Note from BBT: It’s no secret that affirmative action policies have made a huge difference in Brazil in allowing tens of thousands of black and brown Brazilians attain a college education that just a few decades ago was simply not a real possibility. The campuses for colleges and universities across the country were considered places that only white or near white people had access to. And this exclusivity in turn played out in the bodies that filled the most important positions of employment throughout the society. Still today, while Brazil continues to promote itself as a country with one of the most physically diverse population of people, this diversity is still not reflected in areas such as business, the media, law, politics, medicine and countless other areas.
Truth be told, even as quotas have opened the door to non-white students than ever before in Brazil’s history, for the most part, this inequality is still pretty much the norm. This is expected as quotas only started to be implemented, now two decades ago. The fact that most important of society continue to be dominated by persons who consider themselves white is simply affirmation of just how long and widespread such inequality has existed.
Although law and medical schools began to appear in Brazil in the 19th century, the first universities would only begin to appear in the early 20th century. With the enslaved having been long prohibited from learning to read and write, one can imagine how rare it was to see any non-white people attending law or medical schools or universities. It was only in 1960 that Brazil’s top university, Universidade de São Paulo had its first black student, and seeing non-white faces continued to be the standard for decades afterward.
In 2019, news reports declared that for the first time in the nation’s history, black students had become the majority in the nation’s public universities. I received this news with a grain of salt for a number of reasons. We know that race is not something written in stone in Brazil so seeing the term “black majority” in terms of university student bodies can be as misleading as it is to declare Brazil a majority black nation.
Whatever the true figures of black university students and graduates is, it cannot be denied that the country has made great strides in opening the doors of higher education institutions to non-white students. But in the same way that a sprinter would be far behind a competitor that got a fifty yard head start, true inequality across the board is still perhaps decades away, especially when we break down the numbers according to race and the more prestigious disciplines such as medicine, engineering, finances and law. When entering these particular fields, black and brown students reveal that it seems as if nothing has changed.
As such, stories such as the one below in which a black woman was one of the few black people in her graduating class, a similar experience that her father had, will continue to be the norm for decades to come. But as the old saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles must start with that first step.
“My father was one of the only blacks in medical school; it was the same with me”
By Ricardo Senra
The white colorisn’t just on the walls, beds, coats and corridors of hospitals and offices in Brazil.
“My father was one of the only blacks in medical school. It was him, a man and a woman in a class of 80 people,” says Dr. Juliana Estevão de Oliveira, graduated in 2010 from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).
“At my graduation party, 32 years later, there were 160 students and the scenario was the same.
Despite the reduction of inequality in universities in recent decades, the more than 30 years that separate the graduations of the rare family of black doctors in Minas Gerais, it illustrate the racial abyss and the blackout of information in one of the most valued and well-paid professions in the country.
Today a resident of ophthalmology at the Hospital das Clínicas of the Federal University of Bahia, in Salvador, Juliana says that “her father spent 6 years practically with no sleep” until he became the first person in the family to earn a college degree.
“He worked until dawn doing check clearing at the Caixa Econômica Federal. From there he spent the whole day in college, because the course was full-time”.
While courses at public universities are traditionally the most difficult and highly disputed in the country, tuition at private schools that are equally competitive today can exceed R$ 13,000 a month.
“Today, even with this effort, he could never graduate with the salary he had,” says the doctor who, unlike her father, was able to study in good schools, dedicate herself fully to the course of medicine and start working only at 27, already having graduated.
“The history at home is proof that a black man who ascends makes the whole family ascend,” she says. “In my generation, of my grandfather’s grandchildren, all of us today have a college degree”.
Today, Juliana is part of the first association of black doctors and students of medicine in Brazil, Iluma, Instituto Luiza Mahin, created to gather professionals from all over the country and develop projects to reduce racial inequality in medicine.
Founded last year, the group has just launched a program of funding, support and guidance for black students to complete their university education.
“The idea is to guarantee financial resources for black and poor medical students. We seek donors to guarantee scholarships of BRL 400 per month. It may seem little, but it’s a lot for those who are leaving school because they don’t have anything to eat or because they can’t buy books”.
Sought for this report, neither the Ministry of Education nor the Federal Council of Medicine say they have consolidated data on the percentage of black graduates in medicine in the country.
But a study by the University of São Paulo published in 2018 illustrates the disparity in the profession.
While 56% of Brazilians declare themselves preto or pardo (black or brown), according to the IBGE, only 18% of Brazilian doctors are from this group, according to the study.
But if black doctors are a minority in the country, black patients represent the overwhelming majority of users of the Unified Health System (SUS, Brazil’s national health care system) and account for 76% of patients and 81% of hospitalizations in the SUS, according to IBGE.
“There are students who live withon BRL 300 per person in the family, per month. It’s a miracle to study like this”, says the doctor. Besides the economic difference, the “racial shock for black students is huge”, she explains.
“Many of these students live on the outskirts (of cities) and live mainly with black people. So sometimes for the first time in their lives, they are surrounded by white students and catch themselves being the so-called ‘only black’ for the first time. They stand out because of the way they talk, the way they dress, the music they listen to. The person feels isolated and has no one to share this silent tension with”.
Son of a seleiro (craftsman who works with leather) born in 1892, shortly after the abolition of slavery, Juarez Estevão de Oliveira, Juliana’s father, came from the interior of Minas Gerais to a relative’s house in a favela slum of Belo Horizonte.
“They were so poor that they couldn’t afford to take a hot bath,” says Juliana.
Probably the first freed man in the family, grandfather died in 1992 at the age of 100.
“I was unfortunately still too young to be curious about racial issues, so I couldn’t talk about it with him,” she laments.
Besides the low number of black colleagues at graduations, Juliana compares the family photos at the graduation parties of the two generations.
“The difference is absurd. At my father’s graduation, he and my mother were very cheerful, with a smile on their faces and their chest pumped out. The rest of the family, the brothers and my grandfather seem ashamed, looking down, with a restrained smile”.
She explains: “Of course they were dying with joy to see the relative graduating. But racism is something enormous and puts the black person who shows feelings as someone embarassing, as someone who doesn’t know how to act. So, even euphoric, my relatives closed themselves off in this way”.
“In my photos, you see the difference,” she continues. “Everybody smiling, everybody looking at the camera”.
Juliana celebrates the “clear change” of posture.
“We are saying ‘I can, I achieved it, I am here and I have the right to shout and celebrate as I want'”.
Racial Diversity in Medicine
The goal of Iluma’s funding program is to ensure “financial resources and mentoring” for low-income black medical students.
Mentoring, which includes monitoring academic activities, grades and performance, is done by black doctors and physicians.
“We work to ensure means for the person to move forward and graduate,” explains Juliana Oliveira.
Monthly donations of BRL 400 can be made by anyone willing to contribute to the increase of racial diversity in medicine.
Officially launched in December 2019, during a solemnity in the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo, the association aims to promote and ensure equity of political, educational, social and economic rights for the black population.
Among the institute’s objectives are the search for “economic sustainability” for this part of the population, the defense of free and quality education and health, the fight against “systematic imprisonment of the black population,” “political representativeness as an essential condition for the exercise of the right to vote,” and the “fostering of the engagement of black youth and young adults in the antiracist struggle.
Of the 209.2 million Brazilians, according to the IBGE’s National Survey of Household Sample (Pnad), 19.2 million declared themselves preto (black) and 89.7 million presented themselves as pardo (brown).
Data referring to 2018, divulged in November 2019 by IBGE, showed that, for the first time in history, the number of preto and pardo students in Brazilian public colleges surpassed that of white students: 50.3% of preto and pardo against 49.7% of brancos (white people).
Although it is not yet reflected in the most competed for courses, such as medicine, the conquest, according to the IBGE, is a direct result of the policy of racial quotas in public universities.
Despite having exceeded the number of whites in public colleges, the majority of preto (66.86%) and pardo (73.54%) Brazilian university students study in private colleges, according to data from 2018 by Inep.
“You don’t live, you don’t know”
Juliana says that being born into a family with good financial conditions brought undeniable advantages, but didn’t make her trajectory equal to that of her white professional colleagues.
“Racial tension has been present everywhere, from university to the present day”.
During the interview, the doctor lists a series of racist episodes she’s experienced throughout her career.
“It happens a lot because I wear an afro today, which blatantly exposes my race and my political position because wearing a black power (afro) is a political gesture,” she says.
Besides racist comments about her appearance, Juliana illustrates the barriers in the profession by the absence of personal protective equipment designed for black professionals.
“For example, the cap we all wear in procedures. There is no cap for a black doctor. There is no medical cap that fits an afro, dreadlocks, braids. Nothing.”
Juliana’s are made to order in satin.
“When they found out, my colleagues said they never thought about the difficulty of black surgeons’ caps.”
She explains, “You don’t live, you don’t know.”