“I was the only one in my graudating class”: 20 years after Brazilian universities began affirmative action, college is still a lonely experience for black students

Thelma Assis, 35 years old, anesthesiologist, classical dancer and BBB 20 winner with her graduating class

Note from BBT: Much has been said and written about the massive increase of black students in Brazilian univerities. Just twenty years ago, seeing a clearly black person on a Brazilian college campus was quite the rarity. It was also around that time that programs of affirmative action and quotas were being introduced to address this enormous racial imbalance that many experts pointed to as the principle reason for the vast socioeconomic inequalities between Brazil’s white people on one side and the black and brown population on the other side.

When the system of quotas first began to be implemented in Brazil’s universities the outcry and rejection by society at large was widespread, but the controversy over the idea also forced the country to discuss the issue of race more openly than ever before in its history. As is well-known by now, Brazil has also been a country that, even while having some of the greatest racial inequalities in the world, steadfastly denied that its non-white citizens faced discrimination based on their physical appearance and proximity to blackness.

The excuses for the rejection of the affirmative action programs were typically Brazilian. As so many Brazilians were só accustomed to denying the very existence of racism, it would naturally follow that, if racism didn’t exist, 1) quotas based on race shouldn’t be necessary, 2) as the program would attempt to benefit black and brown Brazilians, it would also discriminate against white people and 3) introducing affirmative action policies would import a racial problem that existed in the United States but could not be applied to Brazil.

Two other popular arguments against the introduction of quotas in Brazil were that 1) by allowing students with lower scores on tests, it would lower the difficulty level of the courses to help lower-scoring students be able to keep up and 2) quotas based on race would be near impossible to implement in Brazil because of the difficulty of knowing who should be counted as black or white.

As I’ve alread written at length on all of these topics, I won’t re-address this here, but rather move on to the topic of today’s article. About two decades after universities started introducing quota programs, and hundreds of thousands of black and brown students having the opportunities to become the first in their families to attain college degrees, Brazil’s college campuses continue to be a place where non-white students feel a very lonely existence in terms of meeting other students who look like them.

In fact, when college courses are broken down by areas of studies, the racial disparities are as shocking as they were before the quota systems began. In courses such as medicine, law, engineering, economics, etc., the ratio of white to non-white can be 12, 10 and 8 white students for every black/brown students. I would argue that these disparities are probably even worse when we consider that a large percentage of the brown population may actually be considered white depending on one’s concept of blackness. This is one of the main reasons I disagreed with the idea that Brazil’s public universities now, somehow, have a black majority as was declared in the media back in 2019.

A few months back, one black woman confirmed that, three decades after her father graduated from medical school when he was one of a few black graduates of his class, things hadn’t changed much in recent years. As we see in the piece below, she is clearly not the only one who has this experience.

The Lonely Experience of Being Black in a Brazilian University

Thelminha, Luciana Barreto, Alberto Pereira Jr. and other black professionals share their experiences in the academic environment and report what it is like to occupy this still so uneven space

By Dandara Fonseca

The university environment is often synonymous with loneliness for black people. Entering a room and not being represented in your colleagues is a common situation in the life of those who can access this still so white space. Despite the quota policy adopted by some public universities, helping to reduce racial inequality in the academic environment, the scenario in private institutions and in courses considered elite is still very different.

One of the most visible ways of observing this discrepancy is in photos like the one that went viral with doctor Thelminha (Thelma Assis) in her university graduation. The winner of Big Brother Brasil 20 had no black classmate in her class. Luciana Barreto, journalist and anchor for CNN Brasil, was also a unique story in her course. “I understood myself as a black woman and realized the struggle that I had ahead in the corridors of PUC (Pontifícia Universidade Católica), because I had never had to deal with so many differences”, she says.

We invited Thelminha, Luciana, journalist Alberto Pereira Jr. and three other black professionals to share their experiences in the university environment with Trip.

Thelma Assis, 35 years old, anesthesiologist, classical dancer and BBB 20 winner with her graduating class

“Throughout my life, I was in several environments where I was the only black woman. It happened when I graduated as a classical dancer, which is an elite course, and in the two years of pre-university course, where I was a minority. I always felt uncomfortable with this situation, but at the same time I used this scenario as an incentive. I could be there making a difference, encouraging other people to occupy that space.

I entered PUC-SP (Pontifícia Universidade Católica-São Paulo) in 2006, with a 100% scholarship from ProUni. The medical campus was in Sorocaba and, of the hundred people who formed my class, I was the only black woman. Of the 600 students of the school, blacks didn’t come to ten. It is amazing how, in environments where we are the minority, we end up seeing ourselves in other black people and getting closer. Even though I didn’t have contact with all of them, it was a feeling of strengthening, of admiration.

I didn’t come to feel racial prejudice, the people at the university were well informed and welcomed me well. However, social inequality was disparate. It was possible to see it in the clothes, materials, books, realities. On vacation they traveled, they did things that were very much out of my reality.

As black people do not have access to medical universities, the job market reflects this structural side. Of all the teams I worked on, I was practically the only black anesthesiologist. I was very happy when I met another colleague, but there were few, I could count on my fingers. After BBB, I had the pleasure of being part of a group of 257 black doctors, which aims to strengthen and encourage more and more our participation in the profession.”

Alberto Pereira Jr., 33 years old, social artist, journalist and host of Trace Trends, a program about Afro-Brazilian culture at Rede TV (Credit: Personal archive)

“I studied my whole life in just one private school on the east side of São Paulo. In my office, I was one of three blacks in a class of almost 40 people. Parallel to high school, I was a computer technician at (the) Federal (university), where there were also few blacks. This pattern was maintained when I went to do journalism at Mackenzie, in 2004. In my class, of fifty students, we were five blacks. At the theater, where I graduated from Indac in 2018, out of a class of 20 students, I was the only one.

Even though I had lived these experiences since childhood, my awakening and my greater questioning of racial issues actually began in college, when I began to remove the naturalness and understand my place of access. My father and mother are university graduates, they struggled to provide a good education for me and my brother, it was a black family in socioeconomic ascension.

Being in that middle class, in a place that has more white people, is a life of neutralizations. Although I always understood myself as black, my mother shaved my hair when I was a child to make it more neutral. Of course, people knew I was black, but the hair cut and the clothes I wear ended up minimizing aspects of blackness. College was where I started to understand more about it, to wear black power (an afro), to go through a process of empowering who I was.

Jobs that deal with creativity, with art, are still very restricted for black people. I did a lot of artistic things in my childhood, but it was not something encouraged as a profession, it was more like a hobby. Because my parents’ concern was stability. It took a long time for me to be able to accept, understand and say that I am an artist.

At the time, experiencing all of this, I didn’t feel alone. But today I see how I didn’t look at several issues, like not feeling desired as a gay man, not feeling it possible to be loved by my surroundings, because it wasn’t like me.

I think the inclusion of black people has improved, but we are still far from ideal. Even more so in private universities, where access is very restricted. We have improved, but I feel that the way we are now we are going to regress, because, in addition to the affirmative policies that are being withdrawn, we need to have an incentive in basic education, which has not yet improved.”

Luciana Barreto, journalist and anchor for CNN Brasil, with her colleagues from the college Credit: Personal archive

“I started the journalism course at PUC-RJ in 1997. I entered through a social project that was called pre-university entrance exam for poor blacks. It was an initiative that PUC took on long before there were quotas or ProUni. In it, poor and peripheral students had a 100% scholarship. It started in 1996 and I was the third student to enter.

I was the only black student that year in the journalism course. At first, it was very difficult because I had a very big racial and social shock. I was a peripheral person, poor, in an elite college that had no blacks. On the first day of school, I was very bad because that environment was very strange for me. I remember I left the classroom and started to cry in the hall. And a classmate, Ana Julia – who, out of curiosity, is the girl for whom the band Los Hermanos wrote the song – came to console me. She hugged me and told me not to give up. Não que eu fosse.

At that first moment, this strangeness makes you retreat, but I can say that I found a great welcome. From PUC as a college, mainly from the coordinator of the course that organized these scholarships, Professor Augusto Sampaio, and colleagues. Soon I was able to understand that there were people there who didn’t know our demands, but who welcomed me very well, like the group of friends I still have today. It’s a group that gave me all kinds of support, books, snacks, clothes. And the emotional too. This was very strong and important for me to complete my course.

I understood myself as a black woman and realized the struggle that I had ahead in the corridors of PUC (Pontifícia Universidade Católica), because I had never had to deal with so many differences. It was by facing them that I started to build my own identity. I think that maybe it will make my activism very aggregating, an eternal attempt at unity for a cause. “

Pedro Borges, 28, journalist and one of the creators of the Alma Preta website Credit: Personal archive

I felt an enormous loneliness. I didn’t put out many things because I knew that my white colleagues would not understand. You end up stifling feelings inside you. In addition, racist jokes and comments were many and normal at the time.

For branquitude (whiteness), graduating from a university is a natural cycle of life. The person is born, enters a school and is already provoked about which major to take, which course. For black families, it’s something completely out of the curve, a novelty for us as a group. That’s why we try to be the best, to give value to this space.

In addition to liking sports, I have always been very much a pagodeiro and sambista (pagode/samba musician). In the academic environment, there is a thought that if the guy likes this type of music, he shouldn’t talk about politics. It’s like losing mental attributes. I was very discredited because of that. The question of self-esteem was difficult as well, because you are in a space whose standards are as white as possible.

I participated, with some other people, in the creation of the Unesp black collective. The mobilizations started in 2014 and it was my first contact with the racial issue from a political point of view. It was essential to understand how race is a fundamental determining factor in politics, economics and everyday life in Brazil. I have very good memories of Bauru, a lot learned from this engagement, but I also have sad memories of the city. A good part of them pass through the racial marker.

Today the situation has improved because Unesp adopted the quota policy. At the end of last year, I participated in a debate in Bauru and the blacks represented about 15% of the auditorium. There were technically few, and I thought it was great. Because from there they built a much larger network of solidarity and support.”

Sophia de Mattos, 24, journalist (Credit: Personal archive)

“I studied journalism at Faculdade São Judas, where I had worked at Enem. But my dream was always to go to Cásper Líbero. My parents did a task force to manage to pay for college, because it wasn’t my reality.

When I got there, in 2016, I was really surprised. Although not coming to half, in São Judas there were still more black people. At Cásper, no. I am a black person with dark skin and in my office there were two black women with lighter skin. I still remember the look they had when they saw me.

Because I was black and came from another college, people were always trying to prove if I really deserved to be there. I had several conflicts with groups and ended up even questioning myself. Michelle Obama says that black people are so much made to be inferior that, when they have the opportunity to have a better education, they think that white people are more intelligent, because your whole life you hear this. When you enter, you realize that you can be as good or better than them. It took time for me to create that self-esteem.

Black collective of Cásper the Africásper (Credit: Personal archive)

My experience totally changed after I started to be part of the black collective of Cásper, Africásper. The best thing about being part of a black collective at an elite college is that you recognize yourself. It’s the same fight, the same look, the same history. Everyone came from a private school that only had you as a black woman, without reference. And then we became each other’s reference.

Until today, the inclusion of blacks in Cásper has not improved, it’s quite stagnant. The scholarship process is still very bureaucratic, there are no quotas and no financial agreement. You’re just another person who has to pay the whole monthly fee, there is no such racial aspect.”

Fábio Rocha Ferreira, 30, Architect and Urbanist (Credit: Personal archive)

“My mother is a domestic worker and I was born and raised in the house where she worked. When I decided to do architecture and urbanism, I was aware that it was an elitist course, but my desire was greater than that. I entered Mackenzie in 2009 with a 100% scholarship from ProUni. At the time, there was no course at night, where I saw a slightly larger presence of black people. In my afternoon, in all semesters, it was just me and one more colleague.

At first I closed myself off a lot, and it was something that I only realized afterwards. I didn’t participate in a prank because I was afraid that I was an easy target for mockery, more than other people. At parties, I was afraid to have a lot of fun and lose control, I didn’t know what was going to happen. These deprivations that a white person would never think twice about in my case were constant.

People never said anything racist to me directly, there were always more veiled issues. For example, I remember that I heard people complaining about employees several times throughout the training in a derogatory way. I felt hatred when they talked about who served them, like the doorman, the maid. It was also discussed a lot the related things to the architecture that each student had, to which place in the world they had traveled, and I was floating. What kind of experience would I have telling you where I came from?

I was surprised when I heard that there is now a black collective at Mackenzie, (called) Afromack. It gave me a lot of pride and the feeling I have is that the number of black people in college has increased. But, as there is a limit on scholarships and, unfortunately, in Brazil the social is linked to the racial, it is very difficult for a black family to have enough purchasing power to pay for such an expensive college.”

Source: Revista Trip

About Marques Travae 3696 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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