Black in Brazil: Race, Hair, and Privilege

by Arielle Loren

Black American media outlets recently exploded over a Brasilian university official asking a black female Brasilian student to leave campus for sporting a natural hairstyle. It propelled a popular stereotype of Brasilian culture, which paints Brasilian citizens as being reluctant to confront race, instead, choosing to define their ancestry as a big melting pot. The truth is that racial identity in Brasil is far more complicated than it is in the United States, so it’s not easy to apply our ideas of race as an organizational structure for Brasilian nationhood. Most Brasilians are mixed with a little bit of everything, including African, indigenous, and European ancestry. Thus, if you talk to most Brasilians, they will own all of their racial identities, instead of simply saying, “I’m white” or “I’m black,” as we’re accustomed to in the United States.

But this cultural norm does beg the following questions:

Are Brasilians who claim several racial backgrounds hiding behind their mulatto ancestry as a disqualifier for confronting the racial disparities that are still present in Brasil? If you’re part Black, how can you individually or systematically oppress Black people? Right? Is it the reason that Brasilians that do possess a stronger history of Afro-ancestry, are reluctant to self-identify as black and therefore organize behind one racial identity to fight lingering racial oppressions? Is it a shield from blackness, as an entity in itself, rarely being considered beautiful on a national scale?

Welcome to Brasil where race is simply complicated; this black female Brasilian student is just one example of the tension that still exists.

Personally, I have experienced a very different side of Brasil, as I began my travels in Bahia, the most Afrocentric region of the country. Bahia is afro-everything: afro-culture, afro-music, afro-history; the list goes on and on. Thus, stepping off the plane and entering the city of Salvador with a large auburn Afro, gold West African bangles, and sporting colorful prints didn’t make me look like an anomaly. I looked like a local.

I was embraced as beautiful. I was accepted as a sister. And many Bahians were the first to tell me that indeed they were Afro-Brasilian, proud, and connected to African-Americans through the African Diaspora.

In Bahia, black is beautiful and the majority, so it isn’t frowned upon to see a black woman rocking her natural hair. While the majority of Bahian women use relaxers, heat straightening techniques, or cover their natural textures with long weaves, both straight and kinky hair textures are accepted as examples of the diversity in black women’s hairstyles. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt pressured to relax my hair while traveling in the region or country at large. But I am aware that I experience the country from a sense of privilege and will never know what it’s truly like to be black, female, and Brasilian.

  • LAD86

    I get the feeling that there are very few women who are Black Brazilian and visit this website, who could accurately answer these questions.

  • Aguurl

    hmmmm i agree with the above comment. i’ve re-posted to a forum for the brasilian community. let’s see what comes back……..

  • RC

    same issue, different community….

    OVER THIS TOPIC

  • Perspective

    After considerable thought I think that the most important out of all reasons as to why black women don’t and can’t wear their hair the way they want to is because black men do not control their economic landscape.

    I do have an issue with the AMOUNT of black women who straighten and press their hair. Frequently black women blame this issue on black men and what black men are into, but the reality is are that black women have had hair issue since they were little girls before black boys were even a thought to them. Take a look at small black children and they are already showing signs of traction alopecia and chemical burns. The truth is that most AAW DO NOT know how to take care of their own hair – They can take care of a weave all day.

    I think its damaging when black women are trying to fight a beauty standard yet promote it at the same time. They are advertising the superiority of straight hair and in a contest with other races of women they will lose if its “ALL ABOUT STRAIGHT HAIR” because the other woman has that naturally, so black women will have to appreciated for what they have natural. As a man whose into NATURAL black women my disappointment in what I find are that many black women who go natural are natural simply because they are EARTHY or POT HEADS. Its rare to find a black woman who’s natural AND classy – heels, stockings, pearl necklaces, makeup all that. Most people think natural and poor hygiene go hand in hand.

    Most black women have internalized the idea that “THIS” is beauty regardless of what black men want. Also black women have been operating outside of what black men want from a long time, hence all the trying to convince black men of accepting them where they stand (as women) as opposed to meeting the standards of men. Most black men are not in the position to demand anything from black women and black women no that, hence all the trying to force big women down black men throats – and if he doesn’t like it he gets charged with SELF HATE.

    If black men controlled the economic landscape of the black community and DID THE HIRING of black women black women could wear their hair ANYWAY THEY WANTED. Black men don’t define black women straightening their hair – white men do.

    Talk to any black woman who is a professional or good career and talk to her about being natural, the first thing out her mouth is, “OH NO, THAT’S NOT PROFESSIONAL.”

    By who’s standard?

    We already know.

    Black men aren’t the ones who determine what’s professional and NOT because we are not doing the hiring. If we were, it would be a different story and black women could be as BLACK AS THEY WANTED TO BE – but black men don’t control the economic landscape of the black community.

  • http://afrikanmami.blogspot.com African Mami

    I equate natural hair politics to the ethnic clashes in Africa. STUPID!

  • Natural as I want to be

    As a student of cultural studies in Latin America and the Caribbean and a black woman I found racial identity in Brazil particularly interesting compared to that of the United States. I agree it is not the same form of racism black americans face but racism all the same. As a black woman who alternately wears her hair straight and natural to school, work and social functions my choice of style is not any kind of statement to the world nor to any man or woman of any color. It is simply a personal expression that day when I wake up. Nothing more nothing less. I think it’s sad the young lady’s education was interrupted for such a non-issue and that a woman’s choice of hairstyle natural or straight has the ability to offend people it in no way affects.

  • iQgraphics

    that widows peak is the “business”
    WERK

  • Bassabeauty

    Great article!

  • http://designsdelight.com art deco

    But you have to look at the Portuguese and their colonisation strategy. They wanted to mix the races as a form of gaining control, the more people are mixed, the less rebellious they are.

    Mixed race people are used as a buffer.

    I would like to read a piece on South Africa’s coloureds. They went over to the white side after apartheid ended. It is over, so why are they craving for acceptance?

  • TJ

    I’m over it as well. I mean really? Most Black AMERICANS are mixed with a little bit of everything, including African, indigenous, and European ancestry. Thus, if you talk to most Black AMERICANS, they will own all of their racial identity. We are not in denial about being of white ancestry but since when did saying “i’m black” means that you aren’t of mixed ancestry. That should be a given in this country. Just because someone tells me “I’m black,” doesn’t mean that if I go to their house and see their white mother I would be appalled. I would say-ok, he or she has a White mother, doesn’t make he/she less black or not black.

    I’m tired of these articles. We always look at Brazil as some foreign out of space racial identity structure. No they have PROBLEMS. Deep rooted problems because they idealize and want to so desperately to be White. That is a disgrace. In 2012, we should stop claiming people who don’t want to be claimed.

    You can free more of ‘em, if you can convince ‘em they slaves….

  • Yeahright2011

    …and on that note can somebody tell me what a Snapple Ice Tea in Beijing would run me?

  • Gigi Young

    “Mixed race people are used as a buffer.”

    Exactly. Even some of our now-beloved turn of the century black pioneers such as Mary Church Terrell, Blanche K. and Josephine Bruce, etc felt their white ancestry, wealth, refined behavior and elite educations would position them as a third “race” between whites and the darker, uneducated blacks. No matter how you slice it, white remains supreme in social, and racial hierarchies favor “whiteness”.

    But to return to the question posed at the end of this piece, I don’t know because even within the natural hair community, there is still a measure of shame and militarism that just moves us into another box.

  • NiceBut

    Nice article, but I want to read an article about a nonAmerican black describing the experiences of their country in their own words.

    No matter how hard you try, you will never truly understand what is going on. You have to understand, blackness really does mean something different to different black nationals. You when you visit a country, you will only understand the distorted image that you view from your cultural blinders.

    It takes a long time to understand. Therefore these things are best described by the people who were raised in it.

  • NiceBut

    Exactly, I’m tired of black Americans trying to speak for black nonAmericans. It reminds me of how white Americans try to speak for black Americans.

    Listen, you have your own separate sense of race, history, and culture – and we have our own. We share some concepts, many struggles, but we are still different. Visiting our culture will never be enough, you have to spend years living in it (not just physically but emotionally as well) to begin to understand. Stop trying to assimilate us into your world view.

    Sometimes I feel like black Americans are trying to be the figure head of black people. I guess that makes sense, Americans are always trying to be the figure head of the world.

  • NiceBut

    @LAD86, to clarify, the last two paragraphs are not directed at you. I am “speaking out loud”

  • LI

    YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWN……..
    ANYWAY…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

  • CHE

    SHADDUP, clown.

  • http://www.starpilwax.com/hardblue.html European waxing

    It definitely stretches the limits with the mind when you go through very good info and make an effort to interpret it properly.

  • http://www.mooraboutbahia.com Sharif

    This article was dead on. Nothing really to add on just agreeing with the writer. I’m an African American living in Bahia, Brazil and you summed up up everything perfectly.

  • Alexandra

    “It takes a long time to understand. Therefore these things are best described by the people who were raised in it.”

    I liked the article as well, but I agree. I would’ve liked to hear the perspective of Brazilian woman (Black or otherwise). This is done too often; race seems extremely different from what Americans are used to. Latin America as a whole. I was looking forward to reading comments by Brazilians as well, but guess not…

  • http://afrolistasandthecity.blogspt.com Vonmiwi

    Braslieras didn’t just start wearing their hair in it’s natural state because of American women, they always have! Embracing ones natural hair has never been a problem for many of us throughout the Diaspora, but some how some of you assume that it is. I’ve been reading a lot of these posts about certain women of the Diaspora and they leave me shaking my head especially with the high level of imperialism that many of you exhibit. As my father often said we were all one slave ship short of living in any one of these countries. Many of you can’t relate because you choose not to, which often shows your own level of conditioning.

  • AJ

    The only people who care in the United States about black women’s hair are other black women. Brazil, who knows I can not speak on it but here, let’s not delude ourselves that in 2012 there is any real pressure from white professional society to have straight hair. They do not care, they don’t understand it, just be clean and professional!!! Have you ever heard of a white manager approaching a woman about her hair? Nope, that’s an EEOC case right there. But I’ve had plenty of black female co-workers say something to me. I work in a very professional environment surrounded by white guys every day, my hair is natural and my job performance is exceptional. I got hired with this hair and god forbid one day I might be fired with it.
    There is racism in a lot of places, but black women’s hairstyles is not one of them, in the united states it is time to move on from this issue. Brazil on the other hand they just need time to catch up.

  • Carameliscious

    Perspective, your response is so on the mark!! If blacks would just buy black (goods and services) we would not have to beg for jobs and natural hair would be “professional”. I agree with that wholeheartedly!!! And thanks for letting women know that black men do like natural hair. Thanks bruh!!!!!!

    As for Brazilians, I don’t hold out any hope for them because, in their country blacks far outnumber the blacks in America and still they are racially divided. What is wrong with the blacks there, are they all sleeping or what?!?!?!?!?! Seems to me, that they are wayyyyyy too passive on the racial issue. I feel sorry for them.

  • leonard smalls

    Interesting comment; however, allow me to add the following:

    1. Wisdom – “He that brings the truth must have one foot in the saddle;” and

    2. Disparity – Afro-Brazilians are decades behind the Coloreds in the States. Hence, it will take them some time to confront racism in their country.

    Carry on.

  • Melanie

    I think the writer is honest and knows that even though she feels she looks just as her Brazilian counterparts, she is American which gives her another “status”. I´m black, Panamanian (a country in Latin America between Costa Rica and Colombia) and my first language is Spanish even though I have an English name. I studied two years in the US and have traveled around Central America where I´m often mistaken for American. It is hilarious to see people been so polite and thinking I have tons of money just because they think I´m American. The moment I speak to them in Spanish all the “acting” dissappears and they leave me alone. By the way, I wore my hair natural for a while which in Panama is not necessarily consider beautiful at all. Got all sort of reactions, from very negative ones to people who admired me and asked me for advice. Honestly the reactions will be the same in any country that was an European colony at some point in history.

  • Barbara

    The Black woman in the first photo is so beautiful. She looks like a chocolate doll. The second one is beautiful too!

  • HA

    I spent some time in Brazill just like the author, actually in the same region, Bahia, which is Afro- everything. All negativity disappeared when pple realized I was American. But its true, most corporate Afro-brazilian women had straight hair and natural hair was not considered beautiful else where. Even with-in Bahia, i had some negative comments about my own natural hair. .. they have a much diff mentality about race, racial identity, hair etc. . .sad & interesting, but a much different outlook than in America

  • CMo’

    I know that race is a very complicated thing in Brazil in comparison to the States. I cant say that Im an expert on that subject comparatively. I CAN, however, tell you that I dont care what part of the world Im in, and Ive been around, I prefer natural hair over chemicals and weaves.

  • Lucylady

    I would offer a different perspective.
    I have close personal friend who was cited as not aligning with the office culture because after being told that her natural hair was inapropriate styling for her office. If she were to bring up an EEOC or human resources complaint, most likely she would be fired, and blackballed at any other workplace in that city in her field.

    I recently attended a very liberal PWI and was repeatedly asked by my professors about styling my hair and conversations that spoke about whether my hair was appropriate for class, and asked why i didn’t just keep it straight.

    It is an issue and many corporate settings have strong feelings about natural hair as a “professional style”.

  • Bren82

    I can’t make that determination as I have never been to Brazil, nor do I know any Black Brazilian women. What I can speculate is that colorism exists in the black Brazilian communities just as it does in the black North American communities.

  • Nas

    I supposed I have come into the conversation quite late but I am hoping I can give a slightly different perspective on the topic of black in Brazil and not necessarily associated to hair… I am the daughter of a black Brazilian mother and a white Brazilian father. I was raised in London from the age of 5, my father’s family are of British and German descent.

    I recently spent 6 months in Brazil doing research for my PhD, not in predominately “black” Bahia but in Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro four very different states in Brazil. My father’s family are upper class, there is a very strong sense of white cultural identity there, my father has always been very proud of his British and German heritage. My father quit college when he was young and never attended university though he had a pretty decent career in the military and eventually opened up his own business. My mother’s family are very poor, she worked as a nanny for most of her life in Brazil. My mother is very intelligent and proud of being black. She was one of the first black women to attend her university in Rio, she studied psychology and media though the best job she could ever find in Brazil was working at the check in desk at the airport. My mother’s older sister fits a stereotype I saw often in Brazil, a cleaner who lives in the favelas of Rio de Janiero and works various jobs, 6 days a week to feed her family. On my recent visit I could not help but notice how the color of my skin (I am very white, you would never guess my mother is black, my father is very fair) was of utmost importance to my mother’s family. My naturally straight hair and pale olive skin was all they could talk about, not my PhD or how much my Portuguese was improving. Talk of life in the favelas was kept to a minimum and I never got to meet them at their home but always in the city instead. I am known among their friends as the “white” cousin from London.

    Watching the TV I also noticed the lack of black role models in the media as well as products specifically made for curly hair. There was no Dark and Lovely on the shelves, hardly any magazines orientated towards Afro-Brazilians and rarely would one see more than one or two black actresses in a novella (soap opera) at a time. The typical stereotyped black or mullato woman on the television was either playing the role of a maid or a cleaner, lived in the favelas or had become rich by winning the lottery. There were no such representations of black doctors or lawyer on Brazilian television. In fact I am trying hard to picture any black or mullato women that I had met in real life on my travels who wore their hair natural. The keratin hair treatment that straightens the hair was very popular among those with curly hair, this treatment was often very damaging to the hair and burnt the skin.

    Another thing that I had noticed was the lack of black women working in well to do jobs in Brazil. Doctors and teachers were predominately for whites, jobs in retail and restaurants tended to go to the mullatos and morenas. The main roles I saw black women in were in supermarkets or working as cleaners, cooks and nannies.

    Race in Brazil is a very complex topic that is still evolving. I personally believe that until there are more strong role models in academia, business, law and in the media, black Brazilian women will carry on this struggle through Brazilian ‘racial toleration’ in order to gain racial acceptance and not feel the need to “whiten” themselves in order to move up the social ladder. After all Brazil allowed the immigration of some 5 million white Europeans, known as the period of ‘brancamento’ which means whitening in Portuguese to white wash the black slave population which was on the rise. How could something so politically ingrained in the minds of the Brazilians simply be forgotten in the click of a finger?

    There is only so much I can say in a comment but if any of you would be interested in learning more about my experiences or my research in Brazil, please feel free to get in touch. I would also suggest watching the documentary ‘Black in Latin America: Brazil.’

  • http://www.magshoestring.com Shawn

    As an African American who is quite familiar with Brazil and fluent in Portuguese, it always amazes me when individuals contend that Brazil is dramatically different than the US when it comes to race relations. I should preface my remarks by stating that I am a very dark complexioned male (like Wesley Snipes) and there has not been a time during my stay in Brazil that I did not personally experience some form of racism. In fact, when my Brazilian friends, white and black, inquire as to why I like Brazil so much, I reply, rather sarcastically, “Because white Brazilians are just as racist as white Americans and it makes me feel right at home!” Of course, this remark doesn’t go over too well with white Brazilians who think my claim is a gross exaggeration. However, my black Brazilian friends, unlike 20 or 15 years ago, are no longer in denial of this reality.

    It would behoove anyone who thinks otherwise to take a cursory look at the data that the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estasticas (IBGE) has compiled on Brazilian society. In every social indicator imaginable, education, health, life expectancy, wages, umemployment, etc. the disparities between black Brazilians and their white counterparts is down right appalling! All this even though the latest statistics from IBGE peg the white/black population at 50%/50% which, in my humble opinion, is a gross distortion of reality as the black population is easily at least 70%. The fact is that in Brazil, like the United States, there is a conspicuous chromatic hierarchy where whiteness is at the apex and blackness at its nadir. Ironically, even those Afro-Brazilians, who are clearly of mixed ancestry and should, according to the “Brazilian Mulatto Escape Hatch” theory that supposedly “rewards” lighter complexioned Afro-Braziians, merit better treatment, consistently find themselves the brunt of racist remarks and physical racial attacks. Brazilian racism has become even more virulent recently as the nation is trying to come to grips with the implementation of Affirmative Action policies, better known as “Cotas.”

    “Whiteness” operates, for all intents and purposes, in Brazil the same way that it does in the US. A black person quickly learns of the discomfort that white Brazilians feel when they see a black person in an upscale restaurant, hotel, bookstore, cafeteria, etc. or any place that whites feel that “blacks don’t belong.” There is really no need for anyone to “project” American racism onto Brazilians because white Brazilians have long mastered the blunt and subtle nuances of the practice and, as a consequence, are quite adept at demonstrating hatred towards Afro-Brazilians in all facets of Brazilian society.

    The diversity that one sees on a quotidian basis in Brazilian society is still not adequately reflected in the Brazilian media; whether they be newspapers, magazines, TV, etc. In regard to the latter, I find it rather telling that I witnessed more black people on Swedish TV in 2005 (Sweden has about a 1% black population), even a black woman contestant on their version of Big Brother, during my stay in Stockholm than on the three major Brazilian networks; O Globo, Rede Manchete and SBT (Sistema Brasileira de Televisao)! If there is any bright side, it is the fact that many Afro-Brazilians are truly starting to embrace their African ancestry and, as a result, are demanding more equality and greater participation, commensurate with their numbers, in Brazilian society.

  • http://www.magshoestring.com Shawn

    As an African American who is quite familiar with Brazil and fluent in Portuguese, it always amazes me when individuals contend that Brazil is dramatically different than the US when it comes to race relations. I should preface my remarks by stating that I am a very dark complexioned male (like Wesley Snipes) and there has not been a time during my stay in Brazil that I did not personally experience some form of racism. In fact, when my Brazilian friends, white and black, inquire as to why I like Brazil so much, I reply, rather sarcastically, “Because white Brazilians are just as racist as white Americans and it makes me feel right at home!” Of course, this remark doesn’t go over too well with white Brazilians who think my claim is a gross exaggeration. However, my black Brazilian friends, unlike 20 to 15 years ago, are no longer in denial of this reality.

    It would behoove anyone who thinks otherwise to take a cursory look at the data that the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estasticas (IBGE) has compiled on Brazilian society. In every social indicator imaginable, education, health, life expectancy, wages, umemployment, etc. the disparities between black Brazilians and their white counterparts is down right appalling! All this even though the latest statistics from IBGE peg the white/black population at 50%/50% which, in my humble opinion, is a gross distortion of reality as the black population is easily at least 70%. The fact is that in Brazil, like the United States, there is a conspicuous chromatic hierarchy where whiteness is at the apex and blackness at its nadir. Ironically, even those Afro-Brazilians, who are clearly of mixed ancestry and should, according to the “Brazilian Mulatto Escape Hatch” theory that supposedly “rewards” lighter complexioned Afro-Braziians, merit better treatment, consistently find themselves the brunt of racist remarks and physical racial attacks. Brazilian racism has become even more virulent recently as the nation is trying to come to grips with the implementation of Affirmative Action, better known as “Cotas.”

    “Whiteness” operates, for all intents and purposes, in Brazil the same way that it does in the US. A black person quickly learns of the discomfort that white Brazilians feel when they see a black person in an upscale restaurant, hotel, bookstore, cafeteria, etc. or any place that whites feel that “blacks shouldn’t be.” There is really no need for anyone to “project” American racism onto Brazilians because white Brazilians have long mastered the blunt and subtle nuances of the practice and, as a consequence, are quite adept at demonstrating hatred towards Afro-Brazilians in all facets of Brazilian society.

    The diversity that one sees on a quotidian basis in Brazilian society is still not adequately reflected in the Brazilian media; whether they be newspapers, magazines, TV, etc. In regard to the latter, I find it rather telling that I witnessed more black people on Swedish TV in 2005 (Sweden has about a 1% black population), even a black woman contestant on their version of Big Brother, during my stay in Stockholm than on the three major Brazilian networks; O Globo, Rede Manchete and SBT (Sistema Brasileira de Televisao)! If there is any bright side, it is the fact that many Afro-Brazilians are truly starting to embrace their African ancestry and, as a result, are demanding more equality and greater participation, commensurate with their numbers, in Brazilian society.

  • Peter

    I do not agree with Shawn. I feel a tremendous difference, in terms of racism, between the U.S. and Brazil. My husband is black, and when we go to Brazil, we barely have to think about the race subject, except if we are in a high class restaurant or such. This is because Brazil is definitely classist. And since abolition is still a recent event, 125 years is not enough for an entire race that has been under slavery, to come out from poverty. So, unfortunally to be black can be understood to be poor. But, in the majority of time, we barely feel discriminated. Now, in the U.S. it happens at any time, and any where. And it is just because some Americans simply can’t accept the presence of a black person, it is pure racism and hate.

  • Pingback: Hair Your Way: The Politics of Negro Gals’ Hair | Afrocentric Confessions

  • john

    You mean Brazilians or African Brazilians wants to be white? How can a white want to be white?
    You are talking about some mixed race people with issues not a white Brazilian.
    If a dark skin person in Brazil says he is white, everyone will laugh at him. Theres no such thing among the white Brazilians.

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