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By Camille Trannoy

May 04, 2021

The activists Elisa Lucinda (photo by Fabiana Reinholz), Kelly Silva Baptista (photo by Felipe Adati) and Erica Malunguinho (photo by Comunicação Alesp), speakers at the Conférence Pour Le Brésil 2020

Brazil is often praised for its diversity and rich culture. This heterogeneity in its traditions is the direct product of the variety of its inhabitants’ origins, which is associated twith a very dark part of the country’s history: slavery and racial discrimination.

Today, 56% of Brazilians are black. Education, health, violence, police brutality, politics, income: all areas of society are affected by racial inequalities. Of black adults, 9,1% are analphabets (versus 3,9% of white adults) and 9,3% have a university degree (versus 22% of white people). Furthermore, 75% of people assassinated are black, 67% of incarcerated people are black, and only 24% of federal deputies are black, according to BBC Brasil.

Before its abolition in 1888, slavery was one of the foundations of Brazil’s economic system. The descendants of this system still suffer its consequences, and the State is insufficient in promoting public policies that reduce racial inequalities. Since racism is at the structural basis of Brazilian society, it is necessary to go further and work on deconstructing Brazilian cultural, social and psychological representations.

Conférence Pour le Brésil asked three inspiring black women, recognized figures of black activism in Brazil, what, in their opinion, could be done to promote awareness and change on racial issues.

The necessary reinvention

The diagnosis given by our three distinguished speakers was clear: the system, as it exists today, is racially biased. The solution that has been central in black movements is: if the system — how race relations operate in Brazilian society — doesn’t properly take into account black people’s lives and experiences, then the system should be changed and reinvented to include them.

Érica Malunguinho, based on her knowledge and personal experience of politics in Brazil, as she was elected into state congress in 2018, explains how the current political scene has difficulties providing a proper representation of racialized individuals and their concerns. She explains for example how the Brazilian left parties, considered the ones closest to the black movement reivindications, were initially created around the concept of class struggle. The division by class is a European concept that, according to her, does not apply in the Brazilian society, where wealth inequalities are intimately linked with race and the history of slavery. Therefore, the existing political parties can not represent black people to the fullest extent, and she calls on black citizens to create their own political experiences and reform the existing political structure.

Elisa Lucinda, a well-known artist and activist, talks about paternalism and how the knowledge and culture of black people is constantly undermined and delegitimazed. She gives the example of the words we use to characterize black people’s cultures: the sciences and religions of black people will be called “superstition”, whereas languages will be called “dialects”. By the use of semantic, the creativity and knowledge of black culture will be erased to the profit of traditional, white knowledge, considered more “appropriate”. We can also link this discussion to the debate around cultural appropriation, and how white culture appropriates black knowledge in order to make it appear more “scientific” and generate profits: it is the case for example of phytotherapy, homeopathy and a wide variety of medicines based on the knowledge of plants, many of which are traditional black knowledge.

Kelly Silva Baptista, member of the Fundação 1Bi, an organization that helps young people from underprivileged areas access technology, mentions how technology is mostly designed by white people and can therefore present a racial bias. For example, the Google image search program does not forbid that when we search for “Black people”, images of monkeys appear. This bias shows how in some areas that can appear racially neutral, such as technology, the lack of inclusion of black professionals can have very concrete, damaging consequences.

Coming back to the roots: community and black culture

After coming to the realization that the system was often built by and for white people, and that areas that can seem neutral at first sight,such as politics, language or technology, actually exclude black people from their well-functioning, a simple question arises: what can we do to change it? Our guests also agree on a potential solution: the fight against racism will be protagonized by black people, using tools they already have. The central idea they explore is about coming back to roots, to black culture and skills that will allow activists to create an alternative model.

Elisa Lucinda mentions the importance of art as education. The arts, but more broadly the culture, and also the history and sciences of black Brazilians were too often ignored, forgotten or despised. The first step is creating an education around black culture in order to learn what it means to be Black in Brazil — what knowledge was created by this population.

The second important step is, to use the expression of Érica Malunguinho, keep in touch with the “everyday of Blackness”, which means stay in contact with the reality of our black neighbors, friends or family. In doing so, we ought to listen to people that are directly concerned by racial issues and hear their ideas. The main goal is to create a sense of community and solidarity built around a shared history and reality and to find the tools necessary to re-think, among black people and their culture and ideas, society’s structure.

Érica founded a few years ago a “quilombo urbano” called Aparelha Luzia. “Quilombo” is a word used to describe, historically, the settlement of black slaves that had escaped. The idea behind the re-actualization of this historical concept is to take as example and inspiration the initiatives of political and social organizations that already exist within the black community. The tools to rethink social structures will come from black people being able to organize, share their ideas and hopes; that will lead to political mobilization and the realization of racial equality.

About our guests

Kelly Silva Baptista is a member of the Fundação 1Bi, an organization that works with education through and about technology, with a wider aim at providing the same opportunities for all. She is a feminist and Black activist and entrepreuneur. She recently launched the podcast “Vozes Femininas” (feminine voices), to raise awareness on different issues that concern women.

Érica Malunguinho is a politician, she became in 2018 the first transgender person to be elected in the Assembly of São Paulo. She is also the founder of Aparelha Luzia, an urban “quilombo” that provides black people with a space to exchange their ideas and enjoy different manifestations of art and culture.

Elisa Lucinda is a poetess, journalist, writer, singer and actress. She has been for a long time an advocate for black people’s rights and equality. Blackness is a recurrent theme in her artistic productions. She is the founder of “Casa-Poema”, an institution that teaches orality and communication through poetry. Her latest book is “Vozes Guardadas” (Kept Voices), published in 2016.

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