Renata: “All the issues of racism that I experienced, I’d fight back”

2016 was sanctioned as “The Year of Women’s Empowerment in Politics and Sport.” Given that Brazil is tied with Mynamar for female participation in national congress (at 9.9%) and ranked overall 153 out of 191 countries[1], the initiative is extremely important.

What does it look like to have women in politics?
What kind of woman can be involved politically?
What are the challenges in participating in a overwhelmingly white male system?

Renata’s story, a thirty-three year old native of São Paulo and mother of three boys, reveals much about the barriers that still exist and serves as inspiration for how to overcome them.

Renata had a wonderful and tough childhood. Her father abandoned the family and as a result her mother had to work as a housekeeper, due to a lack of education and the difficulty entering the formal job market. In addition to the financial difficulties that the family suffered as a result, Renata had to fight against pressure to follow the mother in to the profession of domestic help.

The women who employed her mother would encourage her to bring Renata to help clean the house, without paying for the additional labor. “I told to my mother, ‘Mom I respect your work, it’s dignified and so hard,’ but I already saw the exploitation without anyone telling (me to look for it).” Renata was born with this resistance to racism and the limitations imposed by others. “All the issues of racism that I experienced at school, which were numerous, I’d fight back: (if someone) called me monkey I would go there and hit them, (if they) called me another racial slur I went there and hit them.”

Political participation was the means that she found to deal with the injustices around her. In adolescence a set of events led her to this realization. When she was fifteen years old, unable to continue to pay rent, her family—with the approval of the deputy mayor—occupied land in the yard where she lived. At around the same time, she entered the church youth group and was exposed to the literacy movement. She also participated in her first Afro-Brazilian Mass, and that’s when she first learned about Zumbi dos Palmares. Her experience during the time that Marta was mayor was so positive that she affiliated with the political party: PT (the Worker’s Party).

After 15 years, she is still active in politics, “(My militancy) has not changed, it remains the same. I’m still affiliated, and believe that there are numerous possibilities for social transformation, political, cultural. I’m building a family (she has a 7 year old son and twins of 1 year and a half) within a religion (Candomblé), and my militancy has grown stronger, more focused.” She acknowledges that it is possible to participate politically outside of the party system, but notes that true change requires participation in the system, “with the participation of independent women, not being a submissive to a man’s command.”

Despite its importance, being a Brazilian women in politics, “is a super difficult path. Having a cause is one experience and fighting for space within a party is a (different) experience, even within parties that define themselves as left.” She participated in a power struggle in 2013 for presidency of her district. Of the four candidates she was the only young black woman (all other candidates were older white men). She did not win, but it “was a good experience, gave visibility in the region and I did not give up.”

For women who want to enter politics she has a word: do it! “Leave the house dirty, leave the food to make, leave clothes to dry. Leave it! Our children won’t die if we go out for an hour or if we travel. I so want the world to change and yet I don’t change go out of my comfort zone? You have to have the courage to denounce, to scream.”

Renata is a brave woman, and her bravery is a more complex characteristic than many realize. “I am a very hardworking person. I have a determination that I think comes from ancestors. My fear drives me to do things, doesn’t let me get stuck. Courage is greater than fear.”

In addition to political involvement she believes that the biggest challenge for Afro-Brazilian women is not falling into the logic that ‘it’s not possible.’ “We know there aren’t the same opportunities (for us). You have to get into the belief ‘where there is none, I’ll create my own. If I don’t create if, it won’t change”

Renata and her cousins access spaces and services that the older generation is still afraid to: entering restaurants, riding on planes, driving a car. “Yes, we can eat here, we can shout and talk loudly. Are they going to give us ugly looks? Yes, they are. But their racism has to be private, not public. If they express their racism publicly, it will be denounced and they have to answer to the law (racism and hate speech is a crime in Brazil[2]). Privately they remain racist and will die racist. And if we have to interact with them it will be to interact with their wallet (convictions result in prison time and/or a fine). But the strength of our posture changes them just a little.”