When racism starts in the family: One woman’s memories of a racist hierarchy within her multi-racial family

Note from BW of Brazil: We’ve all heard the theories on interracial unions and multiracial families. If we all just mix, racism will just magically disappear, that is, if it even existed in the first place. The theory is one of the main pillars upon which Brazilian society supports itself in disseminating the idea that it’s culture and people can’t possibly be racist because so many families so incredibly mixed. Well, the reality of the situation is that Brazil is proof that blatant racism can exist in spite of high rates of interracial unions. And with more and more people who come from these types of families sharing their memories, when are privy to personal experiences that document the fact. 

In her research, psychologist Lia Vainer Schucman exposed another dirty little secret in the mythical Brazilian racial democracy: unequal treatment, racist jokes, comments and racial hierarchy within interracial families. I mean, in reality, in a country in which anti-black sentiments are such a part of the culture, what kind of sense would it make to believe that such sentiments would disappear simply because people of different races marry and reproduce? I’ve read about too many examples of the racist tendencies of the white partners in interracial couples in which children are involved. You’ve no doubt heard about them too. Someone not wanting their biracial child to look “too black”, or not wanting them to wear their hair braided or hang out with too many black people.

Actress Halle Berry’s ordeal with her ex is not the only example that comes to mind, nor is this something would only happen in the United States. Some of the memories of one anonymous author and the stories that came to light during Lia Vainer Schucman’s research brought out some of the same scenarios in Brazil demonstrating how people can and often do continue to harbor racist sentiments despite having married and having had children with black partners. As time goes on, we will surely hear more stories of racism and racial hierarchies in interracial families as more and more people continue to share their own personal experiences. Below, Luanda Julião delves into her own memories and defines them as what they really were. 

racismo-foto-geledes

When racism starts in the family 

By Luanda Julião *

This month two episodes, one with students in the school where I teach and another in my family, have brought to my mind distant memories, rekindling in me the desire to write about something that is almost taboo to say in a society where the research [1] attests that Brazil is a racist country, people have declared themselves as non-racist: racism within families.

The first event involves two students who are half-siblings on their mother’s side. The oldest is 15 years old and the youngest is three years younger. Both are the offspring of a dark-skinned black woman, but the younger one, having a white father, has a much lighter skin than the older brother, who has the color of his mother’s skin. This difference in tone makes the younger brother think he has the right to offend and racially humiliate the older brother. I called the attention of the younger man, saying that what he did it was racism and that he too, although his skin pigmentation was lighter than his brother’s and wanted to hide his blackness – his physical features (broad nose, cabelo crespo or kinky/curly hair) are black.

“I’m not a monkey, nor ugly like him,” he replied coldly, turning his back on me and bringing back memories of ny childhood and adolescence in which similar situations were also present.

In the same week, a second episode came to corroborate the first: the birth of my niece. The fact is that the birth of this new family member brought to the surface an old anxiety in the domestic sphere: the baby’s phenotype. An implicit anguish hung in the air: whether she would inherit the traits of my sister (of African descent) or whether she would inherit the traits of her (white) father. This uneasiness in knowing the skin tone, the shape of the nose, the type of hair made my memory open the door to old and painful memories, making me think about something that although it is so clear I never understood correctly and that maybe, because of not understanding, I always repressed: racism in interracial families.

I was between four and five when I began to feel racial violence up close. Yes, when I was five years old, although I still didn’t know how to elaborate rationally what happened, I already had a perception and a disconcert in my soul that the boys preferred to dance with the meninas brancas (white girls), that the most important roles in the school presentations were for blond and light-eyed children and that my color and mycabelo crespo were the subject of insults – camouflaged as games – by my classmates. These insults were neglected and ignored through the silence of the teachers (the “aunts”, as they were called) and the whole school staff, who varnished all these offenses as “coisas de crianças” (things that children do).

I want to draw attention here to racial violence in interracial families, because when racial hierarchies also reverberate in the family motto, evading the social stage and also entering homes, we also visualize it, although at first glance it seems inadmissible, the racism present in the most intimate and primeval sphere of the individual. Consequently, we envisage that the family (this group of people with kinship and ancestry in common) attributes to each of its members a specific meaning and crossed by the historical and social context that intervenes in the affective co-existence between its components.

During my childhood my hair was very crespo (kinky), “hard to comb”. In the mid-1980s, there was no such plurality of cosmetics in Brazil for afro hair (or, if there were, they were too expensive). My mother (a descendant of Indians and Portuguese), who always had very straight, flowing hair, didn’t have the patience to comb my cabelo “duro” e “rebelde” (my hair and rebellious hair), as she referred to it. Every day before going to school she tried to “tame it” and every day I cried when I felt pain for having my hair pulled and beaten by a brush and a comb made to comb straight hair. The more I cried, the more she pulled at it and more offenses were directed at it and at me, as if I were to blame for having cabelo “ruim” (“bad” hair) and having genetically inherited to a greater degree the black features of my father and my paternal grandmother, negra retinta (dark-skinned black woman).

Until one day, furious at trying to tame my hair in vain, she took the scissors and cut it short, almost to nothing. I arrived at school crying. On that day, my classmates at school no longer laughed at my “hard” hair, but at its absence, because now, according to them, I looked like a boy. That day I got a new nickname: Pelé – a nickname that followed me until my hair grew again. For an inexplicable hair miracle, from that day forward my hair grew a little striaghter, more malleable to the brush and the comb and “prettier”. This is even the discourse that my mother still uses today to legitimize the violence she inflicted on my hair.

My two other sisters were born with lighter skin pigmentation and easier hair to comb. Those “banal” moments for them didn’t have the same suffering expended on me.

I grew up in a family where interracial marriages are quite common, so that at family parties and gatherings it is customary to find relatives with pele branca (white skin) or with different shades of pele negra (black skin) [2]. My paternal grandmother, who was the daughter of a slave, had quite black skin, very dark. On the other hand, my paternal grandfather was Italian and had pele branca e os olhos azuis (white skin and blue eyes). Of the five children they had together, some drew closer to her color and some more to his color. The same variety in skin pigmentation happened to the grandchildren, my cousins.

The fact is that at these reunions and family gatherings, especially during my childhood, cousins, siblings, uncles and aunts all “naturally” made fun of each other’s skin color and hair, in a very similar way to what I witnessed between my two students. Phrases like “your hair looks like a bombril (scouring pad)”, “raça ruim” (bad race) “macaca” (monkey), “filthy” denigrating the phenotypic characteristics of some, to exalt the “embranquecimento” (whitening) of others. It was the whiter part of the family discriminating, rejecting, excluding, denigrating the non-white or those that weren’t so white. Those who uttered blasphemous sentences to the darkest ones self-self-defined themselves as morenos, moreninhos, moreno-claro, moreno-oscuro, cor de jambo, or any other euphemism that softened their own blackness. It was branquitude (embranquecimento) (whiteness, whitening) that was valued. When a woman in the family appeared pregnant it was common to hope that the new entity inherited the phenotype of my grandfather: white with blue eyes. It was his color that was desired  as an ideal of beauty.

Thus, we saw the same meanings enriched by society and internalized in us as habits and ways of interpreting the world reproduced in the bonds of family and affection. My family appropriated racist social meanings and the whitening ideology, and, guided by white values and ideals, devaluing the black world, culture, and subjects.

Today, I understand the difficulty of assuming themselves as blacks in a country where privileges are directed to whites and to those of lighter skin. From early on, unconscious, we already know that in Brazil the color of the skin acquires distinctive connotations and privileges, since the blacker features you have, that is, the darker your skin, the more exposed you are to racism [3].

In a country where black skin carries the stereotype of inferiority, pain, contempt and discrimination, we are not astonished by the fact that descendants of Africans don’t know what or who they are (their roots, their struggles) or wish not to be what they are (whitening or forced whitening).

In my family the black identity acquired negative connotations as they were exhibited outside of the family sphere. Or rather, it was worse because it was not something that was outside, that could be seen obliquely, that is, the resonances and after-effects were not impersonal or external, if we could so express ourselves. It was not a camouflaged racism, painted with the nuances of the fallacious “racial democracy.” They were intimate people, who declared offenses dressed in affection and closeness in the most banal and daily situations, such as combing their hair, sweeping the house, playing, drawing, cooking, brushing their teeth, etc. In view of this, it was quite common for me and other people in the family not to accept, to reject their self-image, their origins, their color, their phenotype. It was racism hurting, “biting” and leaving its mark.

It ‘s necessary to remember that Brazil closed a period of more than 350 years of slavery recently, more specifically 130 years ago. This not so distant past still weighs on the shoulders of the descendants of these slaves, for the black is still associated with servitude, slavery, affective, sexual, social, political, aesthetic and intellectual exclusion. Rooted in our society, as Brazil was born subjected to racial violence, racism as a structuring system of societies, encompasses all aspects and institutions of social life, including the family. Therefore, it is not difficult to conclude that there is no social form that is not crossed by the idea of race and its hierarchy. There is in Brazilian families that same characteristic racism of our society: silent, almost imperceptible, yet unprecedented, that awakens poignant feelings in its victims.

It should also be remembered that “unlike North American or South African experiences that established clear rules of minimal descent to define their social groups, in which, for example, a drop of black blood was more than enough to tarnish supposed purity racial racism of whites [4]”, in Brazil racism has always operated in a distinctive and peculiar way, since it is not the genealogical tree of the individual that will point out the one that should be excluded and humiliated, but rather the pigmentation of the skin, that is, this idea of “partially black,” “pardo mais escuro” (darker brown/mixed), “pardo mais claro” (lighter brown/mixed)”. In addition, the “peaceful” interaction between whites and blacks and the idea that there is no distinction between them has always been affirmed. This shrewdness in denying racism in Brazil meant that for a long time the blacks themselves were silent about the denial of rights, meaning and affection.

During my adolescence, my dream was to be on the cover of Capricho magazine. It was a dream so great that for years my cousin, who has lighter skin, sought out modeling agencies. The opportunity to do auditions was more frequent for her, the refusals of the few auditions that I did were more frequent for me, however, it was the comparisons of beauty, based on highlighted racial characteristics, that my family did between us two that most it hurts in me.

The agencies claimed that my nose was too broad, my mouth too big, my hair too crespo. “If you were a little lighter,” once a booker told me. This phrase reverberated in me for many years of my youth and robbed me of weekends at the pool and at the beach, for it made me vehemently detest the possibility of sunbathing with darker skin. Every day I measured my nose to see if it had gone down with the clothes pin I put on it when I lay down to sleep.

I was the one who looked at myself in the mirror and I felt ugly, very ugly and unloved, unworthy of affection. I was the one who was left out in the school dances, the one who was less flirted with, desired and loved, the one who was most picked on inside the house, the one for whom the housework was mostly left for, the one where being publicly ridiculed was something normal, the one where loneliness was an imposition and not a choice.

* Luanda Julião is a PhD student in Contemporary French Philosophy from the Federal University of São Carlos. Master in Philosophy, from the Universidade Federal de São Paulo. Professor of History and Philosophy at the Escola Estadual Visconde of Itaúna.

References

[1] 97% of the population claims racism exists in the country, according to the last Datafolha survey of 2009.  The interviewees affirm that they don’t have any color bias, while admitting to know, in the same proportion, someone close (relative, boyfriend, friend, co-worker) that demonstrates discriminatory attitudes.

[2] About this read “Light-skinned blacks: How a Eurocentric Brazilian society undermines blackness”

[3] About this read “‘Too black for Brazil’: British documentary details one woman’s rise and fall due to the politics of skin tone”

[4] Silva, Jair B. Racismo e sindicalismo no Brasil: reconhecimento, redistribuição e ação política das centrais sindicais acerca do racismo no Brasil (1983-2002). Thesis (Doctorate in Social Sciences). Campinas: Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences of Unicamp, 2008.

Source: Justificando

About Marques Travae 3221 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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