A self-reflection on racism, Black men and love for white women

This text is the English version of a previous one I’d published in this blog. The original one also featured on Geledés, Brazil’s largest portal for Black content.

Brazil, my home country, has seen an important increase in Black feminist voices speaking together about aspects of everyday racism. Issues that once were restricted to private conversations are now public debates.

For the past ten years or so, Black people of different ages, genders and social classes have gained space as public academics, journalists, digital influencers and politically engaged artists.

One issue that remains very sensitive is the interracial relationships between Black heterosexual men and white women[1].

Debates on this kind of relationship come under the neologisms palmitar (verb), palmitagem (noun) and palmiteiro (adjective). The radical palm- derives from the heart of the palm, a white vegetable.

Therefore, the verb palmitar refers to the act of a Black heterosexual men in positions of privilege who predominantly (or only) have affective relationships with white women.

As one can imagine, the conversations are controversial. Some refuse talking about it. For them, “love sees no race”. Others claim that denying the possibility of interracial love is also racism.

However, the core of the Black feminist claims is not necessarily against interracial love or affection, but how socioeconomically privileged Black heterosexual Brazilian men reproduce racism against Black women.

I can attest the existence of this kind of racist act because I have done it. It is uncomfortable and painful to admit it, but palmitagem is a fact in my life.

Therefore, this text is a genealogical self-reflection to find explanations to my own reproduction of racism against Black women[2].  

This text is not a public apology or a self-defense statement, but about one of the most brutal consequences of racism – especially on Black women – and our sometimes sick relationship with whiteness.

Embracing Whiteness in Early Life

Palmitagem is subtle. At first sight, the love of Black men for white women seems to merely be a matter of affection. But it’s more complex.

Beyond love and affection, Palmitagem also includes power relations shaped by inequalities, racism and machismo.

In my case, the reproduction of palmitagem started in my childhood in the 1980s shaping my adolescence and early adulthood in the 1990s in Magé, a predominantly low-income dormitory city in the Metropolitan Area of Rio de Janeiro.

There, Black, white and mixed-race people have always lived physically close to one another and interracial interactions have always happened.

However, social classes differed us. Most economically better-off people were white and white-passing. In contrast, most low-income people were Black.

Consequently, my social life as a child was complicated because I was in the middle.

I was a Black child in a mid-income working class household with both parents employed and present in my life (perhaps my greatest privilege). A child who attended mid-income private schools and English schools.

At schools, most of my classmates were white and white-passing. Some were rich for local standards. In my town, that meant I didn’t spend time with them outside the school as I did with others.

On the streets, I hung out both with the Black and the white and white-passing kids of similar socioeconomic background.

Looking back, I guess my reproduction of racism started at this stage. For example, very early in life we naturalized a differentiation system based on race and class.

The predominantly Black children were considered the trouble-but-street-smart kids. The predominantly white and white-passing children were considered the nice-but-naïve kids.

In my sociability as a Black child, class prevailed over race.

I was a nice-but-naïve child who feared my Black peers – the “trouble-but-street-smart kids” – just like my white and white-passing mid-income peers feared them.   

In a similar way, my Black peers bullied me just like they bullied my white and white-passing mid-income peers – the “nice-but-naïve” kids.

Therefore, still as a child, I learned to avoid my Black peers. I also embraced the identities and rituals that came along the whiteness of my white and white-passing mid-income peers.

In fact, embracing whiteness was easy in the beginning. In the Brazil of the 1980s and early 1990s, most white stuff was positive: music idols, TV characters, fashion and trends.

In contrast, with some exceptions (e.g. football starts and musicians), there were few Black references in popular culture that kids in my age and social groups considered relevant.

In short, for a long time I tried to please and hang out with my white and white-passing peers while rejecting and being mean to my Black peers.

However, in my early teenage years, I gradually started refusing whiteness. The naturalized racism among white kids – expressed, for example, in racist jokes – made me angry.

So, I turned from rock to historically Black subcultures like samba, rap and Rio’s funk. I made friendships with my Black peers. 

Still, whiteness remained as a constitutive part of me. I guess this is very visible in my affective history.

Roots of Palmitagem in Childhood

These social and racial dynamics in childhood affected my relationship with girls as I grew up.

For example, I vaguely remember feeling shy and nervous around the blond and fair-skinned girls in the private schools I studied.

They were the girls with whom all boys, Black and white, wanted to spend time together. We did them favors, wrote them verses and protected them from the annoying kids.

They seemed to love the attention. However, the magic was over for us, the “neguinhos” (a diminutive for the n-word), when the crowd of students started chanting: “They are dating! They are dating!”

In these moments, some of the girls would react by shouting “God forbid!” or “Stop that! My boyfriend is the [fair-skinned kid with looks like the boys on the TV commercials]!”

You may ask: Where were the Black girls?

I’d say they were on the corners.

Some suffered from us – Black and white kids – the same things that we Black boys suffered in the hands of the white and white-passing girls.

The Black girls would play with us, but when other children started chanting “They are dating!”, all of us Black and white boys would storm out shouting “God Forbid!”

Bullying was also very common.

Students bullied others by joking poor-looking clothes, lack of money for snacks and other poverty markers. The lower-income students, white and Black, would be the targets.

Students bullied others for the color of their skin, their hair and other racial markers. Black students were the target.

For us Black kids one way not to be target of bullying was to ally with the white bullying kids. That’s when you would see Black kids calling one another “monkey” in disputes between who was and who was not Black.

We would also shout at one another: “You are way blacker than I am”, as if the darker one’s skin was, the lower human being one was.

But these disputes were mostly among boys. How about the Black girls?

They were everyone’s targets: The boys, Black and white, and white girls. They were “ugly”, they had “bad hair”, they “looked like maids”, they “looked like animals”, the “monsters” and other humiliating adjectives.

All this happened before and during pre-adolescence[3].

Palmitagem in teenage years

In the teenage years, the distinction between Black and white girls was already sedimented and growing in the minds of us boys.

In mid-income private school where white and white-passing people were the majority, students who dated tended to be white among themselves.

I don’t remember seeing – and certainly I didn’t experience – any long interracial relationship in that context.

For white and white-passing boys and girls, the Black boys and girls seemed to be more of loyal and confiding friends than boyfriend or girlfriend candidates.

For me, that was the time of platonic crushes for white and white-passing girls. In contrast, for the Black girls I felt a deep sense of friendship. Or disdain.

When I was around 15, in the mid-1990s, something important to young Black men happened: the hyper-sexualization of the Black masculinity in music, media and popular culture.

For us, Black youth, this represented the “valuing” of the Black men society. Being a negão (meaning “big black man”) became something “positive” in society.  

I put “valuing” and “positive” in quotation marks because the situation was nothing else but the objectification of our Black bodies.

However, for a Black male teenager who had to deal with rejection by white women, that shift meant that now he stood a chance.

Being a fit, sympathetic and/or skillful in dancing Black man suddenly impressed Black girls and… white girls. “I love a negão”, some blond and fair-skinned white women would say.

How about the young Black women?

Different from the men, Black women had been hypersexualized forever. This means that most young men, Black and white, considered Black young women “easy” by default. To describe relatives and friends, adjectives like “respectful”, “pretty” and “elite” were used.

Were there serious relationships between young Black men and women at the time?

Certainly, there were. But, in general, the couple tended to be socially and economically similar, usually at the underprivileged side of the Brazilian class hierarchy.

Palmitagem as a privilege

That is when the issue of choice gets problematic. Many people offended by the palmitagem debate use “affection” and “choice” as a defense claim. “Love sees no color”, they say.

But I would argue that, in relation to palmitagem, choosing with whom to be is a privilege generated by privileges.

For example, the hyper-sexualization of the Black male body has increased the chances of a low-income Black boy to choose to be in a serious relationship with a higher-income white girl.

In contrast, a low-income Black girl – historically seen through the gaze of easy sex – has less chances to choose to be in a serious relationship with a higher-income white boy.

Being a Black, mid-income teenager in predominantly white schools in the hyper-sexualizing 1990s certainly facilitated my choices to be in interracial relationships.

I was also able to “act and speak white”.

That is, higher-income people considered me polite and gentle like (or even more) than their own white and white-passing kids. More importantly, I was not seen as a trouble kid like other Black kids.

Class still limited my choices. Racism seemed very evident among higher-income white people. Still, within my frame of everyday interactions, I could certainly choose to be with white and white-passing women.

How about love? Can you then choose whom to love? Does it mean that I never really loved anyone, but had relationships based on race-related choices?

I don’t think one can choose whom to love. However, one can choose where and with whom to open themselves to love.

In those occasions of having a crush and dating Black girls, whiteness and the structural racism around me kicked in during my teenage inner-process of deciding to proceed or not.

Is she pretty enough to have a serious relationship? If not, do I want to deal with the bullying and the racist jokes that come for dating “ugly” women? Is she educated enough not to embarrass me in my crowd?

My affective history shows me that my answers to these questions have predominantly been negative.

For significant part of my teenage years – even when I was already angry about the naturalized racism around me – I would get away from the Black girls as soon as I felt butterflies approaching my stomach.

How about the white and white-passing girls I had all my long-term, serious relationships (including my marriage now)? Have the feelings of crush and love been real?

These are typical questions that miss the point of debates around palmitagem.

The conversation is neither about love nor about white women. Instead, it is about Black men preventing themselves from enacting love with Black women because they judge the relationship will cause more pain than joy.

Cutting palmitagem from the roots

This is where the importance of Black feminist debates on palmitagem lies. For a long time, Black women have had to deal with this systemic rejection alone.

We, privileged heterosexual Black Brazilian men, could go on with our selfish and coward affective choices without ever being called out in our own reproductions of racism.

The increasing number of Black voices speaking up about palmitagem is redefining what Black men always defined as strength – the guy who ‘conquered’ the white women – into weakness and shame.

No wonder most Black men who see themselves confronted and cornered about their relationships with white and white passing women tend to not know how to react but in anger, disdain and denial.

I know because I went through those feelings. It is hard to deal with our insecurities, fragility and machismo. However, I think Black women should not carry the burden of dealing with the problem of palmitagem alone.

It is especially important to highlight that denouncing palmitagem does not mean foreclosing the possibility of interracial relationships, but about debunking the racism against Black women attached to it.

In that sense, Black feminist voices in Brazil have pointed at the direction to follow: The denaturalization of the predominantly negative perception of Black women in society.

Things in Brazil now are very different from the 1980s and 1990s for Black women.

The levels of political awareness of the intersections between racism, machismo and classicism are higher among Black women in all social classes.

So are the levels of self-esteem, social confidence and peer solidarity.

Nowadays, for example, I see young Black men who have similar and higher standards of living or even better than mine speaking up against palmitagem, praising Black women’s beauty and influencing other Black men to respeitar as pretas (respect Black women).

Afrocentric relationships are high now in Brazil too. Not as a separatist phenomenon, but a process of mutual healing through love.

Still, Brazil remains as a leading society in cases of domestic violence and feminicide. Most victims are Black women. It also has a large population of single mothers. Most are traditionally Black women.

Racism denial and an angry and dismissive backlash to the palmitagem debate are also high in Brazil. What can heterosexual Black men like me can do, then?

In addition to publicly confronting our own reproductions of racism, we also need to contribute to dealing with palmitagem at its roots.

What can I do now as a Black man to help avoiding that Black boys growing up learn to avoid and reproduce racism?

How to talk to children and young men about affection among Black people in a society – and world – that still defines beauty as something predominantly white?

How to stimulate young people, from an early age, to reflect about how racism and machismo humiliate, objectify and dispose Black women?

As a very first step, it is important to acknowledge our failures, admit our racism and continue listening to women.

Then, we must self-reflect, speak up to one another (rather than lecture women about the problem they suffer) and act.

[1] Respecting Brazil’s history of miscegenation, Black here also includes dark-skinned mixed-race people. Likewise, white includes light-skinned mixed-race people.

[2] I originally published a version of this text in my blog (in Portuguese) in 2016. In 2017, I reviewed it. In 2018, it came out on Geledés, Brazil’s most important Black feminist portal. The text went viral and still today remains among one of the few contributions by Black heterosexual men about the topic. This essay continues that conversation in Finland, where since 2018 I have co-coordinated the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance (ARMA, Kone Foundation, 2018-2020). People tend to assume that experiences in Brazil and Finland are incomparable because the countries are so different. However, Black and Brown people in Finland suffer from and act against racism and other consequences of whiteness in very similar ways. In a way, then, reviewing and translating the text from Portuguese into English and Finnish are ways to bridge similar public debates between my birth and adoptive countries.

[3] In the comments to the Portuguese version of this text, different people asked: “How did these Black boys feel in relation to the Black women in their own families?” In my case, I vaguely remember being very aggressive towards kids who bullied my younger sister, for example. But I can’t remember if my reaction was to their racism or to them bullying my sister. I also remember distinctions we boys would make distinctions between “cute Black girls” (who would often have lighter skin, curly/straight hair and looked better-off) and “ugly Black girls” (those with darker skin, natural or poorly-straightened hair and looked poor). This distinction would also affect our relationships with cousins, aunts and other girls and women in the family, for example.

ARMA Alliance at the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Arts

Together with the Goethe-Institut Finland, I represented the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance (ARMA) at the opening of the 2018, 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Arts in the first weekend of June.

As a researcher, I have constantly looked for ways to develop methodologies combining arts, poetry, activism and research. For this reason, being at the Berlin Biennale was a very intense and at times emotional learning experience.

Continue reading “ARMA Alliance at the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Arts”

What is the “Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance” (ARMA)?

On December 2017, Kone Foundation awarded me and my friend Monica Gathuo a grant to conduct the project we call Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance (ARMA): Research and Activism Collaboration for Creative Uses of Digital Media, Pedagogy and Arts against Racism in Finland (watch us talk about ARMA here).

Since then, many people have asked about what the project is, its objectives and activities. In this text, I break down the title to answer some of these questions.

Continue reading “What is the “Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance” (ARMA)?”

A persistente relevância de “Pele Negra, Máscaras Brancas”

A relevância do clássico Pele Negra, Máscaras Brancas, de Frantz Fanon (disponível em português aqui), continua até hoje, 65 anos depois da sua primeira edição em francês. Por esse motivo, a nova edição da Pluto Press, em inglês, é definitivamente bem-vinda.

A versão original deste texto foi publicada no site LSE Review of Books, da London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), de Londres. Ler aqui.

Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)

Continue reading “A persistente relevância de “Pele Negra, Máscaras Brancas””