Note from BW of Brazil: I must admit, the discussion over this topic is quite intriguing. In a recent post in which we featured Camila Pitanga, we received comments of the opinion that the actress wasn’t black (1) as well as others that declared that among truly white people, she would be black. In past posts on this topic of racial identity/classification, people have opined that if one identifies as something, that is what said person is. Others believe that persons of mixed appearance/ancestry are not black at all while still others categorize according to treatment in situations of racial discrimination.
In a place like Brazil, where persons of whatever degree of African descent have long been taught to flee from such identity/classification, the paradigm is shifting as many persons who would have defined themselves as “pardas”, “mulatas” and “morenas” just a few decades ago are openly declaring themselves as “negras”. This is not to say that this is the rule. In a country like Brazil where whitening oneself by any means necessary sometimes borders on the obsessive, the vast majority of persons of African ancestry continue to self-identify themselves as “pardas”, loosely meaning brown or any combination of racial mixture. Thus, when white people refer to most of these people with terms such as “morena”, most will not object as most in fact don’t want to be classified as “negra”. But what happens when they do?
But you aren’t black
by Bárbara Paes
Every time someone calls me “morena” or “mulata” I want to die a little. While I imagine a lot of people do it out of habit, not knowing the violence that they’re committing, I carry the certainty of that many people measure the words well before verbalizing. When we correct these people, and I request that they call me negra (black), I almost always get an embarrassed smile. But from time to time, some of these people think it’s cool to try to convince me that, in fact, I can only be mulata.
These days I was with my mother (who is negra, like me) in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, when we started talking with a (branca, white) woman. The conversation came, the conversation went, and suddenly we were talking about how Brazilian universities have few black students. When I mention that I’m the only black student in my class, the woman looks at me almost terrified and says, “but you’re not negra, you’re morena! When someone is really black, we have a way to realize it.”
The difficulty that some whites have to point to me as black is very symptomatic of how racism is structural in our society. For this woman (and many others like her) it is inconceivable that a black person can be in the same office as she, studying at a public university. For this type of person it’s scary assume that a black can have access to the same services, put their children in the same schools, frequent the same malls and buy the same brands. Assuming all of this represents a huge loss of status for people who rely so much on the relative position of whites in relation to blacks in our society.
So, a lot of white people choose to use terms like “morena” or “mulata” unbelievers of the possibility of a “really black” person that shares the same purchasing power. An association is made, almost automatic, of middle and upper classes with the white population and poverty with the black population. This immediate association, combined with disgust that our society has of poor people and black people, contributes to the existence of a huge resistance in calling someone negra, as if being negra was a shame. In this case, the labels of “mulata” or “morena” become attempts to embranquecer (whiten), to avoid recognizing that black men and women can have, or even aspire to the same standard of living.
The discomfort that some feel in seeing the increasing emergence of a black middle and university class occupy the places that have been historically denied is increasingly latent. Be it the white girl at the bookstore that tried to stop me from buying a book because she didn’t believe I could read English, or this lady in the doctor’s office: it’s worth recognizing from afar people who feel uncomfortable at seeing a black woman doing “typically white” things. This is one of the reasons I make a point of always declare myself negra, especially when I’m in academic or professional settings that have always been primarily reserved for whites.
The income of a black woman is 38.5% of the salary of a white man with the same education and function. We also know that the Brazilian university has few black students (Dossiê Mulheres Negras, IPEA, 2013). We know the violent results of institutional racism to which all of us black women are subjected daily. In this sense, assuming oneself as negra occupying a professional or academic position usually reserved for whites becomes a super important decision. It is through the assertion of our identity that we have the strength to claim our space in the university, that we denounce the violence that we suffer, that we demand more equality. It is through the assertion of our identity that we show that occupying professional or academic positions we long for is our right.
We are few black women in the university, we are few black women with fair wages. But the struggle in order that all black women share in these rights and have decent lives, nos recusamos a ser embranquecidas (we refuse to be whitened).
Source: Blogueiras Negras
1. A topic that the actress herself has often dealt with.