How Adjusting To a Structurally Racist Society is like Wearing Armor
Note from BW of Brazil: This is how the racial hierarchy works in Brazil. It is the comment, the joke or the gesture that tells you that you don’t belong here. Such behavior directed at descendants of Africans can affect the one’s psychological well-being whether they are of a darker hue or not quite light enough to be considered white.
In Brazil, for nearly five centuries, persons of visible African ancestry have not been expected to occupy certain places in society, and when they do manage to overcome the odds, climb the social ladder and take their place among those who are assumed to have certain privileges, they can never fully enjoy such privileges because their presence is always a subject of questioning.
“What? But you’re black! How did you get here?”.
This seem to be the question that runs through the minds of people accepted in the dominant society when they come across someone they define as not being “one of them”. And make no mistake, the skin color of those who make up the dominant society is white, or, in the case of Brazil, white, white enough or a certain “off white”. So, no, for those Brazilians who believe that a racist society is only the one that lynches the “undesirables”, the racist hierarchy is maintained in subtle acts as well as the blatant ones. Both of which Brazil practices very well.
You’re black (Adjusting To a Structurally Racist Society)
By Thaís dos Santos
The first time I heard that I was black was from a white person, she told me: você é negra (you’re black). The first time I understood racism was when a white woman stopped me when I opened the gate to the building where I lived and treated me as her service provider, a service mostly occupied by black women. I answered her: I’m not an employee, I live here. She didn’t know how to respond, she turned her back on me and I went upstairs with tears in my eyes and cried for hours.
Crying hurt a lot that day. I, being black with light skin and having my hair escovado (see note one) at the time, never thought I would go through that, but yes, I did, coming home, with purchases in hand and the key to the apartment located on an Avenue, paid with the work of my parents who always prioritized education and my safety and my siblings (my brother was a graduate in Computer Science, headed up the computer sector of a wholesale food network, my sister is a post graduate psychologist and is working on her second degree, now in pedagogy). Our family’s first home was a shack on the hill. My siblings and I have always studied in public schools. My parents earned a minimum wage, which is not enough to pay for a private school for three children, although it was their dream.
Understanding the privileges of being negra da pele clara (a light-skinned black woman) still gave me some comfort for the passability that this represented for me, but sooner or later this would fall to the ground in another episode of veiled racism, another episode of neglect, another episode of silence, another episode of loneliness.
Two years ago I started wearing my curly hair again, and it wasn’t because of hair transition as many people thought, I never used chemicals in my hair (straightening and so on), I cut it to see myself back, there was always a side in me that said “this hair is not yours”, so on my birthday I wanted to know what it would be like from now on, and it was the best thing I did. Being who I am sometimes costs me nights out.
I grew up not liking my body, because I understood that smart girls were thin and had fine features like the Parisians in the Godard movies, I started to believe that I didn’t match my body. I am always praised for my curves, but never for the knowledge I have to pass on. Once a visitor to my house asked if I had really read the books on my shelf. One day I quoted Beckett and they asked me where I knew who him from. I had the privilege of treating in therapy many wounds that racism and its structure caused me, but many girls who became women grow up believing that there is something wrong with them because they are all the time objectified by having this or that feature of their raiz negra (black roots). I spent years putting my hand over my lips to smile because they are big, they are black.
I dreamed of being rich so that I could thin my nose someday. Today, rich white women have plastic surgery to have lips like mine. I grew up learning that beauty was what belonged to my popular classmates at school. The white ones. I’ve always been the wonderful person, but rarely the chosen one. Walking around for years and years thinking about how to adjust to a structurally racist society is like wearing armor every day. If we bow our heads, we who fight, or the bourgeois capitalist structure kills us, hurts us, isolates us, suicides us, frightens us, prevents us. The difference is that we have to fight every day, without rest. Every day. We have to fight every day. We negrxs (black men and women) have to fight every day, no matter if someone chooses to help us or not. For centuries, we’ve had to fight every day.
- Refers to the escova proggressiva, known as the Brazilian Keratine Hair Treatment. The Ecosmetics website described the process as “a versatile and effective Brazilian blowout technique that guarantees hair straightening of all hair types.”