CARTAGENA, Colombia — Cartagena de Indias was one of the most important slave ports of the Spanish colony of New Granada. Segregation is still seen today in the old part of the city, the setting for an annual “homage to literature,” the Hay Festival.
Outside the walls built by the Spanish, thousands of citizens live on less than 100 dollars a month. Most of them are Afro-descendants.
In the Convention Center, inside the touristy old city, Djamila Ribeiro, one of the most essential Black thinkers in Latin America, prepares to speak to a primarily white audience from Bogotá.
“Being a black Brazilian woman thinker, being in a place where society does not expect, is important,” she says from the stage.
Ribeiros is joined by Reni Eddo-Lodge, a British journalist and author of the bestseller, Why I Don’t Talk to White People About Racism.
For her part, Ribeiro has just launched her book Lugar de Enunciación. The book has been the subject of debate on social media, finding strong critics among those who don’t understand why the issue of identity is so crucial in a society built on multiple layers of oppression. Ribeiro is already exhausted from arguing with such individuals.
“It is important as a feminist, Black thinker, activist not to lose focus,” she says. “We are confronting a system that has historically denied us the right to speak, denied us the right to be published.”
In Lugar de Enunciación, Ribeiro speaks of the need for plural feminism and intersectionality, as well as the pioneering Brazilian authors few have read because they are not from the Global North, such as Luisa Barrios, Sueli Carneiro, or Lelia González.
Her book has been controversial because it refutes white universality, promotes a multiplicity of voices that break with that discourse, and shows that we all have a particular place of enunciation, a place from where we speak within a racist power structure that has whiteness as the norm.
As a Black woman, Ribeiro experiences oppression in a different way than a white middle-class woman. That difference in experience gives her another vision of society. Ribeiro, for example, is the first woman in her family to go to university.
“Intersectionality is a fundamental concept to understand society. Because sometimes people think we’re just pointing fingers at them, and it’s not about that. It’s about understanding the consequences of coming from this place for a black woman,” she explains. “It’s not about putting it all together and saying I’m in a place of oppression. But it is about understanding the historical process that has created these inequities.”
She studied political philosophy at the University of São Paulo and says that she began to question why she was only made to read white European philosophers during her studies. She asked her professor, who told her there was no such thing as “African philosophy.”
“Of course, American feminism, Patricia Collins, Angela Davis, are critical. But Leila González, Brazilian, was a pioneer criticizing that Global North. And it is important to think about our reality also as Latin American,” she says. “It is key to think in an intersectional way, to understand that we were people who were colonized, our conditions of oppression, but also that we are subjects of history.”
Some critics have questioned the place of speech, saying that this identity issue distorts the possibility of global solutions. Ribeiro explains that the fight for the place of speech is a discussion about power. “When we are talking about race, gender, class oppression, we are talking about the structure,” she tells Latino Rebels after the discussion. “We are talking about the fact that in Brazil, even though most of the population is Black, we are a minority in terms of rights.”
A law was enacted to criminalize domestic violence in Brazil, the María da Peña law, but that in a study 10 years later, while there was a reduction in homicides of white women by 10 percent, homicides of Black women increased by 20 percent. The law did not consider an intersectional approach, Ribeiro explains, which would’ve taken into accout the fact that impoverished Black women face more obstacles reporting instances of domestic violence at a police station.
“It is essential to know my place of speech because it is a structural debate,” she says. “It’s essential to denature privilege because sometimes white people think they’re in that place because they’re more intelligent (or) because they’re better. No. It is because they have the opportunity to be there because they are part of a group that has historically oppressed other groups.”
Ribeiro says it is crucial in Latin America that diversity breaks the white narrative long believed to be a universal paradigm. She urges people to read Black or Indigenous writers.
“I am a Black woman thinking about society. But I don’t just think about it for myself,’s she says.
“We need to ask ourselves first, what is universal? The thing is that universality is based on whiteness. It is based on masculinity. That is the question. In this colonial concept of humanity, we still fight to be treated as human beings.”
“That is why it is so important to understand that the place of speech is a discussion about power,” she concludes. “We need a narrative revolution.”
David González M. is an award-winning conflict and human rights reporter for international media. Twitter: @Davo_gonzalez