Note from BW of Brazil: The question of racial identity in Brazil is not a simple subject. This question is made even more complex by the fact that this country, like many other countries in Latin America, deny the existence of racism even with blatant examples of it on a daily basis and even with elitists plans to decimate its non-white population. The reasons for the complexities of identity in the midst of racism are many but can be summed up in a few main points.
1) Brazil is a mixed country. While the nation is known for having the largest population of African descendants outside of Africa, physical appearances run the gamut of phenotypes.
2) A long history of anti-black/anti-African sentiments have led millions of visible African descendants to distance themselves from a black identity (1).
3) The myth of “racial democracy”. While race is a system of social privileges and penalties dependent upon racial characteristics, the promotion of the nation as being free of racism entices millions into believing the idea that “we are all equal”. In essence and theory, this is true, but in practice and social reality, this is far from the truth.
4) “Brasilidade” or “Brazilian-ness” is very connected to “morenidade”, a sort of ideology in which everyone is some shade of brown. The contradiction within this ideology is that the standard upon which everyone is judged is the proximity to whiteness.
5) The obsessive promotion and pursuit of whiteness. Save for areas such music and sports, the vast majority of other genres in Brazil are dominated by persons of a European appearance. It is perhaps not a coincidence that this promotion of whiteness has led to a widespread acceptance of “melhorar a raça”, or “improving the race” through selection of whiter partners with the goal of producing whiter offspring.
It’s in this context that Cristiane Oliveira describes her meeting with a group of young people in Salvador, Bahia, a city in northeast Brazil that is known as “Roma Negra (Black Rome)” due to its large black majority and its strong African cultural inheritance.
Dealing with racism: the young people of the Instituto JCPM in Salvador
by Cristiane Oliveira
Last month I was invited for a chat with the young people of the Instituto JCPM (João Carlos Paes Mendonça Institute) in Salvador (Bahia). This invitation, that took me by surprise me and filled me with happiness, was made after the educators of the project had used my text “Dealing with racism (Lidando com o racism)” in the classroom. Before going to speak with them, I had read the letters these young people wrote to me. In them, besides sharing their impressions of my text, told me of their own experiences with racism.
I then went to meet the young people and talk with them. I was a little nervous not knowing what to expect, but feeling extremely honored for the invitation and at the same time well aware of the level of the responsibility that came with this honor. Looking at them and hearing what they had to say reminded me of the teenager I was, full of energy, my own insecurities and dilemmas of this phase of life, and as if that weren’t enough, still having to deal with issues of prejudice. The meeting with them made me think a lot about the processes that we have to go through growing up in a hypocritical society such as ours. After the conversation with them, I was thinking very much about the following:
1. Question of racial identity
Brazilians are a people mixed. We grow up hearing this exhaustively and it is really true: we are mixed. However, despite all this mixing, in most cases you can identify who is black and who is not, so much so that there is discrimination. That is, we grew up hearing that we are equal, but the world tells us that we are different in a very negative way.
Since no one likes to be associated with a bad thing, it is natural that jeitinhos (little ways) of attempting to minimize the negative way we are perceived arise. That’s where the so perverse strategies of branqueamento (whitening) come in. Thus, very negro (black) turns into moreno, moreninho, Cape Verdean (2), and so on. When asked who among them considered themselves black, a surprising number of negros did not raise their hand. It is undoubtedly a shame that our social education has not yet found ways to strengthen the racial identity of children and adolescents so that no one need be ashamed of being who they are.
2. Self rejection
As much in the letters as in the meeting, the young people reported their shocking experiences with racism. Those girls, between 16 and 24 years of age, have already been followed around by store and shopping mall security, denied service in stores, ignored when they tried to get some service, abused verbally with such harsh words that I refuse to repeat here and humiliated in different ways, even before becoming adults in the full sense and experience. One need not be a genius to understand how much emotional and psychological damage this can cause a human being who grows up dealing with this.
Likewise, you can understand why the hair straightening/relaxing industry moves millions anywhere in the world. There are moms out there that with the noble intention of protecting and caring, are counting the days until they can finally start to relax their daughters’ hair. And so, instead of learning to accept and love ourselves as we are, we end up internalizing the idea that our hair is “bad” and that it needs to be tamed. As if that was not sad enough already, I found that many of those young negros consider the words “negro” and “preto” (both meaning black) insults. It’s sad growing up in a society that teaches one to reject even the terms that define their identity.
3. The denial of the problem
One of the most Machiavellian ways of ensuring the perpetuation of racism is to deny that it exists. This is a cruel strategy because it blinds the whole society to the problem and fighting it becomes an impossible task. After all, how do you solve a problem that doesn’t exist? The most unfortunate thing is realizing that this well assembled trap can fool anyone, even us blacks. I was touched to hear a boy say that he always thought he had never been the target of racism, until the beginning of discussions on the subject in the classroom. From there he started recalling past situations and could see that he had indeed already been discriminated against many times.
The meeting with educators and youth of this institute was a rich experience in my life. I received a lot of affection and had the opportunity to once again confirm how important it is to awaken people’s attention to social issues and identity as soon as possible. It is essential to stimulate children early on to love and accept themselves exactly as they are, and never doubting their importance and value in the world. It is also important to encourage the earliest interest in knowing their own history to better understand their current reality. A person who grows up being encouraged will thus very likely become a secure citizen conscious of their importance and sensitive to the issues and dilemmas of other human beings. And isn’t this the way of forming a truly egalitarian society?
Source: Blogueiras Negras
2. For more on racial classification and terminology, see here.