I am a black woman, coming from a poor background. If these words are not enough to define me -- after all, which labels can really describe a person? -- they surely help me find my place in a social, historical and political context. I confess I have never had any inner conflicts regarding my poor origin; I have always talked about it with pride.
However, it took many years until I could recognize myself as a black person and as a woman.
Discovering myself as a black person was a process that I have started to describe here. Discovering myself as a woman is a journey that began with maternity and has been the focus of my attention, especially at Casa de Lua. These discoveries are not simple -- and wearing them on your sleeve is especially hard.
I have never believed in "natural" racial, ethnic or gender-related traits. But we are cultural beings, and we express (or not) characteristics of what it means to be black, to be a woman or to be poor in society, in the present time and with the traditions we carry with us. Jeans, a white T-shirt and no adornments have once been, in me, the non-expression of cultural traits I had just started to notice. Now, wearing a big, colorful turban over my curly hair and going anywhere with it is one of the most powerful expressions of how I see myself.
The thing is: a few weeks ago, I went to a work meeting at a formal institution, wearing an orange turban. Black trousers and shoes, a shirt, small earrings and soft makeup -- as the dress code seems to require -- and the less-than-discreet piece of cloth on my head. A few months ago, letting my curly hair down was a difficult decision, but on that day, disheveling it and adorning it with the vibrant turban before a work meeting was so natural that I didn't even ask myself if it was appropriate or not.
I worked with the same drive and commitment of my discreet hairdo days, of course. And towards the end of the construction of a relevant educational project that meets institutional needs and follows international recommendations, I had a surprise. When I was saying goodbye to the competent and friendly manager who had hired me as a consultant, I heard that everyone in the department was talking about my courage in wearing the turban.
What? Courage? I spent a few seconds wondering why wearing a turban would be a sign of courage. And why would these people feel the need to talk about this courage? Why would that woman, so sensitive and professional, someone I had created a strong professional bond with and enjoyed talking to, send me that message?
I spend days reflecting about the weight of that "courage". Working for a large institution wearing an orange turban is to express my identity -- incisively -- not only as a woman, but as a black woman. This self-affirmation is not what people expect from a woman aiming for professional success. Especially when she is black.
In a patriarchal society, a woman who wants to be recognized for her intelligence and professionalism can't wear adornments. Besides, and I think you'll agree with me, a black woman can't be a well-paid consultant, an expert in a specific subject, who has published books and gained recognition. And when a black woman occupies this unusual position, people expect that she will at least tie her hair up -- or straighten it.
With or without a turban, showing yourself as different is really an act of courage.
This blog post was translated from the original Portuguese.