Racism and self-esteem: Afro-Brazilians share experiences and challenges of living in a society that is a constant assault on one’s blackness



Note from BW of Brazil: The title of today’s article sums up a great part of what this blog is all about. The development of the self-esteem of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian population that has long been undermined due to the nation’s particular brand of racism which has caused millions of afrodescendentes to deny their blackness. But it’s a new and exciting time for black Brazilians and this change can be noted in the ways that people describe the personal process of black identity and learning how to defend themselves against the psychological assault that Brazil deals half of its population on a daily basis. In the stories below, people share how they came to accept their hair, what they’re doing to construct identity and self-esteem among black children through representation, the complexities of Brazil’s color scheme and how stereotypes continue to play out in everyday social situations. 

Racism and Negritude: Self-esteem 

By Verônica Lima

The number of people declaring themselves pretas ou pardas (blacks or browns) has grown more than 5% in the last decade. The data, from IBGE, shows that more people are recognizing themselves as black. This week, Radio Câmara presents the Special Report “Racism and Negritude”. Self-esteem, racism, violence, entrepreneurship and the legacy of the African peoples are the subjects that we are going to deal with. Here is the first chapter, with the reporter Verônica Lima.

Brunielly Keith

Brunielly Keith is 20 years old. She straightened her hair from age 8 to 18 years of age. Her mother, who is white and has straight hair, decided to straighten her hair because she didn’t know how to take care of her daughter’s hair, at a time when there were no salons that specialized in Afro beauty or specific cosmetics for this public:

“I don’t blame my mother for that, no, because she simply didn’t know how to take care of (it) and had the view that hair that was cared for was straightened, right? […] I don’t know if, at the time that my mother straightened it, if there were princesses, who today have a black princess, if she had more representation, perhaps she wouldn’t have straightened, because she would see herself in others in order to leave me crespa (kinky/curly) in that way.”

Brunielly Keith featured in a newspaper report entitled ‘Meu cabelo não é ruim’, meaning ‘my hair is not bad’

Iara Francisca da Silva is the owner of the Salão Beleza Afro (Afro Beauty Salon) in Brasília, Brazil’s capital city. She says that many white mothers who are married to black men, such as Brunielly’s mother, still face the difficulty of not knowing how to deal with their daughters’ cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair). Iara considers that her work in the salon is almost a therapy, because, besides the lack of knowledge, according to Iara, there are still mothers who don’t accept the negritude of their daughters:

“They come in here and say, ‘cut it, run the machine through her hair, because she’s going to start school,’ and we go and tell her ‘why are you going to cut her hair, why don’t you faz uma trança (braid it)?'” No, no, braids no’, there’s always that resistance. We’re welcoming, some get angry, they don’t come back. Others come back and start working with this, others from the time they’re little just straighten, now the girl just wears braids.”

The Salão Beleza Afro is located in Brasília, the nation’s capital

IBGE data show that the number of people declaring themselves black or brown grew more than 5% between 2004 and 2014. This doesn’t mean that more blacks are being born in Brazil, but that more people are recognizing themselves as black. Brunielly tells how this transition happened, which didn’t occur without resistance. A relative even asked if she needed money to straighten her hair. And some college colleagues said she should cut it or put cream in it, because she was, in their words, “taking this story of having natural hair too seriously.”

“December 31, 2013, I was doing a chapinha (hair straightening iron) for New Year’s Eve, I looked in the mirror and I said, “I don’t not know what I’m like.” Then I asked my mother what my hair was like, she showed me some pictures and I fell in love [ …] It’s funny, because I always thought I was negra (black), but the fact that I straightened and everybody said: no, you’re parda (brown), you’re too clarinha (light) to be negra, no, black, are you crazy? As if being black was a bad thing.”

Veteran activist Zulu Araújo

The architect and militant of the  Movimento Negro (Black Movement) Zulu Araújo summarizes well this resistance faced by Brunielly when presenting herself as black:

“In Brazil, there are no clear definitions of people’s phenotype. So you can be escuro (dark), escurinho (a little dark), moreno claro (light brown), moreno escuro (dark brown), cor de formiga (ant-colored), mulatto, you have a myriad of terms to designate those who are Afro-descendants as a mechanism to say the following: not being preto (black), anything goes.”

It’s not a few people that are struggling to change o significado do que é ser negro no Brasil (the meaning of being black in Brazil). Another example is the sociologist Luciana Bento, who became a blogger and bookseller when seeking references to dialogue with her two daughters about racism and blackness. In addition to the blog A mãe preta (the black mother), about black maternity, Luciana also created InaLivros, a bookstore focused on written works and with blacks in leading roles. A third project is the blog 100 livros infantis com meninas negras (100 children’s books with black girls).

Doing this work, Luciana discovered a universe of people who are mobilizing to bring more content aimed at the inclusion of black people in society. They are bloggers, activists and parents who want to teach their children to overcome racism. Many buy books with black protagonists and donate to the archive of the schools:

Luciana, her husband and children present their book project

“So I think it would be very interesting for white parents to also look up these books with black characters and present this book to children in a natural way. You don’t have to go to a child and say that the character is black. The child will look and will see, and if she has the courage, she’ll ask. If she doesn’t, she’ll understand it like any person and I think it will deconstruct these crystallized prejudices in our society.”

Congresswoman Rosângela Gomes of the Partido Republicano Brasileiro (Brazilian Republican Party)

Congresswoman Rosângela Gomes, of the PRB (Partido Republicano Brasileiro – Brazilian Republican Party) of Rio de Janeiro, gives an example of something that happened to her, a black woman, and that reveals this naturalization of racism in our daily life:

“I went to Colombo to have coffee, and a couple of white people came to me and asked: what time does the establishment close? I was standing at the counter waiting for my coffee. I was quiet, remained silent. The man asked again: What time does (this place) close, I want to know what time the cafeteria closes. I was quiet, I remained quiet. His wife apologized, got her husband and left.”

For the deputy, what this episode makes clear is that we, Brazilians, are accustomed to seeing the black as a waiter, but we can not yet see him/her as a customer of a fancy restaurant. Rosângela Gomes recalls: Brazil was built on miscegenation. Therefore, it needs to redeem the history of the povo negro (black people), who gave their contribution with blood and with life. This debt, she concludes, is priceless, but the least we can do is to have respect for black Brazilians.

Report – Verônica Lima

Editing – Mauro Ceccherini

Production – Íris Cary, Cristiane Baker and Gabriela Pantazopoulos

Technical Works – Carlos Augusto de Paiva

SourceRádio Câmara

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. When my older brother was studying in Morocco he was subject to the ‘watch and ask time’ racism. The racist Moroccans he encountered would do that so that he could glance at his wrist and remember that he is black like it’s something to be ashamed of. It’s the way we were created. #Proud. Anyways, these jokers would laugh and carry on when you genuinely give them the time because they didn’t need to know the time in the first place. It was simply to be spiteful for the heck of it and unbeknownstly prove their ignorance. The irony is Moroccans aren’t white either or should I say ‘Pink’? 😉

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