“There is no positive attribution for that word”: Only black man on popular Big Brother Brasil reality show, actor Babu Santana schools colleagues on why he is black (preto) and not a negro
By Marques Travae
Even not being a fan or follower of the ever popular Globo television network reality show Big Brother Brasil, I gotta say there’s been plenty of interesting moments on the show in this latest season, particularly for a blog that analyzes Brazil from the perspective of race. It’s pretty amazing how much this program is discussed in Brazilian society. I mean, it’s just a reality show.
Even so, sometimes I swear, if you wanna understand how race plays out in Brazilian society, just watch a season of BBB. You’re bound to learn something. I have a few other stories from BBB that I need to touch on in relation to scenes in which the race issue came up either directly or indirectly, but for today, I want to discuss what many are calling a “class” that one of the participants gave in a recent episode.
I’ve talked a lot about actor Babu Santana ever since it was announced that he would be a participant on the program and being the only black male on the show, his inclusion on the show has clearly been frustrating for him but never disappointing. In one of my recent posts, I discussed how Babu has managed to address the race issue even without, up to that point, having discussed it directly. He definitely has since then and I gotta give him props for discussing the issue with a few of white participants on the show.
In Brazil, whenever the issue of race comes up with people who consider themselves to be white, denial, defense and accusations of black Brazilians playing the role of victims automatically starts to kick in. It’s actually been quite entertaining to watch the whole thing play out. Since more and more Brazilians of visible African ancestry have come to accept a black identity and come to understand the subtle (and blatant) ways in which racism in Brazil plays out, whenever something considered racially offensive goes down, in this age of social media, tens of thousands of black Brazilians are quick to let people know how they feel. Today’s racial environment in Brazil is a far cry from decades ago when black Brazilian families would simply ignore and not discuss episodes of racismthey regularly experienced.
In fact, it wasn’t so long ago when it was considered an insult to simply refer to someone as preto or negro, both of which mean black in Portuguese. For this reason, it was very common for person’s of visible African ancestry to identify themselves with other color coded terms to distance themselves from blackness and soften the insult that was often intended when they were called preto or negro, particularly by white Brazilians.
I remember several years ago, in a conversation with a black Brazilian with whom I was discussing racial terms as well as translations of Portuguese and English, I was told that simply translating the term ‘preto’ as black doesn’t always capture the meaning intended when someone says the word.
As with the term ‘neguinho’, meaning something like ‘lil’ black’, preto or its feminine version, preta, could be used affectionately of pejoratively depending on the situation, the tone of voice and the person saying the word. In some scenarios, the term preto could be translated as ‘ni**er’, the most racially pejorative word in American history. But even in that situation, in the US, black Americans have taken the term, changed the pronunciation and spelling to ‘ni**a’ and one of the most offensive terms in the American vernacular suddenly became a commonly used term of endearment among black Americans themselves.
As evidence that this can also be the case in Brazilian Portuguese, I refer to the popular translation terminology site Linguee. When you search for a translation of the term ‘preto’ on this site, you will find that it is not only translated as ‘black’ and ‘dark’, but also as ‘ni**er’, which explains and verifies the fact that for decades, many black Brazilians avoided using the term to define themselves.
With the rise of the influence of the Movimento Negro, Brazil’s organized black rights movement, the term ‘negro’ became the accepted term defining a person of African ancestry who had a certain level of racial consciousness and pride. But even so, there have always been black Brazilians who preferred the term ‘preto’ or ‘negro’ and nowadays there appears to be another shift going on in relation to which terminology should be used within the black community. Nabby Clifford, a Ghanaian who has lived in Brazil for several years, sparked another debate on the topic with a video he posted a few months back on the subject.
Babu Santana’s opinion on the issue as well as a response by another BBB participant perfectly exemplifies this debate. On Wednesday, April 1, Santana took some of his BBB “sisters” to school on not only the the preto/negro question, but also slavery and racism. So, with a topic that hardly ever comes up and is discussed openly, how did he even get into these subjects?
One of the participants, Rafa Kalimann started to discuss the missionary work in which she had participated in Africa. With that opening and opportunity, Santana began to share what he knew. Needless to say, he left everyone nearly speechless.
“They saw that conflict there and started buying prisoners from others. Then this idea of inferiority started due to the color of the skin, the amount of money. Several boats must have left to get five here. Nobody wanted to take a chance, you know? They took the conflict zones, often it was fighting between them, with new technologies, gunpowder, caught the groups fighting and enslaved (them),” said Santana.
He then continued with an explanation of how the conflicts on the continent played into all of this:
“When they started to find kings and queens there, with gold, stones. It was the decree of bankruptcy in Africa, everyone started to see that there was a lot of mineral wealth there. Then the English began to enter and took advantage of all the war history they had in the Mediterranean.”
But that wasn’t all. The award-winning actor then began to discuss the term “negro” and also why he didn’t like it:
“People with black skin were not called negro, they were mouros (Moors), Africans, anything. Negro comes from ‘nigro’, from Greek, which means enemy. That’s why I disown that name. If you look at the Portuguese dictionary, it says: ‘That doesn’t send light, sinister’. There is no positive attribution for that word.”
With the lesson Santana was giving, soon questions and comments began to come. With certainty, the other participants had probably never heard anyone explain this part of history in this manner. One of them, Manu Gavassi, after hearing everything, wasn’t sure of what term she should use when the topic is persons of African descent:
“So which one is right?”, she asked. “For me, preto (black),” replied Santana. The other black participant on the reality show, Thelma, agreed with him. Santana then spoke on a common ground he found with African descendants in the United States:
“As the Americans say: ‘I’m black man’”, Santana said in English (at 00:39 in video above). “Nowhere in the world is a homem de pele preta (black-skinned man) called a negro…Only here in Brazil, because that word is already conditioned to the man with black skin.”
With that, another particpant, Ivy opined: “Funny, I think, to me preto sounds… disrespectful.” And Thelma said: “It’s color, equal to yellow. It’s color. This is right.”
In 2018, singer Vanessa Magno Moraes, better known by her stage name Vanessa Jackson, also made reference to African-Americans in her understanding of which of the two terms was better to use. In an interview on the program Ritmo Brasil, on the RedeTV network, Jackson said:
“I’m not negra, I’m preta. We have four predominant races. I studied in order not to talk nonsense, [they] are: preto (black), branco (white), amarelo (meaning yellow or Asian) and vermelho (meaning red or Indian),” she said. Going deeper into the topic, Jackson continued:
“If you go to the United States and call someone negro it’s a crime. There, it’s preto, so it’s ‘Black Music’ and not ‘ni**er’,” the singer said.
Considering Ivy’s comment in fact emphasized the point I made previously. The term ‘preto’ in Brazil has long been seen considered an insult. This is part of the reason why in the past few decades, according to the Brazilian census, only between 5-8% of Brazilians identify themselves with this term. A rising consciousness within the black community in recent years has led to a 32% increase in the number of pretos in the country. This increase in the povo preto (black people” cannot be attributed to simply an increased birth rate and is clearly a sign that more Brazilians of visible African ancestry are re-claiming the term and proudly identifying themselves as pretos.
Still not finished with the ‘class’ he was conducting, Santana added more to the information he had already shared.
“The word ‘slave’ is a translation of a prisoner. Nobody in Africa accepts being called negro because, for African religions, words are power. So when you perpetuate this word, you’re perpetuating this curse that was thrown on our ancestors,” he explained as a Nigerian friend had warned him. With this, the conversation that came across as a class ended with Santana leaving the kitchen area. His BBB ‘sisters’ applauded him for the information.
Seeing on a discussion on a top-rated program on Brazil’s top television network certainly shows us that the racial climate in Brazil has dramatically changed and definitely in a positive manner for Afro-Brazilians. Poder Para o Povo Preto! (Power To the Black People)!
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