American racism vs. Brazilian racism: What do representations of black women tell us?

Actresses Camila Pitanga, Cris Vianna and Sheron Menezes
Actresses Camila Pitanga, Cris Vianna and Sheron Menezes

Note from BW of Brazil: In Brazilian society, when the discussion is racism, many people are still quick to point to the United States as the “real” racist country while totally ignoring the daily bouts of racism, exclusion, racial insults and inequalities that black Brazilians continue to experience. As the Minister of the Promotion of Racial Equality recently echoed with the passing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s apartheid era was also often used in a advantageous comparison meant to present Brazil in a more positive manner. These arguments also fall flat when one takes a look at Brazil’s own style of apartheid.

While the piece below is by no means an exhaustive comparison between American and Brazilian styled racism, it does point out some examples of black representation/invisibility in both nations that leaves Brazil with nothing to brag about. But the argument is not so simple and in reality only skims the surface while not pointing out the sexualized manners African-American women are also presented in the American media.

Actress Kerry Washington (right) in a scene from the ABC TV drama "Scandal"
Actress Kerry Washington (right) in a scene from the ABC TV drama “Scandal”

Kerry Washington herself, who the author mentions in the article, has been in the middle of a great debate in the African-American community since her debut on the ABC television series Scandal (see here) in which she plays a high-profile crisis management expert who is a having a sexual relationship with the president of the United States. This part of the relationship thus reminds many of the centuries old Jezebel stereotype of African-American woman. In the end, racism is racism, and both nations have plenty enough to go around. But the dialogue, debate and discussion is always intriguing. 

American racism vs. Brazilian racism

by Patrícia Fortunato

In the most recent list of best dressed celebrities of the United States released by People magazine there were listed three black women: actresses Kerry Washington (in first place) and Zoë Saldana, as well as Solange Knowles (singer and younger sister of pop star Beyoncé).

Actresses Kerry Washington and Zoë Saldana and singer Solange Knowles
Actresses Kerry Washington and Zoë Saldana and singer Solange Knowles

You can even find that lists of this type are a futility without size, but try to see it from another angle. In the world of images in which we live, a gallery in which black celebrities are recognized as well dressed is a shot of self-esteem for thousands of teenage girls and women worldwide who often do not feel represented by the TV programs that they usually watch or magazines they read.

Another interesting aspect of the choice of People is that we’re talking about well-dressed women, not sexy women. In Brazil, there seems to be an unwritten law according to which negras and mestiças (black and mixed race women) fit into classifications such as sensual, sexy or “exotic female beauty”, but rarely the label of elegant, except for actress Camila Pitanga. It is as if they were only allowed to be beautiful during Carnival, an important activity even from an economic point of view, but often seen as a cultural manifestation of lesser value.

There is a big difference in how the US and Brazil deal with the inglorious past of slavery. In both cases, the practice was abolished, but racism persisted. In the US was practiced a blatant and official segregation, with laws requiring that, for example, that whites and blacks should occupy seats on buses and trains according to their skin color. In Brazil, segregation was never official, which facilitated daily co-existence, but also originated a subjective and perversely sophisticated racism that many do not see. Maybe that’s why the verses of “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega” (mas como a cor não pega, mulata, mulata, eu quero o teu amor…) (Your Hair Doesn’t Deny It, but as color doesn’t stick, mulata, mulata, I want your love…)” are not understood by many who sing them or having its effects minimized (1).

The fact is that the official racism practiced by the Americans meant that blacks organized themselves, which was decisive in the overthrow of anomalies like segregation laws. When the toughest battles against segregation were unsuccessful, this organization was partly channeled towards achieving the American dream: the dream of being part of the middle class.

It is not uncommon around here (or is much more common than in Brazil) that members of the American black middle class manifest protest when they believe they have been represented in caricature manner on televised attractions. And the economic power of this class that protests translates into cereal and medicine commercials and across a range of products consumed by the middle classes featuring blacks in lead roles. The catalogs of clothing usually also present more diversity than the Brazilian ones, like white, black and Asian models.

In Brazil, at this moment when so many are discussing the social mobility of the poor, advertisers have a golden opportunity to create more inclusive campaigns that reflect the beauty of all.

Source: Banco Interamericano de Desenvolvimento


1. “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega” is a popular marchina song written in 1932 and has be re-recorded countless times over the years. The lyrics, “your hair doesn’t deny it, mulata”, are a means of reminding a light-skinned person of African descent that the texture of the hair is a clue to racial origin. Cited in various studies about the way race and racism works in Brazil, the lyrics also reveal the way women of African descent are viewed in the Brazilian imagination. As many will quickly point to the high percentage of interracial relationships as “proof” that racism doesn’t exist in Brazil, this is not necessarily the case. As the lyrics make obvious, the man in song makes sure that the woman knows that he knows she is black, but since her skin color can’t rub off on him, he’s not opposed to sexual relations. The lyrics seem to blatantly point to the hyper-sexuality associated with negras and mulatas

“O Teu Cabelo Não Nega”

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Again this is why its important to teach the Afro population English and teach them to not look to get a job but create a business and create jobs for others. That is the fastest way the Afro-Brazil can reach the middle class ahead of its White skin counterparts.

    In America they systematically destroyed the real Black Middle class (Black Wall St) given us racial integration and not asked the disenfranchised how to integrate our community with theirs.

    You cannot make the same mistakes, its going to takes 30-40 years to undo the damage and won’t happen without the majority of the community moving in the same direction.

    With 80% of Black women in America and 60% of those having up to two children from two different fathers, we know the answer is NOT going to come from mating with African-American women.

    • that was a horridly ignorant assessment you made. ignorance like yours is the reason is what is “systematically” destroying the black community. so please educate yourself before you post nonsense like this elsewhere..

    • You’re right about the business part. Blacks creating their own businesses for themselves is the BEST and ONLY way to empower themselves. You can’t rely on your oppressor, that’s insanity.

      Regarding AA women, many of them need to have their “brains adjusted” but mating with someone outside of the community (ie IR marriage in any kind or form) is going to be detrimental to your community in the long run.

      We already know that in the west, “white is right” or “white is okay”, so creating offspring with a white person, or any non-black person creates confusion. Black people are the only ones who don’t benefit from white supremacy (sure, the Arabs & Asians aren’t exactly at the top, but they have their own businesses, which is something that we don’t.) , therefore it is IMPERATIVE that we create offspring which is willing to fight for US! You can’t expect a child to fight white supremacy if he’s half-white. Why would he despise something that constitutes his very own existence? Does it seem likely for a biracial kid to fight for black empowerment when half of his family is white/arab/asian etc? Biracial children are (mostly) docile when it comes to “the struggle” , if they sense that they can fare a little better than their black brethren by keeping their mouths shut, believe me, they will..

      What black women in USA need to understand is that spreading your legs for any person is a bad idea. If you don’t know the guy (and by that, I mean REALLY knowing the guy) , you stand the chance of getting pregnant and/or STD’s. Secondly, they can’t just blame the man for getting them pregnant, whilst forgetting that it takes two to tango (i.e accountability) . Thirdly, many of them screw their “baby-daddy’s” out of visitation/custody rights by going into the white-sponsored welfare programs etc. This means that they have enough money to get by without needing a man (hence the “I’m a strong independent woman” bullshit rhetoric) in her life. This is a recipe for disaster. A house divided against itself CANNOT stand! When black men marry outside their race, they won’t create offspring that’ll fight for the rights of black people, and god knows what’ll happen next. Not long ago, black men were lynched for just LOOKING at white women. That can happen again, especially if the black man & woman aren’t united. This divide & conquer strategy will ERADICATE the black community if we don’t shape up. Once the black woman is alone, it’s easy to just remove any perks that she might have, such as welfare, food-stamps, affirmative action. All they (the white man) have to do is to remove those perks, raise taxes etc, and the black woman will be out on the streets faster than a fat kid eats cake. Same thing with the black man. They’ll get imprisoned for “domestic violence” etc against their white wives, get shot for no reason (which is already happening) and so forth. Times are grim people! The sooner black people realize that WE is all we’ve got, the better!

      Interracial relationships didn’t end racism, integration didn’t end racism either. It’s time to get REAL people. Stick with your OWN, create your OWN businesses, stop having children out of wedlock, distance yourself from “hoodrats”, stop talking about other black people’s problems in the media (i.e don’t throw your brother/sister under the proverbial bus), stop c@@ning for the white man (i.e stop writing songs & shit for white artists such as Justin Timberfake and Fag-le-more, stop inviting anybody and everybody to learn how to sing/dance like us and so forth) and your/our problems will solve themselves out, slowly but surely.

      It’s time to WAKE THE F*CK UP people!

  2. When you all black Americans feel excluded from the system. We black women in brazil feel belonging to our country. We don’t think Americans are racist. The world is racist. Everywhere has racism. Just ignorant wouldn’t see that.

    If black was the power we would oppressed white in the same way.

    My point is brazil has a different racism. Because experience race different. Much has to be done to improve the life of the poor afrodescendants. I am a priveledge educated Afro descendant. For us life is not the bad. But the poor and excluded from slum life is harsh. There u have the black, the Pardo, the indigenous, the japonese ( São Paulo ) the many Europeans descendants who are very poor and trapped in the riverside of the society.

    Please camila Pitanga is not black AT ALL in brazil. Don’t push to please Anglophonic gaze.

  3. We afrodescendant in Brasil don’t have this hate in the discourse. As Americans have.

    Americans keep separating black from white …..Brazilians don’t do that. I cannot think of living in this way.

    All the national identity is of fusion. Of mixing, cultures heritages, colours.

    That is not the American proud or identity. This is our difference. I don’t wish to be a black American militant. I wish a brazil more equal. As many of other Brazilians we are fighting for it. Racism is a part of it.

  4. The Brazilian music until the 60s were very very racist. We all know that. But it is the tropicalia and Brazilian music movement from the 60s which broke the racist connotation of many words and brought them as tender and lovely ones as negro, negra,negro, nega, neguinha, negao, meu preto minha preta.

    We tried to conquer many civilian rights too during the 20s and 30s, but the GV goverment persecuted any civil movement as a communist idea. In pelotas had an amazing lawyer who fought for better rights for black people. His news paper were shut down and he end up in prison.

    In the 60s again had many movements fighting against racism. Again because talking about equality were equal taing about communism all the movements were destroyed. And this time financied by American goverment who implanted and made sure the dictatorship in Latin America would keep communism far away.

    Please don’t come with the discourse it was the activism which lead to better life for black people. It was the use of the idea of freedom and equality as part of the American ideology the black people in USA won.

    During the 60s were created those ideas of nationalism where Brazilian people are proud to be happy. Happy people are not political. With that we could keep ding music and the disctarship was happy too. As happy people don’t protest.

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