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Discourse, culture and forms of life: the housemaid as the face of Brazilian racism

Matheus Nogueira Schwartzmann


Cet article est composé de deux parties. La première concerne une discussion théorique visant à présenter les contours et les enjeux d’une sémiotique contemporaine centrée sur les nouvelles demandes de la société, cherchant à décrire et à expliquer comment se construit le sens des pratiques et des formes de vie. Dès lors, nous souhaitons démontrer que la sémiotique du discours ne refuse pas l’histoire ni les dimensions sociales et culturelles du discours puisqu’elle prend le sens pour objet, et que le sens émerge dans les relations intersubjectives, dans la tension entre le social et l’individuel, dans la temporalité du monde et du discours lui-même. La deuxième partie de cette étude aborde le statut sémiotique du lexème « bonne », et cherche à élucider les couches épaisses et résistantes du sens que ce terme continue d’avoir au sein de la société brésilienne et qui, dans l’histoire actuelle, jouent un rôle important pour comprendre les univers de valeurs, de pratiques sociales et de formes de vie brésiliens, profondément marqués par le racisme et la discrimination de classe.

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Notes de l’auteur

The citations in this paper were all translated by the author, unless stated otherwise.

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  • 1 Original in Portuguese: Leitores, por favor, ajudem a responder: por que se foram as boas empregada (...)

Readers, please help me answer: why are the good maids of the good bosses gone?1
Nina Horta, Folha de S. Paulo, 21 jul. 2011.

  • 2 Original in Portuguese: No Brasil, muitos apartamentos de quarto e sala têm quarto de empregada, e (...)

In Brazil, many apartments with a living room and bedrooms have a housemaid’s room, and if the maid lives in, it’s hard to stipulate what overtime is, besides all the “Maria, can you get me a glass of water?” requests. And the idea of paying for daycare and educational assistance for employees’ children under 5 years old is a midsummer night’s dream because employers can barely afford the expenses of their own children, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to afford the expenses of the housemaid’s.2
Danuza Leão, Folha de S. Paulo, 24 mar. 2013.

  • 3 Original in Portuguese: O racismo é uma decorrência da própria estrutura social, ou seja, do modo “ (...)

Racism is a consequence of the social structure itself, that is, of the ”normal“ way in which political, economic, legal, and even family relations are constituted, and is not a social pathology or an institutional breakdown. Racism is structural.3
Silvio Almeida, 2020, p. 50.

  • 4 We adopt the term crisis here as “a historical moment of disturbing risks; a difficult, stressful a (...)

1The social crisis4 that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed in Brazil is essentially a racial and class crisis. Using this scenario as a starting point, we intend to proceed with two ideas: (1) to examine the methods and challenges of a contemporary type of semiotics that addresses the new demands of society and deals with the meaning of its practices and forms of life, and (2) to discuss how universes of values, social practices and discourses deeply marked by racism, gender and class prejudice are organized and crystallized in the “housemaid” form of life.

  • 5 For Alfredo César Melo (2009, pp. 286-287), the “articulation between a rhetoric of affection direc (...)

2We shall initially highlight how discourse semiotics accesses history and the social and cultural dimensions of the discourse by taking as its object the meaning, which is established in intersubjective relations, in the tension between the social and the individual, in the temporality of the world and of the discourse itself. Secondly, we shall seek to demonstrate how the slave system instituted in Brazil dehumanized a class of people—black people—by establishing discourses that were perpetuated as legitimate because they were supported by the Law, by the State, by Science, and by Literature. These discourses fortified a utopia of racial democracy5 in Brazil that has ensured the continuity of this exclusionary and enslaving system until the 2020s.

1. Scope of the semiotic analysis: discourse, forms of life, and culture

  • 6 It would be very difficult to exhaust here the contributions of Brazilian researchers to semiotics. (...)

3We have already pointed out (Schwartzmann; Portela, 2017) that, in Brazil, a type of semiotics6 with a strong interest in what we might call Brazilian cultural facts has been established, especially through the works of Diana Luz Pessoa de Barros and José Luiz Fiorin, who, directly or indirectly, have dealt and still deal with problems related to prejudice, intolerance, authoritarianism and oppression, all of which are constitutive elements of Brazilian culture.

4At the end of the 1980s, when Brazil was finally opening up to democracy, José Luiz Fiorin published Language and Ideology, a work that to this day maintains its theoretical scope and importance. In his “Introduction” (1988, p. 6), for example, Fiorin states that “structural linguistics”, which for a while was treated as a pilot science of the other human sciences, came to be treated as “bourgeois linguistics” because it only observed the internal working mechanisms of language. At the time, he proposed as a solution to turn to the study of the “ideological determinations” in the “complex phenomenon that is language”, analyzing “how language conveys ideology [and] what is ideologized in language” (Fiorin, 1988, p. 7). Referring to Marx, Engels and Bakhtin, Fiorin goes on to say that “without language one cannot speak of a human psyche […] for what defines the content of consciousness are social factors that determine the concrete life of individuals in the conditions of the social environment” (Fiorin, 1988, p. 8). We also highlight in this work a theoretical elaboration that is still valid and that can greatly contribute to the most current developments in the field of semiotics:

  • 7 Original in Portuguese: […] há no discurso o campo da manipulação consciente e o da determinação in (...)

[…] there is in discourse the field of conscious manipulation and that of unconscious determination [and] the set of semantic elements habitually used in the discourses of a given epoch constitutes the way of seeing the world in a given social formation [for] these elements arise from other discourses that are already constructed, crystallized, and whose conditions of production have been erased (Fiorin, 1988, p. 19).7

5If these elements “constitute consciousness and the way of thinking about the world”, certain themes and, therefore, certain forms of life, which we will delve into below, will be recurrent in the discourses (linguistic and non-linguistic practices) that culture produces. This is how standards of beauty, places and social roles are born, the appreciation or denigration of beliefs and customs. Thus, structures such as racism and sexism, as we will seek to highlight later, will establish themselves as socialization practices, as practices of the circulation and occupation of spaces and territories of social circulation, plans of expression (scenarios) of forms of life that are broadly organized and that end up being recognized as ways of culturally acting and interacting (Colas-Blaise, 2012).

6The study of the relations between linguistic and non-linguistic practices has allowed the recognition of how certain values have been imputed to certain identities, leading to unconscious and ideologically based naturalization processes. This is because what shapes culture is the “set of axiologies, ideologies, and social signifying practices” (Greimas; Courtès, 2008, p. 109), which can be characterized as “coherent and congruent signifying sets” that are “the forms of life” (Fontanille, 2016, p. 7).

7Not coincidentally, in closing their well-known text on the “Noble gesture”, Greimas and Fontanille (2014, pp. 31-32, emphasis added) say that “the study of forms of life could constitute a contribution, on the one hand, to the typology of discourses, and on the other, to the semiotics of cultures”. In the first case, the study of forms of life “would define types of ‘semiotic objects’”, in the second case, the forms of life:

[…] would participate in the establishment of the connotative taxonomies [by performing] the ordering of a plurality of parameters, apprehended from all levels of the generative trajectory, whose functioning would be recognized as a whole as coherent and globally recurrent (Greimas; Fontanille, 2014, pp. 31-32).

8The abbreviated and limited use of the concepts of discourse, forms of life, and culture in Greimas, Fiorin, and Fontanille, proposed here, does not present the necessary rigor to promote a conceptual or operational definition of culture.

  • 8 For Fontanille (1993, p. 9) the form of life is “the manifestation of any discursive and figurative (...)

9However, there is a convergence here: culture (to some extent, society) is a space of conflict (a kind of environment scene, as defined by Jacques Fontanille and Alain Perusset, 2021, p. 91), in which processes of individualization and generalization are established via discourse, revealing (forming, conforming, and deforming) forms of life. Thus, we will recognize (1) that it is through discourse, as a semiotic process, that forms of life8 are manifested, and that (2) by identifying certain forms of life—the last level of integration of all other semiosis, according to the logic of the planes of immanence—we can find the values and the guiding principles that organize signification and culture itself.

10How, then, can we establish a relationship between these three ways of observing semiotic phenomena, that is, between the notion of discourse, practice and way of life? By distinguishing life forms from lifestyles, Fontanille and Perusset (2021, pp. 96-97) seem to lead us to an interesting answer: life forms can establish interactions with a non-living environment (an infrastructural environment), and cross, therefore, any level of analysis—unlike lifestyles that only emerge from interpersonal or intersubjective (informal or institutional) relationships. It is for this reason that forms of life allow us to access domains of culture that, in a given discourse, are sometimes manifested as idiosyncrasies. In this case, the discourse can hide an infrastructural dimension of culture, if we think of a meaning close to that of Marxism, in which the ruling classes end up making use of force (the State) or ideology seeking to maintain the status quo.

11In the same direction we find Marion Colas-Blaise (2012), who presents us with a very operative distinction of what the forms of life would be and the way in which they can be taken for the analysis of the processes of individualization and generalization that take place in culture. For Colas-Blaise, there is a movement, within the culture, of forms of life that move towards “archiforms of life”, in a process of “culturalization” (establishment of infrastructure?). For a form of life to “feed culture”, by “filling a story, circumscribing a cultural group, and pouring into it a plurality of actors”, there must be a generalization of forms of life from particularization. That is, it is necessary that there is an unraveling of the forms “‘I’, ‘here’, ‘now’ […] towards a ‘he’, a ‘there’ and a ‘then’, which ensures the stabilization of forms of life” (Colas-Blaise, 2012). The relationship between forms of life and culture is established through the “archi-form of life”: these are more generic and encompass the forms of life that will be performed in more diverse and “identity” shapes. According to this viewpoint, culture can be understood as “the unity of a symbolic structure in which the ‘archi-forms of life’ are reversed, which have their roots in the bodily projection of cultural forms” (Colas-Blaise, 2012), in a feedback movement that can be of the order of the continuous or the discontinuous.

12This conceptualization of Colas-Blaise is close to that of Fontanille and Zilberberg, for whom, from the point of view of the semiotics of cultures, the notion of form of life highlights the sensitive rooting of collective symbolic organizations (2001, p. 152). For us, as well as for Fontanille and Colas-Blaise, forms of life become a privileged instance to recognize a “dialectic of the collective and the singular; of permanence and change” (Colas-Blaise, 2021), insofar as their content is schematic (if one understands scheme as selection), and insofar as they integrate and adjust particular schemes (Fontanille; Zilberberg, 2001, pp. 153-155).

2. The occurrence-text: linguistic usages, semiotic practices and way of life

Ideology is, first of all, a practice.
Silvio Almeida, 2020, p. 66.

  • 9 On this issue, see Fontanille (2016) and Schwartzmann (2018).
  • 10 In Schwartzmann (2013; 2014) and in Schwartzmann and Portela (2012, 2015, 2017), to address the pro (...)

13Accounting for cultural facts, especially in a not entirely textualist9 approach, requires a theoretical and methodological effort. The challenge is great since it is difficult to establish the basis for extracting a corpus from a culture. To try to respond to this challenge, we have established an exercise of analysis10 that is based on the selection of series or collections of texts, objects, and situations organized around the same project of culture and/or identity and from which we can deduce certain forms of life. This seems possible to us because the forms of life are manifested by attitudes and symbolic expressions that influence feelings, positions of enunciation and axiological choices, and represent, within a given society, different forms of identification of subjects with the “self” (Fontanille, 2006, p. 216), and, therefore, different forms of experiencing values of belonging or exclusion. These are the forms that allow us, finally, to characterize cultures from a semiotic point of view (Fontanille, 2006, p. 216), since they authorize or forbid certain behaviors, validate or reprove certain bodies and identities, revealing the “set of axiologies, ideologies and social signifying practices that are the basis of culture” (Greimas; Courtès, 2008, p. 109), as we have previously indicated.

14For this reason, by mobilizing this concept, we want to show how certain social practices, as well as certain figures and certain spaces (social and architectural) promote and strengthen forms of life very specific to Brazilian culture, which appear on the surface to be the product of an exercise in mixing or miscegenation (whose myth of racial paradise works as evidence), but which, in depth, are complex mechanisms for the screening of identities; a screening that can be perceived today in a much clearer way, considering the growing number of researchers, journalists, and writers, women and men, who have been working on this issue.

15It is possible to treat, indiscriminately, discourse (semiotic process that manifests itself in various occurrence-texts), practices (acts that develop in the form of scenes), and forms of life (connotative taxonomies, entities, “coherent deformation” (Schwartzmann, 2013, p. 1455). There are, however, distinctions between these three levels of relevance: practices can inaugurate forms of lives that, in culture, go on being registered and materialized in certain discourses. The practices, in turn, by their repetition and by the regularity of the articulations of their practical scenes among themselves, result in forms of life, and, at the end of procedures of strategic accommodation, they are presented as the experience of an ethos (at the limit of stereotyping), and may represent a kind of cultural identity, a common feeling of belonging that covers the actors in a given society. It is a phenomenon of translation from one level of pertinence to another, from one semiotic to another. But how, after delimiting the corpus, to proceed to the analysis?

16Semiotic analysis has always been an exercise in reformulating signification in a constructed metalanguage, allowing it to be defined as “description” or “explanation”, that is, as “metalinguistic translation” of immanent signification (Fontanille, 2008a, p. 44). In this way, the “generative trajectory of meaning went from being a simulacrum of the production of meaning to a sequence of experiences of meaning, that is, a sequence of procedures to be employed to produce meaning” (Fontanille, 2008a, p. 45). According to Fontanille (2008a, pp. 43-44), the “semiotic explanation has changed its status many times: (1) “hierarchy of semiotic levels” (descriptive, methodological and epistemological levels); (2) “relationship between metassemiotic levels […] thanks to the notion of ‘intertextuality’ (or ‘interdiscursivity’)” and, more currently, (3) the relation between levels of pertinence in which “each level is defined by its own field of expression, corresponding to different types of experience, so that each is irreducible to the other […] [through] operations of integration and/or rhetorical syncopes, and [of] the intermediary object-semiotics” (Fontanille, 2008a, p. 44).

17And here we are more directly interested in the problem of syncopations. As is already known, the procedures of integration between the levels of immanence of semiotic analysis do not respect its ascending canonical form (from practices to forms of life) and, in the same way, it follows an inverse, descending order (from practices to texts-utterances). Integration procedures are often established by fittings that do not occur between two subsequent levels, in the form of irregular integrations, between levels that are disjointed. It is precisely these forms of irregular integration that we call syncopes—which can be ascending or descending. Ascending syncopations are those in which one or more levels in the path of integration are surpassed, either in situations in which we go from the text-utterance (from the discourse, to a certain extent, therefore) directly to the forms of life, or in situations in which we start from objects directly to strategies. The same occurs with descending syncopes, only in the opposite direction. In the first case we have a chaining of levels, a summation relationship, and in the second case there is a reduction in the number of dimensions. And the two paths are not opposed to each other, so that, in the ascending direction, a text can appear inscribed in an object, being able to be manipulated in a practice and, in the descending one, a way of life can be entirely symbolized by a single practical scene, or even, in an even greater syncopation, enacted in a text-utterance.

18Ascending syncopations indicate both the constitution of prefigurations and textual representations of practices: in the first case, we would have a text, image or object that indicates, a priori, an integrated practice and in the second case, we would have, a posteriori, textualization, verbal or imagery, for example, of any practice: objects and practices can be presented in a textual form. It is precisely this type of syncopated integration that seems to undo the textual domain of semiotics since, as Fontanille (2008a, p. 28) says, “it gives a semiotic status” to sociocultural situations that “may not contain any ’sign-figure’, any ’text-utterance’ and, a fortiori, have no relation to any verbal manifestation” and vice versa.

19When a practice or way of life is textualized, we have a process of reduction, of condensation of properties and dimensions: integrated into a text, a practice ends up reduced only to textual manifestation; integrated with an object, a strategy presents only one corporeal/object manifestation; and a form of life integrated with a figure-sign will only have a figurative manifestation. For Fontanille (2008b, p. 63), these descending integration processes will only be effective when a descending syncope (a form of life manifested in a text or practice) allows an ascending unfolding of it: which seems to be precisely the case that we wish to discuss. An extreme case of condensation in the descending and syncopated path that allows the ascending unfolding is the phenomenon of symbolization, that is, a practice, or even an entire way of life, can be symbolized from the production of a great syncopation from the last level to the first: the domestic as a symbol of a racist archiform of life in Brazil.

20In Linguagem e Ideologia (Fiorin, 1988, p. 55), which we have already mentioned, we find an interesting example that allows us to advance in our understanding of the relations between discourse, forms of life, and culture, from this perspective of syncopations and condensation. According to Fiorin:

  • 11 Original in Portuguese: O discurso transmitido contém em si, como parte da visão de mundo que veicu (...)

The transmitted discourse contains within itself, as part of the worldview it conveys, a value system, that is, stereotypes of human behavior that are valued positively or negatively. It conveys behavioral taboos. Society transmits to individuals—with language and thanks to it—certain stereotypes, which determine certain behaviors. These stereotypes become so ingrained in the consciousness that they are taken for granted. Figures like “black”, “communist”, “whore” have a content full of prejudice, dislike, and hostility while others like “white”, “wife” are imbued with positive feelings. We must not forget that stereotypes are only in language because they represent the condensation of a social practice.11

  • 12 Franz Fanon (2008, pp. 154-155) draws attention to several racist manifestations that are born from (...)
  • 13 As a semiotic practice is an act, a behavior governed by sociocultural values, we can recognize in (...)
  • 14 These are the formal instances: signs-figure; texts-utterances; support-objects; practical scenes; (...)

21The examples “black”, “communist”, and “whore” are very frequent and somehow demonstrate the perseverance, the stability of certain values in Brazilian society as in half a century absolutely nothing has changed. However, more than recognizing the stability of these values, we want to identify the processes of condensation of social practices that Fiorin talks about, which result in stereotypes and negative values. According to our point of view, such values go beyond the dimension of the figure12 and settle in the culture as practical scenes13 from which forms of life are derived. This is a condensation/expansion relation between the signification of a figure and a form of life that, for Fontanille, can be understood as a relation of interpretation, since the form of life ends up making explicit the isotopy according to which the figure and the catalyzed structure are to be read (Fontanille, 1993, p. 8). Therefore, there is a process of correspondence between formal instances14 and different types of experience: to figurativity corresponds a collective spatio-temporal identity.

  • 15 We were able to demonstrate this phenomenon in “Reflexões para uma semiótica das culturas: o caso d (...)

22According to Fontanille (2008a, p. 24), the perspective of integration between levels considers the fact that the level below that of forms of life can be seen as its predicative framework (actantial, modal, and thematic), resulting in its figurative dimension. In certain cases where there is a direct passage from figurativity to semiotic practice or to forms of life, and vice-versa, there is also a prefiguration mechanism. Certain lexemes would thus be capable of keeping within themselves, in a condensed way, practical scenes and complex forms of life.15 This is not, of course, a return to a semantics of the word, but rather the recognition that certain cultural forms are crystallized in such a way that they can be condensed into the small units of language and that, in this case, the prefiguration mechanism is linked to a high degree of condensation (Fontanille, 2008a, p. 32).

23It is for this reason that we delimit our search to one lexeme: housemaid. Our hypothesis is that we can understand the system of dehumanization of a class of people (a value system) and describe how it has been maintained until today as its crystallization in the concept-idea “housemaid”.

24In order to compile the occurrence-texts in which we intend to indicate the existence of the “housemaid” figure-form of life, we will resort to what we have been calling value systems crystallized in the language, such as: (1) the stabilized sociocultural connotations in the form of common sense, which reverberate in (2) the discourses of institutions (such as religion, state, media) supported by (3) the Law. The selected examples present themselves as a complex web of values that allow us to identify racism and class feeling as founding forms of Brazilian culture.

25For philosopher Silvio Almeida, “the cultural and political life within which individuals recognize themselves as self-conscious subjects and where they form their affections is constituted by patterns of racial cleavage in the imagination and everyday social practices” (Almeida, 2020, p. 64). In Brazil, “normal life, affections and truths are inexorably permeated by racism that does not depend on conscious action to exist” (Almeida, 2020, p. 64).

26This determination is reinforced by social apparatuses (practical actants) that weave a cultural imaginary around black people, which, as Silvio Almeida states, is reinforced “by the media, the cultural industry, the educational system” (Almeida, 2020, p. 65), by literature and by political and legal practices. The prevalence of hegemonic values (whiteness, Christianity, capitalism, among others) in these systems, in these social practices, creates a simulacrum of reality: there is the impression that black people are represented in fiction, in law, in literature according to the places (practical scenes or environment) they actually occupy in the world. That is, “racist ideology is not a representation of material reality, of concrete relationships but the representation of the relationships we have with these concrete relationships” (Almeida, 2020, pp. 65-66). Even though other representations appear in these ideological systems—to keep the term he uses—representations that seek to combat racism, “inequality and difference appear in a stylized way, as a theme of meditation or advertising so that they can be integrated to the normality of social life” (Almeida, 2020, pp. 73-74). Thus, racism is sustained by the maintenance of this social imaginary, which has been affirmed by the uninterrupted repetition, over the centuries, of social discourses and practices that have crystallized, making biological and social determinants (such as gender and class) “naturally ” associated with race.

27In Black skin, white masks, Frantz Fanon (2008) will state that in western (or westernized) societies the “black is not a man” (2008, p. 26), since his existence is in a relationship of dependence on that of the other, the white, who took away his humanity. He advances the question seeking to demonstrate that it is not an individual or subjective problem but rather social, cultural and material. Thus, in the same way as Silvio Almeida, Frantz Fanon recognizes that a “normality of social life”, built in the midst of concrete racist social practices, cannot be changed only by discourse because an authentic de-alienation—the repair of the lack!—can only take place at another level, within the scope of social practices.

28For the authors, the construction and maintenance of racism and class feeling, especially in Brazil, is a complex but quite stable social phenomenon, which is not limited to the world of discourse; they are effectively operations of integration and/or syncope, rhetoric between different levels of pertinence that result in (arch)forms of life that will regulate social life. The case of the verbal use of housemaid, precisely for this reason, is exemplary: from domestic slave to domestic servant, what has changed?

29Black people were marginalized, not having the right to “education, health, housing, leisure, surviving on the exploitation of their labor force in secondary and subordinated jobs, earning the worst wages, in unhealthy conditions, with black women being the most exploited” (Pereira; Roseno, 2018, p. 97). As can be assumed, certain social practices were organized in this scenario, allowing behaviors, styles, and actions that might seem random to become “a stricto sensu semiotic practice” (Fontanille, 2014): both from the point of view of social and behavioral organizations considered marginal (capoeira, candomblé, favelas, samba) and from the point of view of those considered prestigious (martial arts and classical dance, Catholicism, condominiums, bossa nova). Forms of social interaction, experimentation of public and private spaces, dress codes, religiosity, and food end up being organized, persevering, lasting, from programming and adjustment (Fontanille, 2008b, pp. 130-140) crystallized in the term housemaid. Its simple use in any communication situation in Brazil, the construction of this figure in any discourse (legal, journalistic or literary), updates, through a process of symbolization (descending syncopation between the planes of immanence), countless practical scenes that circulate, like satellites around this central figure. And from the predicted scenes we can then extract the racist archiforms of life that will frame affections, forms of social coexistence, public and private architectural spaces, work, and interpersonal relationships.

30This is because, as Fontanille and Zilberberg (1998, p. 158) remind us, at the level of configurations, such as narrative strategies and interactive and passionate schemes, a form of life obeys the same criteria as isotopy, at the level of semes and sememes. A form of life could be considered as the distribution in phases—from screenings and mixtures—of selections operated at different levels. There would thus be a form of life from the moment that the enunciative praxis emerged as intentional, schematizable and aesthetic, that is, concerned with a plane of expression that is its own. In the case of the racist way of life, the social and cultural practices that organize and develop around the social actor “maid” allow us to recognize an enunciative praxis that, through typifications and schematizations, immediately produces recognizable sensible forms as “praxemes”. In this way, the enunciative praxis—the discourse, the practical scene by extension—ensures the coherence of a set of praxemes in a historically and ideologically determined culture.

31This is why we do not seek here only to observe the racist discourse, individual, product of a specific enunciation, conscious or unconscious, but also to recognize in the culture, from the observation of the several levels of pertinence, the recurrence of a racist experience (structural racism) that feeds discourses, practices, and forms of life. The materialization of racism, its occurrence in the discourse, is not the result of carelessness with language, it is not an isolated or fortuitous, individual action as the discourses that deny it try to affirm. Racism is not a misunderstanding, a problem of interpretation or a poor elaboration of ideas. It is not an individual lifestyle, the result of localized forms of social interaction, determined by “characteristics of the actors involved in the interactions” and that would derive “from the typology and description of social interactions and the phenomena of signification apprehended from the perspective of these same interactions” (Fontanille, 2014, p. 55). Racism is an organized and coherent mode of action, an “efficient semiotic practice” (Fontanille, 2008a, pp. 54-55), a style of action that sits on and correlates with other social practices, connecting forms of life and archetypes of life that are widespread in culture.

3. Practices of the institutionalization of racism: tradition, family and property

32As we have already said, our goal is to outline how certain social practices, understood as stable semiotic practices, which not fortuitously became certain racist and classist forms of life. And, as we have also indicated, the social behaviors that lead to the experience of corporal practices, uses of spaces, and construction of marginalized and segregated identities have remained in Brazil today not only in words, habits and customs: in the Law, the changes that have occurred have only “disguised” the conservation of institutional forms of violence against black people.

33The Imperial Constitution granted by Dom Pedro I in 1824 remained in force until 1889, allowing slave labor, “about which it formally kept silence” (Prudente, 1988, p. 136). As for the enslaved black people, for almost four hundred years they were useful objects of purchase and sale and belonged to the class of chattels, together with to livestock, subject to mortgage and rent. Upon the death of the owner, they entered the “inheritance, and, together with the other assets, were shared among the heirs” (Prudente, 1988, p. 136). The Law conducted social relations, promoting or restraining certain practices: taken as objects, depersonalized, men, women and children lost the right to “life, liberty, name, image, intellectual creation” (Prudente, 1988, p. 137), to their own bodies, since the slave trade, legalized and legitimized by the state and society, separated “loved ones, preventing the formation of the basic social nucleus, the family” (Prudente, 1988, p. 138, emphasis added), strengthening the depersonalization process. A quick comparison with the European and Japanese immigration at the end of the 19th century allows us to recognize in family identity its success (Prudente, 1988, p. 138): the maintenance of kinship, cultural and linguistic traditions, as well as the euphorization of genealogy, allowed these identities to gain shape, even becoming part of the regional identities of the country. In the case of the black people, their origin, languages, and other cultural practices were all reduced to the amalgam of a single identity, faceless, without particularity, whose body—symbolic and physical—served only for exploitation.

34This semiotic operation of the passage from the discourse of Law to the construction of forms of coexistence and social exchanges, marked by rupture and by the erasure of subjectivity, is registered in various texts. The advertisements that were published until the end of the 19th century are well known, and one could read phrases such as: “For Sale: very young black woman with offspring”; “I need to hire a maidservant who can cook”, among other aberrations. In other words, this scenario of segregation, depersonalization and racism did not change in the passage from the 19th to the 20th century and remains intact in the 21st century. This is evidenced by the fact that, if “at the time of slavery, free-roaming black individuals were arrested ‘on suspicion of being slaves’, today they are arrested on other grounds” (Schwarscz; Starling, 2018, pp. 92-93). As Myrian dos Santos (2004, p. 145) explains, in the 1890 Penal Code, “there were articles that turned beggars, drunks, vagrants, and capoeiras into misdemeanors subject to imprisonment”. The following were considered crimes, according to the Law: “to beg, while in good health and in condition to work”; “to become drunk as a habit, or to appear in public in a state of obvious drunkenness”; “to perform in the streets and public squares exercises of agility and bodily dexterity known as capoeiragem”; “to run about with weapons or instruments capable of causing bodily harm, provoking riots or disorder, threatening a certain or uncertain person, or instilling fear of some evil” (Santos, 2004, pp. 165-166, emphasis added).

35Now, as we have already pointed out, at the end of the 19th century, with the abolition of slavery, “freed black people, in great numbers, moved to the cities in search of opportunities and when they got there they could not be absorbed in paid activities” (Santos, 2004, p. 145). Thus, the legislation of the time—which in practice has barely changed—specifically criminalized freed black people.

  • 16 The episode of the arrest of waste picker Rafael Braga is well known. During the protests of June 2 (...)

36The well-known and terrible Brazilian police violence against black people corresponds to the maintenance of social practices that have never changed and that are organized in racist forms of life, based on hegemonic value systems of class and color, which exclude from the practical scene of being in the street, of being free, of idleness, the actors who are thematically and figuratively taken as black people. It is very common in Brazil that black men, mostly young, are arrested or killed by the police for carrying “instruments capable of producing bodily harm”. The non-specification of what such instruments are, already in the 1890 Penal Code, authorized and still authorizes the arrest and death of black people who, free and idle in the streets, are approached carrying, for example, cleaning products or umbrellas. The episodes16 of the arrest of the waste picker Rafael Braga and also the case of the death of Rodrigo Alexandre da Silva Serrano, carrying a black umbrella, are well known. In both cases the excesses were widely reported by the media and jurists; journalists and politicians issued several opinions and notes that demonstrated the fragility of the allegations of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro. In both cases, it is not a racist discourse but rather a racist practice of the annihilation of black people. It is the determination of the forms of life of violence and brutality—connected to the archetypes of whiteness—over the forms of life of freedom (the right to come and go) and of militancy (the right to defend a cause). Regarding what we call the archetypes of whiteness, although we do not intend to advance in this discussion, we can say, briefly, that all social behaviors marked by freedom (of body, movement, thought, etc.) and by privilege in relation to other subjects, associated with the values of normality and universality, are somehow components of whiteness. Lia Vainer Schucman draws attention to the fact that what we recognize as white racial identity produces “meanings, senses, and ways of acting and moving in the world that are different in each subject” and that each subject “exercises the power of whiteness in a way, always intersecting with other aspects related to class, gender, life history, etc.” (Schucman, 2020, p. 74). Also, according to the author, understood as a locus of elaboration of cultural practices and identity, whiteness is confused with forms considered “national or ‘normative’ rather than specifically racial” (2020, p. 73), which often hinders its recognition.

37Thus, the naturalization of violent police action against black people is a clear case of the manifestation of whiteness since the way the police act is modulated according to relations of otherness that are built in well-defined practical scenes. In this case, the forms of life make semiotic practices operate in a way that will prevent the realization, in public spaces, of the practical scenes of the street and of free life in the cities for black people.

38The institutionalization of the annihilation of black people, as a coherent semiotic practice, began with human trafficking, continued in the post-abolition period, and was perpetuated in legal form at the end of the first half of the 20th century. Decree-Law no. 7,967, of September 18, 1945, signed by Getúlio Vargas, declared, in its Article no. 2, the need to prioritize the admission of immigrants, since it was necessary to “preserve and develop, in the ethnic composition of the population, the most convenient characteristics of their European ancestry, as well as the defense of the national worker” (Prudente, 1988, p. 142, emphasis added). The arrival of European immigrants confirmed the valorization of whiteness forms of life, literally decreeing what would be the living spaces and the nature of the work that black people should perform from the 20th century on, even if “free”:

  • 17 Original in Portuguese: A nação brasileira, comandada por gente [branca], nunca fez nada pela massa (...)

The Brazilian nation, commanded by [white] people, never did anything for the black mass that built it. It denied them ownership of any piece of land to live and cultivate, of schools where they could educate their children, of any kind of assistance. It gave them nothing but discrimination and repression. A large part of them went to the cities, where they found a less hostile social environment. They originally formed the so-called African neighborhoods, which gave way to the slums (Ribeiro, 1995, p. 222).17

39As Darcy Ribeiro reports, the Law made the black person’s space for work, housing and public circulation even more precarious. The land was given to the white immigrant, as well as the best jobs. Thus, a nation was created within the nation, sedimenting a racial identity that also became social. Black people of the twentieth century thus did not inherit a cultural heritage or a nationality, nor a prestigious past or an eminent representation of national cohesion (Fiorin, 2009, p. 116). They inherited the precariousness of life; they inherited forms of life marked by exploitation, by survival, by resilience.

40Until 2013 Brazilian legislation objectively maintained an irregular and discriminatory work situation: among all the categories of workers formally recognized, one remained lacking rights and regulation: the domestic worker, the housemaid. Only the Constitutional Amendment Proposal (PEC) —which became known as the “Housemaid’s C.A.P” (PEC das domésticas) —would finally give labor rights to this class of workers. The “Constitutional Amendment” was signed in April 2015, by the then President Dilma Rousseff (PT), extending to domestic workers the same rights as other workers governed by the Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT), such as the Length-of-Service Guarantee Fund (FGTS), unemployment insurance, family allowance, night work bonus, and travel bonus.

41Domestic servants or domestic workers are those who provide continuous, non-profit services to a person or to a family in the home, as established by Law no. 5.859 of 1972. According to this law, examples of domestic employees’ occupations are butler, driver, housekeeper, nanny, gardener, housemaid, housekeeper, and caretaker. These are functions that, in Brazil, are almost entirely performed by black people. If we make a cut by gender, the figures seem even more “familiar”: housemaids, housekeepers, and servants. From the point of view of the forms of life condensed in these professions, there is a very important semantic feature: the domestic (from the Latin domus: house, habitation, dwelling), which outlines the space and dwelling of these subjects.

42Their coexistence with the family environment, which sometimes gives them the status of being “almost family members” (especially in the Brazilian common sense) seems to still have ancestry in the Latin culture, since “family” originally meant the set of someone’s properties, including slaves, servants, entourage, as well as relatives. As indicated by Miquel Bassols (2016, p. 8):

[…] in Latin, famulus means slave, serf, servant, subject. Originally, the family was equivalent to the sphere of possession and the order of the whole estate, which included both relatives and servants who ate in the master’s house. Thus, the master signifier is present in the origin of the symbolic organization that we know as family in all its structures.

43The senses of family, of family space, of possession and property that are organized in the space of the house, in the relationship between master and servants, also reveal its patriarchal dimension, because it is patrimonial. Patriarchy could then be interpreted here as an archi-form of life that also connects to racism. A hypothesis that we will not advance at this time.

44In this scenario, the Law, as a stabilized discourse that regulates a social practice, is able to give contours to an ideological relationship with reality, restricting the spaces of circulation, the nature of their occupations, in short, the materiality of the life of the subjects, mostly black women, imposing them on forms of life. That is, the Law is imposed as a collective enunciative praxis that fossilizes behaviors into mandatory “uses” (Greimas; Fontanille, 2014, pp. 18-19): the housemaids, naturally belonging to the domain of the home, are not recognized as workers.

45To escape this cultural imposition and for new forms of life to be (re)founded, it would be necessary to put into practice an individual rupture, such as that promoted by the noble gesture, which is established by the refusal, by the abstention, as Greimas and Fontanille (2014, pp. 27-28) point out. This rupture could also be, according to Colas-Blaise (2012), promoted by cultural games, which are “free actions” that are not solidly implanted in the life world, that are not connected to life archi-forms and that are, therefore, “relieved of the weight of habituality”, being able to be extraordinary.

46Disruption may exist or even have already existed, as Angela Davis (2016, p. 26) points out: “like all social phenomena, housework is a dynamic product of human history. Just as economic systems emerge and disappear, the scope and quality of household chores have undergone radical transformations”. The communist philosopher confirms our impressions that the origin of the family, with the strengthening of patriarchy, has reconditioned the value system, thus hierarchizing gender roles: “as Friedrich Engels argues in his classic work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, sexual inequality, as we know it today, did not exist before the advent of private property”, since, “during the first eras of human history, the sexual division of labor within the system of economic production was complementary rather than hierarchical” (Davis, 2016, p. 227, emphasis added). Since the origin of the family, at that time there seems to have been no rupture. On the contrary, social practices remain stable, regulated by the patriarchal archi-form of life, correlated to that of whiteness.

47A very significant example is that of a publication on the official website of the Chamber of Deputies (the body unequivocally responsible for systematizing, proposing and changing the Law in Brazil), of November 21st, 2012, which reports the approval of the “PEC das domésticas” (Housemaid’s C.A.P), as quoted below:

  • 18 The only two votes against the C.A.P were cast by deputies Roberto Balestra (PP-GO) and Zé Vieira ( (...)
  • 19 Original in Portuguese: O Plenário aprovou nesta quarta-feira (21), em primeiro turno, por 359 voto (...)

The Plenary session approved on Wednesday (21), in first round, by 359 votes to 218, the Housemaid’s C.A.P (Constitutional Amendment Proposal 478/10), which extends the labor rights of housemaids, nannies, cooks, and other workers in households […] Lawmakers in favor of the matter highlighted that the extension of rights to domestic workers symbolizes a second abolition in the country, since many domestic workers are black, and their families came out of slavery into domestic work, as highlighted by Congresswoman Janete Rocha Pietá (PT-SP). It is the beginning of the freedom of black workers who came out of slavery into domestic work", she said. Congressman Amauri Teixeira (PT-BA) also used the word liberation to refer to the C.A.P. “Domestic workers still live in a situation of semi-slavery, without a defined minimum working shift, without overtime, without night bonuses”, he said (Triboli, 2012, emphasis added).19

48We can highlight, in the news from the Chamber, that the deputies are elevated to the dimension of operators of a practical scene of liberation, whose liberated actors are essentially black women. The scene that is repeated here, as the text itself indicates, is that of abolition, in an interval of more than 120 years. But this abolition has the same nature as the first one, inchoactive, we could say, and not terminative, as it should be. It opens space for the non-performance of the action, which remains a project, a performance whose sanction remains undefined. In this way, the housemaid remains captive to her social place and her color.

49Another passage is also very significant for understanding the event. The individual who was not yet president of this country, at the time, did not register his vote but criticized the approval of the C.A.P:

  • 20 Original in Portuguese: O deputado Jair Bolsonaro (PP-RJ) criticou a proposta que, na sua avaliação (...)

Congressman Jair Bolsonaro (PP-RJ) criticized the proposal that, in his evaluation, will increase the cost of housemaids and discourage employers. “Because of the C.A.P, I will have to pay daycare for my son’s nanny. The mass of workers in Brazil cannot afford this”, he said. Bolsonaro did not register a vote (Triboli, 2012, emphasis added).20

50Let us ignore the fallacious arguments. What stands out here is a rhetoric (known to all now more than ever) based on a logic marked by economic advantage: the C.A.P makes housemaids more expensive. When addressing the history of the slave system built by the Portuguese, Schwarscz and Starling (2018, p. 80) recall that “Portuguese contact with black Africa […] preceded the discovery of Brazil by up to half a century […] at that time [1453] Portugal’s interest was more focused on gold, and slaves […] were only secondary motivations”. Still at that time, when the Portuguese began to traffic slaves, “these were primarily destined for Europe to fulfill domestic tasks” (2018, p. 80, emphasis added). With the cultivation of sugarcane on Brazilian soil, this practice spread and took on a different form, causing enslaved labor to become “the real foundation of society” (Schwarscz; Starling, 2018, p. 79). That is, the basis of the Portuguese slave society that later developed in Brazil already resided in a practice of advantage and ownership: the Portuguese owned domestic slaves because it was advantageous: “the economic advantages were such that they ensured the continuity” of the use of domestic slaves until 1850, when “trafficking, but not slavery, became extinct in Brazil” (Schwarscz; Starling, 2018, p. 88).

  • 21 As for the issue of liberation in Brazil, we suggest reading “From customary practice to liberation (...)

51From this point of view, it seems that, contrary to what Congresswoman Janete Rocha Pietá stated (“liberation for black workers who came out of slavery to do domestic work”), domestic work in Brazil is in the form of a reaction: it is the updating of a tradition (the practical scene of domestic slavery) that has the family (master and servants) and private property (the house) as its actors. Hence, its stability is not about the exit from slavery but rather the return to slavery.21

4. Almost Like Family

52In Brazil, there are, on the one hand, practices that have been removing from black identities their human dimension: without humanity, there is no need for rights. On the other hand, there is the continuity of forms of life that were formed before slavery in America, which lasted 400 years, and that would only be slightly altered in the 21st century. These forms of life, especially marked by submission and servitude, were covered by discourses that attenuated the violence and villainy of the slavery process. Important works such as Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves (2006) and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s Roots of Brazil (2007) show that the logics of abuse and exploitation were built in the realm of intimacy, as if there was affection in the exchanges between masters and slaves. In this regard, the following excerpt from Gilberto Freyre, which we quote below, is exemplary:

  • 22 Na ternura, na mímica excessiva, no catolicismo em que se deliciam nossos sentidos, na música, no (...)

In the tenderness, in the excessive mimicry, in the Catholicism that delights our senses, in the music, in the walk, in the speech, in the lullaby, in everything that is a sincere expression of life, we almost all carry the mark of the black influence. Of the slave or maid who cradled us. Who breastfed us. Who spoon-fed us, herself holding a bowl of food in her hand. Of the old black woman who told us the first stories about animals and ghosts (Freyre, 2006, p. 367).22

53The idea of almost genetic belonging to the black woman who breastfed him, the emphasis on the practical scene of motherhood, are aimed at mitigating the demeaning condition of the black woman. In order to breastfeed and spoon-feed, the black woman had certainly left her own child to God’s will. Tenderness masquerades the abandonment, the care for the child masquerades the carelessness with the life of the woman herself, who is not even the owner of her own life. Old black woman, slave or maid are realized in Freyre’s discourse in a metonymic way: mimicry, voice, breast, hand. Without wholeness, without name, without history, the black women are fragments that serve very specific scenes of the life of the family in the Master’s House. Moreover, the linguistic uses, such as the use of the possessive pronoun that always follows the lexeme housemaid (my, your), lies in the understanding of yesteryear that the servants of the house, the slaves, were movable goods, alongside the livestock and possessions of the masters.

54As for the house itself, the Brazilian architecture itself will maintain the spaces of ample coexistence and the spaces restricted to the masters and servants: the housemaid’s room (often used even in the diminutive form: quartinho) and the kitchen are its spaces. The contemporary representations are known to all in Brazil: service elevator, service entrance, etc. Everything is very close, right there, but with very well-defined limits. From the spatial proximity, a false reality was built: “we immediately point out the sweetness in the relations of masters with domestic slaves, perhaps greater in Brazil than in any other part of America” (Freyre, 2006, p. 435). This scenario produced by the academic discourse varnished with truth and reality the ideological forms of the discourse on slavery in Brazil, which was repeated in several other spaces.

  • 23 Portuguese expression that indicates that someone has black ancestry. Historically, the work in the (...)
  • 24 Maria Alice Medeiros (1984, p. 19) recognizes this consolidation of the white man, since “in the Ma (...)
  • 25 According to Botelho (2020), “since 1995 55,000 people have been rescued in a situation of slavery (...)

55In 1994, almost ten years before the implementation of the Housemaid’s C.A.P, the then PSDB candidate for president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said in an interview for the Folha de São Paulo that he was “mulatto” and had “his foot in the kitchen”.23 In the same article (Folha de S. de Paulo, March 31st, 1994), one can also read that “in Mauá, ABC Paulista, when asked about Orestes Quércia’s comment that he was a “white handed” candidate, Cardoso answered: “I am very mulatto. He is wrong”. It is interesting to note here the same erasure logic produced by Freyre, in which the blackness of the oppressed is transmitted to the oppressor in an attempt to erase the archetype of life of racism that dominates and acts as an agent in their relations. In this process, the subject remains white24, resorting to blackness only when he needs to deny his racism. This kind of discourse is obviously not conscious, it is not a choice, it is not a directed action, because the action of individuals “takes place in a framework of sociability endowed with historically unconscious constitution” (Almeida, 2020, p. 64), as we have previously indicated. However, it has at its base a deep negationism of structural racism and legitimizes even more the relations of exploitation, since the place of ancestry is the kitchen, a euphemistic figure for the senzala of yore (old slave quarters). The housemaids of today are precisely the continuity, as a form of life, of the domestic slaves. Those who have access to the house, to the home, and to intimacy, but whose identities do not take part in the intimacy of the masters of the house. The discourse of the law may have changed recently, but the social practices of exploitation have not. There are countless cases of kidnapping and modern slavery reported in the last two years that show black women held captive25, silenced, forced to work in domestic chores for years, without contact with the world, in urban centers and middle-class family homes.

  • 26 On commotion, as a humanization strategy, leading to loss or gain of rights and citizenship, see Sc (...)

56These real situations of incarceration shock some people, but do not cause a real commotion26, because the silencing of these women is something that is already very deeply naturalized in our culture. When the news of the Housemaid’s C.A.P s ran through the media, many people expressed their opinion in the newspapers. The text in the epigraph of this work, by Danuza Leão (2013), is exemplary. In it, the class value is evident, as well as it is in the depersonalization that is built in the permanent willingness to domestic services (bring me a glass of water), the neutralization of identity in the use of the first name Maria, and the annihilation of basic rights that other workers have. Nina Horta, the caterer celebrated by the intellectual elite, years before the C.A.P., had already taken a public stand, in a large circulation daily newspaper like the Folha de S. Paulo, on the dilemmas of the boss who doesn’t have a good housemaid:

  • 27 Original in Portuguese: Como todos se lembram da fase em que existiam empregadas! Acordei leitores (...)

How everyone misses the times when there were maids! I woke up readers of all ages and places. Of course, I am remembering only the sweetness of a time when we were employees, but we also had housemaids, which made things possible in life that would not be possible nowadays. […] The one who ironed our clothes stayed with us for about 30 years. During menopause she became a kleptomaniac […] The last one, who came from the northeastern backlands, I finally realized, spoke another language. The nouns I used; she didn’t know what they meant. And vice-versa. So, she kept quiet. The most basic words, such as saucer, butter dish, lychee (ah, that small jackfruit?), sparkling water, mayonnaise, paprika, purée, she kept for a definite clarification, the day I would add the object to the word. I don’t deny that she was very intelligent, just try yourself to work in the house of a Japanese man who doesn’t speak Portuguese. […] The salaries went up. And then came the ones I could least live with. The nouveau riche ones, who borrowed the status of their bosses. They knew the names of politicians, celebrities, and housewives. All their recipes contained condensed milk and nuts. They got goose bumps when they had to iron an old cambric shirt, very fresh, already worn out, plaid flannel pajamas of the new housewife. They lacked references to qualify people, and so they classified visitors by their cars. Snobs without a cause. Not to mention the perfect housemaid, better than you in everything, the I-miss-Bahia one, the Law-student one, and others. It’s enough to make you cry (Horta, 2011, emphases added).27

  • 28 Still with Botelho (2020), it is important to highlight that in the case of Madalena’s enslavement, (...)

57It is evident the grief that the social ascension of the housemaids causes, an ascension that is read by Horta as snobbery and being nouveau riche. The higher salaries attracted women from cities, no longer those from the backlands who spoke another language (sic). There are, in this small excerpt, important connections between Horta’s, Bolsonaro’s, FHC’s, and Freyre’s discourses, covered by a class discourse that is evidently linked to the racist archi-form. The housemaid from the hinterlands and the bahiana are the figures that lead us to color; the expensive salaries lead us to high cost; the knowledge (names of politicians, celebrities, and wives) restitutes the identity of these women who think, talk, study, and do not keep silent—because they are no longer, or do not want to be, the possession of the family (“30 years with us”)28. It is also noteworthy that when she talks about herself, she uses “we were employees”: the use of the verb to be and the term “employee” (universalizing) maintain the human dimension of the subject that works. When talking about housemaids, the verb to have unveils the relation of possession, and the use of the feminine consolidates the crystallized gender of this (particular) class of people: women who belong to others.

58There are also other forms of prejudice, such as xenophobia and the denial of the right to higher education, crystallizations about the housemaid that we will find, in a very productive way, in Brazilian cinema, theater, and literature in general. The clash of cultures and forms of life is visible and is also registered in the household lexicon enumerated by Horta: saucers, butter, lychee, sparkling water, mayonnaise, paprika, purée are “basic words” of a given class—made up of white people—linked to routines, habits and practices of coexistence and eating. In the case of lychee, mayonnaise, paprika and purée, they are intercultural figures, recognizable only by actors who circulate among diverse cultural logics. Saucers and sparkling water are of the order of excess, luxury, or superfluous: they have no essential function in the logic of the house.

59Another case that deserves attention is that of the writer Lya Luft, who has written true theses in which she argues that the best thing for the poor class would be to remain poor. In “Steps of Illusion” (Luft, 2012), we can read the following:

  • 29 Original in Portuguese: Fala-se muito na ascensão das classes menos favorecidas, formando uma “nova (...)

There is a lot of talk about the rise of the less favored classes, forming a “new middle class”, achieved by steps that lead to another social and economic (cultural, I dare not say) level. In theory, this would be a great step towards reducing the catastrophic inequality that reigns here. But I fear that, the way it is being carried out, it is an illusion that may end up in serious problems for those who deserve better. Everyone wants a dignified life for the dispossessed, good schooling for the illiterate, optimal public services for the entire population, that is, education, health, transportation, electricity, security, water, and everything that decent citizens need […] I come from a middle class in which we grew up with four basic teachings: have your graduation diploma, have your own house, have your savings, and work hard to maintain and, who knows, expand this. To ensure an old age independent of help from children or strangers; to leave children something with which they could start their own lives with dignity. Such teachings seem abolished, prudence and caution seem outdated, the desire to grow steadily and build a more secure life little encouraged.29

60This idea of capital accumulation, a basic teaching of Luft’s middle class, is also present in Danuza’s social logic, gaining even more shades of ostentation:

  • 30 As we could indicate before, the country invested deeply in European colonization, offering subsidi (...)
  • 31 Original in Portuguese: […] um homem que começa do nada, por exemplo: no início de sua vida, ter um (...)

[…] a man who starts from nothing30, for example: at the beginning of his life, having an apartment was an almost impossible ambition; but now, being successful, if you say you are thinking of buying one of less than 800 square meters, swimming pool, sauna and grill, he will look at you with the greatest contempt—if he looks at all (Leão, 2012).31

61One cannot forget that Luft’s discourse is set against a social phenomenon that shook Brazilian structures: the Lula Era. In this period, also a background to the texts of Leão and Horta, social ascension became a fact, changing practices of occupation of spaces in the cities (airports becoming symbols of this new occupation), practices of socialization and leisure, practices of school and academic formation, which evidently forced the paradigms of Brazilian culture. Those who really had nothing started to have something, and the stigmatization of the poor, treated as ignorant or devoid of culture, meritocracy, and class resentment, started to circulate more frequently in society chronicles, daily newspapers, and other media vehicles. Not by chance, almost ten years later, Minister Paulo Guedes said in an interview to the Folha de S. Paulo (Nov. 3th, 2019, emphasis added), in a much less euphemistic way than Luft, that “a boy, from an early age, knows that he is a being of responsibility when he has to save. The rich capitalize their resources. The poor consume everything”. These discourses are the result of consolidated practices of maintaining the feeling of class, practices of oppression, of disqualification, of depersonalization.

  • 32 In this regard, see Jimenez-Jimenez (2008) and Côrtes (2012).

62In canonical literature, there is no lack of examples either. The housemaids in Clarice Lispector32 (1999) always surprise the narrator because they generally have the faculty to think. And they always seem to irritate—in a contradictory relationship—because they go beyond certain symbolic limits that should be respected: the housemaid should be ready to serve, at any moment, but remain invisible, without presence, without a body:

Aninha is a quiet girl who works here at home. And, when she speaks, it is in a muffled voice. She rarely speaks. I, who never had a housemaid named Aparecida, every time I go to call Aninha, I can only think of calling her Aparecida. That’s because she is a mute apparition (Lispector, 1999, p. 47).

63There is in her narratives a deep logic of depersonalization that makes one not expect a housemaid to be a person, let alone an intelligent, “complicated” person. And this discovery ends up causing astonishment:

[…] suddenly—no, nothing is all of a sudden in her, everything seems like a continuation of the silence. So, continuing the silence, her voice came to me, “Do you write books?” I replied, a little surprised, that I did. She asked me, without stopping tidying up and without changing her voice, if I could lend her one. I was flustered. I was honest: I told her that she wouldn’t like my books because they were a bit complicated. Then, continuing to put things away, and with her voice even more muffled, she replied, “I like complicated things. I don’t like sugary water” (Lispector, 1999, p. 48).

64The examples here are punctual and limited. If we were to compile the presence of housemaids in Brazilian literature, cinema, and other arts in a more refined way, we would also find the narratives of abuse and “initiation” of sexuality of the man of the house with the housemaid of the family.

A few considerations

65What we see in the construction of Brazilian culture in relation to all those who serve someone, housemaids and cleaners, more often than not, are the values of a certain class, a certain intellectual elite—whiteness—, that shamelessly displays its self-interest, exposing its housemaids to the exploitation of their bodies that are diminished, disrespected, depersonalized, thus opposing diverse forms of life responsible for evidencing oppositions that are at the base of racism and class prejudice: identity vs otherness; empathy vs contempt; superiority vs inferiority; civilization vs barbarism.

66However, even in the face of all these discourses, these so evident oppositions, and all these excluding practices, it is still very widely and frequently stated that in Brazil everyone is equal. It is widely known that the expression “having one’s foot in the kitchen”, as uttered by FHC, is itself a whole predicative scene: the place where one experiences life (the kitchen and the implications of being in the kitchen and the services connected to the kitchen) amalgamated, naturally, with the color of one’s skin.

67The crisis of the pandemic has forced us to review the spaces of work, of leisure, of idleness, of pleasure. The media and institutions in general, such as universities, state and municipal governments, have constructed a narrative about life in the pandemic. But we can’t fool ourselves: there is an architecture of bodies and classes that must be seen in detail because the subjects do not all live in the same spaces; they are not submitted to the same laws. In the case of this form of domestic life, it is a life forged inside someone else’s home, without rights, in an affective and social symbiosis.

68From the point of view of the texts and discourses that exemplify our reflections, these are the result of intertextual, interdiscursive, semiotic translation, and interpretation operations. It seems useful to us to resort to the model of practices and forms of life to proceed to an analysis of culture because it details or specifies the presence and hierarchization of certain phenomena. Here we are dealing with structural racism—or the archi-form of life of racism—which, by coordinating forms of life such as that of the mistress of the house (patroa), the master, the middle class, and the housemaid, defines and organizes the forms of living and coexistence in Brazilian culture, even delimiting which bodies and identities can live and which bodies and identities must be annihilated so that the model of life of some people does not change. In this sense, on the one hand, we can recognize forms of life that would be unstressed because they are subsumed into their environment, unable to exert any force of change, such as the way of life of the housemaid, and on the other hand, we have stresses forms of life that intend to or do dominate the environment, guaranteeing, as we have already said, the maintenance of the status quo and whiteness.

69What we have been able outline, in a rather imperfect way, was an example of how semiotic thinking can help us think about culture and our society—very complex objects—, making us better see the contours of semiotic processes, which are, after all, both linguistic and social, and that make us who we finally are. In his text on national identity, Fiorin (2009, p. 116) reminds us that a nation is born from “a postulate and an invention”. In the case of Brazil, as Darcy Ribeiro skillfully showed, the identity of the black person was invented by his or her tormentors: a slaveholding society made up of white men that left registered in its legislation, in its architecture, in its literary practices of exploitation and segregation of a whole set of people who have in common their skin color.

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1 Original in Portuguese: Leitores, por favor, ajudem a responder: por que se foram as boas empregadas dos bons patrões?

2 Original in Portuguese: No Brasil, muitos apartamentos de quarto e sala têm quarto de empregada, e se a profissional mora no emprego, fica difícil estipular o que é hora extra, fora o “Maria, me traz um copo de água?”. E a ideia de dar auxílio creche e educação para menores de 5 anos dos empregados, é sonho de uma noite de verão, pois se os patrões mal conseguem arcar com as despesas dos próprios filhos, imagine com os da empregada.

3 Original in Portuguese: O racismo é uma decorrência da própria estrutura social, ou seja, do modo “normal” com que se constituem as relações políticas, econômicas, jurídicas e até familiares, não sendo uma patologia social nem um desarranjo institucional. O racismo é estrutural.

4 We adopt the term crisis here as “a historical moment of disturbing risks; a difficult, stressful and long-lasting episode; a situation of momentary tension, serious dispute, conflict; a situation of lack, scarcity, deprivation” (Cf. Houaiss Brazilian Portuguese Dictionary, emphasis added). It doesn’t seem to us to be the ideal term, if we come to the conclusion that conflicts, scarcity and risks are not episodic in the constitution of Brazilian culture, having been part of all stages of development of its society. We do not intend to make a sociological critique, but an exemplary reference is from Brazil: A Biography, by Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling, who, reading Gilberto Freyre (1933), say: “‘A balance of antagonisms of economy and culture’ was the expression he [Freyre] used to demonstrate how paternalism and violence […] coexisted” (2018, p. 70) in the daily life of a slaveholding Brazil. That is, crisis, as tension and conflict, is not transitory, it was and has been the basis of Brazilian social relations.

5 For Alfredo César Melo (2009, pp. 286-287), the “articulation between a rhetoric of affection directed towards the African presence in Brazilian society and the sociological criticism of racism and the abuses of the latifundio will provide support for one of the most persuasive discourses of Brazilian culture, which is that of racial democracy”.

6 It would be very difficult to exhaust here the contributions of Brazilian researchers to semiotics. We can, however, indicate the works by Portela (2018), Santos (2020), Moreira (2019), Prado (2018), Barros (2012) and Lemos, Portela and Barros (2012), which present a detailed panorama of the institutionalization of semiotics in Brazil, as well as the performance and contribution of Brazilian researchers.

7 Original in Portuguese: […] há no discurso o campo da manipulação consciente e o da determinação inconsciente [e] o conjunto de elementos semânticos habitualmente usado nos discursos de uma dada época constitui a maneira de ver o mundo numa dada formação social [pois] esses elementos surgem a partir de outros discursos já construídos, cristalizados e cujas condições de produção foram apagadas.

8 For Fontanille (1993, p. 9) the form of life is “the manifestation of any discursive and figurative entity [that] summons, for its interpretation and its discursivization, the set of adaptations and selections operated in the generative trajectory by the use, aiming to realize a whole form of life”. From the moment that the “discursive entities” allow meaning to be (re)constituted, we have the composition of an “identifiable enunciative syntagma”.

9 On this issue, see Fontanille (2016) and Schwartzmann (2018).

10 In Schwartzmann (2013; 2014) and in Schwartzmann and Portela (2012, 2015, 2017), to address the problem of forms of life, we referred to distinct and plural segmentations of the corpus, which always took into account the levels of relevance of semiotic analysis, as systematized by Fontanille (2008).

11 Original in Portuguese: O discurso transmitido contém em si, como parte da visão de mundo que veicula, um sistema de valores, isto é, estereótipos dos comportamentos humanos que são valorizados positiva ou negativamente. Ele veicula os tabus comportamentais. A sociedade transmite aos indivíduos—com a linguagem e graças a ela—certos estereótipos, que determinam certos comportamentos. Esses estereótipos entranham-se de tal modo na consciência que acabam por ser considerados naturais. Figuras como “negro”, “comunista”, “puta” têm um conteúdo cheio de preconceitos, aversões e hostilidades, ao passo que outras como “branco”, “esposa” estão impregnadas de sentimentos positivos. Não devemos esquecer que os estereótipos só estão na linguagem porque representam a condensação de uma prática social.

12 Franz Fanon (2008, pp. 154-155) draws attention to several racist manifestations that are born from the use of the lexeme “negro” (black man, in Portuguese), as well as antisemitic manifestations that originate from the use of the lexeme Jew. His thinking is much more complex than what we have highlighted here, but it is evident that these are cases in which the words assume a predicative function, often pejorative: a black man, a Jewish doctor, a black scientist. In this sense, it is enough to think of practical scenes whose actors are men and, then, to call them black: two men standing on the corner vs two black men standing on the corner. In Brazil, the social connotations in the two scenes are profoundly different.

13 As a semiotic practice is an act, a behavior governed by sociocultural values, we can recognize in it the configuration of forms of interaction between, at least, two actors, forms that are apprehensible in the form of a scene. The scene may contain one or several processes, one or several predicates, according to Fontanille (2008a, p. 21), that is, they are acts of enunciation that imply actantial roles. The practical scene is a predicative scene because it is the result of a practical experience that becomes a device of semiotic expression.

14 These are the formal instances: signs-figure; texts-utterances; support-objects; practical scenes; strategies; forms of life.

15 We were able to demonstrate this phenomenon in “Reflexões para uma semiótica das culturas: o caso da identidade trans”. (Schwartzmann; Portela, 2017).

16 The episode of the arrest of waste picker Rafael Braga is well known. During the protests of June 2013 in the city of Rio de Janeiro, he was arrested, charged and convicted for violating the Disarmament Statute. At the time, he was carrying a bottle of bleach and another of disinfectant near the place where thousands of people were demonstrating against the increase in public transport fares. It is also the case of the death of Rodrigo Alexandre da Silva Serrano, who, on September 17, 2018, walked down the hillside to wait for his wife and children with a black umbrella. He was killed by the Rio de Janeiro Military Police because his umbrella was mistaken, on a rainy day, for a rifle. In both cases the excesses were widely reported by the media and jurists, journalists and politicians issued various opinions and notes demonstrating the fragility of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police’s allegations.

17 Original in Portuguese: A nação brasileira, comandada por gente [branca], nunca fez nada pela massa negra que a construíra. Negou-lhe a posse de qualquer pedaço de terra para viver e cultivar, de escolas em que pudesse educar seus filhos, de qualquer ordem de assistência. Só lhes deu, sobejamente, discriminação e repressão. Grande parte desses negros dirigiu‐se às cidades, onde encontrava um ambiente de convivência social menos hostil. Constituíram, originalmente, os chamados bairros africanos, que deram lugar às favelas (Ribeiro, 1995, p. 222).

18 The only two votes against the C.A.P were cast by deputies Roberto Balestra (PP-GO) and Zé Vieira (PR-MA), both coincidentally landowners.

19 Original in Portuguese: O Plenário aprovou nesta quarta-feira (21), em primeiro turno, por 359 votos a 2, a PEC das Domésticas (Proposta de Emenda à Constituição 478/10), que amplia os direitos trabalhistas de domésticas, babás, cozinheiras e outros trabalhadores em residências […] Os parlamentares favoráveis à matéria destacaram que a ampliação de direitos aos trabalhadores domésticos simboliza uma segunda abolição no País, já que muitas domésticas são negras e suas famílias saíram da escravidão para o trabalho doméstico, como destacou a deputada Janete Rocha Pietá (PT-SP). “É o início da alforria de trabalhadoras negras que saíram da escravidão para o trabalho doméstico”, disse. O deputado Amauri Teixeira (PT-BA) também usou a palavra alforria para se referir à PEC. “As domésticas vivem ainda em situação de semiescravidão, sem jornada mínima definida, sem hora extra, sem adicional noturno”, disse (Triboli, 2012, grifos nossos).

20 Original in Portuguese: O deputado Jair Bolsonaro (PP-RJ) criticou a proposta que, na sua avaliação, vai encarecer o custo das domésticas e desestimular os empregadores. “Pela PEC, eu vou ter de pagar creche para a babá do meu filho. A massa de trabalhadores do Brasil não tem como pagar isso”, disse. Bolsonaro não registrou voto. (Triboli, 2012, grifos nossos).

21 As for the issue of liberation in Brazil, we suggest reading “From customary practice to liberation”, Kátia Lorena Novais de Almeida, 2007.

22 Na ternura, na mímica excessiva, no catolicismo em que se deliciam nossos sentidos, na música, no andar, na fala, no canto de ninar menino pequeno, em tudo que é expressão sincera de vida, trazemos quase todos a marca da influência negra. Da escrava ou sinhama que nos embalou. Que nos deu de mamar. Que nos deu de comer, ela própria amolengando na mão o bolão de comida. Da negra velha que nos contou as primeiras histórias de bicho e de mal-assombrado. (Freyre, 2006, p. 367).

23 Portuguese expression that indicates that someone has black ancestry. Historically, the work in the kitchen was done by enslaved black women, of whom housemaids are today’s continuity.

24 Maria Alice Medeiros (1984, p. 19) recognizes this consolidation of the white man, since “in the Master’s House & slave quarters [there is] a lordly vision of the world […] an aristocratic atmosphere characteristic of a whole world that remained the same after the abolition of slavery, where the white man is seen as the true and only citizen”.

25 According to Botelho (2020), “since 1995 55,000 people have been rescued in a situation of slavery in the country, mostly in rural areas […]”. In 2019, 14 people were rescued from domestic slave labor - which is more difficult to identify. The author also highlights the case of Madalena Gordiano, a 46-year-old black woman, who was found by the Labour Public Ministry, in 2020, after 38 years living under conditions analogous to slavery in the home of a university professor and a physician - the latter having graduated at the expense of the military pension stolen from Madalena.

26 On commotion, as a humanization strategy, leading to loss or gain of rights and citizenship, see Schwartzmann (2020, p. 97; p. 101).

27 Original in Portuguese: Como todos se lembram da fase em que existiam empregadas! Acordei leitores de todas as idades e lugares. Claro que estou me lembrando só das doçuras de um tempo em que éramos empregados, mas também tínhamos empregadas, o que possibilitava coisas na vida que não seriam possíveis nos dias de hoje. […] A passadeira ficou conosco uns 30 anos. Na menopausa virou cleptomaníaca […] A última, vinda do sertão, custei a perceber, falava outra língua. Substantivos que eu usava ela não sabia o que queriam dizer. E vice-versa. Então, calava. As palavras mais básicas, como pires, manteigueira, lichia (ah, aquela jaquinha?), água com gás, maionese, páprica, purê, ela armazenava para o esclarecimento final, no dia em que eu juntasse o objeto à palavra. Não nego que era inteligentíssima, vá você trabalhar na casa de um japonês que não fala português. […] Aumentaram-se os ordenados. E vieram aquelas com as quais eu menos conseguia conviver. As novas ricas, que tomavam emprestado o status das patroas. Sabiam nomes de políticos, celebridades, peruas. Todas as receitas delas levavam leite condensado e nozes. Ficavam arrepiadas ao ter de passar uma camisola de cambraia velha, tão fresquinha, já puída, um pijama de flanela xadrez de estimação da patroa nova. Faltavam-lhes referências para qualificar pessoas e por pouca informação classificavam as visitas pelos carros. As esnobes sem causa. Falta falar na empregada perfeita, melhor que você em tudo, a tenho-saudade-da-Bahia, a estudante-de-direito, e outras. É de chorar (Horta, 2011, grifos nossos).

28 Still with Botelho (2020), it is important to highlight that in the case of Madalena’s enslavement, the “university professor said that Madalena was not considered an employee, but a member of the family, which resumes a classic myth of race relations in Brazil. With Gilberto Freyre, the characterization of the Negro as docile, endowed with brute strength, whose coexistence with the Big House lent him a certain civility, and, for the whites, the exercise of a certain benevolence”.

29 Original in Portuguese: Fala-se muito na ascensão das classes menos favorecidas, formando uma “nova classe média”, realizada por degraus que levam a outro patamar social e econômico (cultural, não ouso falar). Em teoria, seria um grande passo para reduzir a catastrófica desigualdade que aqui reina. Porém receio que, do modo como está se realizando, seja uma ilusão que pode acabar em sérios problemas para quem mereceria coisa melhor. Todos desejam uma vida digna para os despossuídos, boa escolaridade para os iletrados, serviços públicos ótimos para a população inteira, isto é, educação, saúde, transporte, energia elétrica, segurança, água, e tudo de que precisam cidadãos decentes […] Sou de uma classe média em que a gente crescia com quatro ensinamentos básicos: ter seu diploma, ter sua casinha, ter sua poupança e trabalhar firme para manter e, quem sabe, expandir isso. Para garantir uma velhice independente de ajuda de filhos ou de estranhos; para deixar aos filhos algo com que pudessem começar a própria vida com dignidade. Tais ensinamentos parecem abolidos, ultrapassadas a prudência e a cautela, pouco estimulados o desejo de crescimento firme e a construção de uma vida mais segura.

30 As we could indicate before, the country invested deeply in European colonization, offering subsidies for Italians, above all, to come to Brazil. The idea that the middle and upper middle classes started “from nothing” is just another elaboration of the archetype of racism, which has in meritocracy one of its foundations, since it establishes the effort and intelligence of the white as the elements that allowed the accumulation of capital.

31 Original in Portuguese: […] um homem que começa do nada, por exemplo: no início de sua vida, ter um apartamento era uma ambição quase impossível de alcançar; mas, agora, cheio de sucesso, se você falar que está pensando em comprar um com menos de 800 metros quadrados, piscina, sauna e churrasqueira, ele vai olhar para você com o maior desprezo - isso se olhar (Folha de S. de Paulo, 25 nov. 2012).

32 In this regard, see Jimenez-Jimenez (2008) and Côrtes (2012).

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Matheus Nogueira Schwartzmann, « Discourse, culture and forms of life: the housemaid as the face of Brazilian racism »Signata [En ligne], 13 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Matheus Nogueira Schwartzmann

Professor at the School of Sciences and Languages (FCL-Assis), and at the Graduate Program in Linguistics and Portuguese Language (FCLAr) of São Paulo State University (Unesp), he works in the field of semiotics of discourse. Translator of several articles, he is also the author of works on semiotics and discourse, gender, semiotics of practices, and forms of life, such as “The notion of text and the levels of relevance of semiotic analysis” (2018) and “Epistolary writing: from the practical scene to the form of life” (2013). He had edited works such as Reading: the circulation of discourses in contemporaneity (2013) and Semiotics: identity and dialogues (2012), and was Editor of the Journal of GEL (2016-2020). He was Coordinator of the Semiotics WG of ANPOLL and is Secretary of the Brazilian Association of Semiotics - ABES.
Email: matheus.schwartzmann[at]

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