“Ain’t I A Woman” Too? | Djamila Ribeiro On Social Justice, Black Feminism And The Place Of Speech
Brazilian philosopher, writer and columnist Djamila Ribeiro is one of the most authoritative voices of Black feminism. As an anti-racist, pro-LGBQT+ fighter against patriarchy, her dissemination of work by Black and Indigenous authors through her editorial series Feminismos Plurais, is making history. Listed by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2019, her book O que é lugar de fala? (2017) (Place of Speech) has been translated into Italian, French and Spanish.
One immediately feels at home going through the pages of Ribeiro’s book. Thoughts and reflections become more solid and cogent and one feels grateful to the large family of Black women that have built this home for us, intervening in time and space with their bodies, their thoughts and their voices of resistance.
Having one’s own place of speech or claiming a place of speech means existing and defining oneself according to one’s own terms. It means dismantling hierarchies, opposing a dominant language and a hegemonic vision while showing the existence of other geographies of reasoning and knowledge, which have not always been acknowledged throughout history; but, first and foremost, it means deconstructing a social identity that has been reified by the white and colonialist norm that creates and divides people into social groups, it means entering an insidious labyrinth.
Ribeiro explores this and much more in her essay, starting with Sojourner Truth, the Black American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was already challenging the representation of women within white feminism in 1851. She rejected a universalising gaze that did not take the differences of her position as a Black woman — born in slavery — on the fringes of society into account with the iconic question: “Ain’t I a woman?”. In our skype and email conversations, we delved into her personal life and Brazil’s history; the state of amnesia in which the country finds itself, the myth of racial democracy and the importance of Black feminism today.
GRIOT: Djamila, tell me about yourself, about your childhood. Where were you born and raised?
Djamila Ribeiro: I’m from Santos, on the coast of the state of São Paulo. The city is internationally known thanks to football and to players such as Pele and Neymar. But it is also home to the largest port in South America. My father was a docker, a job that at the time was considered public, so the category had its own hospital and boarding school. I belong to the last generation that was able to experience this. I witnessed the privatisation of the port and my father, a trade unionist and founder of the Communist Party of the city, took me and my three siblings to the workers’ demonstrations against the privatisation Today, Santos is a city with a large reactionary majority, Bolsonaro voters, but at that time it was known as a “red” city …
On the paternal side, my childhood was charged with politics: I spent my days at the port, at the Brazilian-Soviet Union Cultural Center, and there I learned to play chess; on the maternal side it was characterised by Afro-Brazilian traditions, mainly thanks to my mother, a domestic worker who became a housewife after marrying my father. My grandmother on my mother’s side, Yalorixá, was a Candomblé priestess, to which my mother was very devoted. She introduced me to the cult of the orixás when I was 8 years old.
When I was twenty I started working at the Casa de Cultura da Mulher Negra (House of Black Women’s Culture) in Santos, then led by the great Brazilian black feminist Alzira Rufino. It was there, in the Carolina Maria de Jesus library which is dedicated to the great black writer born in the Canindé favela in São Paulo, that I came into contact with the literature of these incredible women. In that library I met Lélia González, Neuza Santos Souza, Sueli Carneiro, Jurema Werneck, Beatriz do Nascimento, to name a few; Black writers who inspired me and still inspire me a lot.
I had to quit that job to manage the death of my parents, which occurred within a few years of each other due to cancer. I took care of both of them in hospital and this made me suffer greatly. Then I got pregnant. I was a mother and a housewife, before starting to work as a receptionist for a company at the port. At 27, I left that job to attend university. This is where I started, from this knowledge that forged me and that formed the Brazil I love.
The way that Brazil markets itself abroad, most people are not aware of the violence, or the systemic and structural racism that pervades Brazilian society or the public security policies that criminalise Black and poor people in the favelas. Why does Brazil insist on such romanticized representation of the country?
The myth of racial democracy, that romantic idea that there is no racism in Brazil, has greatly compromised the awareness of racial issues. This image has been exported to the rest of the world. This country was one of the last to abolish slavery, afternearly 400 years. After abolition and during industrialization, there was an incentive for European immigrants in support of the official “white-washing” policy. Talking about racism in Brazil means, above all, having a debate about structures.
There is this idea in Brazil that slavery has been softer than in other places, which prevents us from understanding how it still has an impact on the way society is organised as a system. It is necessary to recognise the violence that took place during slaveryand many Brazilian intellectuals deny this idea of “soft” slavery. Of course, we need to differentiate the experience of racism in Brazil from that of other countries, but this does not mean that we are not a racist country. The myth of racial democracy, which was conceived and disseminated by sociologists belonging to the economic elite in the mid-20th century, claims that in Brazil, racial conflicts have transcended in favour of the harmony between blacks and whites, which translated into mixture and the absence of segregation laws. But at the same time, this myth keeps the black population from exercising their rights.
Lélia Gonzalez, an important black Brazilian intellectual, spoke of a “Brazilian cultural neurosis”, i.e. the attempt to talk about supposed bridges that unite us, or selling of the idea that Brazil is the country of Samba and Carnival, while at the same time maintaining the groups that produce this culture in a position of subordination. The absence of black people in places of power in Brazil is evident and frightening. This is why it is important to know the story told from the perspective of black and indigenous peoples.
Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888. Hence, the remnants of that system are still present and the eradication process is very slow, especially if we consider that in the last elections people gave a clear indication to where they wanted the country to go—or to return.
Brazil never promoted a policy of inclusion for the black population, not even after abolition, while it incentivized the arrival of European immigrants instead, who—of course— arrived in conditions of poverty and had to work, but it was far from slavery. Italian, German and French immigrants received land from the government, which black and indigenous populations never received. Instead they were targeted with policies that resulted in mass male incarceration and in women being relegated to domestic work. From a theoretical point of view, the official white-washing policy promoted by the Brazilian state was based on the formulations of scientific racism, as in the works of [Raimundo] Nina Rodrigues and Arthur de Gobineau, which are still deeply rooted today. Therefore, Brazil is the country with the largest number of Italian descendants and the treatment reserved for these immigrants makes the difference. It is common to meet Italian descendants at the helm of companies, university departments, holding public offices, etc. Bolsonaro is a common surname in the Veneto region [in Italy], for example. So, it is a very complex situation.
A country with a history of colonial violence which has gone through a 20-year dictatorship without any torturer ever being tried and which hides racism and talks about racial democracy can only be tormented by the echoes of the past — to quote Grada Kilomba. Bolsonaro’s electorate is, for the most part, white and male. His election derives from a complex electoral scenario. Poor black populations, who made up the majority of the opposition electorate, experience a process of social vulnerability which often prevents them from having an electoral “title” and from voting. Those who do face difficulties.
On the eve of the last elections, the names of the people who had not registered their biometric data were canceled, that is over 3 million people, mostly in the Northeast region where the opposition is strongest. And this is just one of the many faces of the elections. Another is the fraud carried out by the dissemination of false information through social media, which are negligent and make profit through spreading lies and hatred. A further aspect is also represented by the institutional left, which is European and it refuses to discuss race, and is held hostage by some families that control the media. Finally, a majority is not the whole, and although Bolsonaro was elected, this statement hides many others that are spoken but not heard, especially by the progressive institutional sphere that is interested in maintaining white supremacy.
The Bolsa familia social welfare programme, launched in 2006, was like a revolution. It pushed many people out of endemic poverty, facilitating, among other things, an increase in schooling, and it was especially addressed to women. You are part of a generation of women who accessed higher education, an opportunity that was a mirage for many, thanks to a series of policies put in place in that same period by the PT. Where is Brazil today in terms of access to culture and university education for the most marginalised?
In fact, there were important policies during the PT governments in Brazil. The Federal law on quotas, the expansion of public universities, the titling of some territories of the Quilombos, programmes such as Bolsa Família, the creation of Secretariats such as that of the ministry to tackle racism and violence against women. However, it is important to note that the first university to adopt quotas in Brazil was the State University of Rio de Janeiro, in 2001, the second was the University of Brasilia, in 2004.
I am part of a generation that had access to public policies in the education area, especially during the Lula government, and this access has made it possible to break the cycles of exclusion. That government made progress in many ways, although we can criticise it in other respects.
Sadly, under the Bolsonaro government we are experiencing a chaotic situation today due to the dismantling of many of these policies and the strengthening of a punitive approach with regards to public safety. For example, there are no funds for policies tackling violence against women in the Bolsonaro government, which means “let them die”, given that Brazil has the fifth highest femicide rates and fourth highest child marriage rates. There have been budget cuts for public universities, cuts in research, attacks on science. Alongside this, austerity measures are strengthening the neoliberal logic of dismantling public health. Given that the black population is the one that depends the most on public health, it is not surprising that Covid-19 is five times more deadly for them than for the rest of the population.
In a recent speech at the Prince Claus Awards (December 2019), you highlighted that 90% of the books published in the last 50 years in Brazil were written by white men. However, in 2017 you started an important project: the coordination of the Feminismos Plurais editorial collection (Sueli Carneiro brand / Polén Livros editions) which promotes the publication of Black and Indigenous authors at affordable prices, opening and democratising access to culture. How many authors have you published? How are the readers responding?
On that occasion I cited important research by Regina Delcastagné of the University of Brasília, who found that in a period of fifty years (up to 2014) 90% of the books published by major publishers were written by white people, 70% of which were white men. Conceição Evaristo, a great black Brazilian writer, gave an interview in which she said that we must question the system that made her known to the general public at the age of 70. We really do have to do it.
Conceição also argues that the hardest thing for a black woman is not to write, but to be published, as there is the historical practice of invisibilizing the productions that come from this social group. So, in the face of this history of the country, I realized that it was important to create an initiative that published black people, in an accessible form and with a critical racial content, as a way to question the narrative imposed by hegemonic social groups. And that was when I created the Sueli Carneiro publishing brand, in honour of the great black feminist, a pioneer on many fronts, who was honoured in life —sadly uncommon for black women.
The Sueli Carneiro brand works in collaboration with the Pólen Livros publishing house: we divide the costs of production, transport, everything, as well as the revenues. It was an innovative formula for the Brazilian market. The outcome has been incredible, with dozens of Black people published, starting with Sueli Carneiro’s own book, Escritos de uma vida (Writtens of a life), a work that makes a historiography of the struggles of Black women in the country. It was the first book published by Sueli, who is seventy years old and has a lifetime of intellectual production but had never been published. This is the level of racism in the Brazilian publishing market.
In addition to the book by Sueli Carneiro, the brand has published Ó Paí, Prezada! Racismo e Sexismo tomando bonde nas penitenciárias brasileiras by Black feminist Carla Akotirene, as well as Mulheres Quilombolas (Quilombo’s women), an unpublished work of productions by the women of the Quilombo, which are communities founded by slaves who fled from the plantations and which still resist today. The brand also publishes the Feminismos Plurais series, which currently has eight titles, starting with my first work O que é lugar de fala? [Place of speech] translated into Italian by Capovolte [in French Place de la parole noire, ANACAONA; in Spanish, Lugar de enunciación].
The collection includes Encarceramento em Massa by Juliana Borges; Joice Berth’s Empoderamento; Racismo Estrutural, by Silvio Almeida; Interseccionalidade by Carla Akotirene; Racismo Recreativo by Adilson Moreira; Apropriação Cultural by Rodney William and Intolerância Religiosa, by Sidnei Nogueira. It’s been a great success. The collection alone has already sold over 100,000 copies and it is a compulsory bibliography for a large majority of degrees, not to mention reading clubs, schools, and so on.
Furthermore, making these authors visible has led to a fantastic result in the public debate. They were pioneering actions in this sense, starting with the critical racial debate at an affordable price. Among other transformative actions, in the launch phase we distributed thousands of books for those who could not afford to buy them in partnership with a cosmetics company.
Starting from the thinking of historical women such as Soujouner Truth, Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Collins, Audre Lorde, Lélia Gonzalez, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Patricia Collins, and several contemporary intellectuals, including Grada Kilomba, Linda Alcoff, you highlight our condition of otherness: being the other of the other, both with regards to the white woman in the gender debate, and to the Black man in the debate on racism. You highlight the need to break with universalising incomplete categorisations that exclude, hide and silence. Why is black and intersectional feminism important? And why, is it important not to perceive it as divisive?
Black feminism is the struggle for an alternative model of society. It is not a fixation of identity in itself, but thinking about why some identities are oppressed and others have benefits. Whiteness and masculinity are in turn identities. Without this discussion, how can we unravel the historical processes that place the Black population in general and the Black woman in particular in a marginalised social place with fewer opportunities? Black feminism is the fight against all forms of oppression, it is the fight against the fragmentation that capitalism, racism and sexism create in society by placing the black woman at the base and the white man at the top. It is a project for society.
Let’s talk about social media. You have a million followers on Instagram and Facebook, and you use these platforms to educate and confront racism, sexism and class discrimination, all of which find fertile ground on social media. You recently launched the “Stop hate for profit” campaign on your channels. What was this about?
I recently did a sponsored post about a company that runs taxi rides referring to coronavirus protective measures for taxi drivers. The post was crucial in material terms, to keep paying a mostly black team which runs a black publishing project that needs some people to follow the market. Based on this post, fake news was spread that I was against the strikes by food delivery riders and other falsehoods, such as the one that I was against domestic workers. It is interesting to note that, among other things, I had already demonstrated in favour of the strike, and I previously denounced the situation of domestic workers in the country in my writings, being — among other things — the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of domestic workers myself.
My work and personal history did not help me, my name was the trending topic for a whole day on Twitter, where I do not have an account and could not defend myself. The lies piled up like a snowball, I received curses and lots of hostility. The following day, threatening messages were sent to my and my daughter’s mobile phones, which took me to a police station for the first time in my life.
The normalised violence in the words of the trending topics were mixed with the sponsored ads of TV series’ platforms and, ironically, delivery apps. So, many users who swore they were making a revolution by attacking a black woman, were just working for free for a billionaire’s company that profits from misogyny, racism and lies. After going to the police, together with the black movements I asked the federal public ministry to investigate the “economic exploitation of racism and misogyny”, with a thesis written by my lawyer in the case, Adilson Moreira, who is also the author of the brilliant book, Racismo Recreativo (Racism for Recreation).
The action we presented is based on a research by Amnesty International, which found that black women are 84 times more likely to suffer assaults than white women, as it also emerges from Luiz Valério Trindade’s research, who is a black Brazilian intellectual Phd in Sociology at the University of Southampton (UK). By researching social networks, Trindade has found that black women represent 81% of the targets of online attacks. These attacks, he argues, depend on the unease that their rise and their impact have in a racist and macho society.
In our action, the legal team is asking for compensation for collective damages against black women to be allocated in a fund in order to fight racism, as well as the implementation of an external and independent body to verify compliance with the rules, to formulate guidelines and a code of conduct for social platforms.
The action awakened something in me that had been tormenting me for years. Before the threats, I had already been invited to an international meeting for the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which was born in the United States to question the profit that these companies make through hatred. In the US, it is an initiative by the ADL (Anti Defamation League) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and it is focused on discouraging companies to publish ads on these platforms. I met the director of the institution, Jonathan Greenblatt, and the Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Melo, who has received threats on various social networks for exposing the Bolsonarist lying machine.
Obviously all social networks are complex in this sense, but I feel a greater hostility in Twitter and a normalisation of attacks against black Brazilian women. Due to the complexity and extent of the damage of these companies in society, I think it is not only the case of discouraging propaganda, but also of regulating these activities at state level, in order to curb the economic exploitation of hatred.
Last June, you took over Brazilian actor Paulo Gustavo’s Instagram with 13.5 million followers for a month to talk about racism with a wider audience. He is a privileged ‘lugar de fala’, straight, white and male. In addition to amplifying the voices of the oppressed through one’s personal space, what do you recommend to people who are ideally or more concretely close to these issues?
It was an unprecedented action in Brazil and, I dare say, also at an international level. Paulo Gustavo is one of the best known comedians in Brazil, his movies break records. So, one evening he called me and proposed the idea to give me his page with 13.5 million followers for an entire month. This is what Paolo Gustavo understood, when we spoke of lugar de fala, the place of speech, as an ethical position. What can I do, from my place as a white, privileged man, to transform the reality of other social groups? In his case, he decided to give me his account for a whole month, but we can think of what a professor, an entrepreneur, a politician can do from the social place they occupy, to foster transformation. For example, how many black people make up your course bibliography? How many black people do you hire in your company? How many of them are in positions of power? We are therefore talking about an ethical position, commitment, the strength of our malaise guiding us to transformation.
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