Following up on a story I posted a few days ago, the black woman who accused her employer of demanding that she straighten her hair in order to conform to the institution’s standard of straight hair has taken her story to the press. Maintaining her recollection of the story, the woman, 19-year old Ester Cesario, said that the director of the school told her that “the standard is straight hair” and that she had to straighten it in order to maintain “boa aparência (good appearance).”
Cleyton Wenceslau Borges is Ester’s lawyer and a member of the União de Núcleos de Educação Popular para Negras/os e Classe Trabalhadora (Union of Centers of Popular Education for Blacks and the Working Class) (UNEafro). For him, racism functions in direct and indirect ways:
“There is no doubt that when an association of kinky/curly hair is made in counterpoint to straight hair, this means that straight hair is the correct, the beautiful and the standard.”
Borges also affirmed that a criminal investigation of the matter is moving forward. There will also be demands of compensation pertaining to issues of labor and civil offenses to the dignity and honor of Ms. Cesario as a black woman as well as the psychological trauma she suffered. Representatives of the college say that the incident was a simple misunderstanding although they also maintain that tied down hair, along with the school’s t-shirt and jeans are the standard at the school.
When I posted this article a few days, I included the comments of a black female hairdresser that I know who works and lives in São Paulo. She basically told me that that is the way things are in Brazil and black women know this. In her case, while she is able to wear basically any hair style she wishes at work, this is because she works in the hair industry; if she were to work in another industry, she knows that she would have to conform to Brazil’s European standard of “boa aparência” as well.
Tonight, I had another dialogue about this situation with another friend that lives in São Paulo. A black woman, late 30’s who works as an attorney. After I forwarded the information to her, she replied that this, the question of black hair in the workplace, was a “delicate subject” and that it (racism) was also hard to prove. I won’t include the entire 30-minute dialogue that we had about the issue, but here are a few comments she made (translated from Portuguese, excluding my own comments, replies and questions).
“It’s been a few years since black women (in Brazil) started wearing their natural hair, different from black American women that assumed their position as black women in society a long time ago. Here, I would like very much to let my hair grow without going through any chemical process; I have tried to do that, including now. But I try to follow fashion trends in order to not feel isolated or not be treated as person that is out of style. In my job, I could go as I wish, but I would feel bad if I had this badly done hair…In the case of this girl, I don’t think that it was racism, but she could have gotten a cut, a hairdo that would have been more in style…. Many (black) women are wearing natural/kinky/curly hair nowadays and they are beautiful but it has to be done right….Now, I have done various hydrations in my hair but if I can’t handle this, I will go back to using the American product of the Avlon brand in order to straighten my hair*.
“I think that she (Cesario) could wear her hair this way but she needs to do it better. She should look for a hairdresser to get a cut that’s more in style. (Her hair) is natural, it’s beautiful, but she gives the impression that she just got out of bed and went to work…she could have put some leave in cream in it that you have so much of there (in the US). We also have this here. …
“In order to wear the hair in the way that she is wearing it, it has to have style. Nowadays I see in the subway, mainly, black women going out (looking) like they just woke up, didn’t comb their hair, nor put cream in it; this looks ugly, you have to take care of it. The hair has to be well-cut, without uneven length, this, unfortunately is negligence. A woman has to do her hair, regardless of whether she is white, black or Asian….it has to be a good cut.
Maybe this was the comment that was made at the school and she took it as racism. White people, nowadays feel intimidated in saying certain things to black people because they can be accused of racism. Not everything is racism….There are companies that have norms, and if we don’t wish to adapt ourselves, we need to search for those that accept us how we wish to present ourselves. Her hair is good for the club, (but) not for work.”
It is important to take her comments in context of the history of black Brazilians. Although Brazil has a similar history of slavery and racism as the US, the absence of legalized segregation made it difficult to convince the Afro-Brazilian population that racism indeed existed. As such, while there have been black civil rights organizations and brotherhoods in Brazil since at the least the 19th century, it has only been since about 1985 with the end of a military dictatorship, that black Brazilian organizations have been able to fight for anti-racist laws, affirmative action policies and make advances in the struggle for equality. Similar to the black experience in the US, black Brazilians had also been indoctrinated to hate and distance themselves from all things that denote African ancestry and culture. But in the past two decades, particularly since the late 1990s, millions of Afro-Brazilians have begun to take pride in their varying skin tones and hair textures and defining themselves as black, Afro-Brazilian or afro-descendant rather than the plethora of terms that they have historically used to escape blackness.
But I’m curious. Based on her comments, the woman I had this dialogue with clearly saw Cesario’s hair as being badly done and also inappropriate for a work environment. According to her, she needed to cream it, update it and get a better haircut. In the Brazilian context, her hair was “bad”. Yes, they do use the terms “good hair (cabelo bom)” and “bad hair (cabelo ruim)” in Brazil and it ain’t hard to tell which is considered which. But, judging from her photo, would her hair be considered “bad” or “good” in the black American community? Did she have a bad hairstyle or was it inappropriate for a work environment as my friend argued? Or was my friend also indoctrinated by a European standard because she also insisted that she (Cesario) needed to put something in her hair in order to make it look better?
*American products made specifically for black hair are very popular in Brazil and can be found in countless hair salons that cater to the Afro-Brazilian community.