by Joceline Gomes
According to recent figures, less than 1% the 6,000 doctorates that are awarded every year in Brazil are earned by Afro-Brazilians and less than 1% of these doctorates deal with themes concerning the black population. To discuss these findings in more details, on Friday, November 25th, in the nation’s capital, Brasília, four black women researchers came together for a round table discussion during the 4th annual Festival of the Afro-Latino and Caribbean woman.
“Academia is a hostile place to our presence. Directors (of dissertations and thesis projects) feel that they cannot approach the racial issue. Why not?” said Maria “Cida” Bento, the executive director of Centro de Estudos das Relações de Trabalho e Desigualdades (CEERT) (Study Center of Relations of Work and Inequalities). Bento remembered the difficulty of the relationship between researchers and directors that often times consider the approach of racial issues in Brazil to be a form of militancy. Bento went on to say that the rigidity of academic institutions made many black students give up on their original themes because, generally, the racial themes were not approved by the directors of the research projects and these directors admitted that they didn’t have the knowledge or bibliography about the topic.
Bento’s findings were consistent with that of University of Brasilia professor of anthropology, José Jorge de Carvalho. Carvalho has been a vocal supporter of affirmative action in Brazil and has given numerous examples of hostility directed at students who choose to research a topic dealing with race in Brazil. In one of his examples, Carvalho told of a doctoral student of sociology that explained that during his interview to enter a particular university program, at the end of the interview, one of the examiners, conscious that the candidate wanted to study race relations, asked if he was a militant of the Movimento Negro (Brazil’s Black civil rights organizations). He clearly understood that if he were to answer yes, he would have been rejected from the program. He lied and said that he was once a militant in the past but now he had dedicated himself to an academic career. As the student closed in on finishing his doctorate, he had already decided that he would avoid being examined by the same professor who was known in his department for aggressively preaching against quotas for blacks. The student learned from that experience that one cannot be naïve, frank or open on the topic of race in the Brazilian academic world.
Janaína Damasceno, that is working on her doctorate in Social Anthropology at the University of São Paulo, experienced this difficulty when she began to develop her thesis about the psychoanalyst Virgínia Bicudo (see my article here). Bicudo was the first Brazilian to approach the theme of race relations in a post-graduate work and also the first black woman in the country to become a college professor. Damasceno’s research on Bicudo also uncovered yet another typically Brazilian manner of selectively forgetting or erasing the racial origins of distinguished Brazilians of African descent. Damasceno found that the vast majority of references to Bicudo didn’t mention the fact that she was a black woman and Bicudo’s thesis has disappeared from the academic scene.
This practice of erasing the racial origins of distinguished Brazilian historical figures recently surfaced a few months ago when one of Brazil’s greatest writers, Machado de Assis (1839-1908), was portrayed by a white actor in a recent television commercial by the Caixa Econômica Federal bank. The selection of a white actor for this commercial was denounced by many activists of the Movimento Negro. For example, in a You Tube post of the commercial, one person posted the question, “Desde quando MACHADO DE ASSIS é branco?? (since when is it that Machado de Assis is white??)” In another youtube post, the video itself is entitled “CEF – Machado de Assis ficou branco (CEF ((Caixa Econômica Federal)) – Machado de Assis becomes white).” There are at least six different posts of this commercial on You Tube and in all of them, commenters question why de Assis is portrayed as white (1).
Machado de Assis turns white
In another example of this “whitening” process, Vice-President Nilo Peçanha, a light-skinned mulato, assumed the presidency of Brazil in 1909 after the death of the then president Afonso Pena. He would serve until 1910. In photos of Peçanha online, one will note that portraits and paintings of Peçanha give him an extremely pale-skinned appearance and even red, rosy cheeks. In recognition of Afro-Brazilian history, black scholars and militants must consistently rescue important historical figures and celebrate them because the general population has no idea that some of the names appearing on buildings and streets were in fact Afro-Brazilian.
Caixa Econômica shows Machado de Assis as a black man
Damasceno also pointed out that part of the problem is that many professors argue that the invisibility of black authors in research is due to a lack of qualified black researchers, to which she responded, “We are going to continue under this yoke of white researchers? We need to place ourselves as black intellectuals and give visibility to black intellectuals.”
Juliana Nunes of the Comissão de Jornalistas pela Igualdade Racial do Distrito Federal (Commission of Journalists for Racial Equality of the Federal District) moderated the discussion and highlighted the fact that this discussion was only possible now because so many Afro-Brazilians dealt with the theme of race in times when it was even more difficult to approach the theme: “The university is a space that reproduces the racist system of Brazilian society, but we are here today and this is a space of strength.”
Andressa Marques, who is studying for her Master’s degree in Literature and is a researcher for the University of Brasília, reiterated the necessity of overcoming these obstacles. “Facing institutional racism is a daily problem in the academic realm. We don’t want to have to deal with it but we must carry on.”
Dr. Bento finished up by stressing the necessity of continuing the discussion of racism in institutions and the implementation of affirmative action in Brazil: “It’s necessary to seek other black researchers in the institutions and went through the same difficulties in order to educate the institution in respect to the racial question….We need to bring whites to hear our discussions so that they can understand. It is fitting that blacks re-democratize this country. Black women are in the forefront of this process.”
- In the above videos, Machado de Assis is first portrayed by a white actor. After an uproar on social networking sites, a black actor was re-cast as Assis. Notice that the presenter of the video is first a white actress and in the -re-recording is introduced by Afro-Brazilian actor Ailton Graça.