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.
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).
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.
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”