Turning white: why does Brazil’s media whiten blacks in movies, soap operas, advertisements and history?


Note from BW of Brazil: I start today’s post with a memory from late 2011 in São Paulo. That year, the yearly Feira Preta (black expo) took place in the month of December rather than November as it usually does. And that year, just like every Feira Preta, featured dozens of black vendors selling their products in the various vendor cubicles. Feira Preta is a place where one is surrounding by blackness. Black people, books written by and about black people, DVDs of films starring and directed by black people, African-inspired clothing items, makeup for black skin, products for black hair and on and on.  

There is one particular item that I will highlight in this introduction that is relevant to today’s post. That is a t-shirt that I’d seen in various editions of Feira Preta as well as in other black-oriented events in São Paulo. The image on the front of the shirt was a famous photo of writer Machado de Assis (1839-1908), a man who is often cited as Brazil’s greatest writer. Assis’s image serves as a perfect topic to discuss Brazil’s habit of attempting to whiten figures in history and fiction that were known to be of African ancestry or described as having African characteristics. 

We see an example of this in a letter from diplomat/historian Joaquim Nabuco to writer/journalist José Veríssimo upon the death of Assis im 1908. Speaking Machado’s race, Nabuco wrote: 

“Mulatto, he was indeed a Greek of the best era. I would not have called Machado de Assis a mulatto and I think it would have hurt him more than that synthesis. (…) For me, Machado was a white man and I think he became white because of that; when there was strange blood, it did not alter his perfect Caucasian characterization. At least I only saw the Greek in him.”

In Nabuco’s words, we see a certain refusal to define Assis as a mulatto, for a man of his stature could only be a white man. And for many who know little about Assis, he has become white in the minds of many, if not most Brazilians. But Afro-Brazilians haven’t allowed this to happen. In samba great Martinho da Vila’s 1975 album, Maravilha de Cenário, in the song “Salve a Mulatada Brasileira” he reminds the Brazilian people that important historical figures such as journalist/writer José do Patrocínio, painter Aleijadinho as well as Machado de Assis were all mulattos. And in 2011, Afro-Brazilian activists rejected a TV commercial of the Caixa Econômica Federal bank in which the famous wroter was portrayed by a white actor. The bank promptly re-shot the commercial with a black actor that was several shades darker than Assis. 

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Machado de Assis in the original photo at left, and ‘re-mixed’

Today, this blackening of Machado de Assis continues within circles of black militants and those who divulge products of black culture. Several years ago, at the yearly Feira Preta event in São Paulo, I noticed a T-shirt featuring a very famous portrait of Assis. In the photo presented on the front of the t-shirt, Machado’s hair, which in the original photo appears slightly straight is replaced with a huge, rounded afro. Message? Machado de Assis, Brazil’s greatest writer was a black man. Well, considering how common it is for Brazil to whiten its historical and even mythical figures that were known or said to have been black or mulatto, black cultural producers could devote a whole line t-shirts just to blackening these figures who have had their images whitened over the years. 

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Turning white: why do they whiten blacks in movies, soap operas, advertisements and in history?

Characters from film, commercials, soap operas and even sacred symbols: have you noticed that (almost) everyone has fair skin and straight hair?

By Victor Villarpando

Think of a warm, welcoming African mother, that one who loves abundance, who has breastfed a lot of children. Have you thought of her? Now tell me if she looks more like the singer Virgínia Rodrigues, who played the Beyoncé da Bahia character in the movie Ó Paí Ó, or actress Paolla Oliveira, the villain Melissa from the novela (soap opera) Além do Tempo on Globo/TV Bahia.

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Singer singer Virgínia Rodrigues, actress Paolla Oliveira

The artisans who make the Iemanjá statues of Mercado Modelo are left with the second option. This is worth remembering, portraying the mother of a great importance of the orixás of candomblé, a religion of African matrix. Sellers and consumers also seem to prefer the white version. On Friday, November 20, 2015, on the Dia da Consciência Negra (Day of Black Consciousness), BAZAR visited all the tourist spot shops. Of the 24 who had Iemanjá’s statues in crockery or pottery, seven only had the light-skinned version.

Iemanjá bought in Mercado Modelo (Photo: Angeluci Figueiredo)

Of the 65 types of deity statues found, 39 were white. That is: 60%. The hair, regardless of the skin, was always straight. “The ones that sell the most are the white ones. I’ve been working here for 34 years and that’s how it is. Come here on February 2 (see note one) you won’t find any,” says Mário César, from Rocha Coelho Gallery.

Mercad Modelo in Salvador, Bahia

Sociologist Paula Barreto explains: “The deities are becoming embranquecidas (whitened) as they become popular. It happened also with Jesus Christ, who would never have auburn hair and light eyes being a man from the Middle East at that time,” says Barreto, a professor at Ufba (Federal University of Bahia), coordinator of the research group A cor da Bahia (the color of Bahia) and the Nzinga Group of Capoeira Angola.


For the researcher and filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo, author of the documentary and the book A Negação do Brasil – O Negro da Telenovela Brasileira (Denying Brazil – The Black of the Brazilian Soap Opera), this embranquecer negros (whitening blacks) habit arrived here from caravel. “It’s a historical trend. It comes from Portuguese colonization, which tried to erase the blackness of Brazilian society by miscegenation,” says Joel. That is to say: the valorization of the black inheritance is made with the attempt to whiten it. Thus, black characteristics are tied to white features and seen as more positive. “At the national level, we prefer the blue-eyed blonde type, but who has physical characteristics attributed to the Brazilian woman, such as the shapely butt and legs,” explains the filmmaker.

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Iemanjá as an African deity (left) and the as presented in the Mercado Modelo

Hence, we normally see white Iemanjás statues with straight hair and Jesus Christos (Jesus Christs) with a German face. “There is an attitude of thinking that the black is always the other, the different. That the average Brazilian is white,” Joel points out. Because of this, cinema and television also have no modesty in disguising black figures. And see that we live in a country where 53% of those interviewed by the IBGE census in 2013 described themselves as pretos e pardos (blacks and browns).

But the phenomenon is neither novelty nor exclusiveness of ours. “It’s a problem that is also seen outside Brazil. The ideal of branquitude (whiteness) is worldwide, and the choices of white actors for characters from different ethnicities reflect this. The film Othello (1965), for example, was starring a white man”, points out the sociologist. It refers to the most famous adaptation of Shakespeare’s book. On the screen, the main character was played by the English actor Laurence Olivier, who had his face painted to look black.


What results in the wide placement of these images? The impact is direct on self-esteem. “There is a lack of recognition of most of the people of Brazil with what is considered desirable,” says the sociologist. “A large contingent of the population made positive contributions to society. It is essential for the welfare and the full exercise of citizenship that there is recognition,” she explains. According to the professor, we tend to value European and North American cultural expressions more. “On the other hand, denying positive quality to African, Afro-Brazilian and indigenous cultures makes us depend on being valued by others to feel good,” says Paula. The damage is for Brazilian culture in general. “We will always be struggling to be mais brancos e loiros (whiter and more blond) and look more like what we are not,” says the sociologist.

There are, however, more and more movements seeking recognition and empowerment. For example, on the 7th, in Salvador, the Marcha do Orgulho Crespo (March of the  kinky/curly hair pride) passed through. “There are obvious achievements in the 21st century. Quotas in universities, the defense of quilombola lands … Being black is no longer just a disadvantage and a new generation is the result of these achievements,” says Joel. While things don’t change, look at some cases of whitening of characters pointed out by the interviewees.

Would a deity of African origin even have such a Portuguese face? In most of the Mercado Modelo, yes.

Jesus Christ in the film Jesus de Nazaré (Jesus of Nazareth) (1977)

Would a poor man who lived in the Middle East two thousand years ago look so German?

“Jesus Christ would never have auburn hair and light eyes,” says sociologist Paula Barreto. Apparently, his portrayal by a black actor in the comedy O Auto da Compadecida is far more factual than that of the popular A Paixão de Cristo (The Passion of the Christ, 2004) and Jesus de Nazaré (1977), in the photo.

Beyoncé in the L’Oréal campaign in Elle magazine in the USA in 20015

In 2011, the cosmetics brand L’Oréal published, in the US magazine Elle, an advertisement with the singer Beyoncé being super pale and blonde. The company denies that it used Photoshop to lighten the diva. In the same year, Caixa Econômica Federal broadcast a whitish version of the writer Machado de Assis in an advertisement.

In Jorge Amado’s book, Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, the protagonist’s skin was described as “acobreada” (coppery) and “morena” (dark/light brown).

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At right, the book cover of Jorge Amado’s ‘Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos’. At left, top, the 1976 film version starring actress Sonia Braga, and bottom left, poster of the play Dona Flor

In the play adapted by Marcelo Farias, the character was played by actresses Carol Castro and Fernanda Paes Leme. “The women of Amado are usually played by white actresses,” says filmmaker Joel Zito.

In the novela Os Dez Mandamentos (The Ten Commandments), the actor Sérgio Marone plays the pharaoh Ramses

Of the 55 actors in the Record TV novela Os Dez Mandamentos (The Ten Commandments) set in Africa (Egypt), 53 have fair skin. The actor Sérgio Marone, who plays the Pharaoh Ramses, is one of them. But the Record TV network is not the only one. Since 1960, white actresses such as Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren have starred in Cleopatra’s films.

Musician Chiquinha Gonzaga (left), played by Regina Duarte and, later, by her daughter, Gabriela Duarte

The black pianist and composer mixed sonorities of the senzala (slave quarters) with the classical world. On TV, she was interpreted by Regina Duarte and Gabriela Duarte. “Brancas (white women) playing Chiquinha Gonzaga shows the whitening of historical figures,” says Joel Zito.

Source: Correio 24 Horas


  1. The Dia de Iemanjá, Iemanjá Day, is a big festa in honor of this orixá, celebrated on February 2nd, when thousands of people dress in white and go to the beaches to deposit offerings, such as mirrors, jewelry, food, perfumes and other objects into the ocean.
About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. My guess is that they would like to eradicate our past thus,replacing it with white skin to perhaps change the minds of children whom are being taught in schools of this false history.

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