Note from BW of Brazil: Wow! So here we go again with another assault on a black image. The end of the year is fast approaching and here we see a near repeat of something that happened around this time last year. Last year, we saw a group of black men carrying a statue of an image of a white woman as the African goddess of the sea, Iemanjá, on a beach in Rio. In a repeat performance of the whitening of black images, a clothing store was recently at the center of controversy for pulling the same trick! I’m sure there are those who insist on seeing the world in a Michael Jackson “We Are the World”, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white” type of utopia, but in a highly racialized world in which African descendants are routinely killed simply because of being black, I can’t be deceived with this sort of fantasy. Apparently, others can’t either! See the story below…
Farm uses a white model to represent Iemanjá and causes controversy on the web
By Júlia Amin and Thais Carreiro
What was supposed to be a tribute became a huge religious controversy. In celebration of the feast of Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of Conception), celebrated on Monday, that in religious syncretism corresponds to Iemanjá, the Farm store posted a photo on its Instagram account, of a white model representing the orixá (African deity). Users criticized the choice of the model and put in question the absence of black girls in fashion catalogs.
“They want to use an African image using black culture and don’t even the courage to choose someone who really represents this…”, asked one young woman. Another adds: “true Farm, you’re missing black girls in your collection.” Another follower goes further: “The problem is that everyone loves black culture, but not everyone loves blacks. A black model would be too much to ask to represent black culture, meaning you don’t need her anymore, right?”
For the representative of the Comissão de Combate à Intolerância Religiosa (CCIR or Commission of the Combat of Religious Intolerance Committee), babalawo Ivanir dos Santos, it would be consistent that the store represented Iemanjá with a black model. He explains, however, that in Yoruba culture, where the orixá comes from, Iemanjá is the sea.
“For the Yoruba people, Iemanjá is the sea, it doesn’t have any shape, it’s not a mermaid, or a woman. The black or white figure comes from the syncretism with the mermaid from Umbanda and with Catholic saints. However, if the homage paid by the store wanted to preserve the worship of where Iemanjá comes from, they should have chosen a black model,” says Ivanir.
The brand, however, says that the image had no intention of representing religion or race flags. According to André Carvalhal, Farm’s marketing manager, the picture is part of the Carnival catalog of the brand.
“It was not the exaltation of anything or anyone. It is a fantasy. Fantasy has no race, can be used by anyone. It doesn’t represent any flag of the brand, be it sex, religion or race,” André affirmed.
* Under the supervision of Thais Sousa
Note from BW of Brazil: After the photo was posted on Farm’s Instagram account, a debate ensued with a number of comments labeling criticism of the photo as “victimism” or the idea that Afro-Brazilians find racism in everything. Such ideals represent the victory of white supremacy in Brazil as those who have white privilege often fail to even see it. One woman noted the absurdity in such opinions and summed up her opinion this way:
Translation: “I searched on google ‘Colecao (collection) farm black model’ and found 2 (one being farm adidas) in a universe of 50 white (models). It appears (to be) coitadismo (victimism) when it’s not in your skin, it seems silly because you never felt excluded or mobilized yourself for someone who felt it. No white has the right to speak of racist coitadismo or that some act is or is not racist. The same goes for straights talking of homophobia with frivolous looks, for men who detract feminism thinking that sexism does not exist.”
Note from BW of Brazil: Like others who have noted the vast over-representation of white models in commercial advertisements, the above commentary points to Farm’s lack of black models in their ads, a standard practice in Brazilian advertising (1). Very telling is the Farm representative’s comment basically justifying what many rightfully deem to be cultural appropriation by spinning the accusations into an acceptable interpretation of universalism, non-racialism and multi-culturalism. A re-invention of Brazil’s “racial democracy” for the 21st century you could say.
Considering the country’s long history of violently suppressing African-oriented religions and cultural practices, this sly attempt to disconnect historically racist oppression and exclusion continues 21st century attempts to erase the African image from the nation’s cultural legacy. We’ve seen various examples of cultural appropriation in the past year or so (see here and here) and we’ve seen public figures whiten their images to gain fame and fortune or shortly afterward. As such, none of this is actually surprising. After all, Brazil has already shown that it desires to erase the history of Afro-Brazilians and their very physical presence. In racist Brazilian discourse, a better Brazil is a whiter Brazil!
1. Let us also not forget a recent controversy surrounding the whitening of singer Preta Gil’s image on a magazine cover. See that story here.
African cultural appropriation in Brazil is a beast with many heads. Brazilians generally do not seem to have the same sensitivity towards racism/racist stereotypes as Americans. Many, if not MOST, are just now learning that racism stretches far beyond calling someone a neguinho or preta. Some interesting racist things I have observed are:
1) The use of blackface in depictions of Africans in folkloric displays (though participating Brazilians will say that it is a sign of respect because they know that their skin is not as dark as the Black Africans who are the mothers and fathers of these religions and traditions. In their eyes, they are trying to do justice to the original African images):
2) Use of the “slanty eye” gesture to depict Asians:
3) Writing songs about nappy hair!
The interesting thing is that, when you try to talk to many non-black identified Brazilians, they seem completely unaware of what racism is. The exceptions are the ones who have been stripped of their perceived “whiteness” when they travel to Europe and get treated like 3rd class citizens. A light suddenly comes on inside those Brazilians and they become aware of the rampant racism in Brazil.
But if you try to talk to others about why Tiririca’s song is offensive, or why making the slanty eye gesture is ridiculously offensive, or why calling a non-friend things like “negao”, “negona”, “macumbeira” etc. are offensive, they just blink at you in confusion. I hope that Black Brazilians will continue to publically call out these instances of racism when they observe them, and keep the education/conversation moving forward.
I find it highly interesting that so many Black Brazilian religious and spiritual practices are looked down upon and numerous attempts are being made to erase them by whites; yet, the Black Goddess from those same religious and spiritual tradition is being whitened. These racists need to make their minds up. You got Mary already, so what the hell business you need with Iemanjá?
I think it is the schizophrenia that virtually ALL white supremacist societies face: the deeply held feeling that they have no “culture”, or that their cultures (Irish, Scottish, Portuguese, white American, white Canadian, etc.) simply are not that interesting, or lack spiritual insight or depth. All around the world you see white people “borrowing” things from other cultures. We see white singers trying to sound “Black” (Adele, Iggy Azalea, Timberlake, etc.) so that they can get some “street cred”. We see Mily Cyrus appropriating the Nae-Nae and twerking for white people, and the media behaving as though she invented them. Recently. I have seen articles about how corn rows and big asses are now “chic”, since some white people decided they were ok. I have even seen a New Zealand rugby team full of white people appropriating the ancient Aboriginal “haka” warrior dance into rugby matches!! Thank god they have enough sense to always allow Aboriginal descendants to lead the dances…
I think white people, on some level, know that they are not that interesting, and that they lack something spiritually that virtually all other people around the world do not lack. It’s why we see them turning up to study yoga in India, the martial arts in Asia, Umbanda or Candombe in Brazil, or participate in Ayahuasca ceremonies in the Rain Forest. They are not always aware of their “borrowing”, or feel that what exists in the world is ALWAYS for them partake in. They also seem to have a deep hole inside them that other cultures tend not to have. Their religious traditions are week and cold, and traditionally do not involve any sort of spiritual quest, theatre, or music that can be deeply felt by followers. They are also just not that creative, and have always had a need to go beyond their own borders and steal from others.
Their entire history seems to be one of confusion and entitlement.