Barcelona - voix libre

The deceit of white Welfarism - hierarchical dynamics and structural racism

Nêga Lucas - English translation: Michael Dorrity - sept 2020
I took the initiative to write this essay after experiencing a delicate affective break. Yet another empirical example of the structural and naturalized racism that accumulate daily in my trajectory, expressing itself in a variety of situations.

Photo : from the film "The help"

On many occasions, I have decided not to report racism out of fear. I’m afraid of a repressive, social counter-attack from the white person who was at the centre of this racist incident or those allied with them. Here, I'm referring to an unconscious and oppressive choreography in which looks, comments and gestures act as a manifestation of reproach and subjugation. A practice naturalized and perpetuated through the centuries in colonial Brazil by way of the punishment and torture of disobedient or rebellious black slaves. I felt an urgent need to confront my countless fears, insecurities and barriers so as to share this particular experience in the form of an essay.

My point of departure is a specific event, which began in the private sphere and led me to inquire into the experiences of people whose social positions and places of speech are similar to my own. The seismic tremor of my inner layers generated by yet another instance of structural racism was very violent on this occasion and prompted me to seek similar reports.  Reports to prove that which, a priori, I had already suspected. I am an artist and journalist, and have been an immigrant in Europe for over a decade.

Last year I was diagnosed with a very serious condition, which prompted the mobilization of many friends who, directly and indirectly, offered to collaborate in various ways during my period of convalescence. Given the urgency of my medical condition, my brother, mother and father came from Brazil and took turns caring for and checking up on me.

At the end of the first phase of treatment, there was a conflict between my brother and I. Having sought no permission, one of the people from the circle that worked with us, and who frequented my house, intervened in this conflict in a way that was both invasive and intransigent.

Since then, that episode has come to be questioned not only as a punctual intrusion into a family problem, but as a reflection of profoundly relevant structural issues providing insight on socio-political relations and the roles they represent in Brazilian communities outside Brazil.

In trying to discuss the problem with the person in question and resolve the situation, I questioned our differing social origins and highlighted the structural issues at work behind the "misunderstanding". I questioned the roles that blackness plays in certain social choreographies, such as that of welfarism, for example. Though we both migrated from Brazil, I told her what my opinions as a black woman in that context were. My assertions provoked a lot of discomfort and a reaction that was instantly defensive.

Both the episode experienced in the private sphere and the answers I received when breaking open the socio-political issues implicit in that friendship, led me to analyse the structures of behaviour involved. It became clear to me that social relations maintain a connection with the history of Brazil, which systematically repeat oppressive dynamics that are firmly rooted in structural racism.

A position that was apparently the fruit of a personal conflict began to reveal power dynamics and a meaning that belong to the perpetuation of secular colonialist thought. These were the detonating phrases in the development of this analysis:

"I'm starting to wonder if our relationship only exists when you need help and I can give it to you. Because I want to help people."

"Your art is worth so much, if I had the money I'd invest in you so you could work for me."

"I feel like, when I help you, you make space for a connection."

"It never occured to me that we come from different places. Why are you talking like this?

You're creating prejudice with talk like that"

"It doesn't matter to me, our relationship is deeper than that. I never thought about the colour of your skin."

"You're taking this conversation somewhere (politically) really far off.

Our friendship has nothing to do with where we come from"

"I think it's difficult for you to accept help."

"I've done the same for other people and they didn't bring up these sorts of questions"

"You have to learn to listen and realize that not everybody is like that. I'm not one of those people.

(A lot of white people suffer from "racial color blindness" as they claim not to see the differences in color between black and white people, thus justifying their discourse of exceptionalism and denial of racism).

In my friend's view, there was no difference between us. And beneath her reductionist discourse, all the subjective, creative and emotional material that I had brought to our relationship was disregarded, as her gestures of welfarism were all that she indicated as the basis of our connection.

These, in turn, were some of the questions that emerged directly from this episode:

Why is it so difficult to talk about welfare, privilege and structural racism with white people?

Why don't art, ideas and creativity count when it comes to naming and classifying help?

Why isn't subjective input considered valuable material for exchange?

Which material is valuable and helpful in welfare-thinking and which roles are represented by those who give material "help" and those who receive "charity"?

What are the white aristocratic person's intentions when offering help?

What is goodness (particularly for Brazilians, whose narrative is imbued with the heritage of Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church)?

Hierarchical Welfarism:

In matters of donation, exchange and help, there may be more at play, hidden behind the choreography of charity. In the episode I experienced, for example, it became clear that my interlocutor needed to create a bond of recognition. One which conditioned the course of our relationship and perpetuated our contact through a constant debt of gratitude. This is the type of behaviour that defines a hierarchical and servile bond between the person who "donates" and the one who receives "help". It is not, therefore, a question of a symmetrical exchange, but the perpetuation of a persistent hierarchical dynamic. Hierarchical white welfarism is, in fact, an investment that is ultimately self-serving as it helps construct an image of the "good person".

This help is based on the logic that the more I "help" the more I perfect an image of kindness and generosity in my social circle. It is not, therefore, a disinterested attitude given that the person with resources and "good intentions" seeks to obtain benefits from their own philanthropic attitude. That is, the more I "help", the nobler my spirit becomes in terms of my own personal judgment and the judgment of others.

Hierarchical welfarism seeks constant recognition from the person who is helped as well as from those around. It is a way to gain prestige as well as the respect and admiration of the collective to which one belongs.

Within this interpretative framework, the black person "in need" acts as the object in maintaining an image of redemption and purification, that of an elite which has not yet managed to see its own place of privilege.

Thus, if the black person rejects this position, they automatically threaten the structure in place and the process by which an image of goodness, philanthropy, purity and nobility of spirit are continuously constructed. If the black person abandons their role as needy, they threaten all the recognition and respect that has gradually accrued. They put the relationship of power and possession at risk, and shatter the matrix of perpetuation by way of which this asymmetrical relationship is maintained.

The type of "help" to which hierarchical welfarism belongs seeks to perpetuate the bonds created through debts of gratitude, immobilizing the person who receives the supposed charity. In this case, whoever gives material donations does not detach themselves from the act of donation or the person who is helped. In so doing, they maintain the subjective scale of superiority/inferiority.

The rupture of the relationship and the choreography of the help goes beyond the realm of emotions, as it represents a socio-political rupture.

This servile relationship between black and white people represents a continuity with the pillars of the country's history, the very foundation of the construction of Brazil's national identity and the perverse mechanisms of domination that the "Fable of the three races" (Da Matta, 1981) helped to solidify.

In the choreography of my personal experience there is an unconscious relationship of the white woman who "helps" me and can enjoy the products of my subjectivity/creative intellect in a way that is both constant and always available (servile). This is because there is a bond of debt/gratitude (possession) for the help I was given. As a result, I unconsciously feel in constant debt, as neither creativity nor subjectivity are considered as having any worth as material for exchange.

There is, within the afrodescendant subjectivity, another pattern of bonds and exchanges, where other material of an emotional, intellectual, creative and dialectical nature also count as "currency" and also gain a certain value within this social circle. Concrete goods represent one value among many others and they are a consequence rather than the basis thereof.

In the case reported, the donor of aid, a white woman of aristocratic descent, feels entitled (ownership) to interfere in family matters (a delicate conflict between siblings) and invade the privacy of my family (the family in need) after having previously been generous toward us. I (the black woman in need), in a state of physical and emotional vulnerability, am portrayed as a helpless person, incapable of dealing with such issues and having my individuality and capacity for decision-making annulled. Therefore, I (the victim) am "spared" while she (the white woman) can intrude and set boundaries (possession) within my family circle so as to resolve (save) a conflict in the private sphere.

In this case, my brother, a black man, serves as the trigger for the conflict and justifies the intervention of the white woman, since he is seen as a threat to my "partnership" with her.

She, on the other hand, with intimate knowledge of myself and the details of my family life, feels entitled to represent me, without my permission, "defending" me from my brother, invading our privacy and defaming his image with pejorative comments about his conduct.

The white woman interferes in an internal and private problem (possession), in order to exercise limits over (civilize) the black man and keep him away from the black woman (powerless victim), thus saving her and restoring the relationship of hierarchical welfarism existing between the white woman who helps and the black woman who is helped. To this end, she incites disaffection and disagreement between siblings (an attempt to dissolve the notion of identity and place of belonging, of union) and seeks to resolve the conflict in a civilized way (good woman).

Here, we are delineating a set of meanings and stigmas so consolidated that they've come to form like rocks in our psyche and subjectivities.

The black man represents the evil man, with wild ways. He doesn't know how to behave in public, he's a trouble-maker, a bad influence, provokes disorder; an enemy.

"I heard he was talking about you on the bus, screaming, half hysterical". "Our connection's weaker since he came along." "I think I had a right to set some boundaries for him, he needed limits." "I knew he'd project this mess onto me and that he could keep me away from you."

According to Winnie Bueno and Gaius Caesar: "Black men are the image of the enemy, considered a voracious, uncontrollable animal, which if not controlled by the coercive power of the State can unleash its natural violence at any time". (Portal Geledés 07/11/2016)

The black woman is the recipient of help, a victim, vulnerable, unable to defend herself or have opinions of her own, powerless. Hence, she is dependent on the white woman's help.

"I wanted to keep you from suffering anymore." "If I told you what he said about you, it would only bring you down." "You're going through a very difficult time. He can't say that about you". "You were in a lot of pain and I wanted to protect you."

It is the white woman, by contrast, who has the resources to offer help: generous, a good person, a savior, civilized, the woman who likes to help people, the judge and educator who continues the civilization of wild bodies. "I only wanted to help because he was behaving like that." "It's time you ended this abusive relationship."

Fear and the slave relationship in the everyday imaginary:

There is an implicit fear - rooted in history - that manifests when a black person confronts, questions or denounces the racism of a white person. This Fear is the result of a relationship of continuous secular violence that persists even today. It may be explicit as with police brutality, massacres, false arrests, domestic violence and so on, or it can be much more subtle, such as in psychic and dialectical violence. Both cases form part of a collective unconscious that plays out in highly oppressive hierarchical relationships, the manifestations of which are often very subtle.

The introjected fear in black people's subconscious is a deep and open wound, as well as being a very recent memory - given that the abolition of slavery never really occurred. The feeling of being unprotected, exposed and powerless when challenging, denouncing or confronting a white person is part of an unbroken line within a pattern of harassment and humiliation. This pattern insists on maintaining certain unconscious ideas in the common imaginary, such as inferiority, incapacity, powerlessness, low self-esteem, madness and subservience on the part of black people. For white people, especially those belonging to the bourgeoisie, it consists in the ideas of authority, power, superiority, possession and civility.


The work involved in taking stock of the structural racism that makes up our identity and certain aspects of our individuality involves the recognition of collective constructs, of troubling and discriminatory inner thoughts and of an external structure that is exhaustively hammered into our unconscious. Beyond the racism that we black women experience in our everyday lives, we make constant attempts to occupy spaces, legitimize speech, assert our subjectivity, identify violence, and cope with the devaluation, hypersexualization and exotification of our bodies. Above and beyond this, we must deal with the novelty that emerges when these barriers are broken down.

Our education and thinking, our idea of the world and our notion of self-esteem and human value are built upon white, colonial logic. This is why "decolonizing thought" is so relevant. It is also why building new identities in such an hierarchical and addicted context is so complex. The point is that we too were educated to think within a colonial logic and, even as black women, we unconsciously "think white". This means devaluing ourselves, devaluing the collective to which we belong and turning a blind eye to prejudice, including that which is rooted in ourselves. On top of this, we are forced to take responsibility for the very emotions that are projected to us, countless ,unpleasant and uncomfortable as they are.

Until very recently, our story was told and manipulated almost exclusively by white people. We have to gather up the broken pieces of a descendancy that was shattered both by colonization and by a slave relationship that persists to this day. We must strive to keep ourselves constantly informed, mining the past so that we can know ourselves better and perceive our own dignity and integrity, without mediation. We need to reclaim our humanity, to recognize all of our facets, from the most beautiful to the most disgusting, so that from there we can build structures that protect us and give us strength. Without collective backing and support, many of us verge on madness just trying to re-exist, but we must gradually gain lucidity and perspective, to see ever more clearly the exits beyond the abyss of individual suffering.

We are occupying spaces, telling our own stories and creating new imaginaries. We are claiming rights from a place of speech that is our own. We are rebuilding our identity, self-esteem and self-confidence, finding points of support, uniting and beginning to share experiences that allow us to escape these lonely experiences and assert our capacity for action with collective support and protection.

Those of the white population of Brazil, who have never suffered racial prejudice, precisely because they are white, and who have no idea what it means to suffer racial prejudice throughout their lives, use their own criteria to delegitimise, discredit and qualify the racism experienced by Afro-descendants; our reports, our claims and our denunciations. Add to this the discourse of exceptionalism and the constant denial of the abyss between the trajectories of privileged whiteness and those of the socially and politically down-trodden, invisible Afro-descendants. This is achieved by denying the influence of this racist socio-political structure on everyday social relations and delegitimizing the interrogation and experiences of the black population.

There exists a vicious circle of violence and privations consistently suffered by blackness and it is maintained by the non-recognition of a place of privilege; by the preservation of those places uniquely accessible to an unquestioning white population; by the lack of awareness of one's own social position and of the advantages obtained by limiting the rights of others; by the intentional or unconscious blindness of the privileged part of the population.

In the following speech, for example, my interlocutor further emphasizes their own racism as well as exemplifying the "white exceptionalism", the hierarchical welfarism, and the act of discrediting and delegitimizing a certain place of speech explicated above.

"It's okay if our relationship has no strength or meaning anymore, it's okay if our paths no longer cross, it's okay if we're tired of each other or if I "helped you too much" and you don't feel well or at ease. Just don't try put these charges or reflections on me, they're not mine. I am not a racist and I never have been. You're not the only black woman I've related to or still relate to. I have friends, I've lived with black friends in apartments here, half of my husband's family are black, including his sisters, godfather and his closest cousins. You don't need a cause, a struggle or a philosophy just to escape from us. You're well within your rights. But please just take responsibility for your own difficulties, blockages, prejudices and madness. Sad as it is, I can walk away from this peacefully. I have a clear conscience about who I relate to and why. This trip you're on, of such profound social and structural discovery, is yours and yours alone. I may err on the side of love and care but that is not some privilege of your blackness. Just leave me out of it."

As Djamila Ribeiro reflects: "... most people admit that there is racism in Brazil, but no one admits to being racist. On the contrary, the first impulse of a lot of people is to emphatically refuse the hypothesis of having racist behavior: Of course not, after all I have black friends; How could I be racist when I employ a black person; Racist, me, I've never cursed at a black person?"

"...recognizing racism is the best way to fight it. Don't be afraid of the words white, black, racism, racist. To say that a certain attitude was racist is only one way to characterize it and define its meaning and implications. The word cannot be a taboo because racism is in us and in the people we love - it would be more serious not to recognise and not to fight oppression". (Short Anti-racist Manual / 2019)

In order to bring about change and reduce racial prejudice, we need to question our privileges, understand the vast differences between whiteness and blackness in Brazil and how the oppressive structures that govern structural racism work.

I decided to write this essay when it became clear to me that so much white denial of responsibility preserves structures that are highly harmful to our existence as people. It is this denial that fuels a machine, which shatters our integrity and our basic rights. Responsibility can in no way be unilateral. If it were, the same side as receives the blows would take responsibility for them. My awareness has cost me my health while I revive and reconstruct myself. While dealing with symbolic and concrete deaths, I can no longer allow this lack of white accountability to weigh on me and my body; one of the cells of an enormous collective body in the midst of a full awakening.

 Nêga Lucas - Journalist, composer, poet, performer, audiovisual director and afro-feminist activist

English translation: Michael Dorrity

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Photo : from the film "The help"

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