Note from BW of Brazil: As has been pointed out in various posts on this blog, the normative representation of whiteness as the standard in Brazilian society is simultaneously subtle and blatant. It is subtle for the very fact that intelligence, power and beauty are associated with it and presented as the standard that one should aspire to. It is blatant in the fact that if one simply paid attention to media representations on a daily basis it would be impossible to not notice this standard. As whiteness is the standard that most of the society willingly or unwittingly accepts, it becomes doubly dangerous when it affects the self-esteem and identity of those who don’t fit into this aesthetic standard but grow up with the ideology that they, by not fitting into the standard, are inferior. And, as this standard is often unwittingly accepted without challenge (and thus conflict), one can believe in the Brazilian myth of a “racial democracy”. In the piece below, Ana Clara Marques, a white feminist, along with a black man, Patrick Monteiro, craft an open, honest realization of the benefits of being a white woman in a society (in reality, a world) that values this identity to the detriment of other women.
The privileges of being a white woman
by Ana Clara Marques and Patrick Monteiro
In these two years of much research, we have never had so much trouble finding articles that substantiate our texts. Not for lack of material on the condition of black women, but the lack of representative texts capable of phrasing social privileges of being a white woman. Every way, from the seeds planted by Lélia Gonzalez, Sueli Carneiro, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, and many others, plus an interview with writer Conceição Evaristo, we Maçãs Podres (Bad Apples) (1) construct a dialectic that provided us the with first responses on this topic still so little explored within feminism.
“Being a black woman is not simply being a woman”
Very lucid, writer Conceição Evaristo explains that there are different feminist implications between being black woman and just being a woman:
“It’s very different (being a black woman and simply a woman). The ethnic issue can have a pretty big weight, but it will largely depend on the situation that one is in. On the issue of feminism, for example, while white women had to take to the streets to get rid of the guardianship of their father, husband or brother, this was not our case. We didn’t need to fight to be free of domination and want to work. We always had to work. Our feminism is for us to affirm ourselves as a person. I think our first feminist struggle was not against the black man, but against our masters and mistresses. While the first fight of the young white and middle-class woman was against the men of her own family – and I’m not saying that the black man is not sexist – we position ourselves first against the system represented mainly by the white man and the white woman.”
Being a white woman means having miserable privileges
If you ever wondered if the “boss” was at home, when you meet someone at the gate of the residence where you live; if you ever noticed that you were being watched by security guards when entering a shopping mall; if you never preoccupied yourself with the fact that a porter or a tenant sent you to enter in the service area of a private condominium that your friend lived in; if you probably never sought to know of the studies showing that teachers tend to treat better and give higher grades to white students, or never noticed that the measure that as your schooling increased, there were less and less black girls sitting next to you, feeling a miserable privilege, because probably you must be white.
Now, have you ever wondered why it calls your attention the fact that most Ph.Ds at the college had light skin? Or why the gynecologist, dentist and psychologist were never black? It’s because you’ve probably already troubled yourself or dared to question the miserable privilege of being a white woman. It was probably not easy to feel that in order to “overcome historical inequalities generated by male hegemony, you will also have to overcome the complementary ideologies of this system of oppression, such as racism,” as we well understood by reading Sueli Carneiro. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.
Being black woman means to struggle within the black and feminist movements not to be made invisible
Angela Davis, probably the greatest intellectual of the black movement of the 20th century, critiqued that (there is) “… an unfortunate syndrome among some Black male activists – who confuse their political activity with an affirmation of their masculinity. They saw – and some still see – Black masculinity as something that separates itself from the state of Black women. These men examine Black women as a threat to their attainment of manhood – especially those Black women who take the initiative and work to be leaders in their own right”, i.e., it is probably very common for black women (who have not yet developed a strong feminist consciousness, to seek their personal affirmation when they leave some movement formed predominantly by white women, as cited Conceição Evaristo) end up having their potential performance limited by the sexism that was structured in the minds of black men, sons of the African diaspora.
Being a white woman means having the privilege of standing out in the miserable statistics
The combination of struggles (against sexism and racism) is so important and direct to feminism that, only with the merger of the two theories and praxis, was is possible that we could get out of the cold statistics that are always divulged.
Outraged by the acts of violence against women, we realized that of the cases recently exposed in the mainstream media, only two of the victims shown were black (Janaína Brito Conceição, 16, and Gabriela Alves Nunes, 13), and this only occurred by the barbarity of the crime and was soon forgotten, and that none of the police chiefs responsible for solving any of these crimes were black.
In other words, despite all the statistics that we have already denounced here and all the studies that we divulge, of the project in which we stamp the names of casualties and texts in which we affirm that black women are the main victims of patriarchal violence, we have never gone beyond the impersonal statistics, we never showed their faces and thus turn them into numbers, making invisible the racist sexism of Brazil.
Being a black woman means “to represent slavery in the popular imagination”
Former Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver, author of Alma no Exílio (Soul on Ice), one of the most compelling and honest stories about masculinity, wrote that: “I don’t know exactly how the thing works, I mean, I can’t analyze it, but I know that the white man makes of the black woman the symbol of slavery and the white woman the symbol of freedom. Every time I embrace a black woman I’m embracing slavery, and when I put my arms around a white woman, well, I’m hugging freedom.” (2)
There doesn’t exist an imagery that maintains itself in the collective conscious if that doesn’t also exist material structures and institutional constraints capable of sustaining such myths. It still weighs on black women an entire group of social impediments that makes reality project itself into people’s minds, as “naturalized” in the novelas.
If feminism is our main theory of liberation of the minds and of the bodies, it is there then that we have a lot of responsibility for this, right?
Being a white woman means having the miserable privilege of representing happiness
It’s difficult for any woman to see herself if conscious included in a sexist world, but at least in the pictures of the magazines of the bourgeois dream on in the beautiful Renaissance paintings, there are images that justify what Stendhal said: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”
Given the sexist symbolism, the body of the white woman is also a major representative of justice, freedom and revolution. The worst thing is that black girls also grow up seeing and being influenced by these signs.
It’s logical as Marx already said: “everything is impregnated with its contrary” and just as black women are not “slavery”, these representations of freedom, justice and revolution are immobile and transfixed, usually they don’t reach us to the point of be able to support ourselves in them. But like it or not, in a general context, their meanings “facilitate” our lives, because all physical characteristics perceived as good or “presentable” (hair, nose, etc.) are present in our body, which facilitates our acceptance with ourselves and the world. Gisele Bundchen so to speak.
But as recited by (poet/lyricist) Vinicius de Morais, “o destino dos homens é a liberdade (the fate of man is freedom).” Not only being a sex symbol, but an object of freedom, this physical asset that is naturalized within us, objectifies us. Whether for the white man (who uses us as a trophy) (3) or, as Cleaver said, for the black man, who finds in white women “balance and equality” that is denied to him (each one with its miserable privilege, they as men and we as white women, they oppressed as black and we as women), like every object, our role is to ensure the satisfaction and freedom of the “owner”, performing degrading jobs or managing the degradation of others, as what happened with slaves and their taskmasters.
Other privileges of being a white woman
I am not the voice of black women; I know that black spaces are a form of resistance and coping with racism. Out of respect, I know where I can enter and where I can not invade. I remember a baile black (black dance) that was here in the city, where black men and women entered, and whites were outraged. I am not indignant, because I knew that all spaces were white spaces. Therefore, I excused myself to reveal the part that fits me.
As a white girl, I realized very early my advantage in relation to black girls. I just didn’t know that this advantage would extend throughout my life. And that comes from so many centuries.
It was in the “white girls’ jokes” that I saw how hard it was, for them, to dream the same dreams as me. A childhood dream is just a dream when you can prolong its sensation with open eyes. But if every image that surrounds you, reminds you that that dream cannot be possible, the reality remains marked in your head inverting the logic of human development. For two childhood friends, opening their eyes, they saw that their truth was the color of their skin, the amount of melanin. And this has limited their ludic development.
Like so many other girls of the 1980s, we imitated the steps of the Paquitas (4), swinging and swinging again our long straight hair. At the time that we were dancing with our locks, I didn’t think twice, but for them it was as if it was a rip in their skin. The solution that was elaborated was to tie a cloth to their heads. And there I was, playful, with my loose, swinging hair and the two of them needing to overcome barriers and disguise their physical characteristics with cloths on their heads. It’s in moments like these that I become outraged with such phrases as: “difficulty stimulates creativity.” Yes, I know it’s true, but at what cost?
This was only one of the major problems faced by my black friends, the other was dolls. The cruel imitations of Barbie. We looked and saw the whiteness, the so desirable blue eye, yellow hair, the clothes, everything that girls must dream of and wish for and that was what my friends would never have. And as they knew this, they were still trying to approximate this figure.
Hair is a considerable part in the self esteem of women. The two straightened their hair, and this is a ritual of embranquecimento (whitening). There was no black girl in the village where I lived that hadn’t straightened their hair. It was almost a rule of “cleansing”. Even knowing the artificiality and how it was difficult and painful, they all whitened themselves. They had to do it. They could even be lacking food, but the straightening was done at every the end of the month. I dind’t not have to worry about it at all, after all, “God was good to me” – was what my mother’s neighbor said.
I really didn’t worry about this. Until one day I saw one of my friends with no hair. Her hair had fallen out and the chemical had burned her scalp. She was crying and I didn’t know what to say. I told her she didn’t need to do that anymore. And she said she could not go out on the street with “cabelo ruim (bad hair)”. She wanted “cabelo bom (good hair)”. Or better, white hair, like mine! Seeing her suffer so much, I realized one of my first privileges.
I remember us going out to parties and how it was much easier for me to get ready. There was not much to think about at those times. And I wasn’t so “feminine” anyway. One of them was very insecure, straightening her hair all day, trying to make it as straight as possible; the closest to “desirable”. At that time, the girls were molhavam o cabelo (wetting their hair) to make it less kinky, they wet their hair all the time in the bathroom. The boys called them “as molhadinhas” (the little wet girls). In “hunting” places, I and the other white girls were carefree. We knew that at least two boys would ask us to dance. With them, not even that.
Today I know this reality is defining the mental health of a person. It influences their identity, in the absence or not of self-confidence and in the course of their future and view of the world. Here is another privilege.
I don’t need to please a boy so much; it avoids numerous (situations of) gender violence. I can to say no, if he wanted to have sex without a condom, there was the possibility of “negotiating” the use of a condom without fear of losing the guy. What gave me the courage to say “no” was the fact that he accept me as I am: white.
For black girls it was the opposite. The “insecurity” was born from racism that they submit to “everything” that the guy wanted, because they were not sure that someone else could want them. Sex without a condom is common in the periferias (outskirts/favelas/poor communities) born with the end of slavery. Racism makes it so that black girls do things they don’t want to do. In the discovery of the body and sexuality, black girls are more vulnerable to pregnancy than white girls. It was as if this “ficada (one night stand)” was the only chance of a night or a lifetime.
The treatment one of us receives is different, but the girl with more melanin and that has a more obvious black phenotype, tells us how the guy had invaded her body. In one of these invasions, she ended up getting pregnant. Even still not being a feminist the option was abortion. But for them, that felt they had little to gain, “losing” a child is unimaginable.
Even though many women had undergone the abortion, she had her son. A beautiful boy with a black phenotype. But with green eyes, pale skin and “blondish hair.” He was the pride of the house. Another privilege: a “non-black” child in the middle of six black children stands out. I saw how this child was treated and how others were erased from existence.
Today as a white woman I recognize various other privileges. I know how painful it is to give up privileges, but I wanted to give them up. I know that recognizing my privilege is fundamental for the end of racism and I know that in some areas it is important to position myself, because living in the the politically correct, whites built their identity on racism, if we are what we are, if we have this self esteem it’s because others had torn their identities and recognizing these privileges is one of the few roles that whites have for the elimination of racism.
To my girlfriends the goals, dreams they managed to accomplish, the desires and limits were totally different from what society offered me. Today one of them works as a saleswoman and another as a maid while I am a “social scientist”. This here is another privilege that I do not use to inflate myself but to prove the logic presented in this text.
Conclusion: Why is it necessary to blacken feminism?
In capitalism freedom is measured by a good position, by a good salary, by the accumulation of property and money and mainly by the number of people excluded. This is the main indicator that shows how the society of sexual inequalities structured itself in offering miserable privileges, for some women, that guarantee the maintenance of which originated with the first patriarchate: social/sexual exclusion.
The patriarchal economic system will not break even if all women assume all leadership positions in politics, banks and industries because this will mean that the men of the upper bourgeoisie, owners of 99% of the largest private estates*, are just placing us to manage the exploitation of poor men and other women. And even if this cake is divided between the genders, this way alienated women will exist, with their bodies excluded, from human and material richness.
In capitalism, not all activities are transforming or generate added value and we well know that, in a hierachized society, there will never exist leadership positions for all people, which ensures the hierarchy of economic inequality, ie, in the current patriarchal economic system as well as in its origin, such freedom is not all. If today there is some “freedom for women” in Brazil, it is not because we’re women, but because we of our being white or bourgeois. Just as there is room for some women to manage the exploitation of others, there is also (to a lesser extent) the same management positions for some people in the black community (logically more for the men than women, as the economy responds to the logic of sexism). Introducing a small part of the excluded within patriarchal systems is a tactic of maintenance that has existed since the times of Ancient Rome.
If almost 50 years after the commercialization of contraceptive pills, still we urgently need the construction of daycare centers, in part, this reveals how much the bourgeois women’s movement has achieved, they responded to immediate needs imposed by capitalism itself. The daughters of the great white bourgeois and urban middle class, in the majority, were the ones that reaped the fruits of such achievements. These achievements have converted the former workers of the factories into magazines sellers and fraldário (baby changing stations) employees.
If black women, in their majority, remain in conditions so close to the immediate cancellation of slavery, one can conclude that “improvements so proclaimed by the media” did not occur for the great mass of Brazilian women. If women, who now work in activities of great status, need other women to care for their homes and children, we ask, who are these caregivers and where are the children of these women?
It is fundamental to the construction of a broader feminist consciousness, that we don’t come to refer to racial issues as a “humanistic altruism”, common to white philosophers, but as a key issue for a new elevation of feminist praxis.
It is easy to recognize and prove when we use the same words of the great Lélia Gonzalez:
“In research we conducted with low-income black women (1983), very few among our interviewees, began working as adults. Migrants in the vast majority (mainly coming from Minas Gerais, the northeast or from the interior of the state of Rio de Janeiro), and often they had ‘worked on the farm’, entered the workforce at around 8-9 years of age ‘help out the household’. Needless to say, in the urban centers began to work ‘family home’, and tried to go to some school. Very few were able to ‘complete primary school’. One of the most significant testimonies to us, that of Mary, tell us about the difficulties of the poor black girl, daughter of unknown father, in the face of a single-minded education, focused on values that are not hers. And, speaking of her learning problems, she never stopped criticizing the behavior of teachers (authoritatively colonialists) that, in fact, only reproduce practices that induce our children to set aside a school, where the privileges of race, class and gender are the great ideal to be attained through knowledge ‘par excellence’, emanating from ‘par excellence’ culture: the Western bourgeois.”
They observed the socio-cultural characteristics of the people to whom these “old” numbers (1983) refer, they are the same profiles of research that the International Labor Organization has revealed in its latest report. If at a any time “your mind ever wished insurrection and your hands worked for the revolution”, we ask you what is (feminist) revolution?
Surely it is not the minimum salary equality, or the conquest of economically planned space in the labor market that produces further gains, or the demand of representation in high political positions of a state structured to rape women and exterminate poor and black people.
Very wisely, Maquiavel (Machiavelli) said: “divide and rule”, and we (white) feminists certainly at not denouncing the miserable privileges that patriarchy offers us as white women (to keep us within our womanhood), we contribute to confirm the Machiavellian structures of the “bourgeois principality”. But at the cost of much suffering, there is always a (black) feminist that raises her hand and places in the agendas of our meetings, the open wound of racist patriarchal oppression. Until the day she gets tired of talking and just like we also did (we did with) the black girls of the school, who sat beside us in their desks) she leaves from our side and will alone seek (with other companions) their place in the sun. So that this reality changes before the new spring of the people (feminists).
Long live the feminist movement!
(This text was part of the study, “Por um feminismo brasileiro amplo e não fragmentado (For a large and unfragmented Brazilian feminism)”
* – According to the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota (Wolf, Naomi: O mito da beleza or The Beauty Myth), despite being more than 50% of the population and occupying two-thirds of the hours worked, we are owners of less than 1% of large, capitalist properties. In his first encounter with the militants of the Movement for the Liberation of Women, Simone de Beauvoir raised a question which she herself claimed not to know the answer (“How, according to you, does one exactly articulate capitalist and patriarchal oppression?”); a statement, consequent of this same question was phrased by Beauvoir: “all the tactics that women should follow, depends on this (this answer).” Her concern proved to be legitimate, because according to her, in order not to stagnate, feminism after the conquests of the 1960s, should study the role of women within relations of capitalist exploitation. However, in the Brazilian reality, it is not enough to only articulate issues of class; we need to reach the core of racial/ethnic issues of, because the Brazilian social abyss focuses in large part on remnants of slavery era exploitation.
* – To write this text we also had as reference to the links below:
Source: GRIF Maçãs Podres
1. Maçãs Podres, or Bad Apples, founded in 2008, from the Núcleo de Estudo de Gênero Simone de Beauvoir (Simone de Beauvoir Center for the Study of Gender), the GRIF Maçãs Podres (Grupo Revolucionário de Intervenção Feminista or Revolutionary Feminist Intervention Group) is formed by sociologists Ana Clara Marques and Fernanda Sunega, both with a long history of feminist struggle within Graffiti, and the poet and historian Patrick Monteiro. The Grupo Revolucionário de Intervenção Feminista MAÇÃS PODRES developed a website with publications of feminist studies, art videos, poems and records of its urban interventions. The main objective is to strengthen the Brazilian feminist struggle, contributing to the formation of new militants and building parameters for the expansion of feminist art in the country. Source
2. Over the years Eldridge Cleaver’s book has been cited by many black Brazilians who analyze the perceived preference of black Brazilian men for white women. A number of articles on the blog cover the topic of interracial relationships in Brazil. Also see here.
3. Some would argue this to be the case of black men as well. For example, see here.
4. Many Brazilian female singers, black and white, speak of the influence of this dance group of all blonde females on the television program of the popular TV host Xuxa. For an analysis of race in reference to Xuxa see here.