“What kind of person combs their hair with a pick?”: With jokes and subtleties, reality show ‘Big Brother Brasil 20’ is a microcosm of Brazil’s everyday racism

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“What kind of person combs their hair with a pick?”: With jokes and subtleties, reality show Big Brother Brasil is a microcosm of Brazil’s everyday racism

By Marques Travae

I know I’ve said it before, but as most of my readers don’t live in Brazil and have never watched an episode of the long-running Globo TV reality show Big Brother Brasil, I feel I need to keep repeating it. As I just can’t get into reality shows, I’m not a fan of the 20 season, insanely popular reality show on Globo television. Years ago, I remember watching a handful of American reality shows and simply losing interest in them. This attitude has endured throughout Brazil’s experiments with these programs.

I can’t say that I’ve ever, in its 20 seasons, sat and watched an entire episode of Big Brother Brasil. But for someone who studies Brazil from a perspective of race, you can’t not keep at least a side eye view of the program as it is a smorgasborg of race relations, the racial attitudes and racism that is an undergird of the society. In reality, I could probably devote an entire blog, well at least a separate category, on just the racial issues that have emerged on the program over its 20 seasons. And season 20 is no different.

I’ve featured a number of posts that have discussed Big Brother Brasil (BBB) and the most recent article discussed the issue of why an award-winning actor with 70 roles in television and film productions, such as Babu Santana, is a participant on this program. This fact alone speaks volumes for the difficulties of being a black actor in Brazil’s Eurocentric media.

But the issue of Babu’s mere appearance on the program doesn’t compare to the bigger question of how he’s been treated on show. Typical of a Brazil that has had an unwritten policy of not admitting the role that racism plays in the society for decades, BBB 20 and past seasons are perfect examples of this. For me, BBB is simply a microcosm of the types of racist attitudes I’ve been documenting on this blog for years. It’s there for everyone to see, but even seeing it, people will deny it, like the proverbial elephant in the room.

UOL columnist Maurício Stycer put it this way:

“As has happened in other editions, racism is one of the themes of BBB 20, in spite of no one speaking openly about this inside the house. The actor Babu Santana and the doctor Thelma Assis, the only blacks among 20 participants selected, have already alluded to the subject, but have avoided, up to now, explicit mentions.”

The type of racism that appears on BBB is the kind that Brazil is more famous for, but which has been a common feature of American style racism for decades. You know the kind; you don’t need to hear the word n***er, historically the most racist term in American society, or macaco, meaning monkey, which is perhaps the most commonly used of numerous racist terms used to dehumanize black people in Brazil, to know it’s there. It’s that twisted look; that way that people adjust their gestures, attitudes or actions when someone outside of the group enters. The reaction to difference is clearly there and I don’t get why people deny it. I’ve seen it and you’ve seen it.

Women know this reaction, for example, when they enter a board room of all males, and all of the men kind of look at each other like, “What’s she doing here?” As a heterosexual male, I can attest to the way people react when a homosexual enters certain circles. And as a black man, I have been in numerous scenarios in which I felt this discomfort or strangeness was a reaction to my own presence. Prejudice or rejection to difference doesn’t have to be spoken verbally for it to exist. This is the sort of prejudice that Babu Santana has been feeling since he first appeared on this latest edition of BBB. And he’s spoken on it even without even saying it.

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“Racism on BBB20”: Actor Babu Santana is the only black male on BBB’s 20th season

For example, sometime in February, speaking to Thelma, the only other black participant on the program (pretty much the norm over 20 seasons), Santana mentioned his perception of how his presence affects other participants. Speaking of other BBB “brothers” and “sisters”, Babu displayed his annoyance in how BBB “sisters”, Ivy and Marcela, seemed to reject him. This is clear in his own words:

“Since she arrived, do you know what the first image I have of her is? She told me to close the door because she wanted to talk only to the girls and Pyong inside. That’s the image I have of Ivy. Then, playing with Gabi, she said I was a monster. Those are the two images I have of Ivy.”

Speaking specifically of Marcela, Santana again noted this sort of discomfort:

“Marcela looks at me the same way my boss looked at me. I have a trauma from that look. So I avoid her, too. I didn’t say good morning twice. One that she went to sleep there with her little boyfriend and kept complaining about me. I went to sleep with the men”.

Thelma can clearly empathize with the actor’s sentiments. On the March 19th episode, Thelma took it upon herself to try to dig into what the two women, both white, felt about Babu. When the topic came up, the word “fear” suddenly came up. Wanting to know what this “fear was all about, Thelma prodded further.

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Babu expressed the discomfort that Ivy and Marcela seemed to show when in his presence

“What are you afraid of? That he’ll hit you?” Marcela responded that, “He’ll scream” which prompted Thelma to respond that, if that’s the case, then she should scream back. Fear. Right here on this reality show, we see society’s own reaction to the very presence of black men. What did Babu do to stimulate this fear? This “fear” of black men has lead to a situation in Brazil that has been labeled “the genocide of black youth“. We see it again and again. If a black man or black male teen enters a certain environment, the fear that he will steal, rob or kill someone immediately emerges. Which in turn leads to the reaction, often violent, which in turn often leads to death.

In sharing their “fear” of Santana, Marcela and Ivy used the word numerous times when questioned by Thelma. After taking it all in, she concluded that if people were to speak that way of her, she’d probably be upset.

Then there’s the difference that Babu perceives when he does something in comparison to when someone else (white) does something. Approaching the topic with Thelma and another participant, Santana noted that another BBB participant, Daniel, seemed to make numerous mistakes but still didn’t experience the ostracism that he has to deal with:

“This bourgeois posture of electing a monster. (It’s) much easier for me to be the monster. Negro, evil face… Much easier me being the monster and him being the prince of the blue-eyed blondie. I got pissed about that. Because I think I know what that is.”

Note again, Santana doesn’t say the dreaded “r” word even though we KNOW what he meant. If you doubt this, look at a few of his other comments. Such as when he discussed something alot of black men can relate to: not being able to flag down a taxi.

‘What does having difficulty hailing a cab have to do with BBB?’, you might ask. Well, again, when you’re part of a group that has historically experienced exclusion and discimination, the problem is never having certainty of why certain things seem to happen. Maybe there’s another reason. In my own life, I tend to look for other possible reasons for why some things happen to black people before I can finally justify the possibility of racist behavior.

But I swear, some of the things I see happen on BBB don’t offer me this option. A few more examples and you’ll get my point.

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White participants made fun of the pick that Babu uses to comb his hair

Take the pick incident, for instance. Prejudice against kinky/curly hair has been a topic that I’ve covered from the very beginning of this blog, so, when I find black Brazilians developing the self-esteem and self-acceptance to rock their natural curls, kinks and waves, I like to share their stories with readers.

In their attitudes, three participants on BBB showed why this acceptance of one’s own hair texture when it is considered ugly or outside of the (European) standards of beauty, is a reason to celebrate and support.

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BBB20 participant Ivy makes fun of Babu’s pick

In one particular episode, participants Ivy, Pyong and Gizelly made fun of Babu’s afro pick. Seeing the comb specifically designed for afro textured hair, Pyong, of Asian descent, makes fun of the pick and calls Babu’s hair “special”. Ivy picked up the pick and asked, “Who combs their hair with something like?” She went on to say that she’s, “never seen a comb like this in (her) life.”

Wait, she’s never seen a pick in her life? What rock has she been living under all of this time? The pick, which Brazilians call “garfo”, meaning ‘fork’, isn’t a new comb in Brazil. It’s been used by black Brazilians since at least the 1970s. Again, the attitude of the majority of the “brothers” and “sisters” demonstrates the way black hair textures are seen in Brazil.

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“There are images that are worth a thousand words…”

When these attitudes emerged on the program, followers of the show took to social networkers to show support for Santana, creating the #EuPenteio hashtag and exposing Ivy’s not so subtle form of racist thought.

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Disgusted with Ivy’s attitude, many viewers posted photos supporting Babu and explaining the importance of black Brazilians coming to accept their own hair textures

Addressing yet another moment that infuriated many black Brazilians, YouTuber Spartakus Santiago spoke up on the issue.

“The pente-garfo (pick) emerged 6,000 years ago in África. There are records of combs in Egito Antigo (Ancient Egypt) that had great symbology and were used by our ancestors as a way of organizing society itself, because it was through the hairstyles that status, civil state, ethnic identity, georgraphical region and social class were indicated,” explained Santiago via Instagram.

Other comments on the program indicate “the place” Brazilian society reserves for its black population. One such comment was participant Gizelly saying she wouldn’t eat any rice that Babu cooked because he have could performed “macumbado” on it. “Macumba” is a pejorative manner that Brazilians speak of things related to Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé, somewhat similar to way people in the US speak of “voodoo”. And if you didn’t know, Brazilians have major prejudice with Afro-Brazilian religions.

What’s worse in this case is the fact Gizelly is a lawyer and, one would assume, has an above average education. She should know that harboring such beliefs is racist, but it just goes to show, once again, that anti-black sentiments are as common in Brazilian middle classes as trips to Florida.

But Gizelly isn’t the only one. In the opinion of Marcela, another participant, if Big Brother Brasil were a school, Babu would be the owner of the cafeteria. This comment highlights the association of black people with menial labor that doesn’t demand higher levels of education. We see examples of this whenever we read reports of people being surprised by meeting black college students, black judges or black dentists. Happens everyday.

But it’s not just the women who see Babu in a certain inferior way. Daniel, who is Marcela’s boyfriend, said he didn’t see the actor as being “VIP” material, referring to the “VIP” section of the house where the show takes place. To be a “VIP” member and be able to eat from the “VIP” menu, participants have to receive a bracelet from the leader participant. The leader chooses those who are VIP and those who can have access to the leader’s room.

For Daniel, Babu wasn’t worthy of VIP treatment, only “xepa” treatment. “Xepa” is a slang referring to barracks or perhaps, a “mess hall”, a place where scraps and leftovers are served. And on BBB, “brothers” and “sisters” who have few resources eat in the xepa. On BBB, Babu has spent much of his time eating from a very restrictive menu. And for some of them, that’s where he belongs. Marcela went as far as to say that she would prefer to stay in the xepa if Babu were to receive access to the VIP.

I’ve said it before, part of being middle class in Brazil, is to feel one self being better than another group. Was that comment not a clear example of this? In other words, it would be better to eat scraps than to share space with a black man. Marcela is a doctor, by the way.

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Above comments

“SELECTIVITY: Ivy saying how Babu spoke to Daniel and how it really happened. Daniel called Babu an idiot twice and still ordered Babu to shut up and said that he could say what he wanted. But Babu can’t say anything.” 

“DANIEL DESERVES RESPECT??? Babu comes speaking good with Ivy and Daniel started insulting Babu, calling him idiot, so Babu responded the same way and everyone is against him. This scene broke my heart.”

“Babu was called an idiot and after criticized because he responded. They called Babu a MONSTER. Now they’re laughing at the comb he uses. If you think this isn’t racism, either you don’t have character or you don’t have a clue.” #Ivyracist, #ExpellIvy

Then there’s Ivy, again, who believes Santana is “aggressive” and referred to him as a “monster”, yet another stereotype attached to the image of black men. It signals a belief that the black man is wild, uncontrollable and animalistic. But what actually happened that would lead her to label him with such a term? Self-defense.

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In one scene, Daniel and Babu had a heated exchange of words which ended with Babu walking out of the room

In yet another intense moment on the reality show, Daniel and Babu had an exchange of words in which Daniel called Babu an idiot twice; once in a low tone and again in a louder and clearer voice. With that, Babu responded and called Daniel an idiot twice before leaving the room. As viewers following the show have pointed out, how is it that one guy, Daniel, white, can call Babu and idiot and when Babu responds in his own defense, he’s the one labeled a monster? Another thing that I noted about that scene was that, Daniel and several others were all surrounding Ivy in a very emotional moment while it was Babu who, once again, found himself alone at the end of the scene.

Daniel and Babu in the middle of an argument on BBB20

Popular YouTuber Nataly Neri saw it in a similar manner:

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Nátaly Neri: “The way that Ivy imitates Babu is soooo symbolic. It is the constructed image of the monster, it is how they see a black man who imposes himself by defending himself against somebody who insulted him first, calling him an idiot. It’s okay for Daniel to insult Babu but how absurd it is for him to defend himself right?”

This fear of Babu attitude can be noted in numerous participants. Pyong also expressed his desire to see Babu eliminated from the show to end the fear that was in the house. Among some of the other chatter, we hear people talking about they can’t wait for Babu to leave the kitchen so that they could eat. Pyong went as far as to say that he would request for votes against the actor when it was his turn to make confessions in the “X-ray” segment of the program.

The whole manner in which most of the participants on the show act in relation to Babu comes across like the cliques I used to see back in high school that, in reality, continue into adulthood. As the only other black participant on the program, one has to wonder if Thelma might be feeling as if she has a certain target on her back as well. After all, she is one of the very few people who stood in support of Babu.

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Thelma Assis with Babu Santana: The only two black participants

Becoming a target herself seemed to have started to play itself out when Thelma was removed from her circle of friends (Marcela, Daniel, Ivy and Gizelly) because she was friends with Babu. Did I say this was like some old high school ish?

I don’t care for reality shows, but they are a gold mine for sociological analysis of human behavior. Writer and activist Joice Berth, who also doesn’t watch the show, saw the experiences of Santana as “a reflection of the real life of young black and poor people.”

Seeing this very real treatment and stereotyping of Santana as the aggressor, the violent, the bestial, the uncontrollable, Berth makes a connection to historical depictions of black men that can be found in countless film productions.

“In the film A espera de um milagre (The Green Mile) this is central, since the black man is arrested and unjustly accused for a rape he tried to prevent from happening. We have found many similar cases throughout history. Many black men, without racial awareness that makes them understand how dangerous it is for them to carry this stereotype and often, in order to protect themselves from racism, assume this more aggressive posture.”

The experiences of Santana and Thelma with ostracism and exclusion from groups in the house mirror the way that Afro-Brazilians are treated in Brazilian society as a whole. Thelma was even seen crying at one point after feeling excluded by people she considered her friends.

Able to relate to this exclusionary behavior, Berth reveals that “This is kind of the story of my life and what happens to black people that refuse this place of inferiority, which is what predominantly white groups reserve for us.”

As an award-winning actor with a long resume of film and television roles, as is the case of Santana and Thelma’s occupation of anesthesiologist, both have shown that they have capabilites to succeed in society and go beyond “the place” that Brazil reserves for most black people. But proving themselves capable of going beyond the stereotype and entering realms usually frequented by white people is precisely where the harsher forms of exclusion become evident.

“Black people that demonstrate personality, intelligence and racial conscious with frequency are rejected by white groups. It’s another practice of racism, excluding blacks that are assimilated as ‘dangerous’. They are nothing more than blacks that don’t negotiate theuir humanity and demand respect and symmetry in the treatment destined to them,” opines Berth.

Another thing that I find intriguing in relation to the Big Brother Brasil series is the rising racial solidarity that is developing among black Brazilians. Over the years, there have been a few black women who ended up winning the reality show of a particular season but, as of yet, there has yet to be a black man to win. Well, as with so many other situations in which we must consider whether someone is actually black or not, this case is no different.

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Winner of BBB season five and former Rio congressman, Jean Wyllys

In season five, that aired between January and March of 2005, journalist/professor Jean Wyllys de Matos Santos  won,  but some, if not many people don’t consider him to be black. Wyllys would later become a congressman out of Rio de Janeiro. Wyllys would flee the country in January of 2019 after receiving detah threats. This was less than a year after the brutal assassination of Rio city councilwoman Marielle Franco.

With every passing season of BBB, we see more and more black Brazilians following the show and cheering for the victory of the few black people are usually featured on the program. Seasons 15 and 19 made headlines as the two editions that had the most number of black participants featured on the program, each with four. And with this regular minority participation of black Brazilians year after year, we see a widespread participation of black viewers who also call out the racist incidents that seem to be a regular part of the program, regardless of the season.

Nayara e Viegas - união para conduzir um negro até a final do ‘Big Brother Brasil’.
In season 18, Nayara (left) explained that she felt it was her duty to help a black man, Viegas, win the competition

Perhaps, on BBB, as what happens in the society as a whole, black Brazilians are seeing clear examples of how racist Brazilian society really is and are discovering the necessity of supporting each other wherever they may be. This became even more apparent during the 18th season of the reality show. That year, the contestant Nayara, a black woman, explained that, because she felt one candidate, Mahmoud, represented a threat to a black candidate, Viegas, and because she would have very much liked to see a black man win on BBB one day, she felt it was her duty to vote for the elimination of Mahmoud.

Nayara’s statement speaks volumes for the sentiments of many black Brazilians these days, and for more than one reason. Besides the victory of Wyllys, there have been two black women, Cida and Mara, who have also won on the top-rated reality show. Cida won in the show’s fourth season with Mara winning in season six. Now if you’re one who defines blackness according to any recognizable trait of African ancestry, by this criteria, black Brazilians won the BBB competition for three straight seasons, the 4th, 5th and 6th.

Mara, Cida
Mara (left) and Cida were winners of BBB in the 6th and 4th seasons respectively

But these days, black Brazilians are even beginning to scrutinize who they see as “really black”. Although Nayara didn’t actually speak of Mara or Cida, both of whom are women and that many Brazilians see as the racially ambiguous “morena” types, her statement shows that she clearly didn’t see Jean Wyllys as a black man, not in the way that she saw Viegas. It was as if she was saying she wanted to see a “real”, a “straight up” black man in the winner’s circle, not someone like Wyllys, who, while clearly of African descent, doesn’t present a clearly black phenotype.

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“Babu on BBB 20: I want to be the first black man to win on Big Brother”

Babu Santana sees it this way too. Since appearing on the program, he has stated that he would like to become the first black man to win on the top-rated reality show. Considering all he’s been through on the program and how many black folks are rooting for him, you never know; he just might pull it off!

With information from TV e Famosos, Metropoles and Terra

About Marques Travae 3386 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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