Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s piece provides us with the latest example of how racial tensions continue to heat up in Brazil. Back in March, we presented a report about a group of black students invading an Economics class in Brazil’s top university, USP, and initiating a debate about racial inequalities in Brazil. The reaction to that act threw yet another log in the fire of the racial conflict that has been brewing in Brazil over the past decade and a half since the country’s universities began to experiment with a system of racial quotas. Now for the sake of clarity, we aren’t implying that racism only started in Brazil since the implementation of affirmative action policies, as one journalist would have us believe. But rather that, opposite from Brazil’s decades long method of pushing racism under the rug and blatantly denying it, the direct confrontation with its manifestations by members of the Movimento Negro (black social movement) is bringing the issue to the forefront in ways that simply didn’t happen very often only a few short decades ago.
In the past, racist insults and actions were sort of just accepted as a part of Brazilian society even though it often humiliated black Brazilians who sometimes attempted to downplay its dehumanizing psychological effects by ignoring it, denying that race was at the center of such hate-filled comments and actually having no reaction at all. Nowadays, more and more Afro-Brazilians are standing up, speaking out, winning settlements, protesting and taking demands for respect of black life to the streets!
Rejection against the growing presence of black bodies on Brazil’s finest university campuses has been relentless almost since the beginning of affirmative action policies. We’ve seen fire bombing of dorm rooms occupied by African immigrants. Racist graffiti against black professors and black students as well as more subtle methods of showing annoyance of black presence, leading some black students to come up with quite inventive ways of addressing the issue.
Yes, racism has always existed in Brazil, but the society has always expected black Brazilians to silently accept such treatment. We see this in the fact that rather than white, elite classes addressing issues such as black invisibility on TV and in film and modeling runways, virtual lock outs and disrespect in politics, police violence that disproportionately affects black youth and racist graffiti (things that are concrete examples of a racist society), they instead react to the repudiation of black students. It is typical of a Brazil constructed upon a white privilege that its beneficiaries (many of whom have ancestors who also benefited from a quota system) don’t like to admit all the while reacting against policies that would that could usher in an actual racial democracy that they have falsely believed in for so long.
“You all even owe us your soul”
By Leopoldo Duarte
Last week a video of an intervention in a classroom at USP (University of São Paulo) went viral. In it we see the fearless straight talk from a member of the Coletivo Negro (black collective) responsible for the act. Throughout the video, motivated by a series of racist graffiti in a campus bathroom, are demands for respect and condemnations to the students and white society that are silent in the face of repeated discriminatory acts; inside and outside of the university. And as was to be expected this affront to the heirs of the Casa Grande (big house/slave master’s house) could not go unpunished. Virtual overseers immediately penetrated the lives of the three girls and exposed them in the new square of public backlash: Facebook.
The speech, with no uncertain terms, of the black representative caused greater outrage than with graffiti from July that motivated it all. Phrases like: “preto deve morrer” (black must die), “preto é escravo” (the black is slave) and “fora macacos lugar de negro é na senzala” (get out monkeys, the place of blacks is in the slave quarters) produced very few manifestations in besides the views of the anti-racism blogosphere. The fact that three black women had “the arrogance” of entering one of the most traditional institutions of the country, to question a “meritocratic” system – which since its foundation ensures a majority share of vacancies to eurodescendentes (descendants of Europeans) – caused an extremely disproportionate commotion when on compares it to the racist vandalism that ended up passando em branco (going by blank or unnoticed). The offended group, shouting an “enough” became the target of new attacks.
However, of all the discourse, the speech that generated the most uncomfortable was: “Vocês nos devem até a alma” (You all even owe us your soul). Countless memes and jokes were made from the most superficial interpretation of it. Not only because white people refuse to accept any responsibility for the racist legacy of their ancestors who, even today, put them in a position of aesthetic, moral ad intellectual superiority compared with other ethnic groups, as also because white people – and embranquecidas (those who are whitened) – comfortably forget that the history of oppression began with the argument that black people were not human beings because they lacked “souls”. In other words, beyond the immeasurable moral and economic debt that white society has with black people, history tells us that Europeans also robbed the souls of Africans.
Since all wealth and luxury constructed in Brazil owed itself – and still owes itself – to the cost of sacrifice and exploitation of black lives, it is no wonder that this multitude that defends or judges itself as the intellectual elite of the country has such difficulty recognizing this historical debt. There seems to be an enormous bright flash in the Brazilian historic question of black people; a memory lapse about the debt that the governments of Europe and the Americas have with the continent and the lives that they looted and vilified in the name of “progress” of European civilization. Maybe all those disgusted have forgotten that after centuries of the cruelest abuses and the end of slavery, the Brazilian government didn’t indemnify the former slaves, but did indemnify the former slaveholders for the loss generated.
Before anyone will use the Jewish Holocaust in order to say that demanding any kind of compensation is victimhood, I suggest reading this text on the measures taken by the German government in an attempt bear the historical responsibility of Nazism. Obviously no money will be enough to compensate all the suffering caused, but the effort becomes valid for punishing, even if symbolically, the society behind the official rulers.
In case it hasn’t become evident thus far, there is indeed a real debt of the state and of Brazilian society with all the descendants of enslaved Africans. Not only because many profited from slavery and the animalization of these black ancestors, but also for the sake of justice.
It’s also worth remembering that if today there is a law of quotas in universities for black people it was not by an act of conscience and generosity of the Brazilian state, but because black activists politically demanded this kind of affirmative action. Racial quotas represent the beginning of a long-delayed and ignored recantation. They symbolize the beginning of a long way until the descendants of enslaved Africans and the rest of society, one day, enjoy equal opportunity to succeed, since racism makes white people with the same education of their black colleagues statistically receive 47% more than them.
However, despite the law of quotas in universities being an achievement already legalized, demonstrations of historical ignorance and racism as those observed relative to the video/protest and reluctance of part of the population in relation to them reveal that the legal inclusion of black people in environments, before exclusive to the white elite, still cause a huge discomfort. Racist graffiti, which have become increasingly common in public and private universities, and the collective silence in relation to them end up thus exemplifying the huge gap between the discourse of racial democracy and acceptance of legal measures to ensure the realization of this ideal long term.
Finally it is necessary to point out that it is useless to utilize foreign travel of one of the activists in the video to disqualify her as oppressed. Systems of oppression don’t require individual choices to work nor do exceptions disqualify the rules. Regardless of a black person having good economic conditions or having been elected president of the largest military and financial power in the world, racism overwhelms all democratically; even those black people who persist in believing that we live in a country of non-racists; because racism and discrimination are based on phenotype and not by social class. #OChoroÉLivre (The cry is free)
Source: Revista Fórum