Ingrid Saraiva: It’s time to Blacken the socialist left in Brazil and internationally

Ingrid Saraiva is a member of Afronte Campinas and coordinator of the Academic Center for Human Sciences. Studies gender, race, class and Marxism at Unicamp in São Paulo. This article was published by Esquerda Online and translated by No Borders News.


Today, July 25, is International Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women’s Day, also known as the National Day of Tereza de Benguela in Brazil. Earning the name the Queen of Quilombo do Quariterê, Tereza de Benguela was an important Black leader who coordinated the largest quilombo (communities established by African people who escaped slavery in Brazil) in Mato Grosso, Brazil, which today is the city of Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade. Welcoming hundreds of indigenous and African people, Quilombo de Quariterê led the way in resisting the “Bandeirantes” – literally “flag-carriers” as explorers, adventurers, slave merchants, and fortune hunters in early Colonial Brazil were known – from 1730 to 1795.

Tereza de Benguela, image by Cecília Silver.

On this day, it is not enough to pay homage to the historical resistance of Black women and to make them visible, it is time to strengthen their organization and potential for transformation. Stemming from the need to combat machismo and racism, on July 25, 1992, the first Meeting of Black Latin and Caribbean Women took place in Santo Domingos, in the Dominican Republic. The meeting brought together Black women from more than seventy countries, being an important milestone in international resistance and struggle, a reference point for the Black Women’s March in 2015 that gathered thousands on the streets in different countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Surviving in hell

The year 2020, more than ever, poses profound challenges for the working class as a whole, especially for Black women. The first such challenge is to survive, especially in Brazil. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Black women face the federal government’s Covid-19 denialism and its sabotaging of social distancing in addition to its policy of strangling access to basic emergency pandemic relief income and underfunding the public health system (SUS). We can all see the discriminatory and differential effects of covid-19 across the country. The pandemic has not merely reproduced structural inequalities of gender, race and class, it is intensifying them.

[Watch next, Sônia Guajajara, Preta Ferreira: Covid-19, Bolsonaro and the resistance in Brazil (video).]

First, the virus is more deadly for Black people. In April, data from the Ministry of Health showed that Black and Brown people account for 1 in 4 Covid-19 hospitalizations and 1 in 3 deaths. Second, the possibility of practicing social distancing by working at home is not an option for everyone. Most informal and precarious work is done by Black men and women, forcing many to continue working to survive under unequal conditions of exposure to the virus. According to the Continuous National Household Sample Survey conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in May 2020, the possibility of working from home is twice as great for white people compared to Black people.

When we analyze domestic work in particular, according to data from a recent survey, this sector is composed mainly of older Black women who received some of the lowest wages. One of the first victims of Covid-19 in Brazil was a domestic servant who, despite being 63 years old, was forced to take care of her employers when the returned from Italy infected with the coronavirus.

Although some domestic workers were laid off because of the need for social distancing, a large contingent were not released and continued working, exposing themselves to infection. Most of these women are heads of households responsible for the maintenance of their families, thus they have also been profoundly affected by the closure of daycare centers and schools.

Moreover, many obstacles face Black women when it comes to the prevention of coronavirus transmission due to systematic inequality in terms of income, health, and safety conditions, including structural difficulties in accessing the sewage system, paved roads, treated water, and overcrowded homes. And as if the health, economic, and social crisis were not enough, young Black people are being brutally murdered inside their own homes by the police. Between March and June 2020, the Military Police of São Paulo killed one person every six hours, while in Rio de Janeiro, they killed five people per day. Every week we lose more young Black people, Agatha Félix was only eight years old, João Pedro was fourteen, and João Vitor was just eighteen. This last Sunday, police killed Josué Nogueira, who was only sixteen. Black women can no longer bear to bury their children. The Black population, therefore, is facing the greatest threats. Not only because of the lethality of the virus and its unequal effects, but also because of the lethality of the police, which exposes the genocidal face of Bolsonarist neo-fascism.

Lessons for the left

When we discuss the need to transform all structures of capitalist, racist, and patriarchal society, Black women are the materialization of the working class. If we do not understand who the working class is, then we do not understand – as a movement that seeks the radical transformation of society – how to connect with it and its real needs. The contributions of Black theorists and activists, such as bell hooks and Lélia Gonzalez, show the way. In Black women: shaping Feminist theory(2015), bell hooks argues that Black women bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and class oppression and, at the same time, are:

“The group that was not socialized to assume the role of exploiter/oppressor, in the sense that they do not allow us to have any non-institutionalized “other” that we can exploit or oppress. (Children do not represent an institutionalized other, although they can be oppressed by their parents.) White women and black men have both conditions. They can act as oppressors or be oppressed.… Black male sexism undermined the struggle to eradicate racism, just as white female racism undermines the feminist struggle. ” (hooks, 2015, p. 207-208)

[Read next, Martina Gomes: Black Lives Matter and the antifascist struggle in Brazil.]

In this sense, the very life experience of Black women, of not having a social role that allows them to discriminate, exploit, and oppress, challenges the dominant social structure and ideology. Hence the importance of occupying public spaces, spaces of power, of political struggle. Marielle Franco, a Black, queer, feminist member of the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) who served on the Rio de Janeiro city council, is a towering example of how closely the ruling class identifies Black women in struggle with the potential for subversion and, therefore, danger. Today marks 864 days since her murder without those chiefly responsible for her assassination being brought to justice, even as it becomes more apparent each day that President Bolsonaro and his family were involved.

The Brazilian left has a historic weakness in terms of its approach to oppression in general. This problem demonstrates a lack of understanding that the working class is heterogeneous and its differences are an inseparable part of it as a whole. Lélia Gonzalez, in “For an Afro-Latin American feminism” (2011), sets the tone:

“If we are committed to a project of social transformation, we cannot collude with ideological positions of exclusion, which only privilege one aspect of the reality we are experiencing. In claiming our difference as Black women, as amefricans, we know well how much we bear the marks of economic exploitation and racial and sexual subordination. ” (Gonzalez, 2011, p. 366)

Thus, it is the duty of the left, not only to give due visibility to the different experiences lived by Black women, but also to combat the myth of racial democracy present in its own ranks. Combating racism, machismo, LGBTphobia, ableism, and xenophobia, does not divide the fight. A “de-raced” working-class conception, devoid of gender and sexuality, does not reflect reality. In addition to emphasizing and following the agenda of Black women, it is urgent that they are in positions of leadership, at the negotiating tables, on the platforms, on the megaphones, in the leadership of the unions, movements, and parties. There is an urgent need to Blacken the socialist left.

[For international news and analysis from working-class, oppressed peoples, and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]

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