“When I discovered I was racist”: Woman reflects on her perceptions of blackness and what it means to be white

Note from BW of Brazil: Many of us go through processes of discovery that often change the very way in which we see the world. For me, one of those processes was discovering what being black really meant in the social world, first in the United States and later the world. Of course, growing up in the US, it is difficult for anyone who is clearly phenotypically black not to know that he or she is black. Whether one gets this information from parents, family, friends or even the media, it’s just kind of a given that you will become aware of this status. But when I speak of discovering what being black means in the world, this is actually another topic, well perhaps an extension of the first, aforementioned understanding. You see, looking in the mirror and seeing my brown skin doesn’t necessarily prepare for how people around see this color, particularly if those people don’t share this attribute.  The same goes for the process of people knowing what it means to be a woman, poor or let’s say, a Muslim.

For many years I known numerous people who I classify as white who are completely oblivious to what it means to be non-white in a world dominated by whiteness. Most of the white people I have ever known in my life are completely unaware of how many things they will never experience in life simply because they have white skin. I’ve seen this whiteness play out in a number of ways. There are those who think that racism doesn’t exist in today’s times. Or at least not to the extent that it did. There are those who see racists as extremists connected to organized white supremacists groups. There are those who accept that racism exists on some level but that these cases are rare and most accusations of such fall under the category of “you people see racism in everything.” You even have those who don’t see themselves as harboring racists ideals because they get along with black people, don’t mind being around black people, date/marry/have sex with a black person or even think “black people are cool.”

Yes, in terms of the race question, whiteness has a very successful manner of deceiving people who fall into this category. Today’s post is not about ‘Racism 101’ but rather the discovery of one of these white people who recently came to a realization on the topic. I would say that the vast majority of people who define themselves as white will never get to this point simply because they don’t have to. But those who do ‘get there’ often have stories worth hearing or in the case, reading. The story I share today won’t blow you away, but I think it’s worth the 5-10 minutes it will take to read it. If you happen to be white and can get beyond the idea that “this site is racist” thought (as the comment I read yesterday suggests), just reflect for a minute as you read this. If it makes sense, reflect on it; maybe share with a friend.

“When I discovered I was racist”

By Debora Pivotto

I met Bianca in 2003 on my first day of college. And in a short time we became good friends. She was the only black classmate in the room. Maybe the only one in the entire journalism course. We talked a lot about Human Rights, Politics, History … and a lot of nonsense too. I remember the day I heard her say that she was studying something about slavery and the impacts on blacks in Social Science classes at USP (University of São Paulo). She found all the inheritance of oppression left to the blacks absurd, a group of which she visibly didn’t feel a part.

Several times the question came to my throat: “Listen, how is it for you, as a negra, to study all this?”. But I could never ask. I did not know how she dealt with the question and was even afraid that she would be offended by the question (!!).

Accelerate time to 2017.

Bianca writes to tell me that she was at a literary festival in Araxá (MG). She is a writer, a black woman and an activist. Author of the book Quando me descobri negra (When I Discovered I Was Black) , which chronicles a beautiful, deep and painful process about how she discovered and appropriated her black origin. She stopped being a morena.

bianca santana - descobri
Bianca Santana, author of ‘Quando Me Descobri Negra’

Since then, we have always talked a lot about this process of connecting with her origins, of redeeming the pain and the force that this whole history involves, and especially about having the courage to write about it and inspiring so many women to find their way of empowerment. It is a complex process, full of layers and contradictions. But very powerful too.

I have always been very proud of seeing not only Bianca, but so many women who, in recent years, have se assumiram negras (assumed themselves as black). They release their hair and their voices. It’s really beautiful to see. But from time to time, I have looked more deeply at myself and come into contact with my own process in the face of all this transformation. And I’ve been dealing with something very complex and profound that is to stop being racist.

Discourse x practice

I began to realize that I consciously, of course, support this whole movement. In a more superficial layer, in reasoning and in my discourse, I am very much in favor of the valorization of black people. But inside I have noticed many contradictions. It started lightly when I realized that I was going through a lot of debates with black women, I was discussing representativeness, but when I went into a restaurant and saw black women in the room, I continued with the old certainty that they were cleaners, waitresses or any other position that demands a lower level of education. It is a conclusion as soon as it arrives without giving you time to think. It’s quick, spontaneous, sneaky. At first, I deluded myself thinking, “Oh, but it’s the scene I’m more accustomed to seeing, so it’s only natural that I draw this conclusion.” But not only that. It is a feeling that is hard to perceive – and even more so to assume – but it is a surety of who deep down, but really deep down, hopes and wants these women to be there that way, do you understand? In a place that is not the same where I, a white woman-client-privileged, am.

I was kinda shocked to realize that. It’s difficult. The shame is enormous. We always want to be cooler than we are. But as I am digging into a process of deep self-knowledge and understanding various parts of myself that are not very admirable, I have decided to take courage and go further in my self-observation regarding racism as well.

The second major contradiction came with that controversy over the use of the turban when a girl with cancer said she had been repressed by black women for using something from African culture. My annoyance was not even the question of whether or not the girl could use it – this was only important for those who did not go into the debate. My difficulty was in accepting that the turban was of black origin. My first thought – that spontaneous, quick, sneaky – told me “wow, but Egyptian women already wore turbans …”.

Since I was already attentive to this white-racist woman who inhabits me, I reflected and researched the subject. And when I came to an incredible text by the writer Ana Maria Gonçalves, I took so many slaps in my face that I became dizzy. She speaks among other things about this characteristic of racism not to believe that blacks could have created cool and incredible things. We accept that pasta is Italian (even though it had been invented by the Chinese), that judo is Japanese, but capoeira is Brazilian (kind of mine, yours, ours, of all …), acarajé is from Bahia, Brazil, samba is ours. What black people brought is never black. And if they say that they invented it, we still question it. The truth is that we whites doubt them all the time! We think they are wrong even when they talk about their own history. It’s very arrogant. We are very resistant to giving them glories and credits. Already phrases such as “it could only have been a black” or “isso é coisa de preto” (this is a black thing) easily leave the mouths of many people when they see someone doing something stupid.

In the same text, she quotes a poem by Nei Lopes which reads as follows:

“First,

They usurped mathematics

Medicine, architecture

Philosophy, religiosity, art

Saying they created them

In their image and likeness.

After,

They separated pharaohs and pyramids

From the African context

Because Africans would not be capable

Of so much inventiveness and so much advance”

At that time, I saw how racism is clever. It can misrepresent geographic boundaries, so clearly defined on maps. When I complained that the turban came from Egypt, where did I put that country? In Europe? In Asia? Because in our (racist) imaginary Africa is just the continent of hungry Somali children and civil wars. At most, the land of the people who always win the São Silvestre (marathon in São Paulo) – and of whom we don’t even know the names, by the way. Hollywood invented that Cleopatra was blond with blue eyes like Liz Taylor and we believe it

When I saw Taís Araújo’s speech saying that the color of her son causes people to change sidewalks, it also resonated strongly with me. When I’m walking on the street alone and I see men approaching, I sometimes get scared and I feel like changing the sidewalk. And if I say it makes no difference whether men are black or white, I’d be lying. Because it does. Black men usually frighten me more. I have in my memory a real trauma of a lightening kidnapping that I suffered and that was practiced by two young black men. But I know that along with this concrete experience comes a whole stereotype of the young black-bandit who is news every day on TV and who is stuck there in our unconscious. I have a notion of how oppressive and unjust it is for young black workers, and for black mothers, when I look at them with fear or when I hide and change the sidewalk. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how to deal with it better.

Anyway, these are just some examples of the contradictions that I perceive in myself. And I say this not as one who is conformed and thinks that life is really like this. On the contrary, I assume these racist thoughts and feelings because I believe that only then will I advance and be able to be a better person. Because I believe that this cause belongs to everyone. But it is not an easy process. It takes a lot of courage.

Racism has to do with arrogance, which is a byproduct of pride. And to recognize one’s own evil is the thing that the human being most resists to doing in life.

The tendency is always to find that either it does not exist (it’s mimimi – whining) or that it’s in the other. Being the other the criminal socialite who calls criança negra de macaca (a black child a monkey) or the unsuspecting friend asking questions like “cadê o dia da consciência branca?” (where’s the day of white consciousness?). It is important to realize that recognizing myself as privileged and supporting the quotas and struggle of blacks does not exempt me from being racist. In the same way that feminist men (and we women) are not free from machismo. There are too many layers to be undressed. But I know that the first step in getting rid of this shadow is to assume that it exists, to understand it in order to transform it.

And another thing. It is past time for us whites to take up the racism that exists within each one of us. So that this struggle is not one-sided and not even at the level of discourse. I feel it’s the best we can do for black people right now. And I already feel great changes within myself.

SourceEspiritualidade Prática

About Marques Travae 2876 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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