TV host/model Isabella Fiorentino gets a slight tan, defines herself as black; black followers check her, but she doesn’t understand why they are so aggressive
By Marques Travae
This is why it’s so necessary to discuss this issue of race as it plays out in everyday Brazil. Today’s story tells us a lot about how black Brazilians are increasingly taking issue with their white Brazilians in terms of the manner in which the latter is so comfortable with their position as the “standard” that they can adapt symbols of blackness whenever they so please. So here’s the latest incident that’s proof of this.
Isabella Fiorentino is a former model and hosts the SBT-TV fashion program Esquadrão da Moda. In a recent Instagram post, Fiorentino became the target of anger and even jokes after claiming that because she gotten a slight tan, she could now define herself as a “Preta Pretinha”. “Preta Pretinha” is a 1970s hit song by the band Novos Baianos. The term ‘preta’ means black and also means ‘black woman’, while the term ‘pretinha’ is a diminutive of the term which basically means ‘little black woman/girl’. Under a photo of herself in which she appeared to have gotten a tan from taking in a little sun, the host/model posted the phrase “preta, preta, pretinha”. Considering the whiteness of Fiorentino’s skin, it didn’t take long before readers started to take verbal swings at her. Needless to say, people were not amused by the former model’s choice of words.
Some made jokes of her using of the phrase while others harshly criticized her. One reader asked, “Preta onde?” (Black woman where?), while another joked “Só faltou a melanina mesmo” (you’re really only missing the melanin). Analyzing the Fiorentino’s photo, one comment critiqued, “Tá mais para vermelha” (you’re more like red). Other comments included “The definitions of black were updated” and “Wakanda 4ever, sister”.
As the criticisms and jokes continued rolling in, Fiorentino felt the need to start responding to the comments, which actually made the situation even worse. Why? In her own defense, Fiorentino went as far as to affirm herself as a black woman!
As can be expected, the reactions got even more intense.
“Black?! Delete this now, you’ve got nothing black, ridiculous!” With this comment, Fiorentino replied by requesting more delicacy in 2019. Ironic as she didn’t seem to recognize that this was a very delicate topic for many people. The fact is that, for decades, a large percentage of black Brazilians accepted the idea generated by a racist society that one should be ashamed of being black.
As such, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who were clearly of African descent would use all sorts of color-coded terminology in order to avoid defining themselves as black, the example of the 1976 census confirming this practice. That year, Brazilians used 134 terms to define their skin color rather using the five official terms offered on the Brazilian census (white, black, brown, Asian and Indian). But with the tireless efforts of black organizations since the late 1970s, today, more and more Brazilians of visible African ancestry are proudly proclaiming themselves as pretos/pretas or negros/negras, the Portuguese terms for black, in the masculine and feminine.
In Brazil today, and for decades, people who have appearances that are or are closer to the European standard continue to enjoy privileges that persons of non-European appearances don’t have access to. The media and the job market are two clear examples that show us that often times it doesn’t matter how qualified or talented one is, for it is the appearance that counts. Someone like Isabella Fiorentino will never experience being told that an employer doesn’t interview blacks. When Brazil seeks a face that will be shown nationally or internationally to represent Brazil, she can be assured that her racial classification will not be the reason she doesn’t get the call. Persons of visible African ancestry don’t have this same privilege. And now, as more and more Brazilians are taking pride in defining themselves as black men and women, here comes a person from the privileged race having the audacity to define herself with an identity that people who look like her have demonized for so long. We’ve seen white Brazilians do this again and again. Partaking in music, religion, martial arts and other genres created and associated with black people that they have disparagingly dismissed as “coisas do negro”, or ‘black things/things of the black’.
This is what readers of her post were pointing out with their comments. Comments such as: “Pretinha [laughs], you melanin-free beings are pretty crazy…”
“To this last comment, Fiorentino responded: “That’s why I consider myself black! I am really a being of little melanin! And when I sunbathe, fico bem morena (I get really dark)!”
Reading this comment, a third reader jumped in on the debate, writing:
“You’ve been going out to the sun with no sunscreen at all?”, to which Fiorentino replied yes, confirming that she’s been doing so for two years.
Seeing that the former model was still not really getting what all of the fuss was all about, another follower by the name of Juliano broke it down in a more concise, educated manner:
“Just as fashion is the place from where you speak and I respect this, respect our place of speech as well. Saying you are black today, after so much struggle, mainly for the deconstruction of the marginalization of the term, it is a political and ideological act, and not a ‘costume’ that you can wear and take off whenever you want. That’s why (what you wrote) offends, you know?”.
With this detailed comment, Fiorentino thanked the writer for being respectful. And while she was content seeing a response that didn’t attack or make fun of her, ultimately it appears that she was still clueless.
“Hi Juliano, thank you for your respectful comment. I’ve always said that tô preta (I’m black) when tô morena (see note one) (I am morena/dark). Preta, preta pretinha is the part of a song I love. I’m very shocked by the aggressiveness of many black people here on my Insta. Really shocked! I won’t say that I don’t waste time with comments, because I always read and reflect on them. But the lack of education and hatred have crossed the line,” Isabella wrote.
Well, allow me to say that I too am shocked…well, maybe not, because I’ve known this manner of thinking for so long. Black folks in Brazil have been belittled, disrespected, discriminated against, excluded, demeaned, stereotyped, insulted, ridiculed and dehumanized for centuries, so when a privileged woman of the race responsible for all of this comes along and stakes claim to the very identity that they have for so long struggled to accept and attempt to reverse of its negative connotations that people who look like her have attributed to these terms for so long, it is clear that there is a reason for such hostility.
The fact that Isabella Fiorentino doesn’t get it is not at all surprising. She is simply the latest in a long line of Brazilians who seem to believe that blackness is just something that one can change as easily as their hair color. Singer Anitta, for example, like Fiorentino, said she’s a little neguinha (little black girl) when she gets a tan. The “Vai Malandra” singer has consistently dodged assuming a clearly black identity even though it’s easy to see that she’s not white. Then there was the time that white politicians in the majority black state of Bahia identified themselves as pardos (brown/mixed) in an apparent attempt to win the support of black voters. And we can’t forget all of the times Brazilians have donned blackface makeup and imitating one of the most historically disrespectful practices of demeaning and dehumanizing black people. And then we have the phenomenon of people who are, for all intents and purposes, white, defining themselves as black, or at least brown, in order to take advantage of affirmative action policies designed to increase the number of non-whites attending college or filling certain job vacancies.
For decades, Brazilians have avoided having a very necessary discussion about race and the treatment of its African descendant population. And this shows when people like Fiorentino, a person who has the type of face, hair and skin color that the nation has long preferred and desired for its future, don’t understand the hostility of the people who the nation has clearly shown they would rather just disappear, feel a certain hostility when she attempts to appropriate the very identity that Brazil has tried for so long to avoid, cover up and hide. And now that these people, black people, are finding a certain pride in being what they are, Fiorentino, and others like her want to come along and appropriate this same blackness that Brazil has consistently shown it despises. But like hanging out at a party with afro hair as the theme even if you don’t have this type of hair, it’s OK to claim blackness when you don’t have any characteristics that define you as such, right?
With all of this said, I DO wonder if given some magical opportunity to suddenly become black, if Isabella Fiorentino would accept this exchange, as she verbally claims to be a black woman. I think we all know the real answer to that question.
- Numerous articles on this blog discuss the usage, ambiguity as well as rejection of this term. See here.