White Consciousness Day: when skin becomes skill
My identification with black culture dates back to childhood. My first idols were Afro-American musicians and athletes. When a 11 years old child from a white middle-class family in the South of Brazil keeps saying that she dreams about marrying an Afro-American basketball player, people stare astonished. In both private schools I went, the 1% of black students were either children of the cleaning staff or gifted athletes with discount on the monthly fee. The only middle-class black school mate I ever had, Joana, daughter of doctors, didn’t identify with black culture. Having persons like Joana in mind, afro descendant friends often tell me that I’m more black than many blacks.
In Brazil, there’s a “Black Consciousness day” on the 20th of November. The date refers to the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, a pioneer in the resistance of slaves and one of the few recognized black heroes in the country. On this day, schools and media focus on Afro-Brazilian history and culture. On this day, Joana cannot avoid thinking about her blackness. During the other 364 days left in the year, whether she identifies with it or not, she cannot avoid being black. On this day, white people might hear about the background of those cleaning their houses, charging their groceries in the super market, fuelling their cars in the gas station. On this day, whites might feel the relief of being white without a disgraceful past and a present of cleaning others’ toilets.
I never had to clean others’ toilets in order to guarantee quality education for myself nor for anyone. In order to learn to write and speak properly; to communicate my aims in a way that brings recognition and their achievement. In order to get in touch with Afro-American culture as a child. In order to accomplish several degrees and pursue research on Afro-Brazilian culture. I write well and got a Ph.D. because my family had time to introduce me to books, to correct my writing, to stimulate my creativity, while non-white people were cleaning our toilets.
Because I write and speak well in different languages, I was once invited to present the Black Consciousness Day at the intercultural centre Forum Brasil in Berlin, as mentioned in another post. For the black people organizing it, my skills counted more than the colour of my skin. I followed the required topics, wore typical Afro-Brazilian clothes as asked to, and gave a presentation that pleased the organizers as well as the audience. But much later a friend, an Afro-Brazilian descendant, requested me very cautiously not to accept such invitations anymore.
It’s been more than a month, and I cannot stop reflecting upon and learning from it. Until that moment, it felt like an honour to receive the recognition that I can represent well a culture I so much identify with, whereas many Joanas don’t, some are not interested in representing it in a talk, and other lack my skill in European languages. By being white and mastering European research and rhetoric practices, it takes me very short time to win such recognition and trust. Whereas for most Joanas the path takes much longer, if ever succeeds: no matter how impressive their skills, what counts first and foremost is the color of their skin*.
There are several Zumbis dos Palmares, several black heroes from the past and in the present; musicians, basketball players, doctors, communicators, researchers, cleaners and cashiers. They are first of all heroes for their resistance in fighting daily against the fact that society only recognizes their value on one day of the year, based on their skin colour. It’s easy for me to identify with a culture of which I can only wear the traditional clothes, but not the skin – especially one full of scars. And it’s easy for me to gain trust, respect and recognition, since my white skin granted me several opportunities for developing skills of the dominant culture. What is hard is to be a hero despite all scars.
No matter how dignified the intentions, as long as black – brown, yellow, red – skins are not valued the same way as mine is, none of my skills can mask the abyss between them. However, a bridge is built once we stretch our hands between both sides, be it towards respect, recognition or critique. We build a bridge when we listen to and meet the requests of so many Joanas, so many heroes willing to raise our awareness on the complexity of our relations and actions.
I wish my skills serve to touch hearts, and no longer scars.
*For understanding in a very simple one why it takes longer, see one of the several videos on “privilege walk” recently shared on the web.