A political act: When I cut my hair and decided to recognize myself as a black woman


Note from BW of Brazil: The journey into blackness in Brazil is often a long-winding, sometimes confusing journey, with stops through self-hatred and denial. In a country in which the vast majority of persons of visible African descent prefer to identify themselves with color-coded terms that distance them from their negritude or blackness, it is often easier or less painful to deceive one’s self into Brazil’s national mythical reality of all being mestiços (persons of mixed race) and thus “all equal” rather than facing the truth of one’s place in a “racial democracy” ruled by white supremacy. For those who understand how white supremacy seeks to destroy blackness on every level (including the psychological and physical), the struggle and resistance is not new. But for those on the path to this realization, the road to discovery and acceptance is often fascinating and liberating. Today’s post provides yet another peek into this journey. 


by Cecília Oliveira – Photo: Fernando Oliveira (text and photos originally featured at Meninas Black Power)

        A year and six months ago, I decided to start a new life. A balzaquiana (1), I decided to cut off all my hair, know and recognize myself as a black woman. It was the result of many studies on identity, history, blackness. It would be a grand finale of acceptance.

       There were months reading about texture, treatments, capillary schedules, etc. It was a world I had no idea existed. First obstacle: how to choose the treatments/products suited for my hair if I did not know my hair? In readings, I found that there is hair from 2A to 4C. But what was my type? I had no idea. I needed to know what it was to know how to create my hair timeline and learn to moisturize, nourish and rebuild the mass of hair to keep it healthy. And there, before my decision, I heard two questions: “Is it expensive? Will it take more work?” Duh! Expensive and laborious were the escova progressivas (Brazilian Keratin Treatment) to straighten my hair!

"Me and my black father"
“Me and my black father”

         I straightened my hair for the first time – from what I remember – at 8 or 9 years old with the then famous and cursed “touca de gesso” (2). I remember feeling absolutely ridiculous to keeping my head “plastered” for over an hour. It was a stinking thing that left my scalp red and sensitive for a few days. Since then, every three months, I was back to “tame” this insistent hair that took peace away from me – and beauty.

       Beauty: there’s one thing that I’ve “never had”. I always thought I was very ugly. Thin, “cabelo duro” (hard hair), pimples and “moreninha” (3). Everything to be deprecated. And it was like this for a long time. I remember clearly when it came time for graduation from the eighth grade and pairs needed to be formed for the ceremony (I will not go into the merits of this sexist social convention now). I remember I had a group of friends and none of them wanted to join me in this ceremony. I heard one of them saying: “I prefer Eduarda. (She’s) prettier.” Eduarda, with her extremely long and straight hair, a little white girl, was prettier. Of course. Today I understand Eduarda’s beauty. And mine (4). I still remember another time I was sweeping the porch of the house and a person, looking for my mother – who is white and the widow of a black man – asked if “the lady of the house was in.” (5) Each in their place, right? Wrong.

"Before": Cecília - photo: Anderson França
“Before”: Cecília – photo: Anderson França

Before “moreninha”. Now, negra and ….GAY?

     Nappy, palha de aço (steel wool), Bombril (scouring pad), broom, sarará (6), cabelo duro (hard hair), cabelo ruim (bad hair), piaçava (palm fiber) (7). I heard this all my life, even after straightening my hair, as even straightened, it didn’t have the proper appearance (of being) naturally straight. But, hallelujah, one day came the day of the Big Chop (“BC” to close friends), the time to cut everything. I was so excited I could not stand going through the transition, the way that many girls manage to keep straightened hair until having enough length of natural hair that it’s not necessary to cut the “Joãozinho” (“butch cut”).

       So I cut it (in) “Joãozinho” (style). And I got another label immediately. I started to get looks, questions about my sexuality and even experienced homophobia when a man shouted, “that’s shamelessness! It’s the fault of (former president) Lula and the politically correct that we have to see this!” I was drinking a juice with a friend – also with short hair – in a diner close to home. I grabbed a chair to “educate him” but I was contained. It was better that way.

Acceptance: a political act.

     “Can you get a boyfriend now, with that hair?”, “can you get a job?”, “will your child be bullied at school?”. I won’t say I didn’t think about these things. But I will say that I thought more about the answers. Would I like to relate to someone that would evaluate me and desire me because of my hair? Would I like to work in a place where a person’s capacity was measured by hair? Would I enroll my child in a school that ordered him to cut his hair, as if it were a uniform? Would I submit to racism? Do I really want to withdraw myself from these debates and retract myself or do I want to fight with people by for the guarantee of rights for all and for the change of this criminal and mediocre scenario?

"After": Cecília - photo: Fernando Oliveira
“After”: Cecília – photo: Fernando Oliveira

        The answers to these questions are political. We are political beings. To exist is a political act. To exist as a black woman is a double exercise of struggle for citizenship and full rights. To leave your hair up high, in the place where you decided that it should be, is an affront. An affront to the “natural order of things”, where the black has his place very well delineated – a place in the corner, over to the side, more in the kitchen, a second place. An affront to the Brazilian State, which had an official policy of embranquecimento (whitening) of its people, focusing on miscegenation and the establishment of a morena (brown/mixed) population. Not negra. This bad thing had to be erased.

     Accepting yourself is an affront to a State which requires whose federal police demands that one tie down their hair to be entitled to get a document. Affront to a State that kills mostly blacks. Affront to a State whose leading positions are occupied overwhelmingly by white men, who earn 36% more than black men and 47.8% more than black women. I was born to defy this rule, since birth and living in this state is an affront.

Racism with no end

     How do expect that a child doesn’t reproduce racism or gets used to suffering from it if she does not recognize in her surroundings blacks in positions that aren’t subordinate? How is this possible without there being black dolls to play with, dolls with their color, their hair, their mouth and nose, their identity and that shows the child that she is beautiful and deserves to be copied?

    How can black be something good, not derogatory, if people of their color don’t even appear in the movies, if they don’t have representation? How many black protagonists are there of novelas (soap operas) that take place in Leblon (8), are rich, bosses, have beautiful homes on the seashore (senzala – slave quarter – protagonists in novelas of that era don’t count)? Black women in film practically don’t exist, even though we are 52% of the female population.

We will not give up!

     We black women and black men built this and other countries. We carry the Brazil on our backs today, even earning far less for it and dying sooner and in greater numbers. But we learn to resist and, every day, learn to thwart those who think that here is not our place. We will battle to live longer and better and we will teach our children that our hair, our nose, our skin are the characteristics of freedom and strength and that we do have a right to a place in the sun.

Folha de S.Paulo, October 25, 2007. "Cabral supports abortion and says that the favela is a factory of marginals." According to the governor, 44, there are “two Brazils”, one with a pattern of Nordic countries such as Sweden, and another with a level of poverty comparable to the level of African countries. “I have no doubt that abortion [as public policy] may contain violence. I am not particularly in favor of abortion,” he said.
Folha de S.Paulo, October 25, 2007. “Cabral supports abortion and says that the favela is a factory of marginals.” According to the governor, 44, there are “two Brazils”, one with a pattern of Nordic countries such as Sweden, and another with a level of poverty comparable to the level of African countries. “I have no doubt that abortion [as public policy] may contain violence. I am not particularly in favor of abortion,” he said.

We, black women, will continue procreating, even though white governors call us “breeders of marginals”. We will face this state and show that our place is not in the kitchen.

(The title of the text is an allusion to the music “Cabelo Pixaim” meaning nappy hair, by samba musician Jorge Aragão)

Cecilia Oliveira is a journalist and researcher, specializing in Crime and Public Safety at UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais), is the communications coordinator of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition – LEAP Brazil. Indicated text, originally posted on the Ano Zero site, to be posted on the blog MBP.


1. Refers to a woman approximately 30 years of age. The term refers to the work of French writer Honoré de Balzac, who wrote “A mulher de 30 anos/The 30 year old woman.” Once somewhat pejorative, at a time when the 30 year old woman was already considered “mature” today it’s a compliment to those who, at 30, are in their prime, attractive not only for their beauty but also because they are in the fullness of their womanhood, professional, love, family, financial, and social life, etc! In one’s peak, it is the pinnacle of femininity, hormonal equinox of beauty, experience and independence.

2. Touca de gesso is a type of homemade hair treatment that was very popular many years ago. It was made by mixing cornstarch, water and moisturizing cream for the purpose of giving the hair a straighter appearance.

Ingredients of the "Touca de gesso"
Ingredients of the “Touca de gesso”

3. “Moreninha”, a variation of the term “m0rena”, is a term that many writers use on this blog and represents a major part in the understanding of the concept of race in Brazil. The adding of the suffix “inha” on any term in Portuguese makes the word diminutive thus, in this case, “moreninha” means “little morena”. “Morena” can mean several things as well. It could be a white women with dark hair, equal to the English “brunette”. It also can refer to a black person or a person of mixed race with light or even dark brown skin. It is often used to avoid calling a person a “negra”, which is often deemed pejorative by Brazilian society, although many Afro-Brazilians after a transformation of consciousness and identity come to assume the term as an affirmation of their black identity.

4. What should be noted here is that Cecília is on the lighter shade of brown when speaking of skin tones. But as we have shown in a number of posts on this blog, in Brazil, whiteness is the standard of which all are judged. As such, while it’s very common to hear Brazilians argue that “racism doesn’t exist”, or “we’re all mixed”, or that someone is not “negro/negra” but rather “moreno/morena” or “pardo/parda”, the fact remains that whiteness remains the standard for which ALL non-whites are compared.

5. “Is the lady of the house home?” is a commonly asked question that many Afro-Brazilian women point to as to how racism in Brazil works. Often it is assumed that a black woman cannot own a nice home and, as such, if she answers the door of a such a home, it is automatically assumed that she must be the maid.

6. Another Brazilian term for describing a certain phenotype. A person described as sarará is usually very fair-skinned, with loosely curled, afro-textured hair (color could be light brown, blond or even red), sometimes with freckles but facial features that still denote African ancestry. Cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis or activist Angela Davis would be good examples of what a Brazilian would call sarará.

7. Material used to make brooms and baskets.

8. Leblon is the most affluent neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Neighboring Ipanema is regarded as the second most affluent area in Rio de Janeiro. It is also the name of the local beach. The neighborhood is located in the south zone of the city, between Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Morro Dois Irmãos and the Jardim de Alá channel, bordering the Gávea, Ipanema, Lagoa and Vidigal neighborhoods. It is regarded as having the most expensive price per residential square meter in Latin America. Source

Source: Meninas Black Power

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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