natural hair. This change is being produced in different places, the popular college prep course, the novela (soap opera) actress that wears her natural hair, the movimento social negro (black social movement), the presence of other black students in the university, the family, various elements of representation support new identity configurations.
It may even seem frivolous to assert oneself as a black woman, or that wearing natural hair can be understood as just a “nova moda” (new fashion), but in social contexts similar to Brazil, making this affirmation is a victory, wearing cabelo cacheado ou crespo (curly or kinky/curly hair) is a political act, for enabling black women to go against processos de embranquecimento (whitening processes), an acceptance of black beauty, of ser negra (being black). According to the Brazilian intellectual and anthropologist Lélia Gonzalez, “we are born preta (black), mulata, parda (brown/mixed), marrom (brown), roxinha (a little purple) among other things, but tornar-se negra é uma conquista (becoming black is an achievement).” Gonzalez was right, because the existing coloniality contributed to the black woman trying not to be the reflection of the mirror, but to fit into normative models of being a woman that does not fit the singularities and the differences of the black woman.
When a black woman passes to say “sim, sou negra” (yes, I am black), there is a re-signification of the term “negra”, this is not to be interpreted as a negative, but an affirmation of empowerment of one’s own existence in being black, a political category of identity affirmation. When we consider this change, the poem “Negra Sou” by the poetess and choreographer Victoria Santa Cruz inspired us to the title of the monograph. The poem dialogues with the process of identity affirmation of black women, the lyrical I denied her condition of being black in childhood when she hears someone shout: “Negra!” She grows up straightening her hair, putting powder on her face, but deep down those are telling her: “Negra!” And in acknowledging this affirmation, she goes on to assume this statement in the condition of being a black woman expressing through the body that yes: “Negra Sou”.
Affirming differences positively is a success. Being a woman in a country like Brazil where it has high rates of violence against women is a challenge. Being female and black is to overcome machismo and racism every day. I hope that this March 8th we have the strength to affirm our differences, we can exist and re-exist!
The full text (in Portuguese) is here: Negra sou! Políticas de ações afirmativas e trajetórias de identidade de mulheres negras na UFG
*Bachelor in Social Sciences with a degree in Public Policy from the Federal University of Goiás, she is a member of the research group Em Prosa: Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas do Campo de Públicas (In Prose: Research and Studies Center of the Public Field) and also Coletivo Rosa Parks: Estudos e Pesquisas sobre Raça, Etnia, Gênero, Sexualidade e Interseccionalidades (Rosa Pfarks Collective: Studies and Research on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Intersectionalities).
Antonilde is a singer, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in classical music by the School of Music and Performing Arts of the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). Black feminist activist. She was a researcher at LaGENTE – LaGENTE – Laboratório de Estudos de Gênero, Étnico-Raciais e Espacialidades (Laboratory of Gender, Ethnic-Racial and Spatial Studies), and is a member of the Rede Sonora – música(s) e feminismo(s) (Sonora Network – music and feminism(s), Coletivo Atlânticas (Atlantic Collective) – Coletivo de Mulheres Negras (Collective of Black Women) at UFG and Coletivo Rosa Parks – which develops Studies and Research on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Intersectionalities.