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Between nowhere and recognition

In October 2010 I stepped foot for the first time in France. I had just finished my bachelor degree in Social Sciences, I had saved some money from an internship and I was lucky to have the support from my family to follow a dream: to learn Flaubert's language and then start a master's degree. At that time, at the age of 22, I was beginning to understand the complexities of being a young black woman in Brazil, but I had no idea how this would be in another country. Nor did I know the impact this experience would have on the person I am today.

In Brazil I belong to the middle class. I grew up in São Paulo and in the countryside. I’ve had several opportunities and some privileges throughout my life, but I also grew up knowing that I wasn't like the other girls at school: I was the girl with the bad hair, the hair that shrank for no reason, the Choquito (a popular chocolate brand from Brazil), “the brown bean". When I was a child, I realized that this happened because of my skin, but I didn't understand the reason why they insisted on hurting me. When I became a teenager and young adult, my body became objectified. It was linked to the forbidden pleasure. Also: my skin color isn’t very dark, so people constantly told me I couldn’t say I was a black woman. These three things have affected me: 1) the way other kids treated me and my body’s objectification, 2) my partial social acceptance because of my social class and 3) the constant need to prove myself as a black woman. It was only over time that I understood the complexity of these structures. When I first arrived in France, I was categorized by French people as métisse. I used to listen: "Papa Français, Maman Martiniquaise” or “C’est qui le noir dans ta famille?”. This "mixed" category bothered me because it pushed me towards a category that did not correspond to my experiences or to how I identified myself. It didn’t include the complexity of race relations in Brazil. Behind these sentences, I felt sometimes an unconscious attempt to tell me “don't worry, you are not that black.” Racism in France, and later in Switzerland, where I went for my master's degree in sociology, pushed me back to the need for self-affirmation as a black woman. It also bothered me about the hyper-sexualization of my body, of my features. The constant seductive and reductive charm attributed to my léger accent. I remember countless discussions in which I repeated that their discourse was reducing me and my story. People often told me that in Africa I would not be considered black. It hurt me. Even though I felt I had no place and perhaps precisely because of it, it was during this experience outside Brazil that I was able to return to my origins and establish my roots. I read, studied and saw how people circulated around the city. How black, Latin, Arab, Asian and white people saw me.

Antonio Mora -

Geneva, a city of immigrants, is filled with a multiplicity of cultures. The city also has social mobility, and it was not uncommon to see people of different ethnicities everywhere (in schools, restaurants, bars, museums). Despite the smaller number of black people than in Brazil, it was there that I saw them occupying the most different positions in society. I've met there people from the most different backgrounds, which allowed me to learn about different visions of racism, xenophobia, sexism. All these prejudices work as invisible lines, creating concrete boundaries.

Symbolically, as a result of chance and fate, it was in Geneva in 2013 that my flat iron broke. I had been ironing my hair for four years and I still can remember the electric crack when it burned and the word that came into my head: finally. The broken flat iron was a kind of liberation being granted to me. It was only later that I realized that I was already, internally, free.

My hair’s roots started to curl at the same time I was understanding my origins. In Geneva, unlike what girls/boys live during hair transition in Brazil, no one cared about my hair. I was free to be me. I started to care less about those who didn’t understand the complexity of my identity. I started pointing to the racist situations I experienced and/or witnessed: at work, at the university, in relationships. As my master I chose to study Brazilian women’s perception about cervical cancer screening, which led me to feminism and intersectionality. Two pillars that pointed out to me what it was like to be a Brazilian woman from the African diaspora.

In 2015 I came back to Brazil understanding how people saw my family, my body and me. I came back with a greater understanding of the position I have in society, a position which will be frequently questioned. I started to work with social projects and racism was there again. My identity and presence was/is subtly questioned. Once, in one of the countless discussions about racism, a co-worker told me that people probably don't see me as black woman due to my middle class status and the places that I go to. But in reality they do: I am not seen as the coordinator or the person in charge of projects. I am always perceived as the caregiver, the cleaner, or the one who has its speech interrupted. I am not the person who is waiting for meetings, nor the one who they suppose that speaks English, French or the one who will actually do the presentation. It is for me that people say: I didn’t think you look like that, when they meet me in person after exchanging emails. Although my class status allows me a greater social mobility, my black body will never be white. Having gone to France and having done my masters in Geneva helped me to understand the racial structures in Brazil. This experience helped me to be able to see the racism lines, even though I am not able to undo all of its knots. Today I am aware that during all my life I will walk through these lines. Over and over again I will be pushed to this non-place, where I will have to impose myself, in a constant struggle to be heard and seen. But, at each return at this point I will carry with me the knowledge that I am on this path not only for me, but for all those who will come after me. Finally: two years after I had returned to Brazil, in 2017-2018, I received a scholarship to do a two-month research internship in France. At this second time in France, I worked with immigrants from Africa, who welcomed me as their sister. And there is something about this that can not be put into words.

Photos: Isabela Vieira Bertho, personal archive.

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