‘You need to do something with that hair’
“This is what Carolina heard in her job interview. The racism that she suffered many also suffer. This is why we march.”
Number 27 in our series, Faces of Afro Brazil, Carolina is from Aracaju, the capital city of the northeastern state of Sergipe (1). The above flyer is a promotion of Aracaju’s upcoming Marcha das Vadias (known as Slut Walk in many countries). The march takes place on June 14th in the Praça da Catedral and is Aracaju’s version of the women’s rights march that takes place throughout the country. The comment that Carolina heard is the kind that many black women hear all over Brazil everyday from everyday people, employers, TV show hosts, etc. So widespread is the ideology that natural black hair is “cabelo ruim”, or “bad hair“, that even advertisers, hair products and designers take advantage of this association.
Because this anti-black/anti-African sentiment is so strong, millions of Afro-Brazilian women have long simply just accepted this social/racial prejudice and submitted themselves to the “chapinha” (flat straightening iron) or some other means of straightening out these curls that denote their ancestry to avoid the insults and discrimination that are deeply interwoven into the very fabric of a Brazilian society that still has an issue dealing with the existence of racism in a straightforward manner. But today, many of these women are fighting back and claiming their right to accept and see their natural hair as being beautiful. This is never an easy transition to make as it can be simply another target for attracting dehumanizing comments for darker-skinned black women and a sign that the lighter-skinned black woman rejects wanting to try to “pass”. Having cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair) and how one deals with it continues to be a huge issue in Brazil in 2014, 126 years after slavery ended, but nowadays, throughout the country, one can note that many black women are refusing to submit to imposed Eurocentric standards, throwing away their straightening irons and getting involved in a true “hair revolution.”
The other issue here is the so-called Marcha das Vadias/Slut Walk. Participating in such an event can already be seen as a making a political statement for any woman, but what does it mean for specifically black women? Is it a source of empowerment as some women see it or does it conform to a sexist ideology that society already has towards women? To be sure, to step forward in a march with such a title can indeed be a way to give a sexist society the middle finger, recognizing the stereotypes and still screaming, “I am a woman, I am a human being: respect me!” But, again, for black women, who Brazilian society (and the world) has always stereotyped as hyper-sexual, i.e. a slut, participating in a march with such a title is a whole other struggle.
In Brazil of 2014, it is the white woman who continues to be presented as the standard of beauty, the face of advertising, the image of the mother and the preference in relationships, so how can black women re-work the meaning of such a dehumanizing term that has long been overtly associated with them in the first place? For some, black women need to stop being a part of movements that continue to be led by and associated with the very same white women who still reap racial benefits even when they too experience gender-based discrimination. But on the other hand, one could also argue that women of visible African ancestry who accept a specifically black identity is still rather small in Brazil, and as such, how influential/widespread would a march led by only black women be? Black women in the march in Porto Alegre seemed to make up an extremely small minority and the aforementioned issues were also contemplated by women in Brasília, Curitiba and Cariri.
Whatever the answer and outcome, the issues are there and we encourage more Afro-Brazilian women (negras, mulatas, pardas, mestiças, etc.) to get involved in a struggle that has gone on for nearly five centuries and won’t be ending any time soon.
A luta continua
1. Aracaju is the capital of the state of Sergipe, Brazil, located in the northeastern part of the country on the coast, about 350 km (217 mi) north of Salvador, Bahia. According to the 2013 Census, the city has 614,577 inhabitants, which represents approximately 33% of the state population. Source