Boycott exclusionary establishments or push for diversity? Photo of black guests at Vogue Brasil Ball generates controversy over how to deal with racism

Image / Reproduction / Instagram / @alexandraloras
Baile da Vogue
Image / Reproduction / Instagram / @alexandraloras

Note from BW of Brazil: Hmmm…This story is intriguing. I’d be curious to know how other readers or people familiar with the situation would weigh in on this issue. Before I tell you how I stand on it, let’s give some context here. Back in February, I posted three stories connected to a controversy birthday party for the executive Vogue Brasil magazine. For about a week, the story was a hot topic in black Brazilian social networks because of the symbolism and yet another example of how modern day Brazil still sees the slavery with a sort of nostalgia. A large percentage of the black community took issue with the now former executive, a white woman, throwing a birthday party in which several black women were dressed in colonial era “baiana” outfits. Many interpreted the photos as black women “serving” the mistress of the “big house”. Although the director attempted the explain the theme and photos, the uproar with eventually to her stepping down from her post as Vogue Brasil’s director.

With the Baile Vogue (Vogue Ball) coming up, the magazine’s directors apparently wanted to make it seem as if they wanted to make amends after the controversial party by inviting a number of black people to the ball. In late March, it was announced that the magazine’s traditional dance would feature musical performances by best-selling funk singer Ludmilla and MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) legend Jorge Ben, and feature veteran TV host Glória Maria as one of the event’s hosts. So how was the top fashion magazine’s attempt to “diversify” their annual ball received? Let’s get to the story and later on I will weigh in with my thoughts. 

Vogue Brasil’s Ball invests in black guests and generates new controversy on racism

By Sheila de Oliveira

Is it okay to criticize the black people who went to the Ball? What is more strategic: to occupy spaces or to boycott?

The debate on racism and representation in Vogue Brasil magazine, considered the most influential and well-known fashion publication in the world, came back after the Vogue Ball in 2019, on March 23, in São Paulo (SP) in which dozens of black men and black women participated.

This was because the magazine was harshly criticized after the birthday party in February of the former director of the magazine in Brazil, Donata Meirelles, who resigned after the episode in which she was accused of being racist.

In addition to having led to the exit of the executive, the celebration with decoration that reminded people of the colonial period, referred to slavery and used a candomblé chair as a prop for guests to take photos, was responsible for postponing the traditional dance that always happens a week before beginning of Carnival.

“With the goal of transforming Vogue’s Gala Ball into a platform for inclusion in the fashion world, Vogue understands that it needs time to implement important actions and ensure that the dance is effectively a milestone of this new moment,” said the magazine, in an official statement.

However, Meio & Mensagem reported on Feb. 15 that Globo Condé Nast, the publisher of the magazine, postponed the party because of the sponsors’ discomfort over events involving the former director.

“The brands that were already confirmed at the event showed discomfort when having its image linked to the magazine in this troubled moment,” the text pointed out, referring especially to the brands that work with the platforms of diversity and representation.

Another questionable point in Vogue’s real intentions is the theme of the 2019 Ball – “Opera D’Oro” – a tribute to the great empires of history, that used gold as adornment and worshiped the metal.

A more sensitive, empathic and committed historical analysis shows that these great empires only existed thanks to the trajectory of pain, suffering and exploitation of enslaved black men and women in the gold mines in Brazil.

In the face of all this, a number of questions have arisen: is Vogue really engaged in this new profile of inclusion? Is it okay to criticize the black people who went to the Ball? Does going to the party lessen the anti-racist fight? What is more strategic: to occupy spaces or to boycott? Is demanding of black people to take certain positions not racism in the measure that we deny their humanity?

Points of view

Vogue’s ‘new moment’, according to a black person who was at the Ball and didn’t want to be identified, is not limited to the Ball. According to her, the company has dismissed officials who were in favor of Donata’s birthday party, it’s partnering with EmpregueAfro so that the magazine has ethno-racial diversity in its staff and will promote employee trainings to talk about racial prejudice, quotas, among other topics.

“The controversy only happens because some people don’t understand the importance of the company to open the dialogue with blacks after the repercussion of Donata’s party”, the person affirms.

According to the guest, it’s necessary to refine the pauta negra (black agenda), to strengthen the ties with the companies and to guarantee the inclusion of black men and women in spaces of visibility that have always been occupied mainly by rich whites.

“We are always claiming advances for blackness and when we are heard should we not dialogue?” asked the guest. “It’s not just about dancing, it’s about being in the structure, making networking necessary to build opportunities. We need to use our allies who are in power, even newcomers, in the fight against racism. “

There are people who disagree with this position. For the writer Hamilton Borges, for example, Vogue is racist and the Ball has the DNA of the “Casa Grande” (Big House), where, according to him, black men and women are nothing more than a commodity.

The writer had already harshly criticized the magazine’s former director’s birthday party, calling it “a neo-colonial spree of stupid, clueless whiteness, nostalgic for slavery, servitude and mockery.”

According to Hamilton, blacks should strive to create their own spaces and not rush to be accepted in the privileged white places, collaborating to clean the bar of the company that makes a cosmetic policy and front. “What we need is to have another type of debate that clearly states which direction of racial struggle we want,” he says.

Finally, the writer reinforced what he had already expressed in view of the controversy that took over the internet after Donata’s birthday in Salvador (BA). “A lot of people are still find it strange when we say that there is a system of supremacia branca (white supremacy) that needs to be fought directly and without respite. When we announce that we don’t need such a fake representation of having half a dozen blacks with the same outfits as the elite, proving that ‘we can get there’, when we choose to militate from the streets, the jails and the favelas (slums), a lot of people frown,” he concludes.

Note from BW of Brazil: So, what’s your take on this? In some ways I feel as if I’ve already said my piece on how I feel about debates such as this one. For example, I could apply what I wrote just last week in a post about the “diversity” of this year’s award ceremony for one of the country’s most prestigious events in the theater world to today’s issue. This year’s award ceremony featured a number of black winners as well as the first black director to ever win in 31 years of the award ceremony. In that post, I summed up my feelings by saying:

“I applaud the HUGE victories of Afro-Brazilian talent at the 2019 Prêmio Shell. If possible, I would have been in the front row cheering every one of them! Congratulations brothers and sisters, but the goal should always remain developing  our own, by our own and for our own. Because, if we haven’t learned the lesson provided by the few examples cited above, the master still giveth and the master still taketh away…”

In the post in which the above quote was taken, I also applied my commentary to rumblings of some in the African-American community calling for a protest of the 2016 Oscars ceremony and similarly, my comments on why Afro-Brazilians won’t be boycotting Brazil’s biggest, most powerful TV network, Rede Globo, even as Afro-Brazilians have been calling out the channel for its portrayal and under-representation of black people for decades. In those previous posts, the issue is similar to that of today’s post. Black folks want it both ways and it simply doesn’t work that way. Simply put, you’re not gonna try to burn down the “master’s house” when you want to be in it so badly. Think about it. In both situations applying to black people in Brazil or in the United States, black folks want to be seen smiling, on the red carpet, in the spotlight, posing for the paparazzi and receiving awards from the top, most recognized, white establishments, but at the same time complain when said institutions exclude them or make them look like idiots. I’ve realized this dilemma many ears ago. 

For example, this situation reminds me of a friend of mine in the city of São Paulo. As I wrote in a post in late 2017, I’ve been to a number of  Troféu Raça Negra award ceremonies that award people who make important contributions to the Afro-Brazilian community. One particular year, I went went with a dear friend of mine, Jacqueline. Although she agreed to go with me to the black tie event, at one point in our conversation that night, I remember her saying to me, “Marques, I am a menina da rua (street girl)”, reminding me that she doesn’t really fit into this type of ceremony. It is a contradiction that I’ve had to try to co-exist with for a number of years. One the one hand, you have black activists whose agenda is to keep pressure on the establishment to fulfill the equality that societies supposedly stand for. On the other hand, you have black artists and their fans who want to be recognized by those in power who are largely responsible for the maintenance of such inequalities along lines of race. Knowing people from both sides, I can see that sometimes, at the root, these two sides cannot co-exist. This was my main point in that article from December 2017. That year, the Troféu Raça Negra award ceremony was called out by many voices online who were shocked by the idea that the ceremony would be honoring the mayor of São Paulo at the time, João Doria, even knowing of the many grievances that the black community had with this man.  

The problem at the root of today’s post, as well as those mentioned above, have to do with the powerlessness of the black community and its desire to be accepted in powerful, mainstream, white circles, that have belittled us for centuries. This wider issue has several other issues embedded within it. For example, although I won’t mention any names, it won’t be necessary anyway, but think of how we often support some of our favorite black stars and celebrities when they shine and gain access to a huge amount of money but remain silent on issues that affect everyday black folks.

On today’s topic, I must say that I would fall on the side of well-known Bahian activist, Hamilton Borges. It’s hard, if not impossible to try to exist on both sides of the fence and if people think that their participation, or seeming acceptance in certain events is going to somehow change the practices of white supremacy, it shows that, in essence, they still don’t understand the rules of white supremacy. To put it simply, I don’t expect white establishments, that in reality, are created by and for white people, will not be changing their principals any time soon, regardless of their superficial attempts at showing diversity. I hinted at this when the Miss Brasil competition crowned a black woman for the second straight year back in 2017. On one post, I wrote that I have “no reason to believe that Brazil’s media will easily relinquish the adoration of white women as the standard of beauty any time soon,” even as black people celebrated the fact that black people celebrated the fact that in two years, 2016 and 2017, Miss Brasil crowned more black women than in all of the previous 63 years of the competition’s existence. 

Considering how happy we get when white establishments that have long excluded us suddenly accept a few black faces, I have to really wonder how many people have interest in building black establishments and how many would abandon the black struggle altogether if it appeared that white institutions seemed to really be opening its doors to full equality, seem being the key word here. One of the main problems of African descendants in Brazil and the United States is that when we attain a decent level of education, from white institutions no less, the first thing we want to do is to get high-paying jobs at white establishments. In the beginning, as the current situation of black people is such that there are few black companies for which we can take our talents once educated.

In this scenario, it is obvious that we must attain employment in non-black companies. The problem is that simply attaining employment in such companies is usually the end goal rather than the first step of a larger goal. As such, black knowledge, creation and ingenuity always ends up benefiting non-black companies. Instead of us thinking of spending a short period in non-black companies until the time comes to create our own companies, we take the attitude that we’ve “made it” and spend our lifetimes and careers continuing on this same path. In reality, because of the way the system is constructed, potential black entrepreneurs in both Brazil and in the US have difficulty attaining bank loans to start or expand their own companies, thus we see obstacles put in the paths from the very beginning. And if that’s not enough, specifically in Brazil, it is also very common to see blacks who attain an education and high-paying salaries marry white, and after two to three generations, because of the idea that “love has no color” or in fact, preference for whiteness, this education, know-how and wealth ends up getting transferred back to the whites or at least mestiços de pele clara (light-skinned people of mixed race) who have absolutely no investment in the black struggle. 

In a nutshell, this explains the scenario that African descendants find themselves. As such, it’s understandable that there are more black folks who see the appearance of acceptance into exclusionary white establishments as something to celebrate. And it is one of the very reasons that we as a people don’t have anything of our own to fall back on when these same establishments once again show us that they have no intention of suddenly of fully accepting us. In terms of the Vogue Brasil Ball, given its history, I’m willing to bet you won’t be seeing a sudden upsurge of black models on their magazine’s covers or any black faces on their board any time soon. What say you? 

Source: Alma Preta

About Marques Travae 3114 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. I absolutely agree with everything you said here Marques. It seems that Black people in general would rather sit back and complain constantly about how racist and exclusive White organizations and spaces are instead of CREATING THEIR OWN. Secondly, whenever Black people are finally invited to join or accept an award from something White’s have created, we will happily accept and act like nothing was ever wrong in the first place. Unfortunately, ALOT of Black people still believe that “the white man’s ice is colder”.

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