SAO PAULO – Black women who wear their hair in an Afro or cornrows, or under a turban, can encounter discrimination in Brazil, one of the nations where July 25 is celebrated as International Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Day.
“It’s as if they were telling you, ‘is it not enough for you to be black, on top of that you have to demonstrate that you are?’” is how Tais Souza, 31, explains her experience of wearing a turban for a job interview two years ago.
Souza, a teacher, had applied for a position at a school.
In a telephone conversation the night before the interview, the school’s principal praised Souza’s CV and all but offered her the job.
But when the teacher appeared at the school the following day, the principal exclaimed, “Oh, you are Tais?” her words accompanied by a look that “said it all,” Souza recounts.
Though nearly 52 percent of Brazilians are female and more than 55 percent claim African heritage, black women in Brazil not only find themselves marginalized by a combination of racism and machismo, but targeted for violence.
Murders of non-Afro-Brazilian women increased 1.7 percent between 2007-2017, while slayings of their black sisters soared by more than 60 percent.
Here in Sao Paulo, Afro Women’s Day coincided with the 12th edition of the Latinidades festival, featuring spirited debates about political activism flavored by Afro esthetics and the question of cultural appropriation of those esthetics.
“I grew up hearing that my hair was ugly when it was natural,” Souza tells EFE at the Lizafrica beauty salon in downtown Sao Paulo as Liza Tavares applies pink tint to her cornrows.
Now 33, Tavares says she was 21 when she learned of her African heritage and that the discovery led within a year to the opening of Lizafrica.
“I told myself, ‘now I can do cornrows, now I can appropriate what is mine,’” she recalls.
A controversy erupted early this month on Brazilian social media after someone posted results from separate Google searches for “beautiful cornrows” and “ugly cornrows.”
While the hunt for “beautiful cornrows” returned photos of white women, images of black women dominated the results for “ugly cornrows.”
“Why is it beautiful on them and on us it’s ugly or unsightly?” Liza asks rhetorically.
That episode was the trigger for an online debate about whether the adoption of Afro hair styles or garb by white Brazilian women who don’t suffer the discrimination faced by blacks is offensive.
EFE puts that question to the women at Lizafrica.
After a few seconds of silence, Tais Souza sounds a conciliatory note: “Everybody uses what suits her and if there’s respect for the culture, there’s nothing wrong.”
She adds, however, that a white woman who favors an Afro or cornrows needs to interrogate herself.
“Why do you wear that? Do you admire that culture or is it just a fad. Do you respect that culture or do you wear it because it’s pretty and later you’re racist, you mistreat blacks, and for you are they only useful as your employees?” Souza says.