Note from BW of Brazil: Black Brazilians make up a very small percentage of Brazilian elites, but they DO exist. And like most of those who are part of this elite, Sauanne Bispo has numerous memories of how she was treated because the places she occupied were supposedly not for people who look like her. This is yet another way that Brazil’s “racism that doesn’t exist” functions in order to keep its darker citizens “in their place”.
After the initial disbelief that a black person could possibly be in spaces in which only those of fair skin are expected to be, the welcome mat is still not ever fully rolled out. The jokes, nasty comments, methods of exclusion and (not so) subtle gestures are the daily experiences of the black elite. A state such as Bahia is a place that one wouldn’t expect for this to happen. After all, Bahia is the northeastern state with one of the largest black populations in the country. With so many black people, it would seem natural that they would be the majority of upper middle to middle classes. But that is not the case in the city known as “Black Rome”.
Presenting the racial standardization of space in Salvador, sociologist Antônia dos Santos Garcia demonstrates how whites are concentrated in the upper crust neighborhoods of the city. They are the white “islands” in the city: “This metropolis has a distribution of the population by color or race […] which indicates the existence of some islands, where most of the 23.5% of the city’s whites live, which are concentrated mainly in the neighborhoods of the traditional elite of the upper and middle classes.”
As such, while Salvador’s majority may be represented by persons with darker skin, the money and power continue to be held in white hands to this day. Salvador was the capital city of Brazil for 214 years, from 1549 to 1763, and also one of the major slave ports of the country. The city, as the country itself, was thus constructed upon the idea of white masters and black slaves. Even so, today, there is a growing black middle class in the city and Sauanne Bispo is a black woman who learned to stand her ground and take her deserved place even when it was clear that her presence made people uncomfortable.
The journey against racism of a black woman born in the elite of Bahia
In the state, less than 20% of the population is white, but Sauanne Bispo studied at a school where there were at most 20 black students
By Sauanne Bispo, in testimony to Fernanda Bassette
Sauanne Bispo suffered several episodes of racism, from childhood in private school to adulthood, as owner of her own business. Today, she gives lectures on racial inclusion.
I was born in Salvador, Bahia, I am 34 years old and I am the daughter of Celeste Bispo, a teacher that graduated in letters and an investigator of the Bahian Civil Police. My father is a visual artist, he makes wooden sculptures. They never married, but he was always there in my life. I’m an only child. I grew up in a downtown neighborhood of Salvador, Garcia. All my life, I studied at Colégio Antônio Vieira – a traditional private school. Although I live in a state with about an 82% preta/parda (black or brown) population, in the whole school there were a maximum of 20 black students. In my classroom it was me and two more, at best.
Cliques in the classroom were common. A colleague gave me the nickname Melanina (melanin) and then he shortened it to Mel. When someone asked “Why Mel?”, he laughed to explain. Once I was in line at the canteen and a girl I didn’t know told me that macacos (monkeys) didn’t need to eat. We were students from the same school, we had the same social status and the only thing that differentiated us at that time was my color.
If there is one thing I learned early on, it was to be sure to position myself. I didn’t discover that I was black, I always knew I was. I grew up listening to my grandmother speak Yoruba (a Nigerian-Congolese language that became Salvador’s immaterial cultural heritage in 2019). Being black and living black culture has always been a very natural thing for me. And it is this solid background that gives me the lightness to talk about racism. I always correct (people), for example, when someone calls me a morena. A morena is a white girl with black hair. I’m black.
Although the overwhelming majority of the Bahian population is preta (black), I was seen by many as the black bourgeois, the patricinha who lived in a mostly black neighborhood, but didn’t study in public schools. It was often embarrassing for me to come and go from school. I went on foot, passed in front of the public school and was often offended by students who said that I was trying to occupy a space that wasn’t mine.
Due to the influence of some uncles, I always liked exact (sciences). My desire was to study mechatronic engineering. I have an uncle who lives in Germany and he encouraged me to take the course and then move there. So I went to study German. I took the entrance exam and went to a private university and far from home. So I ended up choosing to study statistics at the Federal University of Bahia.
It was at graduation that my experience of life abroad began. During a work program on vacation, I chose to go to Louisiana, precisely because it is a conservative state with a strong black culture. I stayed there for four months. Soon after, I stayed for nine months on an international cruise ship. There were many situations of moral and sexual harassment. One day, my supervisor called me a “negra de merda” (black shit) and I took the case to the ship’s captain. After hearing witnesses, the man was disembarked. But they put me to work under the supervision of his wife.
“I had my car key in my hand, wearing linen pants, my hair was impeccable. The girl who attended me simply said that the person in charge was busy and that I could leave my resume with her. She deduced that I wanted a job because of my color.”
I went back to college and joined Aiesec, the largest youth leadership NGO in the world. In 2010 I was called to work at Africare – an institution based in Washington DC. It was the most incredible experience of my life. The building was all glass, three floors, with several black people dressed in formal attire and the receptionist was white. Do you understand the situation? No one there was an exception. That thing moved me in a way…
Back in Brazil, I went to work in the coordination of criminal analysis of the Secretariat of Public Security of Bahia. As a statistic, I was responsible for doing the detailed mapping of homicides in the state. Most of the deaths were of young blacks, around 25 years old. I worked for eight months, until I got sick and asked for my discharge. I couldn’t do that anymore, there was no point in counting black bodies. What would be done based on those results? Would it bring the police closer to the population and actually put them to protect, not to kill? No. So I couldn’t go on.
I returned to Aiesec and went to work in India, in a market research focused on emerging countries. I stayed there for six months. At the Taj Mahal, for example, people asked to take pictures with me. I was the exotic attraction. After that I went to Russia, but I felt insecure and unprotected. I heard from a Russian that blacks were like dogs and that is why they didn’t mix.
When I returned to Brazil, I decided to open an exchange company specialized in destinations in African countries. I went to a luxury bakery to order the food that I would serve at the opening and asked to speak with the person in charge. I had my car key in my hand, wearing linen pants, my hair was impeccable. The girl who attended me simply said that the person in charge was busy and that I could leave my resume with her. She deduced that I wanted a job because of my color. In another situation, I was inside my agency and a gentleman came in and said: “You don’t know who owns this place, do you?” In other words: he also deduced that I could not be the owner.
In São Paulo, I was called to give a talk at an event where Elza Soares would be interviewed. When I asked the security guard where the entrance was, he directed me to circle the building from the outside. I didn’t hit me at the time, but he directed me to the back entrance, the service entrance.
On one of my trips abroad (Sauanne Bispo has visited 31 countries), I was asked if this was my first international trip. People are not used to blacks in airport lounges, but I will fill planes with blacks. People need to get used to us occupying our space. I remember once being in a five-star hotel in São Paulo participating in an international conference. A Brazilian woman came to speak with me in English. She supposed that a black woman in that hotel could only be a foreigner. I replied, in English too, that she could speak Portuguese because I was also Brazilian.
I recently went to an upper middle class supermarket to buy items to make a risotto. The security guard was following me the whole time. Until I asked: “Are you paid just to follow me or to carry my bags too?” I usually say that, before they know how much I have in my account, people see the color of my skin. I am a black body before anything (else).
Today, I pick up microphones to give lectures on racial inclusion. There are 132 years since abolition of slavery and we see no progress. It’s exhausting to keep repeating this subject, but it’s the continuation of a resistance struggle that began more than 500 years ago. To be black in Brazil is to have to justify yourself all the time. Do you see the result of structural racism?
Source: Garcia, Antônia dos Santos. Desigualdades raciais e segregação urbana em antigas capitais: Salvador, cidade D’Oxum e Rio de Janeiro, cidade de Ogum. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2009. Época