Afro-Brazilian Feminists and the Fight for Racial and Gender Inclusion

Activists at the National Black Women’s March Against Racism, Violence and for Well Being in Brazil. (Courtesy of Feministing)

In 1979, Afro-Brazilian feminist Leila Gonzalez wrote a critique of the National Encounter of Women that drew much-needed attention to the lack of intersectional analysis among white feminists in Brazil. Highlighting white feminists’ exclusionary practice, Gonzalez asserted that oppression incited by white women had fostered divisions with black women who aligned themselves with the feminist movement:

Our participation caused contradictory reactions… [W]hen we began to speak about racism and its practices in terms of black women, there was no longer unanimity. Accusations were made that our comments were emotional by some…. but representatives from the poorest regions understood us perfectly (most of them were mesticas). All the uproar caused by our position pointed to the main issues for us: political lag: (principally of groups that consider themselves to be more progressive); and the necessity of denying racism in order to hide another issue: the exploitation of black women by white women.

Although Gonzalez’s critique was written almost forty years ago, it remains relevant in contemporary feminist political movements in Brazil. A recent article by Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys examines the marginalization of black women within the Brazilian feminist movement. Emphasizing a personal experience, Brown-Comegys revealed that she was one of only three black women included in the women’s celebration during International Women’s Day in Rio de Janeiro.

For Afro-Brazilian women, many inequities pervade their lives, including racism, sexism, violence, and economic disparity. Historically, many Afro-Brazilian women have occupied subalternate economic positions, such as maids and sex workers. Although Afro-Brazilian women face daily discrimination in white and black male-dominated spaces, it is imperative to understand how racial and gendered prejudice—and even violence—have been produced by white Brazilian feminists.

Students at International Women's Day, Rio de Janeiro, 2015. Source: ChinaDaily.
Students at International Women’s Day, Rio de Janeiro, 2015. Source: ChinaDaily.

Moreover, the marginalization conducted by white feminists in Brazil, the country with the largest Black population in the Americas, showcases the global normative value of the white feminist paradigm as a non-intersectional, white matriarchal structure steeped in Eurocentric and patriarchal ideals of racism and sexism towards the Africana woman.

In her essay “Racialized Boundaries: Women’s Studies and the Question of ‘Difference’ in Brazil,” Kia Lilly Caldwell discusses notions of difference in the racial politics of feminism in Brazil, providing a comparative analysis of Women’s Studies scholarship in the United States, England, and Canada. Just as several Black American feminist scholars—including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hills-Collins, and Vivian V. Gordon—have challenged the pitfalls of white feminism in the United States, the same holds true in Brazil, where Afro-Brazilian women’s voices have been overlooked, especially in the field of Women’s Studies. According to Caldwell, Afro-Brazilian feminists’ “critical insights regarding the intersection of race and gender have not been made central to the research objectives and priorities of women’s studies.” Moreover, because of such intentional oversight of Black Brazilian feminists’ concerns, much of their contributions and achievements within the women’s movement have not been acknowledged. Thus, the perspectives of their livelihoods and the effects of racism, sexism, and machismo have been overlooked in academic scholarship.

Because of these inequities, many Black Brazilian women who were working with Black liberation organizations and associations were skeptical to be affiliated under the auspices of feminism. A 1997 interview with Marta, an activist in the Belo Horizante chapter of the Movimento Negro Unificado (United Black Movement, or MNU) offers important insights into how Afro-Brazilian activists in these organizations felt disconnected to the white Brazilian feminist framework:

I do not assumo (claim/identify with) the term feminist. … I assumo the following: I am negra. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a woman who struggles for a better society. I am a worker. And within this condition, it is clear that I am a woman before anything else…. I am a mulher negra (black woman). I am organized within the black movement. But I think that it is possible to exchange with these other sectors, but never in a subordinated position. I will not allow this in any way.” When I asked Marta to expound upon her views of feminism, she responded by stating: “Perhaps I am a negra jeminista (black feminist), but I am a negra before anything else. My starting point … being a mulher negra (black woman) is fundamental for me.” Instead of referring to herself as a feminista negra, as many black feminists do, Marta self-identifies as a negra feminista.

A 2015 article, “We Are Not Equal,” echoes the chronic concerns and frustrations that Marta and other Black Brazilian feminists have expressed. Author Mara Gomes adamantly asserts that silence and exclusion are no longer options for Black women in the feminist movement. Moreover, she argues that no matter how many times middle-class white feminists try to equate their plights to those of Afro-Brazilian, indigenous, and trans women in Brazil, their experiences are not the same. Advocating for the critical need for safe and sovereign spaces for Black feminists, Gomes also critiques the contradictory values of white feminism, which desires to unite under the guise of “all women” but continues to segregate, discriminate, and function from a hierarchical position of white privilege.

Despite such marginalization, Afro-Brazilian feminists have catalyzed a series of socio-political movements to assert their intersectional consciousness. Collectives and blogs such as Geledes Instituto da Mulher Negra, Casa de Cultura da Mulher Negra, and Black Women of Brazil are some examples of the inclusionary power of Black Brazilian feminists and the need to distinguish themselves outside the auspices of the white feminist regime.

A central organization formulated in response to machismo and white feminism was The Colectivo de Mulheres Negras de Sao Paulo (Black Women’s Collective of Sao Paulo). According to Caldwell, this organization played a critical role, serving as a “response to black women’s exclusion from the newly formed Conselho Estadual da Condicao Feminina (State Council on the Feminine Condition, CECF)” in early 1984. Although Governor Franco Montorro had seemingly good intentions to be more inclusive of women in Brazilian society when creating the council, he was criticized by black women about his choice to include 30 white women on the council. Indeed, it was only after black women’s outcry that two black women were nominated to the council.

In order to combat the anti-Black, Eurocentric aesthetic standards that have permeated Brazil, Afro-Brazilian women created coalitions to encourage and provide self-care to Black communities, and in particular, to other Black women. Events such as Miss Black Power Brazil serve as community engagement and encouragement platforms. Celebrated on Brazil’s Black Consciousness Day every November 20, the event—which was held in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro—embraced Black women wearing their natural hair, refuting the Brazilian beauty and hair standards that Black women must straighten their hair to be considered beautiful. Last year, Afro-Brazilian women held their first natural empowerment hair march in Salvador da Bahia called the Marcha do Empoderamento Crespo, which addresses the interconnectedness of politics of hair, prejudice, and protest.

Maria Prisele, winner of the 2014 Miss Black Power Competition in Rio de Janeiro. Source: Zimbio.
Maria Prisele, winner of the 2014 Miss Black Power Competition in Rio de Janeiro. Source: Zimbio.

While racialized state violence statistics showcase that Black male adolescents are routinely murdered every 23 minutes in Brazil, police brutality is also pervasive among Afro-Brazilian women. To address racialized state violence, gender-based violence, and in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States, Brazilian youth rallied against police violence in Sao Paulo as well as in Ferguson and New York in 2014. In Salvador da Bahia, Cetilá Itas, an Afro-Brazilian woman activist, is the leader of the #BlackLivesMatter sect known as #VidasNegrasImportam. Itas’s work and initiatives led by others underscore how black women are at the center of movements for more inclusion—especially along the lines of race, gender, class, and sexuality—in Brazil.

In order for Black Brazilian feminists to assert their agency, it is imperative that they continue to create arenas in which their racialized and gendered perspectives are articulated and recognized, and that their efforts for inclusion are implemented by and on their own terms—and not overlooked by mainstream white feminism and the patriarchy.

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Jaimee A. Swift

Jaimee A. Swift is a PhD student at Howard University, studying the intersections of race, gender, ethnicity, and politics within the Afro-Brazilian Women's Movement. She is also Editor-at-Large for The Hilltop newspaper at Howard University. Her writings have appeared in several media outlets, including The Huffington Post, The Grio, and For Harriet. Follow her on Twitter @JaimeeSwift.