Gentrifying intersectionality in contemporary Brazil

by | Dec 18, 2019

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About Isis Conceicao

Ísis Aparecida Conceição is a professor of international law at public federal University for International Integration of the Afro-Brazilian Lusophony - UNILAB. She is a Martin-Flynn Global Law Faculty at UCONN School of Law, and a postdoctoral researcher at USP Law School. She holds a PhD and a Master’s degree in Public Law from the University of São Paulo - USP (Brazil) and a Master’s degree in Critical Race Studies from University of California – UCLA (USA). She worked as law clerk at the Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal – STF) in Brazil during the years of 2013-2015. She worked as a fellow for Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs near the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.


Ísis Aparecida Conceição, “Gentrifying intersectionality in contemporary Brazil”, (OxHRH Blog, December 2019), <>, [Date of access].

On 17 October 2019, for the first time in the history of Brazil’s Supreme Court, Silvia Souza, a black woman, presented oral argument before the Justices. She represented a Human Rights NGO, acting as amicus curie in declaratory constitutionality actions (ADCs  43, 44 and 54),  where some parties were asking the Supreme Court to issue a clarification on the interpretation of article 5, LVII of the Constitution, which states: “no one shall be considered guilty before the issuing of a final and un-appealable penal sentence”.

Brazilian human rights organizations have been criticised for subordinating and excluding black people. In that context, although a black woman representing a non-black organization in Brazil’s Supreme Court is unprecedented and unique, it reflects one of the ways in which intersectionality has been gentrified in Brazil, through an asymmetric solidarity.

Crenshaw once said, “[Women of color] can’t be completely pushed to the margins by an idea that was meant to de-marginalize the margins.” On another occasion, she stated that “twisting ‘intersectionality’ to be used against anti-oppression is a form of ideological gentrification”.

Intersectionality as a concept has been used by Brazilian human rights and some white feminists NGO’s to perpetuate the exclusion and subordination of black women, perceiving them only as ideal victims. It has been used as a token to silence criticisms about the gentrification of the concept of intersectionality, and the racist contamination of human rights in Brazil.

The process of gentrification of the concept of intersectionality in the world, including Brazil, occurred, notably, due to the fast global dispersion of intersectionality as a “category”, post the Durban Conference, detached from its supporting theories – Critical Race Theory and Black Feminist Thought. This led to the contamination of an antiracist tool by the structural racist nature of institutions, especially human rights feminist colonial institutions who took the tool of intersectionality from their universalist/modern perception of a support theory.

An analyses of three emblematic human rights cases where the international community recognized that black women’s rights were denied or violated by Brazil, allows us to see some ways in which the potential of intersectionality as a promoter of black women’s human rights, has been reduced. This has sometimes taken place through the invisibility of intersectionality, sometimes through its overinclusion, or through the constant presence of an asymmetric solidarity.

The first case is Simone Diniz, a decision of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. In this case, a black legal organization asked for help from an all-white NGO with expertise in international litigation. In the case, the lawyers did not use an intersectional approach in the arguments they presented before the Inter-American Commission. It is pertinent that there were no black women among the lawyers.

The second case, brought before the CEDAW Committee on behalf of Alyne Pimentel, makes explicit how and by whom intersectionality has been used as a tool in Brazil. The case was taken before the CEDAW Committee by an all-white feminist NGO, after Alyne Pimentel’s mother’s employer identified that the death of her domestic help’s daughter could be a perfect emblematic case. This asymmetric solidarity is another way in which intersectional justice has been compromised.

The third case, currently pending before Brazil’s Supreme Court, involved the decriminalization of abortion in Brazil. The case was brought on behalf of a young black woman, Ingriane Barbosa, who was viewed as ‘the perfect victim’. She did not have anyone of the same colour as her, as expert or lawyer on reproductive rights, representing her during the two days of hearings that took place in 2018 before Brazil’s highest court.

In all these cases, we can see that the very people whose rights are sought to be recognised, have been pushed out of the discourse, as they are not allowed to be the interlocutors, arguing for the recognition of their own rights.

The tokenism with respect to, and subalternization of, Brazilians of African descent and black dark skin in human rights and feminist spaces, especially legal spaces, may be part of the answer on how intersectionality has been gentrified in Brazil and Latin America, even when used as a human rights/feminist tool in legal cases.

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