Black Consciousness: the veiled racism behind a worship house arriving in a community

About two years ago, when the Ialorixá Jô Brandão de Nanã moved to a new neighbourhood in São Luís (Maranhão), she was looking for somewhere to build her worship house, celebrate her spiritual rituals and festivities, and receive her devotees and others from the community.

Although her choice of the location had been guided by her Orixá, before starting to build, Jô decided to move to the community. For her, living alongside people who were already there was fundamental to the worship house’s existence in the community, to break down the barriers that, as a spiritual leader, she had no doubt she would face.

This didn’t happen quickly: it took 18 months for her to feel sufficiently safe and confident to take the next step. At the beginning, she was only known as the “woman in the turban”, the “woman who always wears white” or “who has a lot of people in white behind her”. Jô only began to receive visits from community health agents when she took the initiative to seek them out and demand her rights.

“First, I wanted to understand this community, to get to know the relationships, the conflicts.  To relate to people, so they could get to know and accept us.  I didn’t want us to be seen as something hidden.  It was a process of deconstruction while I lived alongside them.  This joint process helped them feel that the worship house was part of the community.  Not something external that arrived and is just my responsibility”, she said.

Ialorixá Jô Brandão de Nanã holding the microphone

Today she says she considers her relationship with her neighbours to be good, but she notes that it’s inevitably one of a person being observed.  People from the community understand, for example, that the Ialorixá has a different relationship with nature, respecting its cycles, and they know why she is against fires and makes an effort to keep the river clean, for example.

Her Orixá instructed Jô to build the new worship house there and she obeyed. But she understood that for this to be achieved she needed, above all, to be accepted by the community.  To create bonds with the people.  In this way, she tried to avoid any kind of intimidation, hostility or more serious religious racism in the future.  A slow, but necessary, process.

For members of worship houses and African-origin religions, this story is symptomatic.  Deeply marked by racism from the start. And it’s worth noting: the work is still in the planning phase.  It’s not possible, therefore, to guarantee the kind of factors that will, in the end, affect the results.

And here we need to ask: How many churches have had to go through something similar? How many pastors, fathers, bishops, have needed to dedicate a year and a half of their lives to simply building a good relationship with people from a community, before establishing their place of worship, because they are afraid of being attacked in some way?  For Jô, this is no coincidence.

“The church is seen as a natural place of salvation.  When one appears in a community, it’s welcome. It’s invited in.  But for many people, a worship house represents ‘something negative coming in to our space’.  It’s something ‘obscure, witchcraft, devilish,’” she noted. And this is only one aspect of the veiled racism that has marked Jô’s journey and that of so many other people, victims of a rotten and racist social structure.  A racism equally cruel and sickening.

Although police violence, for example, is the feature most-frequently cited in discussions about racism – because of its severity, its brutality, persistence, the contradiction involved in an operation that should represent the state, responsible for protecting the very people that repeatedly become its victims – there are other aspects of this same racism that are not so immediately perceived.

Religious and veiled racism

It is no coincidence that the religions most discriminated against are those of people who proudly protect a spirituality divergent from Eurocentric Christianity; still less that they are from religions with origins on the African continent.  For Jô, this is the definition of religious racism which, in its essence, is also related to ethnic groups.

“The times of colonization established a benchmark for what is acceptable as a religious practice.  Everything outside that is problematic.  African-origin religions experience the greatest impact of religious racism because they come from a black continent, victim of the colonization of enslavement, and because they are different, they have a different institutional hierarchy, outside the Christian one,” she explained.

Besides the direct relationship people from African-origin religions have with nature and its cycles, Jô gave one example which, in her opinion, is illustrative of these differences.

“We work from a perspective of spiritual evolution based on a balance between the positive and the negative, not one of overcoming, of the pursuit of the absence of sin, of sanctification as a supernatural transcendence of what is acceptable. Obviously, this is antagonistic to that perspective of holiness.  We seek a balance between two aspects that society sees as moral.  That’s why it’s not well received externally,” she added.

And this racism extrapolates from the field of spiritual relationships and permeates the details of daily life.  According to Jô, there are very few app drivers who don’t turn on the radio to play gospel music during their rides, or don’t cancel without a justification, or with an evasion.  “They say, ‘I thought you were going somewhere else.  I can’t take you.’ They don’t give a reason, but I know it’s because of racism”.

Institutionally, we need to recognize people from African-origin religions beyond their religious existence, as subjects of rights and public policies.  There is also an important social aspect related to their presence in the arenas they occupy, which is political, social and transforms communities.

“We receive female victims of violence and advise them to seek out formal arenas.  In health, we support people’s mental and physical care. As a community we have knowledge, including about sacred herbs.  From an economic point of view: we produce handicrafts – which people don’t buy because of this racism.  All of this demonstrates our potential for local development. When we are recognized for this, we become the subjects of public policies. It makes a difference.”

For Jô, society needs, above all, to recognize the people from the worship houses as victims. “If this doesn’t happen, we run the risk of encouraging the notion that overcoming racism is the obligation and responsibility of the African-origin religions themselves.  Absolving others from their responsibility for discrimination.  And this recognition is also essential for drafting public policies,” she concluded.

CESE in the anti-racist struggle

Throughout November, CESE has told stories like Jô’s to shed light on cases where racism can sometimes go unnoticed.  This is to reinforce the assertion that, when the topic is racism, nothing occurs by chance.

CESE understands that racism drives injustice against black people and has always supported movements, organizations and groups from this sector. Over the last 15 years, approximately 748 projects from the anti-racist struggle have received grant funding, benefiting about 289 thousand people, with an investment of BRL 6.8 million.  On this Black Consciousness Day, CESE reasserts its Institutional Policy for Racial Equity, which defines its strategies for overcoming racism both at management level and in institutional action.