Psychologist and psychotherapist Maria Lúcia da Silva discusses the effects of racism and whiteness on mental health, identity and self-image of Afro-Brazilians

black women Brazil

Psychologist and psychotherapist Maria Lúcia da Silva discusses the psychic conflicts that involve racism and discusses how prejudice is reflected in the lives of blacks in Brazil

By Flavio Carrança

The racism that permeates Brazilian society has very negative consequences for the population of African descent. Despite the lack of specific statistical data, some data allow a glimpse into  the scope of the problem. The percentage of black men and women admitted to psychiatric hospitals of São Paulo exceeds by more than 10% the weight of this segment in the overall population. According to the IBGE Census of 2000, blacks and browns (Afro-Brazilians) are just over 27% of the state’s total population. But according to the Census of Psychosocial Residents in Psychiatric Hospitals in the state of São Paulo, conducted by the Department of Health in 2008, they represent more than 38% of the population living in these establishments. On the other hand, whites represent 69% of the São Paulo population but occupy about 61% of the vacancies in psychiatric hospitals. How can we explain these differences?

In the study, Discriminação racial e preconceito de cor no Brasil (Racial discrimination and color prejudice in Brazil), conducted in 2003 by Fundação Perseu Abramo (Perseus Abramo Foundation or FPA), which interviewed nearly 5,000 Brazilian adults, 12% of preta (black) respondents and 10% of parda (brown) pointed to depression as third highest disease that most affected relatives. In the article, O Dilema da Saúde da coletânea Racismo no Brasil: percepções da discriminação e do preconceito racial no século XXI (The Dilemma of Health from the Racism in Brazil collection: perceptions of racial discrimination and prejudice in the twenty-first century) (Abramo Perseus Publishing, 2005), which analyzes the results of this research, psychologist Maria Palmira Silva reports: “As soon as the person interviewed could respond to which were the health issues that most concerned them, spontaneously they indicated the designated ‘psychological problems’ in the list of diseases that was constructed.”

With the objective of discussing and pointing out ways to solve these kinds of problems was held from October 13 to 15, 2010, in the Department of Psychology and Social Work affiliated with the Institute of Psychology at USP in São Paulo, the I PSINEP – Encontro Nacional de Psicólogos (as) Negros (as) e Pesquisadores sobre Relações Inter-raciais e Subjetividade no Brasil (National Encounter of Black Psychologists and Researchers on Interracial Relations and Subjectivity in Brazil). The event featured conferences, round tables, working groups, scientific studies, panels with the audience focus on black and white psychologists and researchers. Before the event, according to psychologist and psychotherapist Maria Lúcia da Silva: “The idea is to do a mapping of works that are being or have been developed in the field of Psychology and racism to be presented during these three days. We want also to build a national network of black psychologists and researchers to think about public policy in the area of ​​Mental Health.”

In the following interview, Lúcia, who is also directing president of the Instituto AMMA Psique e Negritude (AMMA Psyche and Negritude Institute), an organization that integrates the Executive Secretariat of the Event, talks about this subject that is at the center of her activity as a Psychology professional and a militant of the Movimento Negro (black movement).


“Racism needs to be incorporated as a demand. Blacks who have access to psychotherapy want and need to have this issue taken into consideration”

Psique: Why bring black psychologists together?

Maria Lúcia da Silva: First, it is necessary that the category incorporates racism as a demand, since blacks who have access to psychotherapy want and need to take this issue into consideration. Second, if you do not have an ear for taking into account racism as something that belongs to that subject, you will not be able to incorporate complaints that the patient brings of problems that are connected to race. For example, a recurring comment, a common finding in some psychiatric patients, is the issue of the incorporation of spiritual manifestations common to the religions of African origin, that the Psychiatrist or Psychologist hears as an hallucination. He does not understand it as something that is part of the culture of the subject. It is important that psychiatrists and psychologists understand, for example, that racism often leads to madness and, if that happens, the comments of this subject will be permeated with references to their culture, whether religion, dance, music, whatever. It’s necessary to know how learn to listen and understand these issues. Moreover, like any black, the black psychologist is affected by racial issues and, therefore, the meeting also has the perspective not only looking at the productions, but also to see how this psychologist is and what the demands are that he has. It is important to know what he needs, whether from the point of view of professional training (for example, with the necessity of producing research that addresses this issue and interventions that take into account the psychosocial setting of racism), being from the personal viewpoint, for example, when there are barriers to the professional success caused by racism.

Psique: How does racism affect people psychologically? What kind of problems do prejudice and discrimination usually cause?

Maria Lúcia: We would have to think that racism in itself and humiliating situations provoke a state of suffering directly linked to identity and performance as a person. Racism reaches the subject in that that constitutes him/her, therefore, thinking of the issue of Psychology and racism is thinking about the level of suffering that the subject has. We are in a country where racism is subtle: beyond the initial suffering, it will also cause certain doubts: ‘Did I suffer racism? Is this happening, or is it not happening?’ Because things are not clear, they are not explicit, they are not assumed. They happen by a look, by body language, by not touching or by an unpleasant touch. It’s not clear, no one comes up to you and says: ‘I don’t like you because you’re black.’ Or: ‘I won’t serve you because you’re black. Such subtlety also promotes some distortions in the subject’s understanding of the experience itself that they’re having. It includes people saying this: ‘Ah, you’re paranoid, you think everything is racism’. It turns out that it really is! They experience situations that are not clear, but are recurrent. You can’t adapt yourself to them very clearly and that creates the image of an eternally persecuted subject.

If we think of the development process, racism promotes certain symptoms that will be linked to the construction of identity, the construction of self-image. It will attack the subject prioritizing their demoralization. It humiliates and puts people at a disadvantage, of incompetence. If we think of the stereotypes and the social imaginary, this will also affect the subject in the development process. Often the disqualifying messages will bring doubts about their competence to deal with life, with the everyday or with actual situations of racial discrimination.

Psique: And the issue of the incorporation of a white image on a black person, what problems does it generate?

Maria Lúcia: Why does the subject want to be white and not want to be black? I’m used to saying that we are inextricably linked to the racial question. Our parents experienced situations of racism and often have a deprecating view of themselves, a self-devaluating view. And this baby is born will also carry the load that parents experienced. Often the first experiences with racism happen in our homes, in function of the stories of our parents. Another thing: since the social imaginary is permeated with negative images of blacks (lazy, stupid, intellectually inferior, bad smell), these elements will be incorporated into daily life and nobody wants to look like that. Nor is it clearly said: ‘You are you stupid, you are ugly,’ but somehow the childhood experiences will put us in front of these experiences, in schools, on the street with friends. The images broadcast by television, the magazines, the radio, the police programs also end up carrying the image of blacks with these extremely negative stereotypes. In images of misdemeanors displayed on television you have, repeatedly, blacks with a depreciative image, which makes you think that it’s not good to look like this, contributing to your desire for embranquecimento (whitenening).

Besides this, our society has as a model, as a standard of beauty, the white person. My image is constituted in the way that I relate to my parents, my friends, my teachers and also from what I read, what I see. Also I can see, often times, from a family where recurrently I have information that it’s not good to be black or that I need to straighten your hair for me to be well accepted, a series of information making me recognize this image as not positive.


“It’s important that psychiatrists and psychologists understand, for example, racism that often leads to madness.”

Psique: So there exists a psychological problem generated by this standard of whiteness?

Maria Lúcia: Yes, I think there are image distortions of the two groups. On the one hand, generally, blacks incorporate an image of inferiority, on the other, whites incorporate an image of superiority. The two images are distorted. The difference is that one is overtaking the other. There are advantages of whites finding themselves superior, because this makes it so that they have a different path in society than blacks and also because they end up having privileges on the basis of their whiteness. Now, the distortions are placed for both, because racism will affect whites and blacks.

Psique: Are Brazilian psychologists adequately qualified to address this issue?

Maria Lúcia: That’s what we want to see. We know that the category of psychologists is dispersive, although we have the Councils. The very character of Psychology, individualistic in its constitution, which has a clinical and office view, etc. makes the category a little dispersive. On the other hand, it’s the first time that there is a proposal to bring together black psychologists to think about the race issue and bringing psychologists up to date. For us it’s a challenge, first know who psychologists blacks are, where they are, what they are doing and what their demands are in terms of training. So that they can act from psychosocial standpoint: so that they think, that they incorporate in their practice racism as something that makes you suffer. All psychologists should incorporate this, but, like society, we know that many of them think that racism does not exist. We have a society that denies the existence of racism and therefore there are some psychologists, for more than having common sense, still fail to realize that it is part of the culture of the country, that Brazil is founded on racial violence.

Psique: Psychology has a history that has gone through the acceptance of racist doctrines. You could trace, synthetically, an evolutionary line until we reach this point of psychologists coming together to discuss combating racism?

Maria Lúcia: No science goes through hygienists theories unscathed. All of them, without exception, have incorporated a white model in detriment of a multicultural vision that accepts  other ethnicities as groups that contributed to the construction of the thinking of mankind. Psychology has not been exempt from this. But there was the action of social movements. Particularly in our case, the Movimento Negro brought and explained to society, through indicators and concrete examples, the experiences, thee cases of humiliation and racism, the need to reflect on this question. And in that sense, also Psychology, from modernity, begins to see groups with different eyes. Psychologists have come to think of themselves as a category that needs to see the subject in another way. Moving toward a view of diversity and thinking of what role Psychology has in building a more egalitarian and humanist society.

Besides this, there is a concrete action of black psychologists within the Regional Councils of Psychology and the Federal Council of Psychology, bringing systematically the necessity for incorporating this theme as a necessary subject. This action has reaped rewards because, in 2002, a norm from the Federal Council of Psychology regarding the race issue came out (CFP RESOLUTION No. 018/2002), which requires the psychologist not to perform or engage in situations of racial discrimination, and to intervene if he/she witnesses any. Thus, in the same year, there was even a campaign with the slogan: “Preconceito Racial Humilha, a Humilhação Social faz Sofrer (Racial Prejudice Humiliates, Social Humiliation makes one suffer)”, accompanied by a recommendation to all psychologists to rethink their actions from the perspective of the racial question. Thus, there was already the beginning of this dialogue that will be expanded at the Meeting, which will outline strategies so that psychology contributes to a society with racial equality.


Psique: Should psychological problems generated by racism sbe considered public health problems and therefore covered by the Sistema Único de Saúde (Unified Health System or SUS) (1)?

Maria Lúcia: Yes. We are used to saying that blacks are “SUS-dependent.” This means that the only alternative that the majority of the black population has is SUS services. This is another reason why we need to have this meeting: to be able to think about how to intervene in public policy so that professionals in the area of Psychology are trained to understand, and take a more trustworthy listen to the black subject. How does one think of these actions? How do you demand capacitation? Along with this category, thinking of what kind of training these professionals must have to incorporate into their everyday that it’s necessary to look at the subject in his/her entirety, immersed in their culture. And also think of Brazil as a racist country and that racism sickens and makes one suffer.

“Just like the society, we know that many professionals in the area, even blacks, believe that racism does not exist.”

Psique: One of the achievements of the Movimento Negro in recent years has been the development of a National Policy on Comprehensive Health of the Black Population. Does this consider the questions you brought up?

Maria Lucia: Policies are always ample, but it is up to us to make them manifest in everyday life. What we realized is that politics has advanced in the pathologies in which, minimally, you have some indicators. We don’t have indicators in the area of ​​Mental Health, we have virtually no data that can support a more effective action. In 2009, a Psychosocial Census of the state of São Paulo where important data appears came out: the number of black psychiatric patients in São Paulo is 38% greater than the weight of this population in the state, which already gives us an indication of increased incidence of psychiatric illness within the black population and makes us understand this data as a psychosocial consequence of racism.


Psique: How and what made the NGO AMMA Psique e Negritude come about?


Maria Lúcia: The AMMA Institut is the first black organization that specifically incorporates the issue of racism and Psychology. Our work has always had this psychosocial outline. The Institute began in 1995 with four black psychologists thinking of building strategies for the deconstruction of internalized racism. We founded the NGO with this perspective, of being able to think of, first, how does this work, and second, how to develop a strategy of deconstruction. Thinking of black self-esteem is to think of the development process and how racism undermines the construction of a positive image about one’s self. How it impedes a more harmonious relationship with others and leads the subject to stop liking him/herself, to self-devaluation due to the constant stereotypes that he/she experiences throughout life. We are born with this perspective and work with this until today. We administer courses that plan to expand training in several states, so that people know how to deal with racism in public and private institutions, and we also work with individuals and groups in order to re-frame interracial relations, appreciating black identity and regulating equality between different social groups.

1. The Sistema Único de Saúde (or Unified Health System) is Brazil’s publicly funded health care system. SUS was created after the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, which assured that health care is a “right of all and an obligation of the State”. A recent report by the Relatório Anual de Saúde (Annual Health Report) revealed that 70% of users of the SUS health system are Afro-Brazilians.

Source: Psique Ciência e Vida

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About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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