Is Beyonce’s mixed-race blackness a contradiction? Brazil’s Graça Cunha doesn’t think so

black Brazilian women
L’Oreal ad featuring Beyonce

So, once Mrs. BeyonceKnowles Carter is at the center of controversy. What else is new? Again a questionof race and skin color has come up in regards to the alter ego of “Sasha Fierce”.I say again because in the past few years, there have been complaints that somephotos of the “irreplaceable one” have been thought to be doctored orPhotoshopped in order to make her skin tone appear lighter or whiter. In thislatest controversy, there are questions as to whether Knowles is trying todistance herself from her African ancestry due to a photo of her being used inthe new L’Oreal foundation makeup True Match. In the ad, Beyonce accredits thetone of her skin to her “African-American, French and Native American” ancestry.Some folks are crying foul! “Why can’t she just be black?” “Why black peoplealways tryin’ to be something other than black?” are just a few of thequestions people are asking. Although I cannot call myself a fan Beyonce’smusic, I’ll say that I have to ride with her on this. The point here is,Beyonce defines herself as a black woman and always has. Period. The issue hereis that the media, mainstream society and, quiet as it’s kept, black folksthemselves seem to appreciate the beauty of African descendants just a littlemore if not they’re “too black.” Let’s be real, we know it’s true. This is whyit’s common to hear white men say, “She’s pretty for a black girl” and blackmen to say, “She’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”

In a world whereblackness is continuously devalued, it’s easy to simply call Beyonce out andaccuse her not wanting to be black, but this is why it’s always tricky todebate this issue of race. Simply put, black folks, we must either accept allpersons who define themselves as black, whatever the skin tone, hair texture orfacial features, or give up the notion of blackness altogether. If we’re goingto claim Halle Berry’s 2002 Oscar victory, we must accept that she is a blackwoman of mixed race. She is a black woman of mixed because this is how shedefines herself. I think the problem we have when we’re dealing with Beyonce isthe fact that both of her parents define themselves as black, so, in our minds,Beyonce is also black. In the US, Americans only define people as “mixed race”if they have two parents who are socially considered to be of different “races”,while in places like Brazil and Latin America in general, one can be considered“mixed race” regardless of how distant or recent the racial admixture. I dealtwith this issue in an old blog post on October 23, 2008. Here is how I laid outmy argument:

“InBrazil, a person can be considered a mestiço (mixed race) regardless of whethertheir European ancestry is recent or distant. In America, people are consideredmestiços only if they are the product of a first generation mixture between twopeople of different “races”. But in reality, it doesn’t truly matter. Forexample, let’s imagine there are two women that looked as if they wereidentical twins. Let’s also assume that one of the women has a black father anda white mother while the other woman has two black parents. Which of the twowomen would be “mixed race” and which would be black? The parents of the peoplein the photos could easily be a couple that looked like singer Seal and hiswife, model Heidi Klum. But they could also easily be the products of a couplethat looked like French soccer player Thierry Henry and French model NoemieLenoir. The point is, some people may call them mulattos, other may call themblacks but none of these people would be accepted as white. And that is thereal issue.”

My October 17, 2008post was entitled “Black yet mixed, Mixed yet black”. From the title itself, youcan kind of figure what my argument was and Beyonce is the perfect example ofthis. Looking at her two parents, most people will notice that she looks like anear carbon copy of her mother Tina, who is said to be of a Creole background. Ofthe two parents, Tina Knowles has a more “mestiço” appearance while Beyonce’sfather has a more “negroid” appearance as anthropologists would have said 50years ago (although this doesn’t negate that he is also probably of some degree“mixed race” as well). Thus, if Tina is obviously a mestiça and Beyonce is anear exact replica of her mother, how is one to argue against Beyonce’sacceptance of her mixed race heritage? Like the Halle Berry example, Beyonce isalso a woman of mixed race ancestry but she is also a black woman. Although thewhole theory of race has been shown to exist only in the sociological worldrather than the biological world, in the US, a person of African ancestry isblack regardless of their phenotype. In Brazil, often times, the rule was theexact opposite. People who clearly looked black would argue that they were anythingbut black. But this is changing.

Beyonce with parents Matthew and Tina Knowles

Singer Graça Cunha,like many other black Brazilians of mixed heritage, gets it. One year after Iposted my article, “Black yet mixed, Mixed yet black”, Cunha spoke on thistopic in a book highlighting the careers of black Brazilian female singers. 

Graça Cunha

Speaking about herself and the two other background singers of the popularSaturday late night variety show, AltasHoras, Cuhna said this:

“Thefunny thing is that neither I nor the other girls are “pure” black. Theproduction guys always play around saying that we are yellow girls! Justthinking about this makes me laugh…In reality, we are mestiças. Black, yes, butmestiças. Curiously, as much myself, as Leilah Moreno and Jakeline Ribas, weare mestiças of Indians, blacks and Portuguese. Us three, we’re prettyBrazilian.”

Jakeline Ribas, Leilah Moreno and Graça Cunha of Altas Horas

Cunha, Moreno and Ribaswere added to the show by its host, Serginho Groisman, when he realized thathis all-girl stage band featured all white women and felt it was necessary tomake a change. In Brazil, in large part due to the efforts of the BlackConsciousness movement that has encouraged Brazilians of African descent todefine themselves as  black, women likeCamila Pitanga, Taís Araújo and Ildi Silva all define themselves as black womeneven though they clearly recognize their mixed race backgrounds. The concept ofrace itself is based upon privileges and penalties given to one group at theexpense of another. If one were to look at women’s magazine covers of the US orBrazil over a period of time, this would be easy to recognize. Light-skinned,dark-skinned, more “negroid” or mixed, it doesn’t matter: white women are thestandard.

Taís Araújo, Camila Pitanga and Ildi Silva 
The fact is, in theAmericas’, from Canada to Argentina, the vast majority of black people are ofsome varying degrees of mixed ancestry. Some of this admixture is due to sexual assault and authoritative coercion of black women during the era of slavery, some of it is due topeople relating to each other out of a mutual recognition of oppression (blacksand Indians) and some of this admixture is due to more recent, consensualrelations. In the case of Beyonce Knowles, let me say this. If people are goingto denounce her acceptance of her mixed background and revoke her “blackpass”, when Black History Month rolls around next February, there will be awhole lot of other black folks that we’ll have to take off of our walls and outof our history books as well.

About Marques Travae 3147 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

3 Comments

  1. This is a major issue in America. It is one that pits Black people against each other. I know that this due to the status lighter complexions have in this nation. The one drop of Black blood rule is a notion that is not easily accepted nor is it easily broken. I also know that a lot of the controversy is due to the fact that there is a push on to lighten darker toned complexions and adapt a more European look. I know a lot about this particular issue because I am a Black member of a large mixed race branch of family. It is a peculiar issue because it is one in which neither racial group is fully accepting of nor do they often fully understand what occurs in this type of family grouping.I think that there are Black Americans who still want to believe that they hold the power to negate another person's Black identity when they do not fit into their standards. But that standard was never written in stone. It has changed and it is very diverse.

  2. The simple expression "I am not black" is where most issues stem from in Black people's discussions about this topic. That expression says so much. And black people's knowledge on this subject has expanded tremendously due to it's exposure. Both sides should consider to actually understand the other before becoming offfended

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