“She’s horrible! You only like her because she’s black!”: Afro-Brazilians up in arms after popular entrepreneur diminishes success of two famous black women
By Marques Travae
I often say that I would rather deal with knowing how a person truly feels rather than simply assuming how that person feels on a given topic. That way, I will always know EXACTLY where that person is coming from. Many years ago, when I used to worked at a popular midwest supercenter in the US, I came in contact with all kinds of people. This included people I worked with, as well as customers. I would often meet celebrities, popular journalists, singers and athletes working at that store. I had the opportunity to know and even befriend people from other countries or various ethnicities and religious beliefs. I learned a lot about people in that environment.
And everything I learned wasn’t always positive.
I remember working with this particular white man who had been a police officer in the state of Arizona. He was tall, in his mid to upper forties and had a skin problem in which his face had all sorts of craters and bumps. His face was so disfigured that it took me several months before I could even look him directly in the face when talking to him.
After having been working with our racially mixed department for maybe a few weeks, he began to hang out with the other white guys in the department. It was like that. The white guys in the department hung out together, the black guys hung out together. The people who weren’t black or white had to choose the side that they would roll with or roll solo. That’s how things were.
We didn’t generally have any racial problems, we simply preferred to hang out with the people that we felt most comfortable with. When our lunch hour would come, all of the black guys would hang out in one area and all the white guys in another. In other words, people who we were most like, with similar backgrounds. I remember one particular night when a new manager, white, came into the lunch room and asked, “Why do all the black guys sit over here and all the white guys over there?”. One of the black men responded that that was how it was.
He was right. In general, I didn’t have any problems with the white guys. In fact, black guys and white guys often talked, joked and talked about life in general throughout the shift. Ocassionally, you would see one of the white guys sit with the black guys. A few interracial friendships developed out of the work environment. Although I made some of my best friends working at that store, I can’t say I formed friendships with any of the white guys. A few of them I considered more that simply acquiantances even though our relationship would come up short of the frienship label, at least in mind.
Getting back to the white man from Arizona, after a weeks of getting comfortable with the crew, he had started to let his real personality come out. This guy would openly crack racist jokes, sometimes just in his circle of whiteness but sometimes when a particular setting was mixed. He never said anything that insulted any black man personally that would lead to an altercation, but listening to his jokes, you knew exactly where he was coming from.
As I said previously, I actually appreciated that. I would rather have known where he stood on the race issue than to think he didn’t harbor racist views and find out in another way. I try not make assumptions about anyone’s personal views on any given subject because you just never know. In this life, I’ve known all types and because of this experience, I can’t say that I’m ever surprised when someone reveals that they have a certain viewpoint on a given topic that may be different from mine. In fact, I generally expect it. Why would I assume that I know how a person thinks about a given topic if I’ve never discussed that topic with him or her?
And it’s for this very reason that when the topic of today’s story broke more than a week ago, I wasn’t surprised in the least. I’ve been following racial topics in Brazil for two decades and actually writing about them since then. This blog has existed for this long because race is clearly an issue in Brazilian society; if it weren’t, there would be nothing to write about in terms of this topic.
To tell the truth, when today’s story broke a few days back, at first I didn’t even look into it. I read the initial headline and then clicked on a completely different story. Then I saw the story pop up on a another website and then a third and fourth, at which I point I decided I needed to look into it. When I read a comment made by a Brazilian businessman based in Orlando, Florida, I reacted in the same manner that I suggested above. I know his type of viewpoint exists, so why would I be surprised? What surprises me is when other people are continously surprised by this.
In a nutshell, what happened was that a former director of Brazil’s Band TV network and businessman Rodrigo Branco participated in a live chat with a popular Instagram personality, Ju de Paulla. Branco is a celebrity tour guide in Orlando, Florida. The whole thing started when the topic of the latest of season of the ever popular Globo TV reality show, Big Brother Brasil, in its 20th season, came up. As I wrote in a previous post, for me, attitudes on race reproduced by the show’s participants season after season are simply a microcosm of racial attitudes in Brazilian society as a whole.
During the chat between de Paulla and Branco, Ju said that she was cheering for one of the contestants, Thelma, to win this this season’s competition. Thelma Assis is an anesthesiologist and the only black woman on this season’s edition. Actor Babu Santana is the only black male participant on the show that started out with 20 participants.
After hearing that Thelma was Ju’s favorite, the conversation took an interesting turn. The conversation went as follows:
“No, guys. Thelma, don’t even think (about it). Can I say something? Cheering for Thelma is racism”, he replied. “What?”, Ju questioned, a bit surprised. “You’re going to be criticized a lot, okay?”, Jude said to Branco. “Next”, he continued, “everyone is voting for her because she is black, a poor thing.” Ju came back with, “Of course not, boy. She’s wonderful. You don’t watch [Big Brother],” she said disagreeing with him.
Not dissuaded by Ju’s comments, the businessman brought up the name of another black female media personality, Globo TV journalist Maria Júlia Coutinho, better known as Maju.
“For example, it’s the same thing that I say about Maju Coutinho. She’s awful, she’s horrible. She says everything wrong, I [watched] her today, she’s only there because of her color,” he opined. At one point in the ex-Band director’s comments, Jude covered her mouth obviously caught off guard by his opinion. “I, as a director of wonderful TV, will tell you. She reads the TP (teleprompter) wrong,” Rodrigo also said.
“What was her career? Her career was being insulted. That ‘Todos Por Maju’ (everyone for Maju) business, ‘Somos Todos Maju’ (we are all Maju), she was never a field reporter, she says everything wrong,” he scorned, his comments showing that he in fact hadn’t followed the journalist’s career path. Maju started off as a field reporter back in 2005 and became the subject of celebration for Afro-Brazilians in 2015 when she became the first black weathergirl on Globo TV’s most important news jornal, Jornal Nacional.
While Maju was celebrated in the black Community, her regular appearances as the weathergirl on Jornal soon became the target of widespread racist criticism on social networks. It got really ugly, so much so that Globo anchors and other associates began to verbally express support for the new girl on the top-rated news program. Maju was again the target of criticism, this time by the media, in October of last year.
As can be expected in a Brazil in which racial consciousness among Afro-Brazilians has grown exponentially in the past few decades, the criticism of Branco’s comments was almost immediate. Ju de Paulla herself took to Instagram to express her feelings about what she witnessed after having interviewed Branco.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I even tried to explain to Rodrigo and his followers how racist that comment was, but I was interrupted a few times. I got very angry and I confess that I didn’t know how to act,” she explained, say de Paulla, who at one point during the conversation put her hand over her mouth in disbelief with what Branco was saying.
Via Stories, de Paulla, started to cry when addressing the topic. “Sometimes, racism takes us by surprise, because people are so close to us, and we don’t know. And I, who am a person so full of arguments, was totally unresponsive. If I had already heard something of yesterday’s level, I would have no friendship [between us]. It was a blow, I was in disbelief. […] I don’t have racist close friends. These people are not going to remain in my circle of friendship,” said the influencer.
Well-known philosopher and activist Djamila Ribeiro also weighed in on the subject. “I won’t reproduce the video, the comments are offensive, but we will analyze the criminal comment. Branco refers to Thelma as ‘a poor black woman’, an expression commonly used by racists to, from the top of their privileges, make it clear that black women make themselves victims in order to get what they want,” she assessed. Furthering her point, Ribeiro continued:
“For Branco, when a black woman is proud of her successes, she is arrogant, not humble, because for people like him we always need to be submissive, asking for permission to exist. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, I ask: why does our sassiness offend you?”, she asked, pointing to a certain discomfort among white Brazilians when seeing black people ascend in life.
“No problem in continuing to be ashamed, Branco says that Maju Coutinho is bad and is only where she is because he is black. Now, Branco, since when do black women break some barriers because they are black? Isso é coisa de branco, Branco” (this is white thing, Branco)”, pointed out Ribeiro, making a play on the fact that Branco’s name actually translates as ‘white’ in English and that he is, in fact, a white man. Ribeiro’s view was applauded and/or shared by numerous public figures such as actor/singer Ícaro Silva, Lea T, actress Pathy Dejesus, actress Nathalia Dill, singer Iza and actor Paulo Gustavo.
More criticism came as more people learned of Branco’s comment. Singer Preta Gil, even being a friend of Rodrigo Branco was disgusted by the entrepreneur’s words:
“When you have a friend for 20 years and suddenly, in a live (chat), he demonstrates a thought that you had never heard him say and that hurts me and mine, what do you do?”, the singer said. “Racism is a crime, and historical intellectual ignorance, nowadays, coming from a white and wealthy man, is unacceptable. […] What he did is very serious, very serious, and that he should assume and pay for the consequences of his actions.[…] we can no longer tolerate or relativize this evil in our society, which has already caused so much pain and suffering,” Preta concluded.
The family of Thelma Assis also went public, speaking of the very real possibility of filing a lawsuit against Branco.
“Regarding the content of a live (chat), made yesterday, widely disseminated on social networks and in the media, we are taking appropriate steps to defend the interests of Thelma and the black Brazilian population”, read a comment by those responsible for administering the social networks of the anesthesiologist.
Denis Santos, Thelma’s husband, also made it known that the situation would probably be addressed in the courtroom. “Yes, of course we are thinking about it. In fact, we are already taking steps to sue him. The lawyer is already analyzing the case. This will not be forgotten,” said the photographer who has known Assis since 2009. The couple married in 2016.
When asked how Branco’s words hit him, Santos said:
“We’re already fed up. It’s racism that’s f*ucked up, with the forgiveness of the word. It’s another one. It’s another one that commits racism. It had a lot of repercussions because it was harsh words and it happened on a live (chat) of a known person, and he is also a known person. So it impacts more. But every day, the team denounces two or three people on the networks with racist posts about Thelma. They are very heavy publications. And Thelma has always received this veiled racism. It’s always like that, I’m sick of it.”
Elza Soares, the eighty-something year old musical icon also took a moment to let Branco know her sentiments, while pointing out the accomplishments and struggles of the women he criticized:
“Do you know Maju Coutinho? I know her… We are friends! Maju is one of the greatest journalists and communicators that this Brazil has ever seen. Yes! She is a woman and black and her gender or skin color did not help or prevent her from being GREAT! Maju succeeded because of talent, as so many of us succeed daily. […]”
With a career spanning more than six decades, Soares, who was one of the first black women to attain success in Brazil’s pop music circles, has been recognized as a symbol of black Brazilian women. She then defended Thelma Assis:
“Thelma didn’t win because she was poor thing. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet, but with everything I’ve seen and read about her, I can say that she won because she is GREAT, just like Maju. Thelma is a doctor, a dancer and continues in the battle for her biggest prize. The recognition of the effort that is the same as so many of us.”
Faced with the downpour of criticism, Branco quickly realized his mistake and began to issue apologies. Via Instagram, Rodrigo said: “Several times I have already said nonsense and I have already spoken of things of which I’ve changed my mind. I wanted to say one thing and I said something completely different, I was totally racist,” he admitted.
With the media contacting him over the controversy, Branco also acknowledged knowing that his words could lead to legal actions:
“I made a mistake and I assume all of the consequences that come my way,” he said. “I’m not racist. What I meant is that being black doesn’t shorten paths. Being white should also not shorten. Competent people are everywhere. I don’t like Thelma as a player. It’s not because she’s black. I just don’t like her. The same applies to Maju. I know you’re a wonderful person, but I don’t like her as a host. It was unfortunate in the way I said it and now I have to assume the consequences,” said Band TV’s ex-director.
Interesting to note hear that, while Branco did acknowledge that his comments were racist, he stopped short of defining himself as a racist, which is generally the modus operandi of Brazilian society. As numerous studies have shown over the years, Brazilians are quick to acknowledge that someone they know is in fact racist while refusing to define themselves in the same manner.
Faced with the onslaught of criticism, Branco deactivated his social network accounts, saying he would use this time to reflect, talk to friends, debate the mistake he made in order to evolve, which he believes everyone should do.
At this moment, Maria Júlia Coutinho has not reacted to the controversy and said she would discuss the matter on a later date.
Branco, for his part, continued to backtrack on his statements:
“I always say what I think. Several times, in fact, I’ve said nonsense. But I change my mind. Ignorant is not changing your mind, not listening, not talking. I participated in a live with Jude Paulla, and I talked a lot of shit, I didn’t say anything like I think. I wanted to say one thing and I said another. I was a racist and we have to assume when we talk shit,” he acknowledged.
“I got calls from friends of mine, and I listened. First, I want to apologize to Jude, who was doing a live (chat) to relax and I came in out of nowhere, talking a lot of zucchinis. The most important thing is that we assume our mistake. I apologize to everyone. I got my ear pulled and talked shit. Don’t get mad at me,” he concluded.
Soares, whose career was revitalized by the song “A Carne”, with the line “A carne mais barata do mercado é a carne negra”, meaning the ‘cheapest meat on the market is the dark/black meat’, continued to go in on the businessman, even not referring to him by name:
“It is horrible to speak at the elbows and feel better than someone else, whatever your color or gender. For me you do humanity as badly as this virus we are facing. Keep your internet apologies to yourself. You will need them when you look in the mirror. The harm you caused has no turning back. We can no longer tolerate this speech and think that everything is settled with an apology,” she said, referring to how these matters usually end up in Brazil.
Branco also received a strong message from well-known Bahian journalist and host, Rita Batista. Batista worked with Branco at Muito+, an afternoon program on Band TV back in 2012.
“Rodrigo, I was awakened by the shit you said, more than shit, by the crime you committed. Racism is a crime. This inverted logic that you and many whites, out of ignorance, tradition or perversity, insist on defending is wrong. I already taught him, I drew, I wrote, and I spoke, for free, because you know how much I charge to give a lecture”, Rita started in.
“It was ugly, bizarre and criminal. If the live (chat) was with me – I’m sorry, Jude Paulla, you know what would have happened. Me, Maju, Thelma and many others are from the same ‘massapê’,” the journalist said referring to a type of dark colored clay soil, which is very fertile and excellent for sugarcane cultivation. “Woman, black and dark-skinned. You, as a white man, sitting on your privileges, when you didn’t know what to say, don’t say anything, or ask anyone who understands, knows and lives in the skin, literally what your ancestors did with mine with a whip in hand, and what you did to me that night, using your tongue as a whip,” said the journalist drawing on the historical oppression of blacks by whites.
So, what is it that we learned from this latest controversy in relation to race in Brazil? There are actually a lot of ways to look at this whole thing and come to some conclusions.
1) Once again, we have a situation in which no one would have necessarily suspected that someone they knew could harbor such sentiments. As common as racism, racist comments and jokes are in Brazilian society, people continue to be surprised when such things happen and, still today, you hear black Brazilians often say that they had never been the victim of racism before. This is one of the main reasons that whenever something like this happens, it hits me as if it were directed at me because I also belong to the same racial group as Maju and Thelma.
2) Branco’s comments once again expose the lie that if black Brazilians work hard, get an education and ascend in life, no one will discriminate against them. Maju Coutinho and Thelma Assis, as a journalist and doctor respectively, both attained educations that would prepare them for their particular fields, paid their dues and are in positions that anyone would most likely trade to be in. Even so, based on comments hurled at both via social networks, we see that no matter how successful a black Brazilian is, they will still be criticized in ways that appear to go beyond their performance in their particlar areas.
3) Branco may have admitted that what he said was racist, but he will never own up to in fact being racist as we saw he actually did deny it. In other words, his comment was racist but the person was/is not. How does that work?
4) The incident reiterates the points I made in the intro to this article. Don’t make assumptions about how people feel about certain topics until to actually know. Ju de Paulla, Preta Gil and others were clearly caught off guard by Branco’s comments. This is what’s tricky when one is deceived into believing that openly, blatantly KKK-style racism is what defines racist thought. For decades, due to the myth of racial democracy, most Brazilians who are in fact racist will never admit it. And with incidents such as this one happening all of the time, why do people continue to believe that these sentiments don’t exist? If the sentiments exist, and they do, it means somebody subscribes to such beliefs and ideals.
5) The one thing that I would like to make clear in this scenario is the possibility that what Branco said is may be partially true. In an environment in which Afro-Brazilians are demanding a fair piece of the pie from Brazilian society, the racism of years and decades gone by has had to adapt itself to this new reality.
A few months back, Nei Lopes, an Afro-Brazilian writer, composer and researcher on black/African culture broke it down in a similar manner. For him, a rising number of black Brazilians being featured in advertising as they never had been before has “more to do with consumption than representation.” In other words, if presenting a few more blacks in areas in which they are normally excluded will maintain the system, so be it. Just like electing a few black Miss Brasil winners will not change Brazil’s Eurocentric standard of beauty.
How does this apply to someone like Maju Coutinho? It’s simple, rather that Racism 101, we’re now dealing with Racism 2.0. Maju Coutinho is clearly qualified to be in the position in which she is. But with rising calls for black representation,a network such as Globo and others can attempt to deflect accusations of exclusion by simply presenting a qualified person of African descent as their showpiece in order to say, “See? We’re not racist. ____________ is our new ___________.” Perhaps the greatest example of this playbook was when a certain Chicago senator was elected President of the country with the world’s largest economy back in 2008. You all DO remember that, right?
It doesn’t mean that said country ceased being racist; it simply means it’s playing by new rules. In terms of Branco, regardless of his denial, in my view, his comments simply represent the thoughts of elitist Brazil. An elitist Brazil that still prefers to see its former slaves remain in the senzala (slave quarters).
With information from Folha PE, A Gazeta and Hugo Gloss