Note from BW of Brazil: As more and more Afro-Brazilians take to the internet to express their thoughts and opinions on the racial situation in Brazil, the stories and experiences continue to be fascinating, offering a unique glimpse into the sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant nuances of how racism works in Brazil. Experiences and realities that many Brazilians continue to try to ignore or pretend doesn’t exist under the guise of the belief that “we’re all equal.” This piece touches on a number of topics that show how racism and white privilege work together starting with society’s deeply ingrained view of what is considered “good hair.“
How structural racism works
by Flávia Simas
I wrote the post below as a rant on my Facebook. As the reception was very positive, I decided to leave it here for easy access in the future (since Facebook posts usually get lost):
I want to tell a story to you: a few years ago I was in a competition in Brasília (1). I don’t even remember what the competition was, I just know it was in my field, but this is not relevant. I went with a college friend from who also majored in Letters and who has worked with me for years and was a person I held in high esteem. That day, we shared the same hotel room. When I was getting ready, she took a comb, and what happened at that moment was so surreal that I never forgot it: she began to comb her super straight hair and while sliding the comb through, she asked me, ‘and so, are you dying of jealousy?’ At the time I was frozen. It took me a few seconds to BELIEVE she was asking me that. I then said: ‘no, I’m not jealous, because I like my hair, I don’t need to be jealous of yours.’ She said nothing, I didn’t apologize, it was a tense atmosphere for a few minutes but it ended there (2). I continued being friends with the person concerned. Because I thought it was just a few ‘seconds of silliness’ and that, despite everything, I’m so used to the subtleties of Brazilian racism that it would not make much difference cutting ties with who said it.
Life went on and our paths followed their happy directions, I left Brazil, etc, etc, etc. But, I follow friends on social networks. That’s where I find funny ventures in social networking, hahaha. For me, that was a person who ‘did everything right’ in my past college days, I changed quite a bit, became politicized. I realized that I don’t need be silent anymore in the face of injustices that happen in this world. From old friends, from both college and church, as in my own family, there remain only those who somehow manage to understand the trajectory of my life. And if you don’t understand many of my positions, considering them too ‘radical’, at least put yourselves in my place. I might not have changed much if I had not left Brazil. But I’m very happy to have changed. I exercise gratitude every day, for being who I am today, to be where I am and managing to be a model for many girls. The other day I read one of the most beautiful and liberating phrases in my life: ‘I don’t want to be the standard of beauty; I want to be the standard of acceptance’. Today my little friend who I introduced in this text blocked me on Facebook. Little does she know that her attitude is only one of so many. The wheel of life is like this… some might wonder why I haven’t blocked before. The answer is simple: because I have nothing against this person. What she did to me in that hotel will never be forgotten, but I don’t suffer with that. As it was impossible not to remember the incident, keeping in mind that she blocked me today simply for arguing that the author of the text she shared knows nothing about structural racism. And, really knows nothing. After all, if she knew, she would not have written an ultra-reactionary text saying that FIFA (3) is not racist.
The structural racism is this, my people: the opportunities exist, they are the same, but strangely the reality does not change. It does not change the fact that, between myself and a little blonde girl who is probably super nice and good people, they had chosen me to frisk at one of many airports I’ve visited in my life. It doesn’t change the fact that, in a restaurant in which we are seated, myself, my husband (black) and our white friend, the waiter handed the bill to the little white friend, who wasn’t even paying because he was our GUEST and the waiter had to walk a further distance to give him the bill because he was closest to my husband. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m extremely ill-treated in designer shops in Goiânia (4) even having money to do my shopping. It doesn’t change the fact that, in the middle of Bahia, they had chosen Fernanda Lima, a super good person, very white and beautiful (and I’m not being ironic, she really is beautiful) to represent Brazil in a (World) Cup event. It doesn’t change because in Brazilian society, the places are marked. Gente preta (black people), only in entertainment. The black woman, to gain visibility, must be linked to the image of sensuality. I’ve heard that manure that ‘white women can’t participate in the Globeleza (contest), and that it’s racism against whites’. Yes, my dear, I’ve heard this. The person who wrote this has no idea of how structural racism works; because she’s probably there in her little privileged place. She doesn’t understand that the competition itself is already an aberration, an act of extreme objectification of black women that is only considered a body, never as a mind, never as someone who can present the Final Draw, for example. She doesn’t understand that the competition is not giving visibility to black women, but indeed keeping her same in her place: that of visual appeal because it is ‘by the body that one recognizes the true negra’. And the Cup is not necessarily giving visibility to whites, but maintaining the ‘natural’ order of things: that of people who can argue well enough to present an event of this magnitude.
So people of ‘the old (times)’ that still remain on my Facebook, here’s my plea: think carefully before saying that there was no racism on the part of FIFA. Because the racism of which speak is structural, and not that of the Ku Klux Klan, that throws blacks in fire. It’s subtle, it’s almost imperceptible, but keeps “cada macaco no seu galho (each monkey on its branch).” (5) Take heed, however, to the fact that every manifestation of power finds resistance. Black resistance is booming in Brazil, and suddenly we are increasingly conscious that structures that gradually exclude some and favor others can – and should – be questioned in its detail and particulars. Finally, to use a phrase well-used by Facebook reactionaries: ‘nothing against’ Fernanda Lima, to me it makes perfect sense that she had been chosen to present the hyped up event there – after all, the implicit logic in Brazil is that the roles are well divided and she, within that system, did more than earn her branch. Just don’t think that this order will remain forever.
1. Brasília is the capital of Brazil and the seat of government of the Federal District.
2. Another important detail to note in this exchange is, looking at the author’s hair in her photo, she doesn’t have very tightly coiled nappy, kinky or pixaim hair. Her hair is of the loose curl variety, but even so, as the standard of “good hair” is straight, her white friend with extremely straight hair still saw herself in a position of superiority.
3. Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the governing body of international soccer and responsible for the organizing of World Cup events.
4. Goiânia is the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Goiás. With a population of 1,301,892, it is the second-largest city in the Central-Western Region and the 13th-largest in the country.
5. This is a reference to the controversy surrounding FIFA’s decision to reject two black hosts for its televised Final Draw ceremony for the 2014 World Cup and replace them with a white couple, model/TV host Fernanda Lima and her husband Rodrigo Hilbert. The controversy hadn’t yet worn down when Lima performed the song “Cada Macaco no seu Galho (Every monkey on its branch)” on her TV show Amor & Sexo. Here is how the performance and the reaction was described on the Virgula website.
“After controversy over racism, Fernanda Lima arouses anger on the web singing “Cada Macaco no seu Galho (Every monkey on its branch)” on TV. For internet surfers, choosing the musical number was unfortunate being that it was in the same week in that she was involved in a controversy about racism with FIFA. On Thursday, December 5th, model/TV host Fernanda Lima aroused the ire of web surfers on the Globo TV show Amor & Sexo (Love and Sex). The host sang and danced to the song “Cada Macaco no seu Galho (Each Monkey on its Branch)” accompanied by dancers in monkey costumes.
“For internet surfers, choosing the musical number was unfortunate as in the same week she was involved in a controversy over racism with FIFA. “Fernanda Lima, that one that has no fault in being white, started the program in this way,” criticized a user of Facebook. “Fernanda Lima with bananas on her neck, dancing monkeys, singing each monkey on its branch…Yeah, the banana for the black player in the stadium is overkill,” joked another user on Twitter. “In the midst of a scandal over racism? A notion? Respect?” asked another. “It’s an outrage,” one commented on the social network. At the end of the presentation, Lima still scooped “Go away all you monkeys, each one in its square,” as the dancers left the stage.”
Note from BW of Brazil: A little background here. In Brazil, where many people continue to believe racism doesn’t exist, the association of black people with monkeys continues to be very strong and is often the first thing out of a white person’s mouth in the event of a confrontation with a person of visible African ancestry. As such, Lima performing a song called “Every Monkey on its Branch” could be interpreted as her saying “every black has his/her place”, in response to her and her husband being chosen over black actors Camila Pitanga and Lázaro Ramos in an important, televised pre-World Cup event. “Blacks knowing their place” is another common belief/saying in Brazil. Although no one can prove that this was Lima’s intent and she could easily brush accusations aside as people being paranoid or too sensitive, her “is it only because I’m white?” comment in reference to the original controversy leaves her open to the accusation. And as Simas alludes to in her post, racism isn’t always of the blatant KKK variety. Apparently others interpreted Lima’s actions in this way also.
Just for historical context, “Cada Macaco no seu Galho” is a Samba performed by an under-appreciated legend of the genre, the great Riachão, a 92-year old baiano from Salvador, Bahia. Check it out below
Riachão “Cada Macaco no seu Galho”