Note from BW of Brazil: In this essay, included in the collection Mulheres Negras na Primeira Pessoa (Black Women in the First Person), activist Dandara Batista Correia explores many of the themes that are often covered on this blog: racism, the concept of “good hair”, the invisibility of black Brazilians in the media, identity and the idea that black Brazilian men prefer white women among other topics.
The book Mulheres Negras na Primeira Pessoa, like recent writing contests, magazines, beauty contests and the possibility of public policies, all seek to address the invisibility and negative images of black women in Brazilian society. In 2009, Dandara also participated in a campaign in the northeastern state of Paraíba with goal of encouraging more Brazilians of visible African ancestry to identify themselves as preta (black) or parda (brown) in the 2010 census. Below is the video Dandara recorded for the campaign with transcripts in English below the video.
Dandara in “Campaign for the Promotion of Black Identity in Paraíba” clip
Transcription of video: “Affirming oneself as black is my struggle, this attitude, right, on the daily saying that you are black…Society doesn’t see me as black but as a morena. You, young black man, young black woman, don’t stop identifying yourself as such, as a black man and black woman. Morena, no. You can call me black.” (1)
My name is Dandara Batista Correia, I’m 23 years old, and I live in the neighborhood of Mangabeira, which is the most populous district of the city of João Pessoa, Paraíba. Currently I am working at the Municipal Secretary of Health of João Pessoa, as coordinator of the Technical Area of Health of the Black Population. And also I participate in the NGO Bamidelê – Organization of Black Women in Paraíba.
Actually, I’m from Recife, Pernambuco. My whole family is from Pernambuco. There’s only one person from Paraíba in the family, which is my younger brother. My parents lived in Recife and my father came to work in João Pessoa. There was a time when it wasn’t working out to keep coming and going from Recife and they decided to live in João Pessoa.
I had a life, and even today, I have a very simple life. My family is very simple: I live in a small house in a populous neighborhood. I always studied in a public school. I had the opportunity to study in a private school because of a scholarship that I won for athletics and I have excelled in some competitions. I had a very good childhood; I played a lot on the street, really a lot. I have no complaints about my childhood. I think one of the characteristics of my childhood were the street games, all the possible games, I played barra bode, baleado (dodge ball), menino pega menina (boy catch girl), I experienced a lot. Logical that, as I am from a very humble background, I never had the toy of the year, I never had a Barbie, but I was very happy. I’ve loved writing in my diary all my life. I think that the ability that I have to write today comes from that: I had three diaries, I wrote everything.
I’ve practiced catechism. From the age of nine I have been involved in the Catholic community here where I live. I was part of a group of charismatic prayer and for me it was very important. That’s where I developed all my artistic skills, with music, theater and dance. My contact with racism was actually in school. The school plays a very important role in the construction of our identity, because identity is really a social construction. And I suffered very, very much. I was very stigmatized in school because of my hair, “bombril (steel wool)”, bad hair. There is a nickname that I heard that even today when I remember it, I don’t like to remember because it was a time that made me suffer a lot: “pão queimado (burnt bread)”. My colleagues called me this and I got angry. The question of the hair is very central, because it deals with our femininity and our beauty, our image. So, for a long time I wanted to straighten my hair to feel more socially accepted in my group of friends. My friends were white, and I still remember when I was little, I would grab a diaper and would put on my hair, and it would shape my hair into a diadem. I felt wonderful, I felt my hair on my shoulder, you know? Because of my hair being crespo (curly-kinky), it didn’t have all that bounce like the hair of my classmates, who were white. I suffered a lot with the issue of hair.
But despite everything, I always felt very pretty. Because my father had a very important role in the construction of my identity: he always said I was a black woman, that I was a princess, that I was very beautiful. Then I really referenced the whole story of Dandara, the black leader, the wife of Zumbi of Palmares. I grew up in a family context in which my father was (part of) the Movimento Negro (black movement) and put it in my name as well as the name of my younger brother, Zéodele, a name of African origin. We grew up in this context, affirming ourselves as black. My God, how funny our process, childhood and upbringing was. Our family greatly influenced the way we understand the world. I grew up a lot with my father.
Today I have a very great familiarity with black people; I feel very much part of black people, even those that I don’t know. I have great compassion for the suffering, I familiar myself a lot, I identify myself very quickly with black people. And I remember what my father always said someone black was on television: look at your brother, look at your aunt, look at your uncle. Any black person who appeared on television he would say that he was my brother, my relative, he would say “come see your uncle”! So I think I grew up with this feeling of mine like this, so much familiarity with black people. I very much appreciate my black origin, my black race, black beauty. I identify with it a lot, I’m very much in solidarity. Because I grew up in an environment where my father played an important role in making me have this identification with the black population in general, he had such importance in my house.
My mother is also very significant, she is a reference for me in the sense that she always supported me a lot. I always had a spirit of leadership; it was only recently that I recognized this. Since childhood I lead the way in creating a student newspaper at school. At the time, my school had no teacher, we went after a teacher. At the time of the newsletter, we would go there in the main street of the neighborhood asking for money, asking for sponsorship to make this newspaper, really as a release for students. My greatest pride is that paper, very cool! We later failed due to a lack of resources and the school not really valuing the young people. I was an athlete, I played handball for over nine years. And I was the team captain. (It was then) that I was identifying in my history a spirit of leadership. I think this is black ancestry, fighting to play a lead role in their own history. I bring a lot of that in me. I always try to be out front. At the university I was valedictorian, I was in the student movement and the academic center. In many stories, I take the lead in many processes, much of the leadership. I identify with this, but I always refer to my history, the history of my people, who themselves led and constructed their history. In my life everything was very difficult, through objective conditions, really imposed by racism, but I managed to overcome many difficulties. My context was never favorable. I remember everyone in the class had a salary. I was always the last to have things, for better conditions in life because of my father being autonomous (and) my mother a housewife, my brother also, my two brothers were athletes. Today my older brother lives in Recife, works, (and) my younger brother is studying Physiotherapy. Whatever I dreamed of, I always achieved, I have a lot of dreams, but I see this as an achievement in many aspects.
Today I am a social worker, I am studying for my master’s in Social Assistance of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, I am also doing a specialization for UFPB and that specialization is in the Politics of Care.
Professionally, I’m not fully accomplished; I want very much to take a public course, preferably in the legal field. But having a master’s degree is an achievement; to be working in Municipal Health is an achievement. To have come to Bamidelê: Bamidele has a great importance in my life, the affirmation of my identity, the knowledge and the experience was very enriching for my life, broadening my worldview. Being part of this NGO, working, seeing some material achievements, finally, I have other dreams, but I see myself earning many achievements. And so, I am motivated to overcome the difficulties.
We make a comparison, although still being difficult for us blacks, I think the access to information, through the technological revolution, changes the country a lot. I think in terms of communication, information, Brazil has improved a lot of my childhood forward. We can access more information and we can live the technological revolution. I think that has changed.
João Pessoa is a city that also has advanced. We realize that in the last eight years João Pessoa is a city more organized in an urban setting, with spaces of leisure that it didn’t previously have, with the squares (plazas). It is now a more pleasant city to live in, although we realize that today João Pessoa has a lot of difficulty in mobility, it has grown, people have bought many cars. How great it is that they bought them; those who buy cars are those who have the opportunity to buy cars. But in urban terms we know that there has to be planning in a city. In aspects of health, I consider many advances: we have a more basic attention focused on preventive aspects and health promotion. But I don’t think we have this on the issue of racism. We have to give visibility to advances such as the Health Policy of the Black Population, Law 10.639, and quotas in universities that we fought hard for. At last, these policies are offshoots of our struggles. But racism is still subtly present there in the imaginary of the population. As for us, black women, we still have to prove, twice, three times, unfortunately, our competence. I see this a lot, inequality. I realize this as a woman working in the Secretariat in the salary differences. We have to constantly prove that we are capable. This is very complicated. But it’s racism itself that imposes itself.
The denial of racism prevents that our demands as black women are met. It’s very common that professionals, people, society, deny that we suffer for due to our specificities: in addition to being black, being women. And there’s also that idea of the universal woman, yet only from the woman, of gender. But it also has a racial dimension. I think the black woman always has something to prove and still suffers a lot. I speak of myself: the question of standards. There was an event now in television called “Garota Fantástica” (2) and the guy said: we are looking for a classic standard of beauty. In fact, he said classic beauty and afterward he took some girls and showed them off, (saying) “this here is a classic beauty”: skinny women with a thin nose.
I said: but how are you looking for a classic beauty in Brazil, a country so mixed, where our beauty is different? Because we bring in our characteristics, legacies of various races. And then, we are not thin; we have legs, we have butts, our noses are different, our hair is not straight, it’s curly, it’s kinky/curly. Seeing this on television, in the media, is a great oppression for black women. The standards of beauty are so perverse that we have to really whiten ourselves to place ourselves in some areas to be accepted and feel beautiful. When we go out with white girls, we notice the differences: the attention of the boys doesn’t come to us, black girls, although we are pretty black girls. We have to prove that we are very competent, that we are beautiful; we have to whiten ourselves.
There is the objective plan, of access, racial inequalities, social inequalities in access to conditions of income and such. But the subjective plan makes it very difficult for us to conquest, the social gains for ourselves because society ends up convincing us that we are inferior, that we’re ugly and this sometimes creates obstacles in the construction of our being when the time comes for us to climb other spaces, other opportunities.
I feel very much in this way, an ample desire, not only for my personal life: I wish very, very much, to be in the masters program and find more black people, being at the Secretary of Health working in management and finding black people. Because I feel very isolated in some areas.
I want very much to have the opportunity to see my black people occupying other spaces, I dream much about this. I think quotas are a social achievement, I strongly believe in this affirmative policy. I really want to have the opportunity to see my people accessing this benefit of humanity that is the university, which is the production of knowledge. So my future is this, to see black people ascend socially, and Brazilian society no longer having to tolerate us, but living with our differences. Because what often happens that when a black ascends in society is that he becomes tolerable. That he not be tolerated, but that he be recognized as black, as a political subject, a social subject with his human dignity in this society.
For the girl who is born now I desire that this black girl can grow up and develop. And construct her identity having as a reference not aesthetic standards of beauty, but recognizing her essence that is in her history, in her ancestry. And I hope that she has the opportunity to grow up in an environment…Because I know that the environment is too unfavorable for the construction of our black identity. But she could at least grow up in a family and school environment in that the history of her people could be told in another version, which is the version of the people who constructed it, which is the black people’s version. That she could have the opportunity to be in school, hearing the story of her people, not narrated from the point of view of the white man, the European or Princess Isabel, who abolished slavery. That she has the opportunity to study and be in an environment that is good, that accepts her hair, which finds her beautiful. That in her home her parents, her family, appreciate her beauty, like my father said that I was black, that I was beautiful, that I was a princess, this helped me a lot in constructing my identity. I hope that children who are being born now can be loved and feel special for what they are, not from the racist and oppressive imposition of our society.
Source: Articulação de Organizações de Mulheres Negras Brasileiras
1. A number of previous posts on this blog have dealt with the terms morena and moreno. For some it is a term that can be applied to any Brazilian who is extremely dark-skinned, blond or red head. For some it is a term meant to signify racial mixture and for others it is a term used by persons of visible African ancestry who want to avoid the stigma and negative connotations associated with the term negro or negra. For more on this, see here or here. In Brazil today, there are millions of African descendant girls who physically resemble Dandara but who prefer to define themselves as morenas.
2. Garota Fantástica is a program featured on Brazil’s top television network Globo which seeks to find Brazil’s next top supermodel. In past seasons, many have commented on the vast over-representation of white women featured on this show.