“I, black woman” – From mother to child: woman shares how her racial experiences and that of her son are central to her process of recognition

Vanessa Rodrigues

Note from BW of Brazil: One could say that Brazil is a country filled with contradictions. On the one hand, foreigners often speak highly of how friendly the Brazilian is. The so-called “cordial man”. But on the other hand, Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world. In terms of murder, its homicide numbers read like a country at war. This cordial image also fades away when we see the large numbers of public lynchings of individuals accused of various crimes that make the headlines. Non-Brazilian men come from all over the world in search of the perceived “hyper-sexual” Brazilian woman, yet many Brazilian women don’t subscribe to this image and are quite conservative in terms of personal/sexual relations. Only 1.3% of Brazilians readily identify themselves as being racist, yet racist incidents are always in the news and seem to be a part of the nation’s DNA.

Then there’s the idea that as all Brazilians are “mixed”, no one is just black or white, but rather everyone is a mestiço (person of mixed race). Well, as this blog has consistently pointed out, no one denies that Brazil is a mixed race nation, but the issue is that as the country’s affirmed goal was the whitening of the population, the question is more about distance from whiteness rather than admixture. After all, when a mestiço faces discrimination based upon physical appearance, this discrimination is based upon their non-European ancestry and features. The bottom line is, if they didn’t possess this non-European ancestry they would be white and thus not classified as “other”. 

But as whiteness is the standard by which all Brazilians will be judged, people who are not white are faced with yet another complex contradiction. As the whiteness is the ideal, people will compliment persons on aspects of their appearance that are closer to European thus persuading this person to believe that they are part of the white group, while simultaneously making other comments pointing to attributes that categorize them as non-white. Sometimes these comments are very subtle and ambiguous in their meanings. And while some people never catch on to what these comments mean, for others, such comments and treatment lead to a re-examination of race and consequent adaption of an identidade negra (black identity).

Today’s piece is yet another woman’s intriguing journey into blackness. 

Eu negra (I, black woman).

By Vanessa Rodrigues*

I’m not going to start this text saying that I am the daughter of a white mother and a black father, because even if it is a little of this, it’s not quite like this. My mother is what we usually call a morena (1) with straight hair, in a more Indian appearance (and we know that straight hair automatically whitens a Brazilian). My father was black, but with Caucasian features (or “thin” as they say, to describe them). He, yes, the son of a white father and a black mother.

And I was born, a “scrambled in this being-not-being black” child, as Lia Siqueira perfectly defined (“We resist, black I am”). So I lived my childhood: being able to be considered phenotypically white, light skin (I was called Galician for years), and curly brown, almost blond hair (“cachinhos de ouro” or “Goldilocks” was the nickname given to me by my grandmother), but with black features: “thick” nose and lips, for example. And, as time passed on, in my body my miscegenation pronounced itself still more. No wonder I was a hyper-sexualized child. The street harassment I suffered started early: 9 years is my earliest recollection. Today, I am quite clear that it also happened because of racism.

Clarity that came slowly in a way that was not even rational, but that was helping me identify several other situations that I suffered throughout my life. I used to say that I was under served in clothing store in the Rio Sul shopping mall (I lived in Rio for ten years) “because I had the face of a poor person”. Nothing more. I never went deep into this. After all, what made me “have the face of a poor person” in the eyes of those salespersons? My Bahianized accent of a Minas Gerais hinterland native (“paraíba” accent, this so violently prejudiced expression that I knew when I lived there)? (2) Perhaps. But obviously that was not all. I just couldn’t see it.

Yes, I used to go to the beauty salon since I was 5, 6 years old. And when my hair looked straighter, it was more were celebrated. They complemented my curls, but it was not “hair for the party”. And it was only as an adult that I could see that this was racism. The same thing when people pinched my nose “to make it thinner.” And many did. They even recommended that I use a clothespin!

Today I no longer experience the search for my ethnic identity. In the beginning, it was a concealed, biased thing, trying to sublimate my own prejudices (because at the end of the day, I would tell myself I was branca or white). Perhaps my first taking of consciousness was when I moved from Brazil to Lima, Peru. There, I was “la morena brasileña” (the Brazilian morena), and we know that this definition carries meaning. We know, also, that in hispano hablantes (Spanish-speaking) countries it is still common to use the euphemism “moreno/morena” for identifying pessoas negras (black people) (3), as if “negro” was a bad word.

And it was there, seeing myself in their eyes, that I began to see myself too. It was there, “morena”, that I discovered that I had ceased from being a criança branca (white child) that everyone told me I was. My skin is not white. No longer. And it had probably happened much earlier than the time in Lima showed me. I just hadn’t noticed.

But, really defining was an episode that happened to us in the Doce Maria do Itaim Bibi store, in São Paulo, two days after we returned to live in Brazil. We crossed the street hand in hand, but we let upon go entering the store. My oldest son, 7 years old at the time, came between us (my husband and I), but slightly apart, maybe. I was adjusting my purse on the back of the chair when we realized that the store security was taking my son away by his arm.

In the seconds that our stupor and reaction lasted, the security asked us, nervous and ironic: “is the child is with you?” Well, we made a scene, the manager came to apologize, we made the case public, the store sent us a formal apology and thoughtless message (those that are exempt from liability “because the staff is outsourced”), but ultimately we didn’t denounce it in court. And today, in the midst of my reflections, I wonder why. Why didn’t we denounce the store for racism?

My son was dressed like any child of the middle class, obviously the reason for expelling him was not social. As in so many cases similar to ours, it was racial. And I knew this at the exact moment that it happened. But we didn’t file a complaint.

Incidentally, I also always wondered how security didn’t assume he was with us. After all, my husband and I are not white. Our son is the perfect combination of both of us.

Our son is black.

And seeing him as black and identifying him as black, has been central to my process of recognition. If that moment paralyzed me, because of the unexpected, it was also an epiphany: from there, it was no use to pretend that we would not be victims of racist injury/slurs and/or acts. Because if  the “my being-not-being black” had put me in situations sometimes diffused in prejudice but saved me from being kicked out of places, it hadn’t saved my son. And all of my self-identification process also came to be about us, not just about me.

And it had been because of all of this that I aligned myself even more with militancy.

In order to know how to educate him, how to educate myself; to empower him to empower myself; to protect him, to protect myself. In order that he and I learn together how to deal with situations like that at Doce Mania Sweet Mania. Not only with a rant on social networks  – although its publicity is important to confront and expose the structural racism that marks our relations – but with the seriousness it deserves.

Mainly, because, going on 13, he’s becoming increasingly vulnerable to extermination, in this culture of ours that violates and kills black teenagers.

For one year up until now, he told me that he wants to wear his hair in a black power (afro). He doesn’t even clearly know what this represents, it could even be to be in style, but I know that cabelão crespo (large kinky/curly hair) which he has been cultivating is hype among his black colleagues. And if he identifies with it and feels beautiful like them, I clearly see that his search has already started, even though he doesn’t know it.

And, in fact, between my process and his, I think that this very long text was just to cite (rapper) Marcelo D2 in that song that I love “eu me desenvolvo e evoluo com meu filho” (I develop myself and evolve with my son). <3

PS: To close, beautiful clip of Ellen Oléria, in a “brinde à ancestralidade” (toast to ancestry), as she put it on her fanpage.

Ellen Oléria – Córrego Rico

Notes

1. Morena (feminine) or moreno (masculine) is a popular term describing phenotypes in Brazil and many writers on this blog make reference to the usage of the term in other posts. The term can simultaneously mean a white person with dark hair, a person of mixed-race, a person with a racially ambiguous apperance or someone that most people would see as negro/negra/black. Interestingly, as many posts show, when persons of visible African ancestry come to a certain racial consciousness, they reject the moreno/morena label.
2. Bahia is a northeastern state that is well-known for its large Afro-Brazilian population. Minas Gerais is a state just south of Bahia, in the southeast. Paraíba is another state in the northeast. Depending on the conversation, persons from Bahia and Paraíba who speak with accents denoting their origins are often times spoken of in pejorative manners by persons from the south and southeastern regions of the country.
3. Interesting to note here how this woman’s immersion into a foreign culture, like another Brazilian in Canada, was key in a re-analysis of racial classification that perhaps made her things and see in herself in manners that Brazilian society may have denied or made more difficult to perceive.

Source: Brasil Post

About Marques Travae 3609 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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