Afro-Brazilian women live at a tricky intersection

March 7, 2022 | 6 minute read
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If you described Gisele Monteiro’s and Mariana Souza’s lives as a Venn diagram, they would stand at the intersection of several overlapping circles. Proud. Black. Brazilian. Struggle. Strong. Woman.

Like millions of Black women throughout Latin America, Monteiro and Souza, both Oracle employees in São Paulo, have navigated the intersection of race, nationality, and gender. It’s always been a tricky task, starting with how they see themselves. Unlike peers in Colombia, Panama, or the Dominican Republic, they don’t identify as Afro-Latina.

Monteiro and Souza are Afro-Brazilians—or simply Black women from Brazil.

     Gisele Monteiro

“In Brazil we speak Portuguese, not Spanish,” says Souza, an Oracle business development consultant. “Our history is different.” Indeed, during the slave trade Portugal trafficked more humans to the Americas than any other nation. And descendants of those enslaved people developed a rich Afro-Brazilian identity that preserves African culture, religions, and speech. For Souza, racial and cultural ties—and distinctions—are stronger than regional ones.

Monteiro, a partner manager who supports Oracle technology sales, feels the same way. “I think of myself mainly as an African descendant. When people look at me, they see a Black person. It feels weird and contradictory that we need to talk about it today,” she says, adding that 56% of Brazilians identify as Black or mixed race. “But considering our heritage of colonialism and racism, we do need to talk about identity.”

That identity is Black and female in Latin America. But that is only part of how they describe themselves. The struggle, strength, and pride that is part of their stories reflects the dual challenges Monteiro and Souza have faced from the very beginning.

Twice the obstacles

One of Brazil’s enduring colonial legacies: in a majority-Black nation, Black people are singled out by race. According to Minority Rights Group International, average incomes for Black households in Brazil are just 43% of those for white households, while the average life expectancy for Afro-Brazilians is almost seven years less. Protection International reports that Black Brazilians have been 62% more likely to die of COVID-19. Fifty percent can’t read, with 40% not even completing elementary school.

Monteiro says her mother and grandmothers prepared her to face these societal inequities.

“I needed to be strong and not accept humiliation or insults from anyone,” Monteiro says. “I was told to respond always and let everyone know I deserved respect.”

But respect is not only something demanded from others; her mother also instructed her on the importance of self-respect. “She taught me that it’s important to be well dressed, with my hair combed, so people wouldn’t judge me negatively on my looks. And she was very rigorous about my performance in school.” Her mother didn’t expect her to be at the top of her class, “But she did say I needed to be among the best.”

Because her father had gone to university and landed a good job, she was able to attend private schools, which she calls a mixed blessing. While they offered strong academics, “I was often the only Black child among white students. It was something I had to get used to.”

Monteiro remembers a white-dominated popular culture, where TV shows depicted Black characters only as housekeepers, security people, or poor families. “Even the dolls we had were always white,” she says. “It made me feel different, that being Black was not a good thing. That my skin color and hair were ugly.”

“The strength to keep moving up comes from my ancestors. They never had these opportunities. I’ve always believed I should take big steps.”
—Mariana Souza, Oracle Business Development Consultant, São Paulo, Brazil

Souza attended public schools, where Black students were more common, but opportunities were limited compared to private schools. And other students still saw her chiefly as Black. “With rare exceptions, people always paid attention to that.”

Like Monteiro, Souza looked for role models on TV. She recalls seeing only one, whose name she can’t remember. “But seeing one person who looked like me helped my self-esteem, for example, being able to like my hair. It was a before-and-after moment. I felt represented when I saw a Black actress.”

Determined to succeed

That sense of self-respect, strength, and cultural pride eventually translated into career success for Souza. After university, she worked in customer service in the aviation industry before moving into tech. She says the strength to make forward progress comes from her ancestors. “They weren’t literate, so they never had these opportunities,” she says. I’ve always believed I should take big steps, so I made my way through college and started setting professional goals.”

Monteiro “broke the bubble” of societal limitations by spending eight years working in neighboring Argentina. “I had great job opportunities there,” she says. “The Argentinians were curious about my foreignness, but not in a racist way. They’d ask about Brazil and my culture. It was liberating and empowering and helped me overcome some of the feelings I had as a child. I was ‘different’ in Argentina, but this time it felt good.”

Last year, Monteiro transferred from Oracle’s Argentina office back to São Paulo, the latest in a steady cadence of career advancements. “I’ve had good experiences at Oracle, including the chance to try different roles,” she says. “I’ve had opportunities, not obstacles.”

     Mariana Souza

She’s noticed greater tolerance since returning to Brazil. “Having conversations about these things, both within and outside Oracle, makes me feel included. Oracle has been doing fantastic work through its Diversity and Inclusion programs and groups like ABLE,” Monteiro adds, referring to the Alliance of Black Leaders for Excellence employee resource group.

Souza too perceives a cultural shift. “I can tell the difference now,” she says. “There’s an awareness and a feeling of social duty that I find empowering. Here at Oracle, I wear my natural hair, and I know I can go to work wearing a turban or African-inspired clothes. The environment makes me feel safe.”

She acknowledges that progress doesn’t happen overnight. “It’s still lonely. There aren’t many of us in the corporate world, but Oracle is moving in the right direction. As an ABLE member, I take part in discussions on race and other important issues, and we also explore how to improve literacy in our communities.” Besides ABLE, Souza taps into a network of Black professional women and men. “We support each other a lot.”

The road ahead

Monteiro agrees that equity, in particular for Black women, is a long way off. “I am very realistic, so I’m sure my generation won’t see it. But I believe it will happen, just not now or even in a few decades. The current anti-racist movement gives me hope as a woman too.”

Souza echoes the thought: “Unconscious prejudice still exists, but it doesn’t stop my desire to take the next step in my career. Many Black women in Brazil haven’t had access to opportunity. But the dream is that in the future, all of us will.”

According to Monteiro, following the dream means working through hard times. “My identity is the source of a lot of difficult experiences. But the challenges have transformed me. The pain of those experiences is the source of my strength.”

Mark Jackley

Mark Jackley is an Oracle digital content specialist.

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