Black lives matter movement resonates in Brazil

(Video by Katherine Jinyi Li)

Over half of Brazil’s 200 million people self-identify as black.

Everyday, 82 young Brazilians are killed and 77% of them are black.

In the urban megapolis of São Paulo, the youth killed by police violence are three times more likely to be black than white.

Over the last year, #BlackLivesMatter made the issue of racist police violence impossible to ignore in American media and politics. Across the hemisphere to the south, Brazil’s voices of color are looking to Black America in planting the seeds for their own rise to justice.

“It’s not about copying Americans, but rather about observing your battles and successes, taking note of what works, and adapting it to our reality in Brazil,” says Silvia Nascimento, founding director of Brazil’s first online media for the black community, Site Mundo Negro, which names Black publications like Ebony and Essence as inspirations for the website.

“The history of struggle for equal rights in America precedes ours — slavery was abolished much later in Brazil,” Nascimento reminds us. “Today our ongoing fight for racial equality reflects what Black Americans were already accomplishing in the 70’s.”

When considering the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Nascimento points out that while surging from street protests and the social media masses, #BLM also boasts an impressive educated force of black professors, lawyers, politicians, journalists and cultural personalities. Brazil, a developing country, is still in the process of creating socioeconomic mobility for blacks, who only make up 6.3% of all college students.

A protester at the "March Against the Genocide of Black Youth" in São Paulo in 2014. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)
A protester at the “March Against the Genocide of Black Youth” in São Paulo in 2014. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)

Rather than a protest movement, black Brazilians raise awareness of black dignity through independent media and nonviolent marches.

Black Brazilians take regularly to the streets in the annual March Against the Genocide of Black Youth and March for Black Women. These marches are highly vigilated by the police but remain peaceful, unlike the violent clashes between protestors, black blocs, and military police during the nationwide public transport protests in 2013 and anti-World Cup protests last summer.

“We have these social situations in which it is obvious that blacks are underrepresented and undervalued while whites are always in a position of great power,” says Sheila de Carvalho, human rights lawyer at the Brazilian NGO Conectas.

In this year’s first racial census of the penal system, Brazil’s National Justice Council (CNJ) revealed that 85% of judges and 78% of lawyers are white, convicting a prison population that is 67% black.

“Affirmative action policies in the justice system ensures that those in the career actually reflect our society as an entirety, thus providing for a more nuanced social judgment,” says de Carvalho. “A judge [of color] may have lived through certain experiences that other judges raised with greater privileges would not be able to relate to or understand, an essential diversity of life backgrounds when faced with the very population that the justice system encircles.”

De Carvalho remembers being the only black law student in lecture halls of over one hundred at the prestigious Mackenzie University.

“Here in Brazil, we enter a designated space for elites and there will only be white faces, an absence of blacks that we have been conditioned to think of as normal,” she explains.

Sheila de Carvalho at the Conectas office on the Avenida Paulista. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)
Sheila de Carvalho at the Conectas office on the Avenida Paulista. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)

Black Brazilians often point to their own lost history and ignorance of important black figures in public education. Schools brush over the heroic battles of ex-slave warriors for free black communities and instead venerate European colonizers and immigrants (a not so foreign twist to the U.S. historical narrative). As a result, many of Brazilians’ references for black self-empowerment come from the U.S. or Africa.

Compared to Brazil, blacks in America have won over a solid stronghold in our generation’s conversation. References ranging from Obama to Oprah, Malcolm to Muhammed, Angela to Beyoncé, Black Panthers and #BlackTwitter and everything in between, blacks lead Americans of color in amplifying our voice in mass media and politics.

For blacks in Latin America, a unifying black identity is blurred out by a historical myth of racial mixing through colonization and slavery. Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso is famously known for having said “I too have one foot in the kitchen,” referring to a shared slave ancestry despite his obvious whiteness and elite class. Later denying the quote amidst media outcry, Cardoso nonetheless provided the perfect example of the Latin American fiction that racism can’t exist since we’re all “a bit black”.

In reality, racism still guides social norms between blacks and whites in Brazil. Tula Pilar, self-educated poet and long-time domestic worker, often writes of the abuse of her white bosses.

“They would take my notebooks from my hands, rip them up and tell me that studying wasn’t for people of my color,” she recalls.

Poet Tula Pilar Ferreira, at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)
Poet Tula Pilar Ferreira, at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)

Even today, a recognized performer with regular media appearances, Pilar faces discrimination in the art world. “When I go to read at poetry slams downtown, I get stopped at the door and questioned while the white attendees enter freely. But then I get on that stage and those same people shed tears at my words of truth.”

Pilar’s mother, also a domestic worker, was equally as discouraging to any dreams of pursuing her studies: “My daughter, we’re black, we’re poor, our world is a different one. Stop dreaming about things you can never have!”

Today, Pilar organizes “erotic” poetry slams for women in her working-class neighborhood. She teaches her children to wear their colorful head wraps proudly and speak to the police with confidence in their rights.

“Self-love, self-acceptance is a political act in itself,” says Nascimento of the cultural emphasis in Mundo Negro. “My mother and grandmother’s generation kept their heads down, but ours no.”