This text is part of a special Global Voices series on women in academic careers called Women in Science. See other stories here and here
Gladis Kaercher, a 52-year-old professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, has devoted most of her professional career to discussions and teaching practices of ethnic-racial relations. As a Black woman working in a region known for the influence of European immigration, her work has been crucial to starting essential conversations about race and identity in Brazil.
In Brazil, the majority of the population declares itself Black and racial inequality manifests in data such as the murder rates of Black people, which increase while those of white people decrease. In this context, Kaercher is a voice that defends the importance of the discussion of racial issues in the formation of individuals since childhood.
In 2014, in partnership with her colleague Tanara Furtado, she created an unprecedented teaching resource in Brazil, known as the UNIAFRO (Affirmative Action Program for the Black People in Federal and State Institutions of Higher Education), that brought up the issue of identity and representation from an early age. She did so through a crayon set in different skin tones, which allowed children to represent characters with Black skin in their drawings.
Global Voices talked to the professor from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), via video conference, about this creation and her research career. Here are the main points of the interview.
The researcher says that the idea for the creation of crayons came from discomfort from the fact that in Brazil, until then, there was only one pencil that was considered “skin color”: a pink pencil used to represent white skin. Outside Brazil, there were already pencil boxes with color palettes in different skin tones. However, Kaercher and Furtado's intention was to make this material available in Brazilian public school classrooms. Importing it would be expensive and time-consuming.
In December 2014, after discussions, meetings, and tests, the Pintkor crayon box with 12 shades of skin colors was launched. Today there is also a version with 24 colors. The set can be purchased online, but it's yet to be integrated into public schools.
The professor says:
O que eu acho fantástico nessa invenção era uma concretude que fazia os professores poderem discutir com as crianças pequenas as questões raciais. Porque pintar o corpo humano em um desenho é uma coisa concreta para uma criança, é palpável, fácil de desencadear a discussão. Para criança pequena, falar de raça, racismo, etnia, isso tudo é uma abstração absurda. Mas falar da cor da pele, da cor que se usa para pintar, é uma concretude. A criança pinta. Ela vai falar por que está pintando daquela cor, e o professor pode, então, entrar com perguntas e estabelecer esse diálogo.
What I think is fantastic about this invention is a concreteness that made teachers able to discuss racial issues with young children. Since painting the human body in a drawing is a concrete thing for a child, it is palpable, easy to trigger the discussion. For a small child, talking about race, racism, ethnicity, all of this is an absurd abstraction. But talking about skin color, the color one uses to paint, is a concreteness. The child paints. They will talk about why they are painting that color, and the teacher can then enter questions and establish this dialogue.
As a black woman, Kaercher found herself taking on the racial issue as a theme for her research when she became a professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, where she still works today.
In her Ph.D. thesis, she researched a program to support public school libraries in Brazil and the racial and gender issues in their collections. The researcher questioned how the books available in these spaces, which contained Black characters, were received by the children in the classrooms, what effect they had on them, and how they perceived them.
A tese, então, se desdobra em pesquisas que eu vou continuando, pensando a representação do negro na literatura e outros marcadores identitários. Ali eu me dou conta da importância desses artefatos [livros infantis contendo personagens negros] para a educação das relações raciais.
The thesis unfolds in researches that I am continuing, thinking about the representation of Black people in literature and other identity markers. Then, I realized the importance of these artefacts [children's books containing Black characters] for the education of racial relations.
When questioned about what motivated her to become a researcher, Kaercher answers:
A necessidade. Eu sempre fui uma professora inquieta. O primeiro ponto da minha vida é ser professora. Por ser professora e ter um desejo profundo que meus alunos aprendessem de fato, eu sempre fui uma professora inquieta, incomodada. Sempre saí buscando materiais, alternativas, respostas. E isso fez com que eu precisasse entender determinados processos da minha sala de aula. É assim que eu me torno uma pesquisadora. Sempre pensando na dimensão concreta da minha atuação docente.
The necessity. I have always been a restless teacher. The first thing in my life is to be a teacher. Because I'm a teacher and have a deep desire that my students actually learn things, I've always been restless. I have always searched for materials, alternatives, answers. And this made me need to understand certain processes in my classroom. This is how I became a researcher. Always thinking about the concrete dimension of my teaching.
Working for 26 years in a university that has existed for nearly 85 years, Kaercher says she knows by heart the names of all the Black colleagues she has had because the list is so short:
Saber o nome dos meus colegas negros é profundamente dolorido. Não há outro modo de dizer. Dói saber o nome. Dói. O que para um colega branco é inimaginável. Eu posso nominar [todos] meus colegas negros. Isso é profundamente assustador, numa universidade que tem quase 3 mil professores.
Knowing the names of my Black colleagues is deeply painful. There is no other way to put it. It hurts to know the name. It hurts. Which for a white colleague is unimaginable. I can name [all] my Black colleagues. That is deeply frightening, in a university that has almost 3,000 professors.
And there is yet another point that mainly crosses Black, female researchers, according to her:
Nós, mulheres, somos educadas para a humildade. Eu acho a humildade uma coisa preciosa, mas às vezes o excesso de humildade nos tira a altivez. Nós, mulheres negras, principalmente, somos educadas para desaparecer. E isso é tão marcante, que a gente leva muito tempo para perceber determinadas características que nos prejudicam.
We women are educated for humility. I think being humble is a precious thing, but sometimes an excess of humility takes away our pride. We, Black women, especially, are educated to disappear. And this is so remarkable that it takes us a long time to realize certain characteristics that harm us.
As a woman, the professor says that in addition to the racial issue, the gender issue has also arisen in her academic path:
Há questões da vida acadêmica que atravessam mais fortemente os percursos femininos. Uma das questões que atravessou o meu percurso acadêmico foi a maternidade. Eu era uma mulher que queria ser mãe. Algo da maternidade, sobretudo nos primeiros anos, é da ordem de uma demanda importante, que é física — um filho que berra e um seio que derrama leite.
There are issues of academic life that cut more strongly across women's journeys. One of the issues that has crossed my academic path is motherhood. I wanted to be a mother. Something about motherhood, especially in the early years, is of the order of an important demand, which is physical — a child that cries and a breast that spills milk.
When she became pregnant for the second time, with twins, Kaercher remembers that she was surprised by the way the news was received in the academic environment. She remembers one person said they didn't know whether to compliment her on the announcement.
E eu disse para ela: pode me cumprimentar, porque a pessoa mais interessada em ser doutora antes do nascimento desse bebê sou eu. Nenhum “homem grávido”, esperando filhos gêmeos, daria essa resposta. Eu sabia que, sim, aconteceria um período em que a minha carreira ficaria quase em stand by após o nascimento dos bebês. O homem segue tocando sua vida acadêmica normalmente depois de ser pai. Esse é um forte atravessamento de gênero.
And I told them: you can compliment me because the person most interested in becoming a doctor before this baby is born is me. No “pregnant man,” expecting twins, would give that answer. I knew that, yes, there would be a period when my career would be almost on stand-by after the birth of the babies. Men go on with their academic lives as usual after becoming parents. This is a strong gender issue.
Among her biggest dreams as a researcher today, Kaercher hopes to have crayons in various shades of skin distributed by the Brazilian government to public schools, to have more Black colleagues to the point that it's impossible to record all their names, and to find more women in management positions at the university.
For other women who are academics or wish to enter academic life, the professor says:
Dentro da universidade é fundamental construir-se em rede, em grupo. A solidão não é um imperativo da carreira acadêmica, da intelectualidade negra acadêmica. Hoje ela é uma escolha, mais do que nunca. Então, o conselho é: a solidão não é uma parte integrante do pacote. A gente pode furar essa solidão e criar pontes magníficas.
Within the university, it is essential to build yourself within a network, in a group. Loneliness is not an imperative of the academic career, of Black academic intellectuality. Today it is a choice, more than ever. So, the advice is: loneliness is not an integral part of the package. We can break through that loneliness and create magnificent bridges.
Name: Gladis Kaercher
Research field: Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil), Education, focusing on children's education and literature, anti-racist education, identity, and difference.
Where to find out more: Plataforma Lattes