Note from BW of Brazil When I first took a look at the video that is the topic of today’s post, it took me back to a very specific period and situation in my own life. Before I get into my own story, let me get into the video itself. The scene is taken from the long-running Globo TV soap opera Malhação. As I don’t follow the series, I won’t pretend to be an expert on it. But when scenes are powerful and reflect very much on real life scenarios going on in the world today, it won’t really matter if you’re a regular follower of a given program.
The short scene was posted in a social network and had numerous people discussing the scene. Here’s the scene. A young, interracial couple (what a surprise), Jaqueline (Gabz) and Thiago (Danilo Maia), gets into a heated argument over an incident in which Rio police stop the bus they are riding in a blitz (a common occurence in Rio’s poor neighborhoods) and proceed to ask a young black male on the bus for his ID. Jaqueline, a teenage black girl, wants to know why the police asked the black guy for his papers, even though there were several white people on the bus. Due to her questioning of police procedures, Jaqueline and Thiago are placed under arrest.
The reason why this conversation between the two characters took me back in time is because it reminded me of a conversation, or lack threreof, that I had with a white woman I knew. At that time in my life, I had experienced interracial dating, having had various relationships and experiences with non-black girls/women. At the time, I was working at a supercenter that was popuar in some states in the midwest region of the country.
I had worked several different shifts, days, afternoons and midnights, and one year, after switching permanently to afternoons, this young white woman that also worked at the store began to befriend me. I had seen her around for some time, but as I switched to afternoons, I saw her more frequently. After having come to speak to me several times during work, I figured out pretty soon that she was expressing her interest.
The funny thing is that, a black female friend of mine had sat in on several get togethers of employees who would eat lunch together, and this particular white woman would often lunch with the group. According to this friend, one day at the lunch table, several women, black and white, were discussing their dating experiences and the types of men they liked and didn’t like. Soon enough, the topic of black men came up which led to several women sharing their experiences and what they thought of the black men they had dated.
When this white woman, who I shall call Cindy, was asked what she thought of black men and if she had or would ever date one, according to my friend, Cindy made a face of disgust and said she never has and could never. According to my friend, Cindy made a face of almost total disgust when the very idea of her being with a black man came up. I found this out some time after Cindy had made it quite apparent that she was interested in this black man.
To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in pursuing her plus, the way she was coming at me, I didn’t need to. We hung out a bit, did the ocasional lunch, but nothing at all serious. Our conversations were pretty light, not really getting into any heavy topics beyond music, film or TV. But music was enough to show that we didn’t really have much in common. I remember her saying that she liked the group Kool and the Gang, so one day, I put together a mixed tape of some of Kool and the Gang’s biggest hits.
One day on lunch, I told her I made her a CD of the group and I put into the CD player. The look on her face signaled she wasn’t really feeling the groove. After the second song, she looked at me asked, ‘What is this jungle music?’. I laughed after I realized that the Kool and the Gang she liked was JT Taylor-era Kool and the Gang whereas I liked the group’s pre-1979 hits, before the singer joined the group. That was when their sound was funk and jazz oriented before they went after the crossover audience with songs like ‘Celebration’, ‘Joana’, etc.
Anyway, as I said, we hadn’t had any deep discussions on serious topics, until maybe sometime around November of 1995, a little after the OJ Simpson verdict had been announced. I’ll never forget that day. I worked on that day and I remember that you could read the feelings of the people by the looks on their faces. Black people that came into the store that day were giving each hugs and high fives while it seemed like white folks had just had a loss in the family. It was amazing what that verdict showed me about how racially polarized America continued to be, and I decided to use this verdict as springboard to see how Cindy saw not only the topic but also race in general.
One day, several weeks after the verdict, she came down the aisle where I was working and after a little small talk, I asked her if I could ask her a question. She said I could, so I asked her how she felt about the OJ Simpson verdict. After hearing my question, she looked away for a few seconds and then shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t utter a single word. I asked again. ‘What did you think of the OJ Simpson verdict?’ Again, she said nothing and shrugged her shoulders. I asked, ‘Don’t you have an opinion?’, to which she shook her head back and forth signaling that she didn’t. I asked how she didn’t have an opinion on what was being called ‘The trial of the century’, at which point, she changed the subject and asked if I wanted to go to lunch, to which I just shrugged my shoulders.
I thought to myself, this woman had said that she would never go out with a black man, but suddenly found one that she liked, but couldn’t discuss a case which speaks volumes about race in the United States, and what it means to be black in America. She could have said she thought he was guilty, innocent, she wasn’t sure…anything, but nothing? I had already started dating exclusively black women by that time, but from that moment on I decided I could never date another white woman. And it wasn’t just about her.
Over the entire period in which I dated white girls, I was in the middle of an identity shift and understanding of what race really meant beyond ‘We shall overcome’ and ‘little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls’ but the white girls I dated had no interest in these topics…and why would they? Being white in America, such issues don’t affect them. But in a racist America, how could they deal with being with a black man but not be able to deal with the issues that affect him?
Which brings me back to the storyline of the Malhação episode…
The past decade and a half has brought serious changes in the racial politics of Brazil’s black community. With more access to higher education, the spread of information, debates and pro-black rhetoric on social networks and the increase of black people in places and positions where they were previously not seen, there are not only more voices demanding more black representation and fair opportunities in a Brazil that has always made it known that their presence is seen as an unwanted element in Brazilian society, but these voices are louder. And Brazil has used a number of weapons over the course of nearly five centuries to speed up the demise of the black population.
Whether literally working black people to death during three and half centuries of slavery, sending large numbers to die in the Triple Alliance War, a restriction of resources and health care, mass murder by police forces and death squads or whitening through generations of miscegenation, the goal is the same. Although a large parcel of black Brazilians are aware that the State seems to have an agenda to eliminate them under the guise of a ‘war on drugs’ and they can see that they have been all but shut out from access to middle class lifestyles, in the minds of most black Brazilians, ‘love (still) has no color’ as they willinging participate in relationships that continue to make each generation lighter-skinned and whiter-looking.
Understanding miscegenation as a weapon is still a ludicrous, outrageous, conspiratorial idea to most black Brazilians, even though the theory can be proven and even as they see entire families go from black to (off) white within the course of a few generations. Seeing miscegenation as what it is really is rather than the ‘improvement of the race’ that it was presented as, seems to be the ‘last frontier’ in the rising consciousness the Brazil’s black community. For years, the issue of black men seeming to have a preference for having long-term relationships with white women while restricting their dealings with black women to less serious and strictly sexual relationships was a topic that many black women began to discuss publicly maybe 6-7 years ago. With numerous black women airing their disappointments in black men through personal blog posts and web articles, the discussion of the ‘solidão da mulher negra’ or ‘loneliness of the black woman’ became a topic taken up in mainstream media outlets.
In the years that followed, the war of words between black men and black women played itself out in numerous social networking platforms with several opinions coming to the forefront. Black women accused black men of being palmiteiros, a term used to define black men that prefer relationships with white women. Black men often responded with the clichê that ‘love has no color’, and also pointing out that black men are also palmiteiras, to which black women would respond by claiming that, as black men didn’t want them, they happen to open up their dating options.
Rich and famous black Brazilian men have had their names dragged through the mud as the vast majority of black men with financial status seem to have married white women. But recently, social networks have also been calling out famous, successful black women for the same actions, with the cases involving actress Erika Januza and rapper Karol Conka making mainstream news headlines.
Nowadays, many black Brazilians are beginning to see the effects of widespread miscegenation on their community. From the whitening of the black population’s appearance, to a constant transfer of economic and professional resources, it is a debate in which more and more people are starting to draw a line in the sand in terms of the overall advance of the black population.
It is against this backdrop and other legacies of Brazil’s race relations that the scenes playing out in the novela Malhaçao must be considered. The character Jaqueline, played by actress Gabz, for example, is the product of a relationship between a white doctor and his black maid, her mother, Vânia. These sorts of relationships, often signifying power and exploitation reminiscent of master-slave relationships during the slavery era, are well-known throughout Brazilian society. In the novela, Jaqueline’s white biological father, the doctor, César, has long sought to hide their relationship. In another sensitive, but strong scene, César’s white wife, Karina, refers to Jaqueline as a ‘crioula’, a term often likened to the term ‘nigger’ in racist intent.
The actress who portrays Karina, Christine Fernandes, acknowledges that there are many racist white women in Brazilian society and that playing such a venomous character is often times difficult for her. Keenly aware of an existing racial hierarchy, Jaqueline also opines to her white boyfriend that her biological father could really have liked her mother, but chose to marry Karina because she was white, a perspective that Thiago doesn’t understand and also a sort of unspoken status of superiority bestowed upon white women in Brazil.
With all of these real life racial dynamics playing out in a novela, what we see is that Jaqueline, a symbol of the new black consciousness of black Brazilian women, can’t ignore the vast differences with which Brazilian society treats its black and white citizens, even being in a relationship with a young white male. In a powerful scene, we see that Jaqueline can’t manage to separate her frustrations of living in a racist society although she is in relationship with a white male. A white male who represents the privileges of whiteness and, being blided by Brazil’s rhetoric of a racial democracy in which ‘all are equal’, can’t or refuses to see the daily frustrations and humilations that black Brazilians must deal with on a daily basis. It all comes to head in an explosive scene of less than two minutes.
Below is how the dialogue between Jaqueline and Thiago went.
Jaqueline – There were a lot of white people on that bus and the cop went straight to the black boy. Why?
Thiago – I don’t know. You see, he was going to ask for everyone’s documents, but you created a disturbance…
J – I created a disturbance?
T – You didn’t let him do his job
J – I created a disturbance. No, you can’t be serious
T – Jaqueline, I just think you shouldn’t have gotten yourself into something that didn’t concern you.
J – This again? – Again. Change the record, Thiago. Let’s evolve on the subject.
T – I’m just trying to explain to you how I think
J – But I think differently. Most people who omit themselves in a situation of injustice think that complaining is an irritating thing to do. But if I’m free, if there’s no more slavery, it’s because someone complained.
T – I know, but it’s not necessary to complain 24 hours a day …
J – IT’S NECESSARY! IT’S NECESSARY, IT IS! Because when you live in the day-to-day war on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, you have to complain.
T – It’s already war? It started with an act of racism, now it’s war?
J – It’s war. When people die, it’s war, yes. Did you forget what happened to Zé Carlos? Did you ever stop to think that if he were white, he could be alive to this day?
T – I don’t think so. I think the police treat all crooks the same.
J – A crook? Who says he’s a crook, Thiago? That’s the point. This is precisely why, when you are young, black and poor, as soon as you leave the house you have the badge of a crook.
T – I don’t think so. I’m not a racist, I love you and you’re black. This to me, it changes nothing. I think you are beautiful…
J – Look, I’m just not talking about me, I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about society
T – I’m talking about society too. And I honestly don’t see racism or intolerance in the police attitude towards these young blacks from the peripheria. I don’t see it. But I see a lot of intolerance in movements who keep whining, defending crooks.
J – If you think like this, then our talk ended here.
T – Ok. Ok. What can we talk about now?
J – You don’t understand. I have nothing more to talk to you about. Your thoughts represents everything I despise most in this country. Our relationship is over.
My thing is, in today’s times of severely divisive political antagonisms, often with issues of race underlining the conflict between different races and views and the ongoing battle for access to resources, equal treatment and even life itself, it could be very difficult to maintain an interracial relationship when two parties have widely divergent political views. Especially nowadays when such polarizing men such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are leading the United States and Brazil respectively. I remember seeing a YouTube video a few weeks back in which a black woman stated that Donald Trump was ruining her interracial relationship with a white man. Black Brazilians are also coming to terms with their lives under Jair Bolsonaro.
For me, I decided years ago that, even though we all want to
pretend believe that ‘we are the world’, ‘we’re all equal’ and want to know ‘if we can all just get along’, we aren’t there. And I often wonder when people of different races in relationships have widely differing political views which are intertwined with issues of race, how such relationships can survive. I’m not saying they can’t. I’m sure there are plenty of interracial couples who fight, scream, argue and debate over political issues until the cops coming knocking or until the sun comes up and are still able to agree to disagree, kiss and make up. I’m just at the point that, after years of learning the myriad of ways in which black people are maintained in a position of weakness, powerlessness and vulnerability, as well as the convictions of many whites who are content with maintaining their status and privileges at the expense of black people, I would have a hard time coming home and looking at their daughter every day.
But that’s just me…