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.