Note from BW of Brazil: As the month of February comes to a close, the yearly revelry that is Brazil’s highly celebrated Carnaval season (that came a little early this year), ended nearly three weeks ago. But some messages will resonate regardless of whether it is Carnaval season or not. The piece we bring you today was actually posted as the Carnaval season was about to begin (February 1st). With passing years, Afro-Brazilian activists have come to question many manifestations that have previously gone unquestioned as “purely fun”, “jokes”, or “homages”. Some of these manifestations include the usage of blackface makeup, the wearing of afro wigs and the issue of cultural appropriation.
The future will only reveal if Brazil will assume the racist nature of these demonstrations or simply wash its hands of responsibility ad accuse activists of “taking things to serious” or “seeing racism in everything”. The question is not simple as Brazilians are raised in an environment in which the denial of racism or racist intent is almost a knee-jerk reaction. But as internet activism continues to spread, they will not be able to so easily dismiss voices of dissent on topics of race. As we have argued before, whether one really doesn’t see how something can be interpreted as racism or actually knows it and uses excuses to deflect the severity and responsibility of the act away from themselves, when said person ignores the sentiments of those who may feel offended, it is a blatant disrespect of the humanity and right to live with dignity of others who are different from themselves.
Yes, Carnaval season is over, but the message brought in today’s piece will apply to next year’s Carnaval and others to come just as well.
For a Carnaval without blackface: Blackness is not a prop
By Leopoldo Duarte
Officially Carnival only begins next weekend (first week of February), but in the streets of Rio the revelry already burned the opening. And, from the view on the streets here, most of the revelers have adopted the trend released by Vogue this year: racism, as pointed out brilliantly by Stephanie Ribeiro (1). However, although I feel necessary to talk about how Inês Brasil’s costume seems to have come to update the “Nega Maluca” (crazy black woman), I have no hope of convincing anyone to give up that mocking masked admiration – apart from knowing that a sister would do it much better. So I will focus on trying to express the impact of appropriation and blackface in the perception of blackness.
I have not always enjoyed Carnival, but I’ve always detested costumes of the “African” theme. Long before having political consciousness of what it means to be a black person in a racist country like ours, it always bothered me the fact of the same people who wear peruca black power (afro wig) make fun of mine while doing their “homage”. For me it always became pretty clear that the natural texture of my hair is a thing of the circus clown in their conception. This in turn explains the success of that multicolored version.
And even not knowing Africa as I know it today, I wasn’t amused seeing white people wearing fabrics imitating animal skins declaring themselves “Africans”. It was only to ask to what ethnic group they supposedly were “paying homage” to come across a series of statements that linked the costume to Flinstones or to the Stone Age. They often claim that they’re “just teasing”, but one need not be clairvoyant to foresee how someone would be ridiculed if they wore a kilt (Scottish) and shout to the world that he was dressed in a Dutch costume. Ie, not making a distinction between the peoples of a continent is only acceptable and laughable when it is not in Europe.
Imagine then now that I’m literate in the agendas of black militancy. I’m more insolent than ever! However, after the dance of blackface celebrated by Vogue Brasil (1) this year, I fear that going to Carnival without my sense of dignity being wounded will be impossible. I could even tell the story of this theater technique, according to which white actors denigrating themselves emerged in a context where theaters didn’t accept black people (or in the audience), despite the source of ridicule being due to them, but there are so many wonderful explanations about the subject on the web that I only shared my critical interpretation of the theme.
Independent of the history or intention behind blackface, the result is always the same: summarizing black people to stereotypical skin tones and features. As if there was only one black skin tone – even at home there are 5 and nobody has the same tone as anyone else. As if white people were the original model of humanity in relation to a layer of paint of the other ethnicities. As if the physical traits of blackness were props that black people chose in order to bring a tone of comedy tone to our lives. When I see someone with skin painted black I know that for her, ultimately, all black people are equal and a motive of derision. Although not having been consciously, this choice represents that the pale guy in question did absolutely nothing to stop condoning the same ideology that dehumanized our ancestors for nearly four centuries. So when I see someone dressed up in black, I know there’s no point in demanding respect for whoever sees the color of my skin as an accessory – an object that can be used conveniently – will hardly conceive that I am another human being. Maybe that’s why I did not bother when, incidentally, I saw a drunk pouring beer on the makeup of a “nega maluca”.
Although the fashion serial has been the last to announce the obvious: African roots are in fashion, I am not surprised with this new #tendência (trend) for recognizing that paralleling the recent process of toppling empowerment of our community – in which more and more of us dare to accept our aesthetic – branquitude (whiteness) returns to the old Pedro Alvares Cabral syndrome and fraudulently appropriates another’s territory.
As is to be expected, pessoas brancas (white people), once again, demonstrate not having learned to admire anything of other people without ending up calling them theirs. It seems like the cultures of other people only start to have value from the moment a Caucasian person “discovers it” and takes the spotlight for himself/herself. Echoing the old belief that everything in the world is white property and the rest of the people serve only as “exotic” sources of exploitation. In fact there is something in Western culture that insists on confusing appreciation with ownership, because it’s not enough to be beautiful and meaningful to others, they feel (as if it’s an obligation) to copy in total disregard of the original meaning intended by the matrix people. As if branquitude, just like Hello Kitty, would need only accessories to include itself in an identity that in reality it doesn’t know and is ignorant about. As I’ve said already previously, in an attempt to flee from the standard imposed by whiteness itself, white people end up having to “import” characteristics marginalized by the same referent of supremacy. Like children that put a newspaper hat on and think they are soldiers for a day. As if marginalization was a secret club of privileges and “props” chosen by a card-carrying it-girl or it boy.
The reality of this we can perceive with samba, for example, that although it is often advocated as a rhythm of Brazil, it becomes exclusively that of the “crioulo doido” (crazy black man)” when it unravels. The same mechanism is repeated when it comes to Carnival: in English we say that it is the greatest party in the world, as in the Portuguese of the cultural norms we say that it is “a picnic of the common folk”. In other words, when it is to include white people a same cultural aspect is described as frills and pride, since when it is for referring to the original creators of the same aspect…
If being demoted and ridiculed within the party – as was the case of the samba schools – it is a privilege maybe we need to remember under what circumstances black figures are restricted during Carnival. Because from here where I am, I only see colorful confetti raining down on white heads. Black revelers continue to be framed by “vagrancy” and not having the “company profiles” by naturally having the same characteristics “made fun of” during this holiday. Blacks and blackness remain being objects used conforming to white convenience. We continue to be non-subjects, not deserving to star in even the elements of our own culture and identity.
I know well that it will not be in this Carnival, but I look forward to the day when white people give up the “arduous task” of conceding “civility” to the non-white people and cultures; the day in which cultural elements don’t need to be sifted through and refined by the opinion of white jurors. I also know that it’s too much to request coherence from the same kind of people who defend blackface claiming that “we are all equal” or that “culture is everybody’s” when everyone knows full well that racial blindness doesn’t exist and that, in a logic of market, cultural products are patented and franchised. Really because it is not about who can or who doesn’t have the right to wear whatever they wish. Cultural appropriation and blackface are fruits of the same power system that de-authorizes black people from having a voice on everything we produce. From the sugarcane cane fields plantations to the way we deal with our hair. The neglect marks our lives from yesterday to today, but certainly not forever.
Source: Revista Forum
- He refers to an excellent article written by Stephanie Ribeiro that appeared in Brasil Post in January. The article picks up where other themes posted on Black Women of Brazil left off. For those who read Portuguese, see the original article here. We intend to include the article on this blog very soon.