Brazil

Campus Racism in Brazil – the case of Stephanie Ribeiro

In May 2014, Stephanie Ribeiro, a scholarship student at the elite Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) in Campinas (São Paulo), wrote about her experiences of racism at the University. With the help of her supporters, including Betty Martins and Sueli Feliziani we republish Steph’s story.

Campus racism in Brazil – some context

Yasmin Gunaratnam and Sueli Feliziani, with translation by Betty Martins.

Yasmin: One of the things that struck me when I read Betty’s translation of Stephanie’s story was that although I knew something about contemporary racial inequalities in Brazil, I knew very little about race and university life. Then when I started to try and find out more, I soon realised the extent to which universities have been a critical site for both policy initiatives and activism on race equality, for example with regard to affirmative action quotas. How does the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) where Stephanie is, fit into this broader context?

Sueli: The first thing that is important to point out is that PUC is an elite university. It competes with the public universities in Brazil and is one of the best in the country. Stephanie was educated in a public sector school and won a government scholarship to study architecture at the university. It’s a prestigious course where most of the students come from rich backgrounds and have been privately educated. As you will see from Stephanie’s blog post, her fellow students were both resistant and hostile to affirmative action quotas.

Yasmin: There were aspects of Stephanie’s experiences, and her courage in making these experiences public, that reminded me of the recent campaigns about campus racism that began in the Ivy league US universities and then spread to Oxford, Cambridge and other UK universities. These campaigns involved students of colour coming together to expose their experiences of racism, particularly from their peers. Do you think there is potential for more collective mobilization against racism in Brazil’s universities?

Sueli: There was a concerted action in this case, with students from PUC, UNICAMP and black activists from the region. Around 200 people got together in the PUC University. So there was a sort of re-union, we might say, between black activists, students from PUC and other universities. Together we signed a manifesto to support Stephanie’s fight to expose the extents of everyday racism at PUC and to push for the real inclusion of Afro Brazilian students in the university.

Yasmin: What has happened since the story has become public?

Sueli: When Stephanie’s testimonial was published, the initial reaction from PUC students and the institution was that of denial and hostility. The students reacted strongly against the exposure of what was very, very crude racism within their institution. What was interesting was that the parents of students also made complaints. Stephanie was accused of trying to damage the image and reputation of the university and of using a personal case to generalize about racism. The university threatened her with a formal investigation, presenting the complaints from the parents of the students. They said that they had to investigate the veracity of her claims and at no time did they actually show any concern about the racism that Stephanie was subjected to. The intimidation happened in closed rooms, with the director of the university and Stephanie, and without a lawyer or another advocate for Stephanie being present.

Photos: Ato contra o racismo na Puc Campinas (campus I) dia 22 de maio

After this meeting we had one meeting between ourselves, with Stephanie and black activists from Campinas. The organization Blogueiras Negras (Black Bloggers) wrote a manifesto of repudiation and we managed to get the support of hundreds of student organisations across the country. The mobilization went on to a national level.

University oppressive, will not pass and will not silence us!

by Stephanie Ribeiro

Translated by Betty Martins

One black woman among 200 students, with a scholarship for a degree in Architecture and Urbanism from Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil. Here she recounts her experiences of racism within the university.

In the major Brazilian universities, public or private, access to higher education for black Brazilians is heavily restricted. Behind the fantasy that the university is “universal” there are deep layers of hidden racism and it seems that nobody has much of a desire to break down the barriers and everyday harassment that black students face. But anyone who thinks that we will not resist, invade and occupy these spaces that are also ours, is mistaken.

Stephanie Ribeiro

Stephanie Ribeiro

The problem of racism is intensified when you are a black woman. I am a student and scholar of Architecture and Urbanism, at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Campinas, where I have suffered what I can only call persecution because of my presence, my ideas, vindications and my stubborn refusal to accept racism as a ‘normal’ part of the campus experience.

I didn’t think it would be this way. I could not believe that in addition to the university being a white elitist environment there would also be a pressure to conform and to suppress any resistance to racism. I found that some issues could only be talked about quietly and with certain students, because others live in a bubble of ignorance that is virtually impossible to puncture.

Racism in PUC is far from subtle. It is structural. It is no surprise that black people in the university are to be found most often not in the classroom, but cleaning and servicing the institution.

My experience is that my bodily presence represents something deeply provocative in that place. Even if I just want to learn how to be an architect and urbanist, my mere existence is a problem, an irritant. This started to manifest itself when my Facebook account turned into a succession of controversies that were discussed in the hallways of the college. The aggression escalated when I explained that I was a feminist, to the point where graffiti was sprayed onto my locker with the phrase “We do not bind to the shit that you put up on Facebook”. Because Facebook is a social network with tools that allow you not only to delete but also to block users that you are uncomfortable with, it would have been very easy for my fellow students not to have me in their networks. But this was not the option that they decided to take. They preferred instead to send me anonymous messages and threats.

In 2012 when I asked university staff to talk about and address what had happened to my locker they said there was nothing they could do. They told me that the security cameras did not record anything and that I should give the university administrators the names of suspects, if I wanted something to be done. By the end of the year I was still receiving Facebook messages asking me why I didn’t go to some of our student parties. The messages made me start to be fearful of attending such parties, because if these people were bullying me in the university’s halls, sending email messages and spraying graffiti on my locker, what could they do to me if I was alone at a party? So I don’t go to university parties any more.

At the beginning of 2013, I was in the second year of my degree, and I started to do some work in groups, in pairs and so on. In the first half of the semester a person who claimed to be my friend, said: “I don’t want to be racist, but have you noticed that blacks normally stink more than white people? They have a stronger smell.” I was shocked. The others in the group agreed with her. She finished by saying “But you Ste are different. You smell nice.”

I understood the severity of the situation only after a period of time. The people who were my “friends” did not understand my reaction, or my indignation. In the second half of the year in another group activity someone said, “We are all equal”. The same person rubbed the skin on his hand and said “But not Stephanie.” Others saw this as a bad joke.

The process of moving away from these people was a complicated one. These were people that I had seen as my friends, but I do not think that I can be close to those who think that racism is a joke. In addition, there was an incident in the college, where a boyfriend of one of the students broke into the campus and robbed another student. In the aftermath of the attack, one of the security guards of PUC expressed himself with the following phrase “Who should have been punched was that girl (the attacker’s girlfriend).” When I expressed my opinion on Facebook that all violence against women should not be tolerated, fellow students again targeted my account, this time defending aggression and violence against women. Yes, they argued, depending on her background, a woman could be physically abused.

To make matters worse some people again invaded my Facebook timeline. Some who had already been blocked, used their friends accounts to express their hatred, including threatening me with violence if I was not quiet. I even saw people who said they were my “friends” taking the side of these other students who were not only defending aggression but were also threatening me.

As 2013 ended, I started to show signs of depression. Sometimes I would prefer to lock myself in my house and cry than to go to the classroom. Nobody understood what was happening and neither did I.

Now in 2014, I am in the third year of university. I have moved away from my so-called “friends” and have felt increasingly alone. In terms of racism there have been strange twists and turns to my experience. I have heard that in calling attention to racism against black students that I am the biggest racist. It was suggested that I should change my course: because I see and challenge social injustices then I should study social sciences. And so at the beginning of the semester I did begin studying social sciences, until a teacher in one of my classes said: “You have skin so dark, you can perceive different colours of light on your skin.”

Now, I have no desire to go to the classroom. I have no desire to talk to people. I want to stay at home, crying. I find myself sad and depressed. I began therapy, and the psychologist could only say that I was racist to myself and that I was on the wrong course, because the university is not going to change for me.

Prejudice and oppression within the university world continues, more recently with regard to the matter of gender quotas. In a Facebook discussion about a women-only vacancy, a student posted the message “Do they accept monkeys?”

Of course, no one thought such discussions were offensive, only “a joke”. When I voiced my opinions I was told to “relax and enjoy”. Then the student who wrote the ‘Do they accept monkeys?’ message told me to “Shut up.” A white woman says “Stephanie, calm down. I always read your posts and I try to understand your point of view, but I think there is a bit of victimization on your part as well, don’t you think?… Do not curse at me. Do not call me “white” and that I do not know what you go through. I have suffered much prejudice as well, but in other forms. Finally, if you want to we can talk, but for now, calm down. Nobody is attacking you!”

This is what can happen when a black feminist woman enters into an elite course at a university. I worked hard to enter this space I cannot so easily leave something that people like me do not have access to. Architecture and Urbanism courses are for people like me – not only should we be an object of study in lectures, not only should students be used as subjects of scientific investigation – architecture and urbanism needs to be studied by people like me. It has to reach people like myself. It has to change our lives. It has to change the university.

While there are students with scholarships who are going hungry to go to college. I will not keep quiet.

While there are students who do not sleep in order to go to college. I will not keep quiet.

While there are women earning less than men. I will not keep quiet.

While there are women subjected to assault and rape. I will not keep quiet.

While the construction site is blacker than my classroom. I will not keep quiet.

While Brazil has still to overcome the legacy of almost 400 years of slavery. I will not keep quiet.

As long as I am the only black woman with a scholarship for Architecture and Urbanism in a course of more than 200 students, at the Pontifical Catholic University – I will not keep quiet.

Stephanie Ribeiro

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4 replies »

  1. Stephanie you are a courageous woman and I admire your candour sharing what has happened to you. Your voice is important we want to hear it so I am glad you are determined to speak out.You are not alone, reach out to other black men and women; create a network if one does not exist; read the literature from the black disapora. It will make you angry and it will make you strong.

  2. Like many in the African diaspora i grew up in love with the ‘image’ of Brazil. An imagine propagated around the world with the cultural exports of sexy football, carnival and samba. But with the increased media scrutiny that Brazil has been exposed to over the last year, I have been shocked to discover how deeply racist a country it is. And how naive we have all been. Why would it be any less racist than any other country built on slavery, just because it has a great football team, sexy carnival, and African rhythms in its music? All around the world its the same song. And how can it ever become less racially stratified with such embedded institutional racism? Stephanie Ribeiro my heart goes out to you.

  3. Black people world wide need to unite and continue fighting oppression. Too many of us have allowed ourselves to become broken and brainwashed and have no pride. We must regain our sense of self and pride.