Note from BBT: Obviously, this is a topic that I’ve been familiar with for some time. If you happen to be black or just non-white and you live in a Western country, it probably struck you once upon a time that most of the people you saw on your favorite TV shows didn’t look like you. I can remember that, as a child, it didn’t bother me that much. If I liked a TV show, I liked regardless of what the characters and actors playing them looked like. But I also remember feeling more of a connection with actors that looked like people in my family on in the Detroit neighborhood I grew up in.
Many programs that I watched growing up were shows that I got into after they were picked up as re-runs. As a child, even not having a deep understanding of racial differences, I felt I had many more things in common with the black players at Carver High School on series The White Shadow in comparison to kids on the Brady Bunch.
It would be years later before I would really start to note that there were few black actors on most of the programs I liked in the 1980s and 1990s and this was also true in the film industry. The fact was and is, if you want to enjoy TV and film, you would just have to get over the fact that most characters and heroes were white. As I said, at a young age, it didn’t matter to friends or cousins alike because, regardless of race, every male child has probably pretended to be Batman, Superman or Luke Skywalker or some other TV/movie hero at some point in his life.
The problem with the lack of representation sometimes comes subtlely, sometimes it comes crashing down on you. As the schools I went to as a child were primarily black, I never had a white kid tell me, “You can’t be Batman because you’re black”, when my school would allow us to wear our costumes during Halloween parties. But for black kids that grow up in mixed or predominantly white neighborhoods and schools, this is an experience I’ve frequently read about. And this also applies to Brazil where the idea of white superiority is placed in the minds of white and non-white children alike from a very young age.
This is one of the reasons so many people take issues with blond television host Xuxa, who had a huge influence on Brazilian kids a few decades ago. Her recent controversial comments in which she supported testing medicines and vaccines on the country’s prison population put her in the hot seat once again.
Whether it’s in classic children’s stories, cartoons and television programs, the whiteness of the characters is immediately stamped in a child’s mind even without any mention of it. And for a child, it may not even matter….until a white friend, teacher or even friend’s parent reminds her that princesses are supposed to be white.
This topic has taken on even more of importance for me as I have my own daughter now that loves Disney, Netflix and Amazon Kids programs. Even after having watched Frozen at least four times, she still can’t get enough of the song “Let It Go”, which is sung as “Livre Estou” in Portuguese.
As she enjoys these types of programs so much, I wonder how she will react one day when I will need to tell her that there are people who look like the Frozen characters who won’t want her walking down the street they live on because she’s not one of them, as what happened recently in South Carolina. Or someone who looks more or less like Elza may call her a “stinking monkey” as what happened on a São Paulo bus a few days ago.
They may not seem like related incidents, but these are the same attitudes that lead to the idea that only little white girls can be princesses.
“To be a princess, you have to be white”; a teacher against racism
By Raphael Preto Pereira
As she does every day, the early childhood teacher Carla Pinheiro started her class with early childhood students at a municipal school in Lauro de Freitas in Bahia with a conversation circle with her students. She always takes advantage of this moment to read together.
That day, she had chosen the book Qual é a minha Cor (What is my color) by the writer Martha Rodrigues. Qual é a minha Cor portrays the journey of a black storyteller who orally passes on stories of the black people. “This dialogues a lot with early childhood education, which needs to work with all aspects of a child’s education, including the development of emotional intelligence”, explains the educator.
Even before finishing reading, Carla heard the complaint of a black student: “My teacher, I don’t want to be black,” said the student, referring to most of the characters who were black.
The student’s negativity impacted the teacher. The majority of the Brazilian population is black, and the state of Bahia has the fourth largest black population among the Brazilian states, with a percentage of 80% of pretos e pardos (blacks and browns). The national average is 54%
The art of transformation
Carla decided to face the problem of lack of representativeness using art as a tool for transformation. Thus was born the project Uhuru procura-se representação (Uhuru looking for representation). Uhuru means freedom in Swahili, a Banta language spoken in many countries in Africa.
The teacher says that literature can be a way to provoke the discovery and acceptance of black identity. “Especially because it is able to approach the subject with the child’s language,” she believes.
Even with the high percentage of blacks in the population of Bahia, the educator finds it difficult to hold discussions of race in the classroom. “Many teachers are black, but when the school census file arrives, they dont declare themselves (as such), it’s a problem of representativeness and identity,” she says.
Brazilian law requires the teaching of black and African art and culture in the classroom. However, Carla says that the reality is more complicated: “We find little didactic material, or children’s literature in the library and often the references come from the students.”
Her focus shifted to cartoons after, during a movie session of the movie Frozen, made with students, the educator asked students what it took to be a real princess.
A girl’s response shocked her: “Teacher, of course, to be a princess you need to be white, thin and marry a prince.”
In order to break this stereotype, the educator had to seek references from drawings that had representations of different bodies, valuing the creation of black references for students. When watching: Nella, uma princesa corajosa (Nella the Princess Knight), the students began to instrumentalize and question the stereotypes of “princess” present in most of the animations.
“We had a conversation, and the students started to question the standards of beauty imposed by most of the cartoons shown on TV and in the cinema.