Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s piece, like so many others, is exactly what this blog is about. Stephanie Paes covers so many issues that are pertinent to the comprehension of blackness from the Brazilian perspective. Hair texture, racial mixture and “compliments” that simultaneously mask racist sentiments are all covered here. In this piece, Stephanie Paes takes the reader through the many complexities of the development of black identity and the development of black consciousness. In Brazil today, there are thousands, if not millions of young women that do all in their power to disassociate themselves from blackness. If one has a looser type of curl or brown skin on the lighter side of the spectrum, the Brazilian racial ideology questions any person with such a phenotype about why they would choose to define themselves as negra because they are “too pretty” to be black. With consciousness, Paes is able to perceive when a “compliment” hides subtle racism when so many others would simply rejoice in being seen as less black or not being considered black at all as a simply a compliment because they don’t want the carry this “stigma”. She also touches upon the “mixed but black/black but mixed” theme from a few years ago showing that being both does not have to be a contradiction. A worthwhile read that we are happy to present to you…
But your hair is so beautiful…
by Stephanie Paes
I know that it is. And only I understand the time I needed to take account of this (1).
My hair is crespo (curly/kinky). It has gone through several phases (natural and later chemical changes), but it never stopped being crespo. When I was a kid it had little curls and was huge, until the sad night in which my mother, tired after a day of work and not managing to detangle my ends, silently took scissors and cut my curls without telling me. After that my hair started to change, I don’t know if it was because of cutting it or because hormonal influences, but it never ceased to be what it is: crespo.
A brief summary of my journey of acceptance: when I was a child, my hair was always referred to in a negative form. The preferred nickname of those evil people of that age was the famous “bombril (steel wool hair)”. I didn’t need any discriminatory comments to know that I was not the rule, I was the exception. I’m from Curitiba (2), the black parcel is extremely small in our population compared with the national average. I didn’t recognize myself in the streets, or in magazines or novelas (soap operas). I didn’t need the jokes and giggles to understand that I was not considered “normal”. I was a something else, and one day I understood that they would always treat me as something else. At 11 or 12 years of age I found the solution to at least one of the “problems”: a brush and flat iron. I learned to do it myself and spent years with straight hair every day. Then there came a moment when I didn’t really remember what my natural hair was like, I only saw the reflection of an illusion in the mirror.
One beautiful day, a tuft (they weren’t little strands, there really a tuft) of hair just fell out of my bangs. I found myself forced to stop using the relaxer that helped undo the curls and put the dryer and flat iron to the side, or I would have to see my hair breaking and falling out in tuft after tuft unto I would go bald. After 3 months of not harming my tresses, I don’t remember exactly how, I saw my reflection in a mirror and, thus, out of nowhere, I liked what I saw. That’s how I learned to love my hair. It was forced, some years of rejection were needed, and when I realized how gorgeous my hair was, the revolt came. First, I revolted against myself. How did I let others do this to me? How did I let the pressure and dissatisfaction of others with the hair that was only mine affect me this way? Later I was revolted with people that in some way led me to this and finally I was revolted with our racist culture.
My first apparition as natural after the episode of my hair falling out was really forced, I had no other option. But then came a moment when I decided I would carry in my head, my resistance.
Today it is 5 years that I assumed my natural hair. I am proud of who I am and I know that pass this sensation on to other people. Today, calling my hair bombril will not make me the isolated child isolated at lunch, or force me to go home fast to “do something with this hair.” Today, racism comes in a different, almost subtle way.
What I hear now, with one or another variation is the following sentence: “Your hair is so beautiful! It’s a little cacheadinho (curly), not those ugly naps.”
What is the problem with this sentence?
1. Slandering a phenotypic characteristic of my race, you are slandering me. It doesn’t matter if you think that because my hair has a looser curl that it automatically ceases to be crespo. In fact, even if my hair was naturally straight, I don’t cease being black, and you would still be slandering me.
2. By exalting a feature that makes clear my miscegenation (racial mixture) and not allowing the black phenotype to be manifested completely, you are valuing my embranquecimento (white attributes). I’m not saying it’s bad to have a non-black feature, I’m saying that when you use it to say that my hair is better than another more genuinely kinky, you’re being racist.
3. Your notion of beauty is not necessarily a personal opinion, it is taught. When you say that cabelo crespo (curly/kinky hair) is ugly, you’re propagating a bias that is imposed. Why do so many people use the same sentence? Is it the opinion of people that are really like that, or is there a culture that always taught you that cabelo crespo is ugly?
Racism is cruel. When he wants to demean me, it assumes that my hair is crespo in order to put me put in an inferior and stigmatized position. When it wants to exalt my white characteristics (and ends up the same way, inferiorizing my race), it says that my hair is not crespo and that that’s why it’s beautiful. It also speaks of my delicate nose and the tone of my skin (one doesn’t even dare correct someone who calls you a “moreninha” on the street. It’s a compliment, clearly you’re not negra (black). Negra is negra, you’re morena).
Do I like compliements? Of course I do. From people that I know, people who have this freedom and don’t use the supposed glorification of some physical attribute as a basis to further segregate the population. So far I haven’t talked about compliments. You know what a compliment would be? “Your hair is so beautiful!” Now, if you want to compare me to someone else of my own race to value my European or Asian features while at the same time undervaluing the image of black women, I’ll find this negative, indeed.
My hair is beautiful, but not because it is “less crespo”. It’s beautiful because it’s mine, and it not only carries the identity that I had lost in childhood, it carries my cry of protest. It throws in the face of Brazilian racism that I am not less of a woman for being black, nor less black for being mestiça (mixed). Over time, I realized who I am and I learned to love myself.
Why so much of a text because of hair? Because there is no inoffensive racist demonstration. Prejudice with cabelo crespo but can harm people’s lives. For those who don’t remember the case, give it a read here about the pedagogy intern that was practically forced to straighten or tie up her hair, and almost lost her job for, besides not giving in to pressure from the school where she worked, reporting the case of blatant racism, which ended up in the media. The influence of the same discrimination ended up affecting her professional life (3).
In what situation do you imagine that a black woman or man have full security to exercise their profession and to be treated equally when absurdities like this keep happening? Is it they who must learn to straighten or shave their hair, bowing to the demands of racism, or is society that is absurdly impregnated by aesthetic standards that were created with the clear objective of segregation?
Is it me that sees problems in everything, quoting imaginary faults in a harmless sentence in the everyday of any woman’s life, or the society that does not realize that these not so offensive phrases are used to destabilize the self esteem and stereotype the figure of blacks?
For you that might eventually read this text and remember that one day these same comments we’re already made, remember that it is not you that I’m judging, it’s the prejudice that I have to battle every day. Remember this the next time you see a black woman, remember this when you want to compliment her and remember not to let the supposed whitening of the Brazilian population make you think that being less black is to be more beautiful.
Source: Falando sem permissão
1. BW of Brazil features several other personal stories of women coming to accept a black identity and their physical features that are continuously devalued due to Brazil’s European standard of beauty. See this one for example.
2. Curitiba is the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Paraná. According to the 2010 census, 19.7% of city’s population consists of pretos and pardos, the combination of which is considered the black population.
3. Ester Elisa da Silva Cesário revealed that she used to stand near the reception area and show parents who were interested in enrolling their children around the school. After the repercussions of her case in social networks, she was transferred to the archive department where she “only archives documents and stamps student portfolios.” Source