Afro-Brazilians who have become part of a minority black middle class may have managed to escape a subaltern position common to most of their peers, but they continue to face racial prejudice, discrimination and distrust in entering the public sector and building a career
In the past decade, the media has shown evidence of the expansion of the middle class in Brazil. Within this, attention has been given to black people in high positions, usually with excellent education, who hold office in places traditionally reserved for the cultural and economic elite. Some occupy strategic posts in society that have habitually been held by white individuals.
The social mobility of black people in Brazil is not a new phenomenon. Official statistics show an increase in those who have improved their position within Brazilian social strata; however the number of people who have experienced this mobility is still significantly low.
On the job market, this reality is most perverse, and becomes most visible. Low statuses, poorly paid positions are reserved for dark-skinned people, proving how difficult it is to cross the colour barrier and reach certain social statuses. Those who do succeed are examples of what can be overcome, but many carry the weight of their challenges, struggles and resentment with them. Furthermore many are unique cases in the history of the organizations that they work for.
Little is known, however, about how these individuals think and act, and we need to understand more about how these professional careers developed. What paths were taken? What were the difficulties, the challenges, confronted by those who did succeed? This is particularly important in a country like Brazil of the current moment, where social changes are now providing a profound opening for knowledge and discussions of race.
In this article, I analyse the experiences of black socially mobile professionals in positions of senior management and leadership in Salvador’s public service institutions. I consider both the process of social mobility and the public’s perception of how such social mobility was achieved. Salvador was chosen because it is the Brazilian city with the highest number of African descendants amongst its population. Despite this, data released by the IBGE in 2010 shows that only 1 percent of black people and 4 percent of ‘browns’  comprised senior leadership and management.
Public administration has entry criteria of employment that are theoretically democratic, and that exert a strong pull on the Afro-descendent population. However, it is obvious that the more visible and senior the position, the less likely it is that an Afro-descendent will occupy it. The ‘democratic’ criteria for entry into public service, therefore, show no indication of equality when it comes to what are known as ‘positions of trust’ – that is, positions at senior levels of management.
THE CHOICE: ENTERING THE PUBLIC SERVICE AND BUILDING A CAREER
Below I present the testimony of professionals who occupied prestigious and leadership positions in Salvador in 2009, using pseudonyms throughout. All joined the public service during the 1970s, a period of economic growth in Brazil when industrial and commercial enterprises typically provided the fastest means of social mobility. Young black people, however, were largely excluded from this due to the challenges of the socio-racial context of the time.
In industry, for example, recruitment was largely based on networks of relationships supported by interviews that were often biased against black applicants. These applicants, when successful at all, were often excluded from the most valued positions within companies, and from high-ranking jobs. Retail was furthermore very competitive, and difficult to enter alone due to the high costs of doing business that almost always relied on the ability to secure a bank loan – something that was by no means simple for most black people living in Salvador at the time.
Thus excluded, young people saw an alternative within the civil service. The civil service did not require work experience or social networks, known as ‘pistolão’. Vacancies were filled by success in government-issued exams, with the ‘unpleasant’ experience of face to face interviews therefore becoming avoidable. Such interviews were considered unpleasant due to the need to “look good” – a subjective ideal based on social capital that was often unobtainable to black applicants but nonetheless determined who would fill positions of high prestige and remuneration.
An example of this can be seen in the case of the General Director of a public hospital in Salvador. Having recently graduated with a medical degree, she applied for a position at a private hospital, and was then subjected to an exhaustive interview in which doubts were raised over her abilities to perform her duties. As she explained in an interview:
‘I went to the interview for a resident doctor at the Spanish Hospital, and the professor turned to me and asked me,
‘Is this CV really yours?’
I said, ‘why?’
He didn’t answer and asked another question, ‘You speak English fluently?’
‘I did a course at the ACBEU (English school)’ I replied. And he went on to ask many other questions about infectious diseases, about general illness, about my personal life and if I had the ability to buy clothes and books because I would have to look appropriate in a private hospital. Why did he do this? It was obvious, he was saying “you are black and it will be complicated for you to work in a private hospital” – this you could see from his look and his body language.
When I left the room, all the other candidates were surprised that I had been in there for an hour and 15 minutes. None of them had had to go through that kind of harangue; their interviews were each about 15 minutes. The difference was I was black and unknown, and the others were already known to him – they were white, they had parents who were doctors, most of them already knew each other. It was just this difference.
But it happened that I got 92 percent of the questions in the entrance test right, the highest score, and the person who came second got 64 percent. I believe that if the difference had been a bit smaller, perhaps if I had got 70 percent, it would have been difficult for them to turn down the second candidate, they would have given her extra points in the interview or for her CV, they would have done something to make it so that she got the job.’ (Dr Balbina, Director General of the State Hospital).
This testimony shows a difficulty faced by many applicants for senior positions in the job market: the distrust of their professional capacities. Besides this, they lack the support of the social system, and are exposed to the frequent racism that exists within Brazilian society. The choice of a career in public service is inviting because it offers a way for social mobility for those who come from humble families. To obtain a job that does not include manual labour is significant, offering prestige and status for those at the lower end of the middle class spectrum. It also means the chance of social mobility for the family: if a parent is able to secure stable income, it is likely his or her child might progress through university to post-graduate education.
Two other interviewees recalled episodes in the domestic space that triggered the desire for a different kind of life to that which they had grown up with:
‘My mother and father only had two children, I and my sister. My mother always put it into my head that I should not be like her. She would speak about her own suffering at work, in the house of another family. She would be crying at the stove or the sink and tell me I should have a different life, and I should study and get a good job, a fixed job. She would say she was crying because of the humiliations that she had to endure, and she swore that for me it would be different. So she raised me to always search for a secure job, and she made me study to ensure I got it. We had lots of financial difficulties, but she always managed to buy my school supplies and pay for transport there. She would stretch the food out, which kept a little money aside for me being in school. She died when I was 15, but I was always a good student, and this was my salvation. My brother has never had formal work or a contract, he sustains himself by moonlighting.’ (Dr. Ana Meira, superintendent of a public federal institution)
‘From my first moments I understood that certain doors would only open for me through the public exams. My mother always emphasized the importance of a secure job, too. Sometimes people in my neighbourhood said that the job applications for these positions were rigged, and for that reason none of them would try. But I always thought, well, I could take an interview where I am definitely going to experience prejudice, or I could take an exam that is at least objective, I just had to do my part, and then see what happened.’(Dr. Maridete, commander in chief of the police)
Testimonies like these reveal the importance of work in the public service for individuals and for families from humble backgrounds, often with unreliable incomes. They also question whether the choice of working in the public service itself is even open for negotiation. In what circumstances does this possibility reveal itself? What other options are considered? What is the degree of freedom when making this choice? Besides this, what does it mean to have a family member in the public service, when the family concerned is poor and of African origin?
Certain testimonies reveal that it is not always a choice in the most open sense, but rather an alternative pathway to social mobility in a context of few real options. ‘Making it’ in the public service can facilitate the overcoming of one’s earlier condition, with the consequence being an interruption within a long history of exclusion by class, race and oftentimes gender.
These also bring our attention to the ways in which public service is valorised in public, in part because of its security and stability. In a similar way it shows the close relationship between historical living conditions of those of black origin and the difficulties they face today through primary socialization. The following statements make this more clear:
‘I think that the first thought [I had"> in relation to this job was its stability. My dad had a little shop in the interior, but it went brankrupt. His situation after that was an example of terrible instability, he never had a reliable job again. We were very precarious. I often thought that if an opportunity presented itself to work in the public service, I would take it. Then I saw the door opening, and I went in. I had an idea that in the public service I could go somewhere.’(Dr. Roque, Faculty director in a university)
The difference for these young applicants when entering the public sphere was the fact that they already had an advanced level of education. They arrived with some bargaining power because of these degrees and the specializations they demonstrated: analyst, auditor, teacher, doctor, lawyer and so on. Besides this, they already had quite clear ideas about the appropriate duties and rights of workers, and a strong sense of the language and comportment required in positions of power within Brazil.
In the first instance, getting a place through an exam represents the possibility of improving one’s quality of life and being able to study. It also shows the possibility of moving forward in a career under good conditions - oftentimes better than those of private companies. Despite that, this progression is not simple. Getting past the entrance test is just the first step in overcoming many other difficulties, particularly those of socialization, and without the support inherent in feeling comfortable within one’s environment.
Informants I spoke to were on the borders of these kinds of networks of contact, which facilitated progress and career advancement. This was what some revealed in interviews:
‘In my family, I didn’t have any references of successful people. I didn’t have family members who were politicians, not even distant relatives. I also didn’t have an important surname, nor am I somebody with the kind of body that can be sold for its image, and if I had it I wouldn’t do that anyway. So I only had one option: show my work and persuade people of my abilities that way.’(Dr. Norma, director of an institution of higher learning).
‘In my place of work, every time somebody had to be chosen, merit was never what mattered – academic or otherwise. I was never chosen, and I knew that would be the case without a doubt. If you want examples, there are so many I can’t choose. Every time a choice had to be made I was not considered, and the merit that defined who is who was ignored and I was turned down. It happened so many times. I didn’t have any ‘god-fathers’…(Colonel Renato, commander of a military unit)
Indeed, today black people can enter the public service under ‘equal conditions’ despite the fact that once selected they continue to suffer from certain disadvantages. These include the fact of working in institutions with little symbolic capital, and the reality that in comparison with the majority of their colleagues (usually white and middle class) they did not enter having had the opportunity of learning languages, traveling outside of the country, or even watching the same number of films and in so doing acquiring a certain kind of social capital.
Another thing to think about is that executive positions in the public service are not filled according to merit, but instead are positions ‘of trust’. Oftentimes this means that the access to these positions is determined less by merit and experience than by social networks, friendships with those who have the power to decide who is granted them, and by political support. Usually people who come from humble origins have little or no experience or networks with people of influence who could smooth their career development. This aspect of employment reality often has a negative influence on the careers of black professionals, because without the necessary social capital of such networks, they are not ‘trusted’ in the way that will lead to promotion.
However great one’s acculturation or ability to conform to practices and cultural values that are dominant (white, rich), one’s physical characteristics distinguish one in a way that is indelible and speaks of social and racial difference. This allows attitudes of race and institutional discrimination to exist within institutions. In Brazil, black people have inherited a historical fact that they cannot escape: the past appears in the present, and representations and ideologies have earned themselves a mythological character that continues to be used in support of the racial privileging of white people.
These prejudices, which manifest in ways that are often disguised or subliminal, are clearly recognized by individuals during the course of their career. As a consequence, they always remain conscious of their social and racial position and their humble origins, and their interpersonal relations then try to mask or recover from such social definitions. They often exaggerate their groomed appearances, learn new accents and move away from ‘black spaces’ of socialization. They also often distance themselves from social movements focussed around ‘black’ society, and censure themselves when speaking about their own past challenges so as not to have their own images cast in terms of stereotypes of poverty and inferiority. All of this serves to contribute to the formulation of identity, diluting social markers that have long been important in Brazil.
Besides this, people become accustomed to using whatever resources are available to minimize resistance towards them and give greater visibility to their actions, so that those in power might acknowledge them. Extreme dedication to work is a resource used a great deal. Motivated by the belief that their success is based on merit and achieved only after tremendous focus and sacrifice, hard work is understood as the central ingredient in the success that these individuals experience. It is a deliberate force that calls upon superiors to recognize the extenuating journeys that have been made to attain this location within the workforce. Performance and perfectionism are assumed necessary in the performance of public duties on the part of black employees, as are attention to personal appearance, rigorously moral conduct, a high degree of loyalty to the institution and often a willingness to sacrifice both family life and time with friends.
The statement below gives evidence of this super-dedication, and how it plays an important role in the career development of an individual:
‘I had no political godfather, so the only way I could draw attention to myself was by making them say ‘wow, this guy works like hell! So he deserves to be promoted!’
And I became self-taught in everything I did, because I realized that if I were to do an external course it wouldn’t stand in my favour. In that time the dominant official idea was that if you did a course at a university, you were just trying to use the company as a step up to something better in the private sector, and they thought this of those who studied further. So I looked at this reality and I thought fine, my strategy for being promoted has to be that everything I have to know I have to teach myself, I’ll do it alone. I have to read books on all the subjects that will help me prepare and execute projects, and I have to work and work and work, overtime if necessary. By doing this I will get the attention of my boss, who, like all bosses, always leaves the office late.
The officials in my group were quite scattered, so worked much harder than they did. From my first day on the job, I left my home in the morning early and I never returned before 10pm. I never left before the commander general. Every time he left his office he’d see the light in mine, and look in to see who was working there. It was me! Every time he looked for me, he found me working. This was my strategy to get promoted, and it really made me get used to working hard in the position. Even now, if I come home before 10pm, my son asks me if I am sick.’(Colonel Irineaus, commander of a military unit)
As is clear, this Colonel knew the strength needed to overcome patronage networks, and the way it would impact his personal life. However he persisted, trying always to be an ‘acceptable worker,’ because those already structurally weak could not show any vulnerability, and more than this he had to prove that he was better than others, the best.
In this situation of competition with white people of higher class background, a Judge demonstrated an awareness of what success required:
‘Black people always have to make sure that there is a greater differential. If they work to the same level as others, they will never get promoted. However, if they are so much better that it is impossible to ignore them, then there’s a chance that they will move up the ranks. I’ve always seen it being that way.’(Dr. Geraldo, judge)
Educational investment in specialized courses or in another degree, usually financed privately, can also be a strategy that helps make up this differential. Because of the need described above, black applicants have to have incredible CVs, with a wide range of courses undertaken, that increase one’s chances of being given a highly valued place within a particular institution.
Another strategy often chosen is that of maintaining a discrete profile, investing carefully in select interpersonal relationships, avoiding conflict and always making sure to steer clear of the situations in which veiled racism manifests. This is shown in the testimony of two military commanders:
‘[I chose to take"> a modest position, that suggested I didn’t aspire too much, but that was part of my strategy. Strategy how? It was my strategy to not draw attention to myself, to what I had achieved. Because I had really already achieved something. It was also because I was worried about encountering the real limits to my own capacity, that I actually couldn’t manage more, that opportunities would close. That’s how things go. It’s a way of holding oneself that black people have to adopt so as not to arouse suspicion, to be part of the group.’(Col. Renato, commander of a military unit)
‘My colleagues never saw me as a competitor in terms of promotion, they just struggled and fought amongst themselves, trying to get the attention of deputies – this one and that-one-with-more-political-power. I worked in planning, and I could see it all happening, and I decided that the only way to get ahead without political patronage was to work so hard attention was drawn to me, but without any kind of stress, without making enemies.’(Colonel Irineu, commander of a military unit)
In this way a complex process begins which loses individuals within the hierarchies of institutions. Without the support of those in the same kinds of positions, black professionals find themselves isolated, often vulnerable, and they adopt behaviour that is extremely careful in terms of their professional relationships.
THE AWARENESS AND EXPERIENCE OF RACISM IN PRACTISE
The awareness of racism and the experience of racial discrimination can be seen early on in the careers of people who climb the hierarchy of public institutions. To be accepted by others, people have to learn to oftentimes deny themselves. A relevant fact here is that people’s general attitudes towards race don’t change, even with the success of individuals. Rather, in Brazilian society the dominant idea is that there are ‘spaces’ reserved for black people, and therefore that those who fill those offices are there because of these spaces, not because of their abilities.
Indeed, in cases where there is an ‘over-representation’ of black people in particular jobs, a reference is often made to that job as one that is typically ‘black,’ reinforcing an association with being black and occupying a subaltern position. This association between colour and occupation has meant that many people have been confused with domestic workers in their own homes, or taken to be service workers within the very housing estates in which they live, amongst other kinds of experience.
One respondent gave the following example, which happened to a colleague of his:
‘My friend was already a high-ranking official, and one day he was in the condominium where he lived washing his car with style, when a white guy came by and said‘hey bra, how much will you charge to wash my car?’
He replied simply ‘you can bring it tomorrow’ and then imagine this guy’s surprise when the next day he brings the car and sees my friend in his military uniform with all his medals pinned to his chest!’ (He laughs)(Colonel Humberto, commander of a military unit).
This statement is compelling not only because it shows a situation that was embarrassing to both, but also because of the way it was presented. Asked to speak about experiences of race and racism, this Colonel initially said it was difficult to remember anything that had happened to him. However, he told me, there was one situation that he ‘always liked to remember’ because it was funny, that a colleague experienced – hence the narrative above. This kind of story-telling was common in many interviews, suggesting that it is a way in which subjects might speak more openly about their experiences without having to reveal anything of themselves.
Prejudice is dealt with, first and foremost, by the perception individuals have of their own situation, and whether or not it is possible to navigate around it or perhaps reverse it. Recognizing how one has had to deal with prejudice is often difficult for those who have been successful, as it forces them to remember and narrate difficult experiences they might rather forget. This can, without doubt, elicit a sense of suffering, a feeling of being misunderstood, because in most of these cases when informants were asked if they had experienced prejudice their immediate response was ‘no, challenges were just circumstantial’ but usually on reflection a great deal emerged that showed racial barriers that had to be overcome.
While the media tends to under-report experiences of racism, certain events have gained some coverage, particularly when instances occur whilst individuals have been carrying out their public duties in the political sphere. There are many cases of black people in good social positions who have suffered from racial profiling by the police, despite their nice cars and visible symbols of wealth and status. For example, Dr. Edvaldo Brito, when Secretary of Legal Affairs in the Municipality of São Paolo, was stopped four times by the police after he had assumed the position. Each time it happened, he was in an official car with an official driver and security guards, who were also black. Paradoxically this suggests that the more black people improve their situations and climb the ladders of career success, the more they are likely to experience discrimination. This discrimination, however, is of a different type to that experienced by those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It is always more subtle, sometimes almost imperceptible, but of relevance to the questions under discussion.
One aspect of this is the expressions of surprise that are revealed in many environment when black people are shown to occupy top management positions, sometimes leading to highly embarrassing situations, as reported below:
‘After serving for eighteen years in the position of a state justice, I had become a national judge. I went to the Presidential Palace to speak to an authority there, and when I got there the young man at security managed to write my name on the visitor’s card, and my identity number and address, but he wouldn’t believe that I was really a judge. He dallied for a long time, with me waiting in the queue, and I had already waited a long time in another queue to fill in my details. Eventually I leant over to him and said ‘excuse me, is something wrong?’
He looked at me and said ‘Madame, you are a bailiff, are you not?’ because he could not get it into his head that I could be a judge. I said to him ‘well, I could be a bailiff, it is an honourable profession and I have many friends who hold that post. However, I would prefer it if you treat me as a judge, exactly as it is written there in that portfolio that is in your hands. That very big portfolio with the enormous arms of the republic…’ He just could not understand that I really was a judge.’(Dr. Vandelina, Judge)
‘I experienced a situation where a man came into my office to be served, and said to me ‘my daughter, I am here to talk to the Sheriff.’ I responded drily ‘you don’t say!’ and he replied ‘I want to talk to the chief’ and I responded impatiently ‘you don’t say! I am the Sheriff.’ And he reacted with such an air of surprise. ‘Really? You?’ And here I don’t need to say any more. I knew that he was expecting, and certainly would have preferred, somebody with a very different profile, and my presence was disappointing. These things can be very tiring sometimes.’(Dr. Josemilde, Sheriff)
‘Not long ago I was here, dressed in the military camouflage uniform that doesn’t have rank, just your name and blood type. Some military people arrived from outside the area, accompanied by civilians, wanting to speak to the commander, and they went in the direction of people who were not black, hoping to find him. I just watched it quietly. The officer who they approached was a bit confused, and he pointed to me saying ‘the commander is that one.’ Next to me were two white men, of lower rank, and they went to speak to them. Another white officer stepped in and said ‘no, not them, this is the commander.’ They were ungracious, because I suppose they were expecting a different kind of commander, something they were more used to, certainly not black! It was good for them, though, to be confronted with something to disrupt the preconceptions so firmly in their heads of how things are and have to be.’(Col Renato, commander of a military unit)
‘If you asked me this, ‘have you, as the director of this public hospital, ever experienced racism?’ I would respond ‘of course! from the moment when the former director first recommended me for the position, the Secretary of Health met with me, and because I was black I knew I would have to prove myself. That’s the feeling I carry, of always having to show I am capable, always showing that black is good too.
One day, I arrived at a television station to do an interview, and I identified myself and then sat in the waiting room. The reporter arrived and asked if Dr. Balbina had already come, after seeing that I was the only person in the waiting room. After being told that I had indeed arrived, he looked at me and double checked that it was really the right person ‘are you really Dr. Balbina?’ In his eyes there was apprehension, as if wondering, ‘does this black person talk? Is it just a decorative post? Does she have actual abilities?’
Thinking back on it it’s very clear, but even in the moment it’s all quite apparent, because you can see exactly what is happening. A person’s whole posture changes the moment you open your mouth. You can see them thinking ‘oh okay, this is going to be worth it’ and their posture really shows that before they met me, they distrusted my abilities.’(Dr. Balbina, Director General of the State Public Hospital)
The sentiments above provide glimpses of practical experiences and feelings, and of resistance. Understanding them helps us to appreciate the complexities of race and racism within Brazil. After more than a century of integration into the free labour market, many black people in Brazil still feel estranged and uncomfortable in certain positions within Brazilian society. The following testimony shows this clearly:
‘There are times when it really tires me. There are moments when you just feel so watched, when you feel how you are treated, notice how you are seen. In the past I felt very frustrated by all of this, I would feel rage and indignation and sadness and dejection. But now it doesn’t disturb me so much, I just get impatient with it. Sometimes I even think maybe there are things about it that are useful…’(Dr. Albert, superintendent of a public institution)
In Brazil many people believe that prejudice is all about class, but at this moment the discussion is beginning to change. A space is opening for recognition that people suffer from real racial discrimination and that this is the reason for, not the result of, class stratification as well, which makes it much more difficult to overcome.
In relation to black people who have managed to climb the social ladder, what is unusual is that they have managed to escape a subaltern position common to most of their peers, and reach a place that is not expected. There they are then exposed to a certain kind of prejudice that manifests in ‘jokes’ that are expressed through stereotypes of black people. These are often expressed to articulate surprise at the presence of a black person within spaces traditionally reserved for the white middle class. It is not uncommon for people who ‘make it’ to feel observed with curiosity when, for example, they participate in social activities within this environment.
There is no clear determinant that leads to the manifestation of racial prejudice. Sometimes they take place, sometimes they don’t. Because of this, informants stressed that they always had to be prepared for something to take place, for some statement of prejudice to be made in public, so that they could then react without surprise. Of course, in as much as possible informants also tried to avoid places where such sentiments were known to be expressed. That said, for many people the presence of racism within daily life did not seem to be something that preoccupied them completely. In the professional environment, the differences these prejudices made seemed to be most profound during the early stages of a career – once one’s position was established the ceased to be as serious.
SOCIAL MOBILITY AS SEEN BY THOSE WHO HAVE SUCCEEDED
Social mobility as realized in this way, speaks of a difficult journey, but is usually seen as something positive. It provides those who make it with economic and social privileges in relation to the majority of their (black) contemporaries. They have ‘escaped the fate’ expected of them and through this are able to channel investments into their family to their advantage, improving living conditions of their parents, supporting poor relatives, and providing their children with excellent educational opportunities.
Social mobility also provides symbolic status to the family group, although certain subjectivities within the nuclear family may also become more stark, stressing differences rather than unity between members. This can lead to a sense of discomfort and constraint, as expressed by Dr. Vanderlina, who said ‘I feel something that is not quite guilt, but close to it, when I see that I am advancing and the rest of them are there, just… stopped. My siblings, my aunts and uncles, my cousins…” She speaks to a powerful conflict whose discomfort is perhaps relieved or compensated for through economic support that permits mobility, but is complex in how it really affects families.
INDICATORS THAT SUGGEST A PROMISING FUTURE
Social mobility confers prestige, security, greater self-esteem and, most importantly, a better quality of life for individuals and their families. Because of this, just as possibilities open, the weight of race is ever more heavy for those who bear it. Although this weight has already been reduced significantly in comparison with the experiences of those who have gone before, it continues to be a heavy burden that inhibits those who strive for social mobility.
These experiences prove that racial discrimination goes far beyond the limits of poverty, and the elimination of the latter would likely not end the former. Racism in Brazil today, however, continues to produce and naturalize inequality and penalize everybody in the process.
It is startling how new generations of black and white people continue to manifest the same differences in terms of the job market, just as some indicators do suggest a more equal Brazil in the future. In terms of the past, there are many people who feel that black self-esteem is increasing in the country, that the black community is ever-more mobilized and active, particularly on the part of black students.
Since the first black university student was admitted under the policies of affirmative action in Brazil some ten years ago, many have since entered the job market, increasing the available pool of skilled labour in important ways. These programs, alongside others, have made a real difference to the presence and visibility of black people in the public sphere, and it seems now that the horizon is much broader and more open that it was in the past.
To be black and upwardly mobile means to overcome many barriers in a society in which the majority of people have few options, little money and live in conditions of great poverty. To escape this is gruelling and requires strength and commitment, for the possibility of educating children in a context where for generations and generations it was not even possible to dream that a child might attend a university. Without a shadow of doubt, the individual commitment of each is critical to the achievement of these dreams, but overall are also the result of collective struggle.
*Ivo de Santana
1. Translator’s note: the word used here is ‘Negro’ which I have translated as ‘black’ wherever it appears in the text. However, the term has complex and diverse meanings in both English and Portuguese. I encourage readers who are provoked by its use to consult E. Telles’ ‘Race in Another America’ (Princeton University Press, 2004) amongst many others for a discussion on how and what ‘negro’ can and does mean in Brazil historically and in the present.
2. This text was adapted from two chapters of the author’s doctoral thesis, entitled ‘From the margin to the center: social mobility and processes of identity between black people of high social standing in the public service’ which was defended at the Federal University of Bahia in 2009.
3. Translator’s footnote: again, for a discussion of the term ‘pardo’ see Telles, E. ‘Race in Another America: the signification of skin color in Brazil’ (Princeton University Press, 2004).
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