And the myth goes on! On popular children’s novela, black school coordinator convinces black child that racism is “only a thing in her head”
By Marques Travae
After having discussed the power of Brazil’s media manipulation machine for several years now, we should all know how these television networks get down. But yet and still these networks continue to use the same indoctrination tactics. The latest example of this is a scene in a recent episode of a popular children’s novela (soap opera) broadcast on one of Brazil’s big three television networks, Globo, Record and SBT. SBT-TV is the network that broadcasts the novela As Aventuras de Poliana, which is at the center of this latest controversy. Interestingly, this blog just discussed the fact that this very novela features the rare example of a black family in the plot.
In a recent episode, we saw another blatant example of how Brazilian society as a whole deals with the issue of racism. For decades, when faced with covert but sometimes blatant incidents of racist behavior, black Brazilians have been told and convinced that racism is “just a thing in your head”, a sort of figment of their imagination. Just because someone called you a monkey, negrinha or neguinho in an insulting manner, or simply because you saw your less qualified blond friend get a job over you, that’s your own fault!
Such was the response to a situation on a recent episode that has viewers of the show up in arms. On Wednesday’s episode, one of the black children, the character known as Kessya, was accused of vandalism. In the plot, the school’s director Ruth takes away Kessya’s scholarship as a punishment for the damage to the statue depicting the school’s founder. The nose of the statue was found in the girl’s backpack, so it was automatically assumed that she committed the crime. This even though another student, Luigi, pointed out the fact that a security camera showed the real culprits of the crime, two boys, Éric and Hugo.
For Kessya, played by child actress Duda Pimenta, it was a clear case of racism. In the child’s view, even having denied committing the crime, the director insisted that she, a black girl, was the guilty party. After finally realizing who the real culprits were, the director restored Kessya’s scholarship and suspended the true vandals.
Seeking support in her ordeal, Kessya goes to speak to the black school coordinator, Helô, played by actress Elina de Souza. Venting to the coordinator, the child says:
“Because I’m black, everybody’s suspicious. It could only have been Kessya!”
The dialogue of the scene developed as such:
Kessya: “I can’t stop thinking that if I was a white girl, everyone would believe it was not me.”
Helô: “I can’t speak for others, but I can speak for myself. And from my part you can be sure that if the nose of the sculpture had been found in a white girl’s purse, it would have made no difference. The mistrust would be the same until we had evidence to the contrary.”
Kessya: “What if it was Filipa, if the nose had appeared in her things? And did she said that someone had put it there? Would you believe it? Yes, because she is white, she is rich. And no one here at school wants to cross her parents. “
Helô: “Not here, Kessya. It does not work that way here.”
Kessya: “But because I’m black, everyone is already suspicious. Like, ‘it could only have been Kessya, really.’”
At this point of the exchange, both characters stood their ground in how the incident was interpreted and how it might have been interpreted had Kessya had been white. But then what happens? Using another powerful tool of manipulation, persuasion and emotion, the sentimental music kicks in and allows the message of the coordinator to be the end all interpretation of the incident.
Helô: “Kessya, do you know what is one of the biggest culprits for prejudice?”
Kessya: “The racists”
Helô: “No. Our heads. And for others to stop seeing us, blacks, as different, we need to stop seeing ourselves as different, as worse or better than that certain race!”
Kessya: “I don’t think I’m worse or better than anyone.”
Helô: “You’ll still have time to think about it. And don’t forget, Kessya, that for everything to change, change must first begin within us. If you want others to see you as equal, you see yourself as equal.”
This last line was completely out of place and made no sense as the child had already said that she didn’t think of herself as better or worse than anyone else. If anything, by telling the child that she needed to do something that the girl already believed, the coordinator could actually make the child re-think her own convictions and make her believe that her own confidence is actually the “thing in her head”.
And further, standing in her position of authority, experience and wisdom in relation to a child, the coordinator goes on to reiterate her position:
“Don’t forget that I have already gone through everything that you have gone through and I am speaking with knowledge of the cause!”.
Respecting the coordinator’s position, Kessya thanked Helô for the “lesson”, the two hug and scene closes as if it “racism is a thing in your head” were the lesson of the day. Pretty amazing when we consider the everyday reports of racist behavior and the endless set of socioeconomic statistics that show the vast inequalities between whites and non-whites in Brazilian society, in addition to shocking statistics showing the numerical differences in the murders of black men and women in comparison with white men and women. I would suppose all of that is “just in our heads” also.
Needless to say, the repudiation of the scene was quick with viewers taking to social media to express their disapproval, disagreement and outrage over the scene’s message.
On the profile page of A Mãe Preta, meaning the Black Mother, for example, a reaction to the aforementioned scene was shared nearly 5,000 times reaching nearly 300,000 views. The post read as follows:
“Delegitimizing the perception of a black girl of the situation of racism that she has experienced and also ‘teaching’ this child that racism is the fault of blacks that see themselves differently from others and who don’t value themselves coming from the voice of a black woman is once again violating our subjectivity and placing us as responsible for a system of exclusion created and maintained to guarantee privilégio branco (white privilege).”
But this approach to a racial issue should come as no surprise when we consider the source. Silvio Santos (real name Senor Abravanel), the owner of SBT-TV that continues to host television programs on his own network, has a reputation for making offensive gaffes on television. During the 2016 TELECOM broadcast for example, Santos said to a Daiane, a black dancer: “You are really graceful. Although being the only black among white women, you’re beautiful. Really beautiful.” Also, on an edition of the program Talento Infantil (Children’s Talent), Santos questioned a 5-year old black girl about her hair saying it was “calling too much attention”. Santos made a similar comment to young black actress on the 2014 TELECOM, saying “‘You want to be a singer or actress? But with that hair?’”
Given the mentality that provokes such comments, what should we expect from Santos’s wife, Íris Abravanel, who is the writer of the As Aventuras de Poliana novela? During the release of the novela back in May, Íris spoke on the issue of black representation. In her own words she said:
“I think the comunidade afro (African descendant community) needs to get over some things and move forward, because when we look for actors, it’s not easy to find an afro actor, we have difficulty finding them, I think they need to overcome difficulties themselves and move forward and conquer. I’m so happy when I see someone who can be a lawyer, a doctor, an actor, sometimes when we request, there aren’t many. So that one that we manage (to find), we take advantage of it,” she said.
What I find curious about this incident is the fact that the black actress that portrays the school coordinator in the novela, Elina de Souza, didn’t wish to speak about the scene. Her silence makes me wonder how she feels about the whole thing and her part in voicing the character that tells a black child that “racism is her head” and the ensuing reaction of the black community to such a comment. As I’ve written before, Afro-Brazilians who work and thus depend on the mainstream media for their livelihoods are constantly placed in precarious situations in which they may need to do/accept things that they know may not be in the best interest of the black community, especially if they are militants and know the influential power a medium such as television has on the opinions and perceptions of its viewers.
I can’t assume the reason de Souza preferred not to speak on the topic, but could it be that she felt it was the best thing to do career wise, as she knows that criticizing the network could very well cost her a job? At the same time, if she were to support the network and defend her character’s line, she could be seen as a “sell out” in the views of the black community. At this point, we don’t really know her motives, but I would think that if she stood fully behind the words of her character, I think she would have voiced her support.
On the other hand, the SBT-TV network did issue a statement on the issue.
“The novela has the role of debating social issues such as coping with racism, citing several examples. Proof of this, in Chapter 60, on the air on Tuesday, there was the scene in which the text exalts that racism is a thing of ignorant people. And in chapter 61, still in the same context that went on the air yesterday, the school coordinator wanted to convince the girl that the stereotype that the black is always guilty at first sight can’t prevail, showing a new perspective. a controversy that doesn’t exist! The novela is a work of fiction to entertain and not to polemize,” read a statement from the network.
Very typical response that pretends to face the issue while simultaneously simply maintaining a stance that is very typical of race relations in the Brazilian context. Saying that “the stereotype that the black is always guilty at first sight can’t prevail” doesn’t address the fact that this association of negativity towards black people is very real, provokes behavior along these lines that DOES in fact prevail every day.
We see this ideology when black people are followed around in malls due to the assumption that they must have stolen something (see here, here or here). We see it when a black man is passed over for a job, even having better credentials than a white applicant. We see it when a black woman opens the door of a nice apartment and is automatically presumed to be the maid. We see it when a black woman is assumed to be a prostitute if she is seen in the company of a white man, even on her own honeymoon with her husband.
The reality of this scene from the novela is that SBT has no intent of challenging the racist assumptions associated with Afro-Brazilians. The real intent of SBT and other networks is to convince black people to passively accept that this sort of behavior will continue, thus not holding perpetrators liable, and to passively accept such treatment as normal. And the most powerful mechanism of enforcing this indoctrination is to enlist the help of black people themselves.