By May 2018, it will be have been 130 years since Brazil formally abolished slavery; however, the legacy of three centuries of exploitation is still tangible to this day.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 74% of the bottom 10% of Brazilians (in terms of wealth) are black. Black Brazilians are also 23.5% more likely to be victims of homicide than Brazilians of other races, controlling for age, education, gender, marital status and place of residence.
The month of March commemorated both International Women's Day and the lesser-known International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, both calling for a reflection on the advances and challenges for gender and racial equality.
In Brazil, it's undeniable that discussions around privilege and representation gained more traction and brought more voices to the table. An example of this is a policy that has rolled out over the past decade which saw public university admission quotas for black and indigenous students — a subject of heated debate in Brazilian society.
Simultaneously, the recent brutal murder of politician Marielle Franco laid bare the risks those who publicly challenge power structures are exposed to.
Global Voices spoke with Flávia Rios, vice-coordinator of the Social Sciences program at Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. She spoke with us before Marielle's murder. Responses are slightly abbreviated.
Global Voices (GV): Brazil is among the 10 most unequal countries in the world. Women and black people are most affected by this. What recent advances can we really celebrate in the month of March?
Despite the setbacks in recent years, there have been advances, such a favorable resolution by the Supreme Court on transgender people's right to a social name, the creation of the feminicide crime, the expansion of affirmative action policies in higher education, especially in postgraduate programs, and in recruitment for civil service.
It is also important to celebrate the fact that there are less young black women doing domestic work, a professional category that is predominantly black and female, poorly paid, highly informal and with frequent presence of physical and psychological harassment and abuse — demonstrating strong structural ties with the slaveholding heritage.
In contrast, there are more black women completing educational cycles, such as middle and high school, compared to previous decades when there were no affirmative action policies.
Public policies and greater politicization of racial relations have challenged the fixed, archaic, and dusty stereotypes shaped by the conservative middle-class and elites of the country. This is happening through alternative means of communication, larger dissemination of academic research, engagement of new generations of activists, and new stories and images representing black men and women (diffused by the appropriation of audiovisual technologies).
In politics, we have a paradox: Black men and women dominate popular politics, on the streets, in neighborhoods and favela associations, and in civil society organizations, but they are severely underrepresented in the Executive, Legislative and Judicial powers. Even with affirmative action within political parties, Brazilian women have not managed to overcome the rigid inequalities in access to legislative seats. Non-white women (such as Black, Indigenous, and Asian women) aren't even represented stastistically. There is a lot to be done in the anti-racist and feminist struggles when it comes to distribution of power in Brazil. The power is still patriarchal and dominated by white men.
GV: Do you think Brazil still lives and reproduces the myth of racial democracy?
Recently, philosopher and activist Sueli Carneiro said that the new generations are no longer protected by the old etiquette of racial relations when racial democracy was a hegemonic discourse, based on the premise that there was no open racial conflict in Brazil.
I think she's correct. Brazilian society has changed a lot. The extreme right's hate speech has produced a neoconservatism that is different from the old conservatism, whose practices made the nation known by the term “racism a la Brazil”, which used to hide the great social and economic gap between white and black people in the country.
Today, however, we see groups that openly advocate racial hatred, especially in environments that once belonged exclusively to the white elite such as public and private universities. This new discourse has been amplified by the political crisis, and by reactions to affirmative action and racial equality politics.
But, the truth is, black individuals and women are no longer in the places of invisibility once imagined by the ruling classes and by those who held the monopoly of mass consumption representation in Brazil.
GV: What about institutional racism, how is it reflected in Brazil today?
Institutional racism operates, in most cases, in a coded way, when there are behaviors and practices shaped by excluding values, but sometimes veiled, with expressions such as “this work is not for you” or “we're looking for someone with a different profile”. They are discriminatory practices that merge into and are part of the system itself, present in the corporate culture or public bureaucracies which prevent access or progress for black men and women's careers.
There is also institutional racism when the government does not prioritize health, leisure and education in territories with a predominantly black or indigenous population or when laws and security policies are clearly based on racial profiling, as in law enforcement.
Researcher Flávia Rios. Personal Archive.
GV: Is Brazilian society more aware of the privileges of certain groups?
Discussions about privilege have gained traction, especially in the context of affirmative action in public universities. It was in that heated debate that the privilege issue emerged publicly, because it was the strongest demand of racial equality activists against the rhetoric of meritocracy, which in Brazil took a conservative tone. Conservative, because it offered no efficient alternative to overcoming racial inequalities. Instead, it clung to the idea that merit was a universal measure for university access. In fact, it was a rhetorical discourse to protect the children of the middle-class and the elite in public university spaces (known for higher quality of education in Brazil). These same classes appropriated and reproduced this same discourse.
Black people were not and are not against merit. They were and are against a meritocratic discourse that is blind to the structural advantages of white people in a society shaped by colonialism and slavery whose starting point leads to a great disadvantage for non-white people, especially indigenous and black people.
GV: In connecting racial movements and gender equality fights, the term “intersectionality” has been very much present. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Intersectionality can be understood in three ways: 1) as a concept of the social and legal sciences; 2) as a tool for political intervention; and 3) as a collective identity.
From a theoretical and conceptual point of view, originally coined by Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, the intersectional approach comes from North American black feminism which refuses to analyze inequality in a singular way. The multiple forms of social oppression and production of inequality are taken into account in a multidimensional approach, such as race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, nationality, generation.
Before I forget, we must undo the misconception that intersectionality refers to the sum of social, cultural, or economic disadvantages. That is, it is not a matter of measuring social suffering; it is a matter of analyzing the multiple causes of inequalities, whatever their nature, with no intention to rank them.
On the other hand, intersectionality as a tool for political intervention refers to the variables that, together, could reveal the situations in which disadvantages become urgent to a given social group. After identifying this, public policies are designed, understood as instrument of social intervention with the goal of promoting equity.
And with the construction of collective identity, intersectionality presents itself as a rejection of white, liberal feminism, which ignores the situation of black women and is also a way of criticizing the lack of acknolwedgement of gender and sexuality in the more traditional black feminism.
It is obvious that, when it comes Latin American feminism and the black feminism of the Americas, there is an intersectional perspective in the origins of its thinking. But it is a fact that this has not always been so. The visibility and urgency of LGBT people (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans) are themes and identities that are openly acknowledged in intersectional feminism.
GV: You are a black, intellectual woman with robust research background on racial issues. How does academia understand its role in fighting racist practices?
As a rule, academia has always been the privilege of white individuals. During the 20th century, we have had black scholars in the great Brazilian universities only rarely! The dominant rule was the monopoly of whiteness and Eurocentric thought.
In contrast, the vast majority of black researchers and intellectuals produced knowledge outside university institutions, either because they were discouraged in high school; or because they were late in entering undergraduate courses; or because they could not persist in an academic career due to a lack of resources, network support and relationships in and outside the scientific world; or because their themes and objects of study were considered minor or understood as activist choices. Academia used to see black people as objects of study, never as researchers or producers of legitimate knowledge.
It was only at the turn of the 21st century that we began having a greater presence of black students, undergraduates, postgraduates and professors, thanks to the effectiveness of affirmative action as well as the students’ demands for more content and research related to racial and gender issues. This change, although still slow, is already visible in scientific production and in the reduction of inequalities.
Translated by Isabela Carvalho