Note from BBT: When I first started this blog, formerly known as Black Women of Brazil, back in November of 2011, it took several months before I got that first story that went viral. That story was from March of 2012 and it was about a young black woman in the northeastern state of Maranhão who faced some discriminatory treatment from the directors of her school because of the way she wore her hair.
Of course having been following the situation of black Brazilians since the year 2000, I was already familiar with how Brazilian society frowns upon the black aesthetic, but, as there was a time when I had never thought about blackness in Brazil, I’m sure a lot of black Americans weren’t familiar with the situation as well.
The story was picked up by popular entrepreneur Alicia Walton and the next thing you know, the story blew up. Since then, I’ve done a lot of stories about how the natural hair of African descendants is viewed by Brazilian society, the courage tens of thousands of Afro-Brazilian women developed to wear their hair natural, the transition from permed hair to “big chop” to natural hair and the countless seminars, fairs, marches and campaigns devoted to black hair.
But even with all of that, with two decades having passed in the 21st century, and it still seems in many ways that things haven’t changed much in terms of the acceptance of black hair. Unfortunately, stories like the one below aren’t rare in Brazil. Let us remember that one black woman was fired for refusing to remove her braids and then was forced to pay her former employer BRL 15,000. There was the story of another woman who was told directly, “I can’t hire you with that hair”, and another who was told during an interview, “You need to do something with that hair“. And just so you know, this sort of thing happens to black men too.
These stories are all connected to black men and women in the job market and doesn’t even consider the nasty comments and looks Afro-Brazilians have to deal with on a daily basis in relation to their hair. Today’s story is a holdover from last month, but it well illustrates that the rejection of afro textured hair is still very strong in Brazilian society.
“Boss suggested I straighten my hair”, says receptionist after winning case
By Nathália Geraldo with Larissa Santos
A decision by the Superior Labor Court that ordered the Laboratório Fleury (Fleury Laboratory) to pay compensation to a former employee for racial discrimination expresses a type of racism reproduced within companies, both private and public: institutional.
The court decided that the laboratory should pay compensation of BRL 10,000 to former employee Mayara Oliveira de Carvalho. She, a black woman with black power (afro) hair, was a receptionist for Fleury at the Villa-Lobos unit in São Paulo in 2017. When I worked at the company, there was a “visual standardization guide” that contained no pictures of black people, only white people.
At the trial, reporting minister Delaíde Miranda Arantes pointed out that “the lack of racial diversity in the defendant’s [company] visual standardization guide is a form of discrimination, albeit indirect, that has the power to hurt human dignity and psychological integrity of black employees, as in the case of the claimant [ex-employee], who didnt feel represented in the work environment.”
The young woman said in an interview with CNN Brasil that since her first week at the company she noticed racist attitudes coming from bosses and also from work colleagues.
“In the first interview I went with my hair loose, they complimented me a lot, they liked my performance, my vocabulary, they said that I was very beautiful, that I entered in the receptionist pattern and I was very engaged. (…) My self-esteem was up there”, Mayara said.
But, before effectively starting to work in one of the laboratory headquarters, the receptionists need to go through a process, in which they make a “visual standardization”, in a training given by an outsourced cosmetic company which followed the “visual standardization manual” which was instituted by Fleury group. Aafter being hired for the position, she was presented with the rules.
In the process it was taught that receptionists were to be lightly made up, wear a uniform and have a specific behavior, for dealing directly with clients.
“In the selection process, makeup and hair was talked about. The fundamental rule was that, if the hair passed the shoulders, it had to be tied up. And whoever had bangs, would have to wear them discreetly,” she explaied. “But, my hair does not form bangs and does not fall below the shoulders,” she says.
That is, according the rules, you could leave it loose. However, she says that the supervisor asked her to use an escova in her hair, pin it down or leave it “as discreetly as possible”. The escova (brush) and chapinha (flat iron) are popular methods for straightening hair in Brazil. The idea, according to Mayara, was “to maintain a pleasant appearance for customers”. The use of a tiara for those with bangs was mandatory. The accessory was also suggested to the former employee – but, due to the volume, it didn’t stay put.
The young woman says she was coerced by her coworkers to tie down her hair because, according to them, she “draws too much attention” and the clients could enter the customer service or the ombudsman’s office to make some kind of complaint, or “because it was the hair that Fleury clients were not used to dealing with,” under penalty of dismissal.
Mayara said that the main form of discrimination came directly from her superiors, but that she also noticed jokes and comments coming from co-workers.
According to her, when she tried to denounce the discrimination she was suffering to a supervisor, the guidance she received discouraged her from opening a case within the Code of Ethics. The superior professional affirmed, according to the young woman, that she would take care of the case, but no attitude was taken.
“This behavior of feeling comfortable of making a racist joke inside the work environment, means that the company condones these attitudes”, said the young woman.
What is institutional racism
For one of the former employee’s lawyers, Monique Prado, the TST minister’s reasoning about the lack of ethnic-racial diversity in the document “describes what the black movement calls institutional racism”. “This guide was discriminatory and did not consider black people. The rapporteur considered this point, saying that a discriminatory work environment does not account for the ethnic-racial diversity of that space. “
After going through these situations, says Mayara, she created an informational project on racism in the job market and sent it to an internal laboratory program, which gave employees the opportunity to suggest projects. But, she says, she was fired “for not meeting the company’s prerequisites”.
“Structural racism is an element that organizes and integrates society, in different dimensions. It is the relationship of a homogeneous group with a group of dominated mass,” explains lawyer Silvia de Souza, who is part of the legal team that represents Mayara in the case, also linked to black militancy.
“Institutional racism is when this structure of power and domination is mirrored within public or private institutions, that is, relations are established in the race parameter, even if this is denied.”
Having black employees is not enough
Having the presence of black employees does not guarantee that the company does not practice institutional racism, explains Silvia. “It is always discussed within black movements that there is no point in having plurality, a number of black workers, if there is not a healthy work environment. Having a Eurocentric [style] standard does not help, it will wear these workers out emotionally. “
The former employee says that this was not the first time that she suffered racist situations at work. But the consciousness to report it, she says, came with entering the department of psychology and with contact with black movements.
“We have to talk about this. It is so common to make ‘jokes’ in our daily lives, to diminish us by characteristics, skin tone and hair, that we end up understanding that it is natural. It is as if it were a hierarchy, in which white people are more beautiful, intelligent, worthy of certain opportunities. So, we put on the inferiority shirt and we don’t stand. Having known black activists strengthened me a lot.”
According to Monique, the legal team was concerned to show that the corporate environment was excluding for black people. For this reason, says the lawyer, the defense thesis is based on the visual standardization guide. The indemnity that Fleury will have to pay to Mayara will be for moral damages. There is still an appeal.
The other side
In a note, Fleury said it will appeal the decision “because it considers that the technical elements that subsidized the decision in first and second instances were disregarded, as well as because it does not reflect in any measure the ethical, plural and respectful behavior of people throughout its trajectory of more than nine decades.”
The company also says that of the 11 thousand employees, 50.6% are black people and 80% are women.