Preta, pretinha, black, blackie, nega, negress, and sometimes even cor do pecado, or color of sin. Here are some synonyms of affection for black women in Brazilian Portuguese. Women like me.
One could also identify me as an African-Brazilian, a child and grandchild of grandchildren of African descendants whose parents were brought in slavery by white European men since the country’s “discovery” in the 1500s. Today, I constitute a part of that 50.7% that makes half of the country’s population. Yet, growing up this felt different.
In my neighbourhood, school, and community, I always saw myself—my color and heritage—in the margins, living in a culture that never felt treated as entirely mine. Aside from Carnaval on television and housemaids in soap operas, there weren’t many of “my kind” to be found. Hence, I grew up an outsider: a question mark.
As my mother stepped into the elevator the first day after moving into our new apartment, a tenant looked at her skeptically before saying, “You know that this is the social elevator, right? The help is supposed to take the service one.”
We had recently moved into Sao Paulo’s Moema neighbourhood—a leap up Brazil’s restrictive socio-economic ladder at the time. The move marked my mother’s culmination of longing for better welfare as she worked hard to raise me on her own. It also marked a moment of luck; she’d won the lottery by marrying-up, a white man, not just white, but a nice and European one with enough of a successful career to provide for her and her daughter. Although I was young, I sensed what a big day this was for my mother. “You see, pretinha, our days of poverty are finally over,” she would say, smothering me in her own laughter and happiness as I began to get coiled between my thoughts.
Standing in that elevator, indignant with barely-bottled rage, I now remember as she stood straight and tall, in her high, brand new boutique heels holding my tiny hand with a firm grasp. As the lift slid up, I watched her fixate on the ascending numbers, her lips tight in silence. I watched as that blonde haired woman stood there next to us, planted, with a searching look of explanation in her big blue eyes; first at my mother, later down upon me. And finally, I remember the painful moment of comprehension. To the world, we were different and that wasn’t our place. Apparently the world was white.
Growing up, I have had more opportunities than anyone could ever ask for. Since age eleven, I’ve traveled the world and lived in four different countries. But in each country, the subtle colorism and racism is persistently present, though mostly veiled.
In expatriate circles, my family always stands out as the most colorful. My mother, a chocolate brown, my sister, coffee with milk, me, a dark mocha, and my stepfather, pale white. Mother, always smiling and charming, constantly searching for pride in the outlook of the family. Often, she would playfully joke that my stepfather was a lucky man to have his “fruits of the Earth” always beside him. An outdated euphemism from colonial times highlighted our colorful company next to his foreign, European whiteness. To her and the world, he was her lucky-charm. His privileged whiteness was a sign she made it in life. Finally, she could afford a safe and prestigious neighborhood, more than enough food on the table, a life dream of education for both her daughters, but especially her pretinha.
But she was also his lucky charm. An embodiment of his cultural and exotic affinity, a tropical surprise to show-off amongst his friends. Both from different worlds, yet with something longing in each. An attractive, yet distasteful reality. In their differences, there was a disturbing and suffocating truth—a compelling and engulfing awkwardness. Anyone who stood close enough to catch a glimpse of their lives could feel it. He was well read; she really wasn’t. He cared for newspapers and the economy whereas she preferred parties, easy going conversations, and laughter. For it was not love that brought them together but fantasy.
I often found myself against, sometimes drowning, in the dizzying current of awkwardness that was my “family situation.” Today I realize that the backdrop that shaped and sheltered me all my life was simultaneously the one that sometimes blindfolded me and pushed me over. This suffocating bitterness started during my teenage years in the already awkward realm that is romantic relationships. I’ve always held a crush on white boys, fantasized about them in my dreams, perhaps because they were the only kind around. But liking and dating them was never simple. Somehow, I always felt strange, different, or even inferior, like a plate for comparison. I never knew how to bring that up, so it was awkward.
Once I read that racism lives and breathes in everything you see and feel. The person you choose to sleep with or those you happen to have by you close and even love. Under covers, he caresses my hair. Instead of the romantic reverie of films, I find myself in a heightened state of alertness as questions keep rushing through my head. I feel how he explores my difference, the strange kinkiness of my hair or the shape of my body as I imagine him thinking of me in comparison to other women —white women — of his past.
I ask myself, “is he taken aback by it? Has my body become a fetish?” When this happens, I am immediately hit back home. I feel once again this insidious urge to play my role of the educated, non-confrontational kind, of the exceptional, anti-stereotypical “black.” To avoid being thought of as “angry” or “irrational,” I turn back to my mother’s silence in the elevator.
And that’s one thing about white privilege we usually tend to forget. You don’t have to wish for being like anything, instead you just get to be. No class, ideology, or education is ever able to get you that. It’s the luxury of not having to question who you are.
I just wish to break out from my skin and embrace life fully without the need to justify my feelings and actions.
But, everywhere, this is the baggage I must carry.