THE BLOG
01/06/2015 01:34 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Facing Racism In Brazil: Black Like Me

I'm not going to start this article saying that I'm the daughter of a white mother and a black father, because--well, it's a little bit like that, but not exactly. My mother is what we usually call a morena, with straight hair and a bit more of an indigenous appearance (and we know that straight hair automatically makes a Brazilian white). My dad was black, with white features (or "finer" features, as people would say about him). He was the son of a white father and a black mother.

And so I was born, a child "caught up in being-and-not-being-black," as Lia Siqueira perfectly defined it. And that was how I lived my childhood: I was considered phenotypically white, with light skin (I was called a Spaniard for years), really curly, chestnut, almost-blonde hair ("Goldilocks" was the nickname my grandfather game me), but with black features: a "thick" nose and pair of lips, for example. And, as time went by, that racial mix also came out in the shape of my body, becoming more pronounced. I was a hypersexualized child, and it didn't come out of nowhere. The harassment I endured in the street started early. My first memory of it was at 9 years old. Today, with perfect clarity, I can see that this was just a symptom of racism.

Clarity came slowly and in a way that wasn't even logical, but it helped me identify more and more varied situations in which I'd faced racism throughout my life. I'd always said I'd gotten bad service in clothing stores in the Rio Sul shopping mall in Rio de Janeiro (where I lived for 10 years) "because I had a poor person's face." And that's as much as I got. I never looked into it much. But what was the cause of my "poor person's face" in the eyes of these workers? My Bahian accent? Maybe. But, obviously, it wasn't just that. I just couldn't see it.

I started going to beauty salons around 5 or 6. And when my hair came out straighter, it was considered more stylish. People would compliment my curls, but they didn't make for "night out on the town" hair. It was only as an adult that I could see the prejudice in this opinion. Same thing as with people squeezing my nose to "sharpen it." And lots of people did. They even recommended that I try using a clothespin!

Today I don't worry so much about finding my ethnic identity. In the beginning, it was about hiding, about bias, an attempt to avoid realizing my own prejudice (because, at the end of the day, I called myself white). Maybe my first real awareness about all of this came when I moved from Brazil to Lima, Peru. There, I was "the Brazilian morena." In Spanish-speaking countries it's still common to use this euphemism, "moreno/morena," for black people, as if "black" was a curse word.

And it was from there, seeing myself through their eyes, that I, too, started to see myself. It was there, as a "morena," that I discovered that I had stopped being the white child that everyone was telling me I was. My skin was not white. It wasn't anymore. And this was probably the case long before my stay in Lima made it clear to me. I just hadn't noticed.

But the definitive moment came in a store called Doce Mania in Itaim Bibi, São Paulo, two days after I had returned to Brazil. My family and I crossed the street holding hands, but we let go of each other as we were entering the store. My oldest son, who was 7 at the time, came in with the two of us (me and my husband), a small distance from us, maybe. I was adjusting my bag on the back of a chair when we realized that store security was leading my son out of the store by his arm.

During those seconds of our stupor and reaction, the security officer asked us, nervously and skeptically: "Is the child with you?" We made a big stink. The manager came to apologize. We turned it into a public scandal. The store sent us a letter, formal and with half-hearted apologies (of the type that say, "we're not responsible because security personnel are a part of a third-party agency"). But, in the end, we didn't submit a formal complaint. And, to this day, when I stop and think, I ask myself "Why?" Why didn't we denounce the store for racism?

My son was dressed just like any other middle-class child. Obviously, the reason they were escorting him out was not social. It was racial, as in many similar cases. And I knew that even as it happened. But...we didn't make a formal complaint.

I always ask myself how the security guard didn't know he was with us. In the end, my husband and I aren't white. Our child is the perfection combination of the two of us.

Our son is black.

And to see him as black, to identify him as black, has been fundamental to my understanding. Even if that moment paralyzed me, in its very unexpectedness, it was also an epiphany: from then on, I couldn't pretend anymore that we weren't going to be victims of prejudice and/or racist acts. Because if my "being-and-not-being-black" had exposed me to more subtle prejudice, but spared me from being kicked out of places, it wouldn't spare my child. And my entire process of self-identification changed into being about us, not just about me.

Because of all of this, I have moved further and further toward militancy.

So that I know how to educate him, how to educate myself, how to empower him, how to empower myself, how to protect him, how to protect myself. So that he and I can learn together how to deal with situations like the situation in Doce Mania in the way that they should be dealt with. Not just writing about it on social networks - even though this type of publicity is a very important part of confronting and exposing the institutional racism that limits our relations - but also with the gravity that it deserves.

Mainly because, going on 13, he's becoming increasingly at risk of being murdered, in a culture that practices violence and kills black adolescents.

A year ago from now, he told me he wants to do his hair Black Power style. Not that he knows exactly what this represents--it could just be a fad-- but I know that the big curly hair that he's growing is the cool thing with his black school friends. And if he identifies with this and feels handsome this way, like them, I can see clearly that his search has already begun even though he hasn't realized it.

And, in truth, between my process and his, I think that this article was just a build-up to quoting a song by Marcelo D2 that I love: "Eu me desenvolvo e evolu com meu filho" -- "I develop and evolve with my child."

This post originally appeared on HuffPost Brazil and was translated into English.

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