Sueli Carneiro is the founder of Geledés, a black women’s organization which intertwines concerns of race and gender, and addresses the particular problems confronted by women of color in Brazil.
Geledés’s focus is to take action on health, violence, and legal assistance and to produce data that will support evidence of discrimination against black women. In addition to her work with Geledés, Sueli was coordinator of the program on black women for the Brazilian National Council of Women’s rights. She was an organizer of the first National Meeting of Black Women in 1988, and collaborated with the Brazilian Bar Association in organizing five seminars for the Winnie Mandela Tribunal. Topics included black women and the workforce, black women and violence, reproduction and demographic dynamics, the representation of black women, and black women and legislation. Prior to her work on the National Council of Women’s Rights, Sueli had undertaken similar work on the state level as executive committee member and secretary general of the Sao Paulo State Council on the Condition of Women. She builds bridges between social movements, dialogues with public policy makers, and forges new directions for the socio-cultural and political rights of black women in the Brazilian landscape.
Rendering feminism blacker: The situation of black women in Latin America from a gender perspective by Sueli Carneiro
We are all only too aware of the historical conditions that constructed the relationship in the Americas which reduced blacks in general, and black women in particular, to things material. And we know that in all situations of conquest and domination of one human group over another, the sexual appropriation of the women of the defeated group by the victors is one of the emblematic moments of affirmation of the victorious group’s superiority.
In Brazil and in Latin America, the colonial indecent assault committed by the white masters against black and indigenous women and the resultant miscegenation, is the source of all the constructions concerning our national identity; in effect it has structured the celebrated myth of Latin-American racial democracy which Brazil has taken to the extreme. This colonial sexual violence also lays the foundation for all the hierarchies of gender and race that exist in our societies, configuring that which Angela Gilliam has defined as “the great theory of the sperm in the national formation.” According to this theory of Gilliam:
1. The role of black women in the formation of national culture is rejected;
2. Inequality between men and women is eroticized; and
3. Sexual violence against black women is romanticized (1)
Those tales or recollections of the colonial period which could be considered as such, remain, however, alive in the social imagery and are renewed and acquire a new external appearance and new functions within a social order that is supposedly democratic, but which maintains intact the roles instituted for gender relations, according to color or race, during the period of slavery.
Black women had a differentiated historical experience, which the classic discourse about the oppression of women did not take into account. It also did not take into account the qualitative difference of the oppression suffered by black women and the effect which it had – and still has – on the feminine identity of black women.
When we talk about the myth of feminine fragility that historically justified men’s paternalistic protection of women, to which women are we referring?
We, black women, form part of a contingent of women – probably the majority – who have never recognized in themselves this myth, because they were never treated as fragile. We form part of a contingent of women that worked during centuries as slaves in the agricultural fields or in the streets as road vendors and prostitutes. Women who did not understand when the feminists said that women should take to the streets and work!
We form part of a contingent of women who have an identity of object. Yesterday, at the service of fragile young ladies and noble silly masters. Today, the domestic workers of liberated women.
When we talk about destroying the myth of the queen of the home, of the worshipped muse of the poets, which women are we talking about? Black women form part of a contingent of women who are queens of nothing, who are portrayed as the anti-muse of Brazilian society, because the aesthetic model of a woman is to be found in white women. We form part of a contingent of women for whom the words “good appearance required” in offers of employment are tantamount to saying that black women should not apply.
Therefore, for us a feminist perspective is called for; one in which gender is a theoretical variable that as Alcoff and Potter state, “cannot be separated from other axes of oppression” and is also “not susceptible to only a single type of analysis. If feminism is to liberate women, it should confront virtually all types of oppression”(2).
From this point of view it would be possible to say that a black feminism built upon the context of multiracial, pluricultural and racist societies – as are the societies of Latin America – has as its main articulating axis, racism and its impact on gender relations, given that it determines the actual hierarchy of gender to be found in our societies.
The unity of women’s struggle in our societies depends, in general, not only on our own capacity to overcome the inequalities generated by the historical masculine hegemony, but also requires that we surmount the complementary ideologies of this system of oppression, as is the case with racism. Racism establishes the social inferiority of blacks in general, and of black women in particular, and it operates as a divisive factor in the struggle of women to obtain the privileges that have been instituted for white women.
From this perspective, the struggle of black women against gender and race oppression has outlined a new configuration for feminist and anti-racist political actions, enriching both discussions of the racial issue, and the issue of gender. This new feminist and anti-racist contemplation joins the tradition of struggle of the black movements as well as the struggle of the women’s movement, and affirms this new political identity which derives from the specific condition of being a woman and being black. The current movement of black women, in bringing to the political scene the contradictions resulting from the articulation of the variables of race, class and gender, promotes the synthesis of the struggle banners traditionally raised by the black and women’s movements of the country, rendering blacker, on the one hand, feminist demands in order to make them more representative of all Brazilian women, and on the other, promoting the feminization of the proposals and demands of the black movement.
The rendering blacker of the Brazilian feminist movement has effectively signified the demarcation and institution within the agenda of the women’s movement of the importance which the racial issue has, for example, for the following: the configuration of demographic policies; the characterization of violence against women – introducing the concept of racial violence as a determining factor of the forms of violence suffered by half of the country’s feminine population which is non-white; the introduction of ethnic/racial diseases or diseases that mainly afflict the black population, as fundamental issues in the formulation of public policies in the area of health; and the inclusion in the criticism of the selection mechanisms in the labor market the concept of “good appearance” as an element that perpetuates the inequalities between, and privileges of, white and black women.
The aspects of ethics and eugenics brought about by advances made in the investigative field of biotechnology and in particular of genetic engineering should be studied and acted upon politically. A concrete example of this can be found in the issues of health and population. If historically genocidal practices such as police violence, the extermination of children and the lack of social policies that ensure the exercising of basic rights of citizenship have been the main action policy focus of the black movements, the problems raised by the topics of health and population place us within a framework that is perhaps more alarming still in relation to the risk of genocide of the black people in Brazil. We find ourselves in a new context. To the reduction in the population, which has come about by virtue of massive sterilization, allied to the progression of AIDS as well as the use of drugs among our population we have to add the threats represented by new biotechnologies, in particular genetic engineering, with the possibilities which it offers for eugenic practices which constitute new and alarming aspects of genocide, against which the whole of the black movement will have to act.
The importance of these issues for the populations considered to be disposable – as the blacks are – and the rising interest shown by international bodies in the control of the growth of such populations, has led the movement of black women to develop an internationalist struggle perspective. This internationalist vision has promoted a diversification of the themes, the establishment of new agreements and partnerships and the broadening of inter-ethnic co-operation. What is growing among black women is a realization that the processes of globalization determined by the neo-liberal order – which among other things exacerbates the feminization of poverty – demand the articulation and intervention of civil society at world level. This new realization has led us to develop regional actions within the ambit of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as with black women of First World nations, with a view to strengthening our participation at international forums, where governments and civil society confront each other and define the insertion of Third World populations in the third millennium.
This international intervention, especially at the World Conferences convened by the United Nations (UN) from the 1990’s onwards, has allowed us to broaden the debate around the racial issue, both nationally and internationally, and to sensitize movements, governments and the UN to the inclusion of an antiracist perspective, and a respect for diversity, in all its themes.
With this perspective in mind, we have acted with regards to the Cairo Conference on population, in respect of which black women operated from the premise that “in times of dissemination of the concept of superfluous populations, reproductive freedom is essential in order for the discriminated ethnic groups to bar racist and control-seeking policies”. Thus, we were present at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, from which emanated the compromise suggested by the Brazilian government, for the holding of a World Conference on Racism and another on Immigration before the year 2000. We therefore participated in the process of preparation of the Beijing Conference by holding a seminar at Mar del Plata with black women from 16 Latin American and Caribbean countries, which resulted in the preparation of a consensual pro-Beijing document, also subscribed to by organized black women of the First World.
These World Conferences have become important events in the process of world reorganization following upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it is at such forums that public policy recommendations for the world are made.
The International Feminist Movement has operated at these forums as the most efficient lobby among the discriminated population segments of the world. This explains the advances made at the Vienna Human Rights Conference with respect to the issue of women, the advances of the Cairo Population Conference and of ECO 92.
The efforts made by women towards Beijing resulted, among other things, in Brazil being able – for the first time in the history of international diplomacy – to obstruct a meeting of the G77, a group of developing countries of which Brazil is a member, on the basis of its disagreement concerning the withdrawal of the term ethnic-racial from article 32 of the Declaration of Beijing. As far as the black women of Brazil and of the countries of the North were concerned, this issue was not negotiable. The firmness of the Brazilian position ensured that the final version of article 32 of the Beijing Declaration affirmed the need to “intensify efforts in order to guarantee the enjoyment, under conditions of equality, of all human rights and liberties fundamental to all women and girls who face multiple barriers to their development and their progress because of factors such as race, age, ethnic origin, culture, religion…” The struggle now is to ensure that this victory becomes tangible in real life. Future steps in this direction will involve the need to monitor the implementation by our governments of these victories.
The white and Western form of feminism has established its hegemony in the equation of gender differences and has determined that poor non-white women throughout the world struggle to include in their thinking racial, ethnic, cultural, religious and social class specificities.
How far will non-white women advance in relation to these issues? The alternatives to the left, right or centre are constructed upon these paradigms instituted by feminism, which according to Lélia González evince, with respect to black women, the following two difficulties: on the one hand, the eurocentric slant of Brazilian feminism, by omitting the centrality of the race issue in gender hierarchies and in universalising the values of a particular culture (the Western one) for all women, without accounting for the processes of domination, violence and exploitation which form the basis of interaction between whites and non-whites, becomes another articulating axis of the myth of racial democracy and of the ideal of whitening. “On the other hand, it also reveals a distancing from the reality experienced by black women in denying a whole history made up of resistance and struggles, in which these black women have been the protagonists, thanks to the dynamics of an ancestral cultural memory (which has nothing to do with the eurocentrism of such a type of feminism)” (3). In this context, what would be the new contents that black women would be able to bring to the political scene, besides the “colortouch” in the gender proposals?
The black North American feminist Patricia Collins argues that black feminist thought would be a series of “experiences and ideas shared by Afro-American women who offer a particular vision of the self, the community and the society…which involves theoretical interpretations of the realities of black women by those who experience them…”
Using this vision as a basis, Collins chooses a number of “fundamental themes which characterize the black feminist’s point of view.” Among these the following are highlighted:
1. the legacy of the history of struggle;
2. the inter-linked nature of race, gender and class;
3. the battle against stereotypes or “images of authority”.
In parallel with the thoughts of Patricia Collins, Luíza Bairros uses the paradigmatic image of the domestic worker as an analytical element of the marginalization suffered by black women, and from this perspective attempts to discover the specificities capable of re-articulating the points postulated by Patricia Collins. Bairros concludes that “it is this peculiar marginalization that stimulates a special point of view of black women, (allowing) a distinct vision of the contradictions in the actions and ideology of the dominant group. The great task is to give it affirmative potential, by means of reflection and political action.”
The black poet Aimé Cesaire has said that “there are two ways of getting lost: by segregation in that which is particular or by dilution in that which is universal.” The utopia which we pursue today consists of looking for a short cut between a Negritude which reduces the human dimension and a hegemonic Western universality that annuls all diversity. To be black without only being black; to be a woman without only being a woman; to be a black woman without only being a black woman.
To realize the equality of rights is to become human beings full of possibilities and opportunities beyond the conditions of race and gender. This is the ultimate meaning of this struggle.
Let us hope that “Durban” may be another step in this direction.
(1) Angela Gilliam in the Annals of the Multiculturalism and Racism International Seminar: The role of Affirmative Action in Contemporary Democratic States, p. 54, Ministry of Justice. National Office of Human Rights. Brasilia, July 1996.
(2) Adriana Piscitelli, Idem, pp. 10-11.
(3) Lélia González, cited by Bairros, Luiza, “Lembrando Lélia González” in The Book about the Health of Black Women. Organizer: Jurema Werneck, Maísa Mendonóa and Evelyn C. White. Editora Pallas/Criola, p.57, Rio de Janeiro, 2000.
This article is based on Carneiro’s presentation in the ‘International Seminar on Racism, Xenophobia and Gender’ organized by Lolapress magazine on August 27-28, 2001 in Durban, South Africa.