Note from BW of Brazil: The text presented below perfectly demonstrate the sometimes difficult task of racial classification in Brazil. It is a topic that I’ve dealt with since the very beginning so that many of our readers, who have never experienced the Brazilian reality can at least try to grasp the situation. If the contradictions are a little confusing for you, imagine the writer of the text and millions of others who are in her situation. The ever controversial system of affirmative action is a great vehicle of which to analyze the complexity of racial classification and identity.
Quotas have been established in many Brazilian institutes of higher since beginning of the 21st century. The objective was to give non-whites, traditionally vastly under-represented in colleges and universities, the opportunity to attain a degree, a ticket to better life in such a country as Brazil where the differences between middle/upper class and poor/poverty are quite shocking. Bu in terms of race, who should benefit from affirmative action? Should only darker-skinned African descendants be beneficiaries? Or should anyone of visible African features or African ancestry, no matter how distant, also be included? And where does one draw the line between someone who has an ever so slight brown skin tone and someone who is just a darker shade of white? Should a light-skinned person of mixed African ancestry qualify for quotas when this person, although also the target of racism, surely experiences racism to a lesser degree than someone of dark brown or black skin color? There’s no easy answer.
For a more personal view, check out the experience of the writer calling herself Purple.
Reflections of a whitened blackness
I don’t intend this text to be anything more than my limited vision and solely based on my experience, so don’t read it as if it is nothing more than it is.
As must be obvious by the title I am a negra de pele clara (light-skinned black woman). The daughter of a white mother with yellowish skin and curly hair (even if she does not see herself in her own whiteness) and a black father with strong negroid traits (even though he rarely declares himself black). On my certificate is listed the color parda (brown/mixed). And that’s how I’ve understood myself for some time: parda. A mixture of skin tones, negroid traits, and mixed heritage.
Some people insist in online texts that pardos don’t exist. “Pardo é papel” (pardo is paper) and “pessoas negras são negras e ponto” (black people are black, period). Well, I won’t place myself as non-black by accepting an identidade parda (brown identity). Neither “caramel” or “raça morena”. The point is that there are pessoas pretas (black people), pessoas negras não pretas (black non-black people), pessoas não brancas (non-white people), indígenas (indigenous people), brancos (whites), asiáticos (Asians), out there.
So … I’m not preta (black), my skin is not preta (see note one) and I know that, but I can see my traits and their influence on the determination of my so-called “social place.” I am a black woman and my color is brown. Yours, well, it’s not my problem here.
The biggest racial issue present in my trajectory was the lack of a black reference in my education. For a while I simply didn’t see colors in people (Not literally, but I didn’t give a damn about the physical appearance of the beings I saw around me, for me, they were all the same with different tones, sizes and appearances). I believe that in childhood this was positive, it prevented me from reproducing racism with crianças pretas (black children), for example. But when they opened my eyes to it, it was very strong. I began to see patterns, to see racism and, above all, to understand situations in which I put myself or I was placed.
I was raised by my mother and my aunt with the extraordinary participation of my maternal uncle, with almost no affective or financial influence of my father. I never had the money to squander, but nothing was lacking in my childhood, even my mother needed to get the most out of it. We lived together in a simple, dangerous neighborhood, in a way. I was instructed not to react to assaults, to always walk with ID, not to respond rudely to the police if they approached me or how to answer their questions, to ask for a female police officer if they wanted to touch me and run to the house of one of the many acquaintances if I was threatened. I spent my last 19 years living there.
I have learned to become like a mulher negra (black woman) without ever having someone to tell me: I am giving you these instructions because you are who you are.
I had no one to talk to about childhood racism. When I spoke with my aunt who commented on my hair, she said that she would do it differently and the next day she would pull it with the brush as much as possible to make a ponytail that valued its “good root” (aka straight). I straightened my hair at 13 -14 years old, started to color in black with henna to look straighter at 12, I put clothes hangers on my nose because my mother said it was getting wider, I started to walk less in the sun often, I modified myself without having the slightest notion of the motive. For my mother, to this day, nothing that I tell happened to me is a reflection of racism, not even when security guards followed me in department stores blatantly (“oh, it was only because your backpack was too big/they really distrust anyone wearing a uniform of the public school”). When I went particularly well-dressed to a store to buy a cell phone, I spent 20 minutes waiting for it and analyzing the models. I have curly and voluminous hair; it was fading into the color purple at the time. They had several salesmen standing and they only came to me when she (mother) arrived. I commented on this and left the store to buy at another (store), but she justified it as being a pre-judgment because I was a college student and probably didn’t have the money. The maximum critical analysis that my family assigns to me is class analysis.
I didn’t learn to deal psychologically with racism because I had no one who had any idea that it was racism. And when I started to identify it, everything became much bigger and it seemed heavier than it really was.
Hence came the most complicated part: self-identification. There was a recent boom in theoretical references and unrelated experiences that encouraged me to see my blackness. To accept the traits, to realize the social advantages that I have, to assert myself and go through a process of hair transition that resulted in an outbreak of stupid comments. No, I didn’t experience nor experience the same racism as pessoas pretas (black people). I am fully aware of this. Just as I am fully aware of the impact that de-legitimation has caused me.
There are “afro convenient” (African descendant when convenient) people (I hate this term), there are people who take advantage of the discourse of “I have black relatives” to be racist. There are people with some black traits who are stupidly white, as well as some who are not white but also not black. And there are people like me who are not well accepted in espaços negros (black spaces), especially pan africanistas (Pan-African), nor in espaços brancos (white spaces).
After the hair transition they started to place me as a black woman in the university, even though I had never declared myself in this way. Teachers using me as an example, colleagues commenting on “pessoas negras como você” (black people like you), other colleagues calling me to black collectives without knowing me, a beautiful painting with “50 tons de Negras” (50 shades of black) (top photo) where a colleague drew me along with other women. People who see me as a black woman.
At the same time, they looked at me crookedly when I wore a turban, accusing me of appropriation; they used me as an example of afro-convinience (excuses peoples), they called me “pessoa mais branca no recinto” (whitest person in the room) when I was among amigos retintos (very dark-skinned friends) and compared me to my girlfriend at the time to say that I was not as black as she, so I was not black.
It is not healthy for us, pessoas negras não retintas (black people who are not dark-skinned), the insistence of self-affirmation and proofs of our blackness all the time. I have no privilege to open my mouth and declare myself a black woman. I didn’t take advantage of quotas that would not belong to me because of this racial status, I did not take from any other black person only for my self-assertion, nor did I create a more positive view of other people towards me, quite the contrary.
To position myself as a woman, black, as well as northeasterner and bisexual, in my life, is purely an identity search of a political nature. I have no intention of silencing other voices, just to give a real place to mine, which has been silent for a long time.
- Just for classification, in Portuguese, the terms preto/preta and negro/negra both mean black (see here and here). But for Afro-Brazilian activists, the term preto refers to the actual color black while the term negro refers to persons, regardless of skin tone and physical features, who are considered a part of the raça negra, or black race. Preto/preta is also used commonly to define black people with a darker skin tone. As such, a person can be considered negro/negra, although not having pele preta, meaning darker brown to black skin.