1. Retrospective Trajectory
While discussing racism and sexism, Sara Ahmed remembers how Audre Lorde considered those “grown up words” (2017, p. 32)—words whose meaning we experience since the day we are born, but which we can only name years after constantly dealing with them. And as we learn the words “racism” and “sexism”, we cannot but think of our trajectories, now being able to better understand a specific thing you were told or a certain event you were in. As Ahmed puts it, “we become retrospective witnesses of our becoming” (2017, p. 32).
I strongly identify with this. I only started to recognize situations I lived as racist or sexist as my younger siblings came home from school and we discussed “this very strange thing my teacher asked me” during dinner, and a memory or two of being asked a similar question came back. It is now, in the beginning of my adulthood, however, that I truly stop and look at the details, logic, and power relations behind those encounters, thanks to my exposure in university to the works of authors like Sara Ahmed, Grada Kilomba, Djamila Ribeiro and Frantz Fanon.
These scholars write drawing from experiences, including their own. Like Fanon discusses “The lived experience of the Black man”, my objective in this paper is to reflect on mine, the lived experience of a Black Brazilian woman. Though I will discuss situations universal to Black women in my country, as I will later explain, there are still many problems the majority of Black women there face that I do not, since I am, regarding class structure in Brazil, privileged. Thus, this is not an account of the lived experience of the Black Brazilian woman, but the one of a Black Brazilian woman.
This paper is structured so that first, I intend to explain the historical, political and social context of Black women in Brazil. Then, I’ll proceed to discuss three relevant aspects of that experience, since it is important to ponder how forms of oppression are intertwined and generate different forms of oppression, so that we can think of other means of existence (Ribeiro, 2016, p. 100). My main focus will be on the Otherness in being Black, everyday racism and gendered racism. With the exception of this introductory chapter, I chose questions I was asked in my life, as well as thoughts I had, to name the sections of this paper according to the relation of each quote to the discussed topics.
As I researched works that would be important for this reflection, I made the decision of not citing any white male authors, because
“[w]e learn to look to those empowered by the very systems of domination that wound and hurt us for some understanding of who we are that will be liberating and we never find that. It is necessary for us to do the work ourselves if we want to know more about our experience, if we want to see that experience from perspectives not shaped by domination” (hooks, 1989, p. 150).
To better develop knowledge from the facets of the experiences I will here discuss, it does not make sense to use the point of view of those whose gaze oppresses me through race and gender. Thus, I have sought the wise words of those in whose trajectories I, in some way or another, recognize situations similar to the ones I lived.
As a small young woman with thin lips, long nose, curly black hair and light brown skin studying in Berlin, it is a truly rare thing to go a week without being asked: “Where are you from?”. The majority of guesses are for India; when I am with friends who are of German or Italian descendance, I get “Spain, or Portugal perhaps?”. The truth is that my looks are deceiving. Apart from my far from straight hair, I look a lot like someone from South Asia, which makes me insist, more than once, that I am positively sure no one in my family comes from that region, right after I tell people I am from Brazil; yes, I am Brazilian, and look like this because my father is Black and my mother is white. Then the person gets confused, because I just acknowledged my Blackness unexpectedly, and I cannot but think of all what happened in the past to Black Brazilian women like me, all they endured that I still carry with me as I once again affirm my roots.
In Brazil, the oppression of the Black woman started right after the ‘discovery’1 of the country by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century, and perdures to the very moment this is written. After the quick genocide of the native Brazilian population, slavery was established. For 354 years, Black people were brought from Portuguese colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa to Brazilian plantations and gold mines, forced to work without being paid, tortured, and treated as property instead of as human beings. Then, enslaved women had their children taken from them and sold to other landowners; they were also systematically raped, used for the initiation of the sexual life of white rich young men or for the satisfaction of plantation owners’ desires, which were morally incorrect to be fulfilled by their pure, delicate white wives (Ribeiro, 2018, p. 141). Slavery was only abolished in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the world to do it. However, this did not bring any type of compensation for the centuries of oppression. Black people were freed from their owners and left with nowhere to live; they weren’t granted education nor work opportunities.
In the last 131 years since their freedom, Black people continue to suffer because they are still the poorest (Gomes, 2018), the ones who suffer the most with unemployment, the ones who only have access to the precarious public health and educational systems and still have to live every day in a society whose racist past generated its racist present. The only difference today is that by law, one cannot mistreat physically or verbally because of race. The prejudice Black people now face has developed into something anthropologist Lélia Gonzalez called “disguised racism”, which is based on the wrong idea that Brazil is a country with so much miscegenation between people—that racism doesn’t exist anymore (Pons Cardoso, 2014, p. 969). And so, regarding statistics, Black women were 66% of the 4,936 Brazilian women murdered in 2017 (IBGE, 2019, p. 39); out of the total of 65,602 homicide victims of that year, 75.5% were Black (IBGE, 2019, p. 49).
Considering all of this, my existence as a Black Brazilian woman is extremely odd, to say the least. I am the daughter of an interracial couple and live a really privileged life. Opposing the general fate of someone who looks like me, I am part of the rich and predominantly white elite of the country, due to my parents’ sacrifice and hard work.2 I, for example, never needed to go to a public hospital, because I could pay for the best doctors; I only study in Berlin, Germany, because I could afford going to a good private school, the Deutsche Schule São Paulo, and was able to do the Abitur, the German equivalent to the SATs.
It is unquestionably right to say that I am almost always in a very, very white context. None of the friends I grew up with were Black; nor were the teachers; none of the people who go to the stores and restaurants I go to are Black. I only encounter Black people who aren’t relatives from my father’s family when they are supposed to render a certain service: they were the babysitters from my friends, an updated version of the dry-nurse from pre-abolishment times; they were the drivers, janitors, assistants, salespeople, cleaning women from the school staff and occasionally, the student from the scholarship program of my school who crossed my path as I left after my classes were over.3
Thus, I find myself in a position that should not exist, according to the historic development of Brazilian society: I am a Black woman, living the life of a rich white person. In race and gender, I am the oppressed; in class, I am the oppressor. Regarding this, I have to acknowledge that there are situations infinitely worse than the ones I will describe here and which are faced everyday by people who look like me but do not live the way I do. However, my class privileges did not exempt me from experiencing racism and sexism. Actually, I’m certain the odd position I am in could offer a new perspective on these issues, which are to this day strongly present in my country. In this paper, the forms of oppression intertwine in such a nonconventional way and context that different facets of the reality of being Black and a woman in Brazil emerge.
While preparing the bibliography for this paper, I often met with a male friend at the library so that we both would “keep an eye” on each other’s progress with the literature of our projects. We usually talked about what we were reading, so we knew the theme the other was going to write about. Some twenty days into this “research plan”, he asks me, as we go home: “Have you always thought of yourself as Black?”.
I had never discussed with friends racial issues concerning my experience, only with my family. We did talk about racist comments from our president, Jair Bolsonaro, and also about how racism is a structural component of Brazilian society; we discussed movies like “If Beale Street could talk”, directed by Barry Jenkins, and also Maya Angelou’s poems. However, I could not recall ever talking to them about my experience as Black.
The question made me think of my childhood. I remember drawing in class, as a four-year-old, and being confused when I started painting the figures. At the time, the children either didn’t paint the people they drew, leaving their skin white as the piece of paper, or used a colored pencil which we learned to call cor de pele4. It was something near to salmon, a tone far from any human skin, but it was used as the standard. Everybody painted themselves using cor de pele. The thing is, I remember finding it very odd that that pencil could be used for everyone, since it was the only skin tone color there was, when I clearly was darker than my peers. Nevertheless, I kept using the pencil every time I drew myself.
Then, I did not actively think of myself as Black, but already realized I was not white like my friends. I was another thing, because no other child in class had a Black father and a white mother like I did. This was true until I graduated high school: even though I did not fully recognize myself as a Black woman, I was always the only non-white student in the sea of whiteness of the classroom. My encounter with the cor de pele pencil was the start of my acknowledgement of the fact that I lived in a world of whiteness, and I was not part of it.
In a confused four-year-old head…what was I, then? This was a question I did not know the answer to at the time, and as I stopped having to paint myself in drawings, the dilemma was forgotten. As a non-white person, you still can get so used to whiteness that you learn not to notice it (Ahmed, 2012, p. 35). Even though I knew I wasn’t white early on, this became my case as years went by.
Perhaps it was due to the fact that my birth certificate categorized me as being of the ethnicity pardo5, and not as Black. I am this mixed thing, “neither among the rejected, nor among the accepted” (Kilomba, 2010, p. 88). Since the day I was born, in all documents, certificates and enrollment papers I ever completed, I am non-white, but because I have less melanin in my body than my father, for example, I am officially not Black. Even though my descendants are slaves; even though my lighter skin does not make the oppression in my past any lighter.
Apart from that, growing up with white European princesses in the stories I watched and listened to might have also contributed to my getting used to whiteness. As Grada Kilomba puts it,
“Magazines, comic books, films and television force the Black child to identify with white others, but not with her/himself. The child is forced to create an alienating relationship to Blackness, as the heroes of those scenarios are white and the Black characters are an embodiment of white fantasies” (2010, p. 91).
Since there wasn’t another Black student in my class, the ones who were, not considering race, like me, were the girls, who, as I did, only knew characters like the pale Snow White or the redhead mermaid Ariel. Since they identified with those figures, I, too, wanted to be like them. I too, imagined myself with gold locks and a crown, playing with the other white girls, and therefore started to also see myself as a white girl.
Thus, I got so used to whiteness that, while learning about slave ships, Portuguese colonies and Brazilian society in the past, it never occurred to me that the African men and women who were sold in markets, mistreated and forced to work in inhumane conditions, were “my people”, my descendants. When Kilomba recalls her childhood, she writes:
“We were asked to write about the great legacy of colonization, even though we could only remember robbery and humiliation. And we were asked not to inquire about our African heroes, for they were terrorists and rebels. What a better way to colonize than to teach the colonized to speak and write from the perspective of the colonizer” (2010, p. 35).
For me, there was no “we”, because I was the only one in class who would remember any humiliation, or would inquire about an African hero. And I did not, since every time I left home I was surrounded by the colonizer, the white children, white teachers, white European adventurers who left to explore the New World. I, the colonized, lived the life of a colonizer, so how could I ever think that my hero was not Christopher Columbus, but actually Zumbi dos Palmares?6
As I told my friend all this, he said: “It was so racist, but then I never thought of you as Black”. I was intrigued. In front of me stood this white man, who I went to school with since we were twelve years old, and who, for the most part of the time he knew me, did not consider me a Black person. “When I argued with my parents about the problems in our school, I always said that there never was any Black student in my class, in the bilingual curriculum, and proceeded to discuss how wrong that was”. I was intrigued, but not surprised, because I did the same thing.
His confession immediately made me think of Fanon: “As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others. […] For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (1991, p 82-83). In my experience, however, the white man was quite often rich children who led a life as privileged as mine and who painted me in their drawings using cor de pele pencil, next to their own salmon skinned figures. We could all notice I was different, but not to the point of saying that I was Black, and that is, I believe, because no one who lived how we lived was that. In our young minds—and in the sad Brazilian reality—you could not be rich and Black.
The acknowledgement Fanon writes about only began in my teenage years. I once had to stay in school until late afternoon, after classes ended. I was hungry and went to the canteen to buy a snack. The cashier, who was a Black woman, looked at me and said she wouldn’t let me buy the food, because I was skipping class. She told me to return to the classroom. Confused, I said my classes had ended right after lunch, I was just staying in school to study. She did not believe me, and asked me if I wasn’t a student from the scholarship program. I assured her I was not, showing her my student ID, which identified me as part of the bilingual curriculum, whose classes ended at one o’clock. Still, she looked at me doubtfully, and told me she would only sell me something if I had an authorization from my curriculum coordinator. Seeing I would not convince her, I went to the coordinator’s office and asked for the written confirmation of my right to buy food. It is needless to say that the coordinator was perplexed by the request as she signed the piece of paper I needed.
It was only a few hours later, way after finally getting a sandwich, that I realized: the cashier was so sure I was from the scholarship program because of my skin color. Were I a white blonde girl, she would never have acted like that. It was inconceivable for her that I looked the way I do and still were not from that curriculum. I was among my own, standing in front of a Black woman like me, and it was her gaze that made clear, for the first time since my kindergarten dilemma, that I was not white, but this Other. Black Brazilian women like us both don’t have the opportunity to be part of the bilingual curriculum. We do not belong in its characteristic fair-skinned, German-speaking whiteness.
Even so, becoming deeply aware of my Otherness, also meaning thinking of myself as a Black woman, came to finally happen by recognizing my experiences in the writing of people of color like the ones I cite in this paper, but above all because of a discussion earlier this year: a white female feminist friend was reporting, shocked, how a Black colleague from her Social Studies classes said she was not offended by white people who braid their hair in cornrows. We were six or seven people listening to it, men and women, who went to school together. My friend proceeded to argue that the practice was cultural appropriation, as another one—the same guy who months later would ask me if I have always thought of myself as Black—partly disagreed, differentiating “just a hairstyle” from the act of using traditional gowns as Halloween costumes. Soon, the group was divided and the girl who told us about the situation turned to me. “I don’t want to talk as if I knew what that is like… Tell them, Sofia. You can do that better than I can.”
At first, I was confused, since I had no experience with cornrows whatsoever or anything related to them, and then it struck me. She saw me, the only non-white person present, as the one who had the right to weight in the cornrows debate, because I was the one whose culture was being appropriated. The Black culture was being discussed and in her seeing it as my culture, I was, for her, Black.
The episode was a turning point in my consciousness of being Black, of being seen as the Other, and also, in my relationship with this female friend. Until that point, as we were both feminists and often discussing the movement, I saw her as my equal. We were two women, the Other of men, together debating patriarchal structures and sharing our female experience. As she put me in the spotlight to speak about the cornrows, she put us both in different groups. We weren’t two women anymore, but a white woman and a Black one. It made clear to me that I was not her equal, and we did not always share the same culture or experiences. In relation to her, I was also the Other, even though we both identified as women. Apart from being the Other of men, I was the Other of whiteness. I was part of the non-whiteness, I was part of Blackness, I was Black.
Thinking again of Fanon, that was the definitive point in which I truly experienced my being through others. Until then, I thought that as a woman, I was among my own when I was with this feminist friend. It took her acknowledging us as different, seeing me as the Black woman in relation to the white one, for me to understand the intersectional reality of my being. In race and in gender, I am the Other. Not white and not male.
“Have you always thought of yourself as Black?” The answer to this question, which I had internally asked myself more and more during the last year, is no. Thinking of myself as Black wasn’t something I always did. It was a process which involved who identified with me and who I identified with. Never having seen myself as equal to the white boys in school, but having learned to identify with the white girls and women, the shock and full consciousness of my being came not with the Black woman identifying with me when I did not identify with her, but with the white woman, who I had identified with, saying “You are not like me”. As Fanon argues, the definitive placement of me as Black came not from among my own (though I did not fully regard them as equal then). I had to be a Black woman in relation to the white one.
“Every time I am thus placed as ‘Other’, I am experiencing racism, for I am not ‘Other’. I am self.” (Kilomba, 2010, p. 45). Even though my family and I are, today, conscious of being Black individuals, it isn’t something we think of every second of our days. However, surrounded by whiteness, we are constantly put in the position of the Other and so, we experience everyday racism.
In Kilomba, that is the racism referent to the events Black people repeatedly face through their lifetime; the racist experience does not happen once, but constantly. In it, the Other “becomes a deposit for white fears and fantasies from the realm of either aggression or sexuality” (2010, p. 44). Although the author stresses out five different forms in which everyday racism manifests, two are the ones my relatives and I experience the most: decivilization and infantilization.
Every time my father or uncle are stopped by security in an American airport because they were “randomly selected” for further security check, they experience decivilization. The two Black, non-American men are seen as the violent and threatening Other, the dangerous immigrants, the possible criminals ready to explode a plane, the probable drug dealers who are trying to sell it in America. If they lose their tempers because it is the third time they go through such a situation in one trip, both Black men reinforce this role, becoming the justification for such practices. They carry on, taking shoes, jackets, belts and any other required piece of clothing off, because they do not have the luxury of being “uncivilized” towards decivilization. They cannot complain or refuse to comply. Both men have to accept going through it, because “those are the rules, darling, go with your mother, I’ll be right back with you”, even though such rules apply more to some than to others. After it all, they just proceed to their gates, thanking the officer who inspected every inch of their bodies.
Decivilization, apart from literally stopping Black bodies of smoothly moving forward (like what my father experiences in a lot of international flights), is also behind the suspicious glances I often get. Museums, shops, restaurants, bars, pharmacies, hospitals—the list of places I have been stared at goes on and on, and it isn’t exclusive of any country in the world. Every time I come closer to an impressionist masterpiece or put my hands on something really expensive, I am looked at, if not also cautiously followed, until I leave the building. I become the potential thief, or the person who could break something valuable. I am the strange presence which could cause something bad. I cannot but identify with Djamila Ribeiro: “Every security guard who follows me, every odd stare I get when I am in places judged as not for me […]. To be a black Brazilian is to feel as a foreigner in your own country” (2018, p. 138). As Black individuals, we are not welcome even in our homeland, because we are the scary, dangerous ones.
Black bodies are also stopped as they are seen as dependent and child-like: this is infantilization (Kilomba, 2010, p. 44). Considering this, I want to return to the episode in which I was, at first, denied the right of buying food at school. I am identified as a Black teenager; regarding my school’s demographics, I am identified as part of the scholarship program, in which students were having classes at the time; since I am not in class, I am clearly skipping it—there is no other possible explanation. Even though I insist I am not, I am not believed. I, then, become the lying child, who is trying to trick the cashier; I am not obedient to the rules, so requesting an authorization from the coordinator would make me, the non-disciplined and lying student, return to class. I become the body dependent on the authorization of a master. I can only get what I asked if someone else lets me, if I prove I am not tricking anyone. There is, though, something that does not come as a surprise: a white student in my school would never be accused of skipping classes, even though I’ve noticed they are the ones that do it the most. Because white bodies are always where they are supposed to be, so they shouldn’t be doubted, they don’t have to prove their right of being where they are; Black bodies do, and their proof has to come from someone from higher hierarchy, like a parent, a master or a slave owner, who lets them be where they are.
Regarding other two categories of everyday racism, primitivization and animalization7, I ask myself: why can’t I recall any experience with those forms of everyday racism? The only possible answer to this is that the Brazilian “disguised racism” doesn’t work with those. Primitivization and animalization would be too obvious, too pre-abolishment era for 21st century Brazil. Those forms are so clearly racist, anyone can acknowledge them. And if anyone can recognize those, as a Black goalkeeper is called by fans a “monkey”8, it isn’t acceptable. And if it isn’t acceptable, it cannot be a quotidian practice, part of the everyday. With “disguised racism”, everyday racism isn’t usually spoken directly and clearly; it is thought; it is something discretely done. And so, it isn’t often recognized as racism, but rather as something we, paranoiacs, are imagining.
However, sometimes the odd gaze which tells that you are not supposed to be where you are turns into a sound; it is vocalized, and we are all so shocked we do not know how to react to it. I take my sister as an example: in the beginning of the school year, a white male student in her class went to the teacher (who was a white woman) and asked if he could use a certain version of the didactic book, an older one. The teacher questioned if the book belonged to an older sibling, he answered positively and she said there was no problem in using it. My sister did not listen to that, so a few minutes later she asked the teacher the same thing, as she was using the same older version of the book. The educator turned to her and asked: “Are you the daughter of anyone from the school staff? A cleaner?”. Shocked and confused, my sister answered that she wasn’t, the book belonged to me, her older sister. “Oh, it is okay, you can use it”, the teacher said. No student in class knew how to react to that.
This is a situation which finely demonstrates how “within racism, Black bodies are constructed as improper bodies, as bodies that are ‘out of place’ and therefore as bodies which cannot belong. White bodies, on the contrary, are constructed as proper; they are bodies ‘in place’, ‘at home’, bodies that always belong” (Kilomba, 2010, p. 30). The teacher sees my sister as a Black person; oddly, this Black girl is in the bilingual program, where no Black children study, and she cannot be rich, because she has an old used book; therefore, she must be the child of a school employee, someone from staff9; nobody in the upper hierarchy of the school staff is Black, but usually the cleaners are; she must be the daughter of a cleaner10, then, which also justifies the old book—the family must not be able to afford a new one. For that educator, while the white body of the male student logically belonged to the environment, making the only explanation for his used book the fact that he had an older sibling, my sister’s Black body was not supposed to be there. Her presence there contrasted so much with the whiteness of the classroom, it stretched so much her state of being ‘out of place’, of being wrong, that the teacher was bothered to the point in which she had to ask where that Other, that strange body, came from. Despite already knowing the answer—that my sister could not be the daughter of a cleaner in that curriculum—the teacher wanted to place the Black girl where she was “supposed” to be: as a Black person, she belonged with the lower workers, far from the white elite, unable to pay for a new book. With a short question—“a cleaner?”—the educator asked too: how dare you take a place that isn’t yours?
In all of the three described experiences in this part, neither of the Black subjects, that is, my father, uncle, sister and myself, reacted violently. Though everyday racism is the repeated stopping of the Black body, the constant reminder that we occupy a place we are not supposed to, we cannot respond to it aggressively. We, Black people, are not allowed to do anything that could be used by people to justify stopping our bodies more than they already are.
I cannot make a scene, I cannot snap; as my father often told me, I must always be polite, I have to get the best grades, I can never give someone a reason to consider me as inferior. I cannot, ever, fail. As the only or one of the very few Black people who have access to white environments, we represent Blackness every moment of our lives. We represent the others who are not there due to racist structures. I am three: a body, a race and a history. I am like Kathleen, an interviewee in Kilomba’s “Plantation Memories” (2010):
“Caught in the triple person, one has to be at least three times better than any white in order to become equal. […] While white others speak as individuals, as Sally, Christine or John, Kathleen speaks as a body, as a ‘race’, as a child of former slaves. She is given three places to represent. […] Whatever room she enters, she is never the self, but the entire group—a group subjected to severe examination” (p. 108).
Black people who are surrounded by whiteness are permanently being tested, always needing to prove themselves, and everyday racism is our patience test; we are not allowed to snap because of it and we cannot be anything other than perfect. Otherwise, we will reinforce stereotypes long associated with our race. And for that, the way we look is already enough.
Self-esteem is something I did not grow up with much of. Nobody, but my parents, told me I was beautiful. As the girls in my classroom were constantly complimented about their straight hair and light eyes, I learned to hate my locks to the point I decided to chemically straighten them in my teenage years. Acceptance of the way I looked came only as I graduated high school. However, there is something I always heard from older people, from adults who were acquaintances of my parents to persons I had just met, and which was meant as a compliment: “Look at that skin, that tan! You are da cor do pecado11, you’ll drive men crazy when you grow up!”. Nowadays, since moving to Berlin, the last sentence was replaced by “You must drive German men crazy!”. I cannot emphasize enough my discomfort when I hear this.
There are two intertwining aspects bound to the Black body behind such statements: eroticization, the fifth and last category of everyday racism according to Kilomba, and the figure of the mixed-race woman, the mulata. I believe that both act in a specific way upon the Black Brazilian woman, by configuring gendered racism.
The phenomenon of eroticization is the personification of the Black body into a sexualized, extremely seductive and exotic figure (Kilomba, 2010, p. 44). It explains how the Black body is deemed a rapist (above all with Black male bodies) and a prostitute-like, eagerly sexual being. This last assumption is greatly associated to Black women, and history clarifies it: used as sexual toys to satisfy their owners, enslaved women became synonymous to sex whenever and wherever one desired.
As time passed, this entangled with the figure of the mulata. Generated by the Spanish word mula, meaning hybrid, product of the crossbreeding between a mare (a noble equine) and a donkey (a second-class equine), the word mulata brings a sense of impurity, of something that shouldn’t exist. It used to designate slaves with lighter skin who were children of Black women and white men, and now it is more commonly used towards mixed-race women. (Ribeiro, 2018, p. 99)
To the meaning of impurity, the idea of the seductive female body was added through centuries of naturalistic discourse in culture as well as the image of the “Mulata Globeleza”12, the symbol of Brazilian carnaval13. This is what the Black female body in Brazil is automatically perceived as. It becomes a stereotype, an objectification of Black Brazilian women, dangerously seductive and of exotic beauty, who are ready to dance and have sex whenever one wants. The Black female body becomes this only thing, it is objectified.
And so, the moment someone looks at me, I am objectified, I am “da cor do pecado”, I will “drive German men crazy!”. The eroticization I suffer not only ascribes me an automatic role, but also makes me the guilty part for it. My skin tone is “the color of sin”; it is the amount of melanin in my body that turns me into what causes another person to commit sinful things. Even though I do nothing, my body is rendered responsible for the sins others will or fantasize to execute. In this logic, I – a Black Brazilian woman - will make German men – white European men – crazy with desire, just like my enslaved predecessors were believed to do to their owners. It is interesting how I am the subject of these sentences and am deemed responsible for those actions, while I am treated as a sexual object by those who say that.
This is also implicit in rape culture. Though all women are vulnerable to sexual violence, race is still an important factor in it. White or non-white, women are usually the ones considered responsible for the act (though they are not), because of the clothes they wear, the way they behave. However, the eroticization of Black bodies brings in another level of false justification for such violence: the Black female body in Brazilian History was always sexualized, always a servant for the white owner, always raped; the white female body wasn’t. Instead, it was considered pure and innocent; what couldn’t be done to the white female body was then done to the Black. This logic thus makes violence against Black women more ‘justifiable’ because of their race.
That was the argumentation I thought of as my white female feminist friend, the one from the Social Studies class, asked me during an interview for her paper on women and safety in big cities, “Do you think that being a Black woman makes you feel things differently from or more strongly than white women?” I remember agreeing to that and answering that I did not know statistics and data by heart, but for example, if we both were walking alone on the street at night, the probability of getting raped was higher for me than for her. She started crying, a mixture of empathy for my situation as a Black woman, and rage towards what women come against in life.
The moment now reminds me of when she, asking about cornrows, put me in the place of the Other, telling me that we were not equal. Yet, this time, I was telling her that, I was the one acknowledging it: even though we were both women, she was still white, she still had that to protect her. Her Otherness was different than mine.
“Being neither white nor men, Black women come to occupy a very difficult position within white supremacist patriarchal society. We represent a kind of a double lack, a double Otherness, as we are the antithesis of both whiteness and masculinity. […] White women have an oscillating status, as the self and as ‘Other’ to white men because they are white, but not male; Black men serve as opponents for white males as well as potential competitors for white women because they are men, but not white; Black women, however, are neither white nor male, and serve as the ‘Other’ of Otherness” (Kilomba, 2010, p. 117 - 118).
I am the Other, always. I am always not something, always the negation. Not white, not male, not allowed to be represented and regarded as more than a sexualized object, not free from suspicious stares, not able not to consciously know that I don’t belong in the place I am.
My friend and I were not equal because we never before were. A century and a half ago, she would be the pure wife of the slave owner; I would be the raped slave, the mulata. Two Brazilian women with different fates.
As this paper draws to an end, it is impossible to ignore one of the most beautiful passages in Sara Ahmed’s “Living a feminist life”:
“Here was writing in which an embodied experience of power provides the basis of knowledge. Here was writing animated by the everyday: the detail of an encounter, an incident, a happening, flashing like insight. Reading black feminist and feminist of color scholarship was life changing; I began to appreciate that theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin” (2017, p. 10).
I connect with this deeply. I started my journey discussing feelings, gender and resistance without a clue of who I would encounter; then, as weeks passed, I met Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, and their experiences in life which were similar to mine. For the first time in my life, I read something I could relate to on a level I never thought possible, and I learned that I, too, could take my experiences and develop knowledge with them.
Those authors led to the question of what knowledge, then, I wanted to write about, which introduced me to other scholars, Djamila Ribeiro and Grada Kilomba, now even closer to what I call home. Soon, I not only had a paper, but a fine collection of companion texts which made clear the experiences I didn’t fully understand or reassured I wasn’t paranoiac, imagining racism or sexism, because they, too, carried accounts of those. These works are my company, my confidants, my dear killjoy survival kit (Ahmed, 2017, p. 16-17).
Due to this process, this journey, I now realize how truly retrospective this all is; there are so many situations I never noticed I was put in the position of the Other; so many new meanings to feelings I had and was for years confused about; so much struggle to finally be able to say that I am a Black Brazilian woman. Not mulata, not parda. Black.
It hurts to recognize you once behaved as whiteness, that you wanted to be with the oppressors, and also, that racism is truly in the everyday. However, it is in this retrospective searching and writing of this paper, in my going through birth certificates and family stories, that I now do what I once wasn’t able to as a small girl. I finally think, while reading about slavery: “those were my people”. I finally know who my people are and who I am. With the consciousness of everything they went through, and everything that I went and will go through too.
Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included : racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham [u.a.]: Durham [u.a.] : Duke University Press.
Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a feminist life. Durham ; London: Durham ; London : Duke University Press.
Fanon, F. (1991). Black skin, white masks New York, NY: New York, NY : Grove Press.
Hooks, b. (1989). Talking back : thinking feminist, thinking black / Bell Hooks. Boston, MA: Boston, MA : South End Pr.
Kilomba, G. (2010). Plantation memories: episodes of everyday racism (2. Aufl. ed.). Münster: Münster : Unrast-Verl.
Ribeiro, D. (2018). Quem tem medo do feminismo negro? : Companhia das Letras.
Pons Cardoso, C. (2014). "Amefricanizing" the feminism: the thought of Lélia Gonzalez. Revista estudos feministas, 22(3), 965-986.
Ribeiro, D. (2016). Black feminism for a new civilizatory framework. Sur, 13(24), 99-103.
Gomes, I., Marli, Mônica. (2018). IBGE mostra as cores da desigualdade. Revista Retratos. Retrieved from https://agenciadenoticias.ibge.gov.br/agencia-noticias/2012-agencia-de-n.... Last access: 27.09.2019.
IBGE (2019). Atlas da violência. Retrieved from http://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/images/stories/PDFs/relatorio_instituciona.... Last access: 27.09.2019.
Pires, B. (2017). Grêmio e Aranha, uma história de racismo perverso e continuado. El País Brasil. Retrieved from https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2017/07/17/deportes/1500309484_868649.html. Last access: 27.09.2019.
1The term ‘discovery’ is in single quotes because it is how Brazilian history is often taught in school, regarding the nation as a place discovered by the Portuguese in the year of 1500, assuming there was nothing before that. However, indigenous people inhabited the country long before any European set foot there, a fact rarely studied or brought up in classes, which confirms a colonialist view of this history in which Brazil only exists with the arrival of what are considered the civilized Europeans.
2I want to stress out that my parents achieved their financial prosperity and ‘place’ in Brazilian upper class on their own, but meritocracy is a myth commonly defended as real by the elite. Considering my father’s Black descendancy and my mother’s poor family, their odds of ‘making it’ to where they are now were very little. In my country, white people and the elite are always given more opportunities than the Black and/or poor, even though this is rarely acknowledged.
3The Deutsche Schule São Paulo has three different curricula: the regular one, which consists of the obligatory subjects stipulated by the Ministry of Education, all taught in Portuguese; the bilingual curriculum, with subjects taught in German and Portuguese; and the scholarship program, which offers education to children and adults from low income households. Classes in the first two curricula are in the morning and early afternoon, and students are mainly white and rich; the scholarship pupils, who are predominantly Black, attend classes during late afternoon and the evening, so contact between students of different curricula isn’t common nor encouraged by the structure and directories of the courses.
4Cor de pele is Portuguese for “skin color”.
5In Brazil, one’s ethnicity in the birth certificate can be white, black, yellow (which informs Asian descendance), indigenous or pardo, which is something close to mixed-race. The categorization does not necessarily take into account the ethnicity of the parents, but usually the baby’s skin color, something subjectively designated by the official who writes the document. This explains why I am considered parda while my sister is considered white in her birth certificate, even though we both share the same parents and the same light brown skin tone.
6Zumbi dos Palmares was a Black man, the last leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares, a resistance center, community and refuge for free Black people and fugitive slaves in Northeastern Brazil of the 17th century.
7Primitivization occurs when the Black person is put in the position of the savage, the natural being; animalization would be the assignment of the role of the wild, the ape, the monkey (Kilomba, 2010, p. 44).
8This refers to the real episode the goalkeeper Aranha, player of the football club Grêmio, lived in 2014 (Pires, 2017).
9In our school, teachers and staff employees of higher importance, who are majorly white, such as directors, coordinators, and chiefs of areas like communication and psychology, may enroll their children in the regular or bilingual curricula, not needing to pay for the tuition fees.
10Cleaners, canteen workers and cooks, who are usually Black, cannot enroll their children in the regular or bilingual curricula.
11Da cor do pecado is a Brazilian expression, which can be translated to “the color of sin”. It is a figure of speech which equates the Black body to this seductive character who leads one to commit sinful actions.
12The Mulata Globeleza is “a black woman that dances samba as if on a carnaval parade, naked with her body painted with glitter, as the opening vignette plays during the television carnaval programming of Rede Globo” (Ribeiro, 2018, p. 140).
13Brazilian festivity that occurs forty days prior to Easter, in which people dress up in costumes and go to the streets to party, dance and sing the whole holiday.