Sheila: “To be a black woman is to be strong”

Being a Afro-Brazilian woman in Brazil signifies several things:  greater odds of suffering violence (59.4% of female victims of domestic violence), fewer academic opportunities (only 10.9% access higher education), a greater chance of maternal mortality and less access to prenatal care.

But what is the reality behind the shocking numbers? What does it mean to live inequality and oppression?

For Sheila, from Jardim Helena in the eastern zone of São Paulo, her greatest challenge was “being a poor black woman from the periphery.” It is impossible to separate her identities; her first memory of gender is accompanied by racism. “I think most black people learn about race suffering prejudice.”

Her experience of racism in public school was sometimes overt, such as the boys at school dances whom refused to dance with a black girl, and sometimes it was veiled. “At my 8th grade graduation, the teachers selected some students for special recognition. Even trying to do the right things at school (in schoolwork and behavior) I never received any praise, I never received any recognition or appreciation. There was an English teacher at graduation who handed me a little gift and said that although no one had recognized my worth at the school he saw that I deserved to be praised. What he had told me represented exactly what I felt at that school. ”

Without any adult guidance, Sheila sought a way out. After seeing an advertisement on television for the school Countess Filomena Matarazzo, she signed up and passed the entrance exame. Choosing a new school and making it happen is one of several examples of her incredible maturity and determination.

Systematic racism often leaves the victim of racism with the impression that the major challenges of her life are the fruit of personal failure or individual choices. “You have to have a minimum connection between what you live to external realities and to other contexts for you to manage to elaborate (an understanding of your condition). When you grow up like this (black, poor, on the periphery) you only have the weight of your experiences, what you are living, without knowing what your rights are and how to cope.”

Her choice of social work as a career came in large part from her experiences of living in Jardim Helena, a neighborhood where in addition to an exclusionary education, Sheila witnessed several episodes of violence.

When her cousin was murdered she started thinking about how to understand both injustice and violations of rights. “We were going to have lunch at home on the weekend and my cousin went to the bar to get my father and my cousins, because my grandmother had asked him to and the bar was close to home. By the time he arrived at the bar to call them to lunch a motorcycle stopped and began to shoot at random, because there was a theif that the man (on the bike) wanted to settle accounts with. One of the bullets ended up hitting my cousin. He was twelve. My father helped him but he ended up not resisting and died from the stray bullet. For our family it was yet another unanswered thing. There was no investigation. There was nothing.”

At first she thought about studying law, but she was not interested in punishment but rather in justice that comes from guaranteeing rights. She graduated with a bachelor’s and completed her master’s degree in the area. She “still believes (social work) can do a lot. The biggest challenge (now) is to find partners (in the profession) with energy.”

For all the challenges her family endured, linked to poverty and violence that stems from a racist society, they were very close and supportive. She acknowledges that she “grew up in an environment where everyone was doing their best and dedicated themselves for the sake of the family.” Today, she believes that her biggest success is the relationship she has with her family.

Sheila is a determined and persistent woman. The perception that others have of her is that she is a very strong woman, but she does not know if this is a personal characteristic or another veiled imposition of a racist society. “When everyone talks about women, they say that being a woman is to be sensitive, to be fragile—that’s what it is to be a white woman. To be a black woman is to be strong, to be a worker; it means you have to carry your heavy groceries alone because no one is going to do that for you.”

Perhaps her experience with the solitary life of a Afro-Brazilian woman is the reason that she so greatly values the people around her. Life has taught Sheila that “our greatest treasure—what helps us in the most difficult moments—are the people that accompany us throughout this process (that is life).”