When whiteness wants to remind persons of mixed race of their African ancestry: The cases of Danrley Ferreira in Brazil and Meghan Markle in Britain
By Marques Travae
The recent headlines detailing the desire of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to step back from their role in the Royal Family had many wondering what could be behind such a decision. Not being an insider on the situation, I won’t suggest that all of this had to do with race, but clearly race does play a role. Black Britons see it this way too. This whole controversy surrounding Meghan becoming a part of one of the most celebrated families in modern times was the reason that I wrote an extended post on the topic in May of last year with the birth Meghan and Harry’s child, Archie. Meghan’s racial identity and classification was specifically the topic of a previous piece in December of 2017. In context of this recent controversy I thought it would be intriguing to analyze Meghan’s situation and compare it with a recent news story coming out of Brazil, albeit of lesser public knowledge.
That story has to do with Danrley Ferreira, a participant on Brazil’s Globo TV network’s long-running reality show Big Brother Brasil (BBB), which is due to start its 20th season next week. In recent news, Ferreira shared a series of critical comments he had received via one of his social networks. The subject of the criticism was Ferreira’s hair.
Via direct message, the person sent the following in a series of messages: “Go cut this hair,” “Your hair is hard,” “Cut your hair, it’s ugly,” and “go get your hair cut, it’s better.” Cabelo duro, meaning hard hair, is a common insult directed at Afro-Brazilians.
The critic needled Ferreira repeatedly with comment after comment until, after Danrley finally got fed up with the criticism, he responded via his Twitter account and lashed out at his critic: “What’s your problem with my hair, fuck! This shit every time.”
Realizing that many of his followers could have read his outburst, Ferreira later apologized and ended up revealing why such harassment finally got to him.
“Guys, I’m sorry for the aggression, but at some moment we get tired of holding it in quietly. Man, this hurts.” He continued: “It took me 20 years to accept myself and to start letting my hair grow out because of people like that. If you’re that kind of person, go to hell!”
Many of his followers offered words of support to the biology student.
“I loved your response. You’re perfect, understand,” said one. “You look great with your big hair and when it gets blacker you will be super stylish. Don’t let these comments affect you ever again,” commented another supporter. “Block him, sweetheart, nobody deserves to read this kind of stuff, save yourself from going through it,” said another.
For clarity, let me point out that when black Brazilians speak of the afro hairstyle, they usually refer to it as a “black power”, as the style is associated with 1970s black American activists. The term is often simply shortened to the term “black”, so when one of Ferreira’s supporters wrote that “when it gets blacker you will be super stylish” (quando ficar mais black vai ficar super estiloso), she/he was actually saying that when his afro grows longer, not darker in color, it will be even more stylish.
Both the criticisms and the reaction once again exposed a centuries long target of social rejection in Brazil: cabelo crespo, meaning kinky/curly hair. It’s no secret as the numerous articles on this blog dealing with this topic will attest, beauty in Brazil has long been associated with having hair that is the straightest possible. For this reason, black and non-black women alike have long adapted ways to straighten the waves, curls, kinks and naps out of their hair.
Some techniques include using powerful, but dangerous chemicals or some sort of heat-inducing device to force the tighter or looser curls into submission. The internet is full of stories of black Brazilian women who have suffered from the falling out of their hair after having used something intended to straighten it. For many men, the solution was pretty simple. Either shave the hair extremely close to the scalp or completely to avoid being labeled with the social stigma of having “cabelo ruim”, meaning ‘bad hair’.
It’s only been in recent years, perhaps two decades, but especially in the past decade, that black Brazilian men and women have been able to develop a pride and appreciation of their natural hair. The trend is quite noticeable in the streets of several cities across the country as well as the numerous hair parades, contests and seminars promoted to stimulate pride in having kinks, curls and waves.
Ferreira’s response to his internet heckler is a perfect example of the journey within the development of black identity that perhaps hundreds of thousands of Brazilians of visible African ancestry have traveled. As Danrley himself confirmed, it took him 20 years to finally be able to accept the texture of his hair and even with this new pride, he still has to endure rude, racist comments directed at him.
The criticism that Ferreira recently experienced online as well as throughout his life speaks to another issue, which makes for an intriguing analysis in the context of the Meghan Markle situation. With Markle’s light skin, one has to imagine that in 1950s America, she might well have been a candidate for moving to a small town where she had no family and attempting to try to “pass” as white. After, the US was known for its strict “one drop rule”, a concept that Brazil has always maintained didn’t exist there.
The fact that Brazilians have used so many color-coded terminologies to define themselves in terms or race/color would seem to prove that stringent concepts of race didn’t exist in the country. I don’t necessarily agree with this idea 100%. What I see is that, in Brazil, it doesn’t matter what terminology you use to define yourself; if too much of your African ancestry is visible in your physical appearance, people may not necessarily define you as black (negro), but their subtle comments and behavior will assure that you know that you are not accepted as white. Brazil may pretend that it doesn’t treat people with less salient African features as black, but it’s not quite that simple.
What makes race a difficult nut to crack in Brazil is not only how people define others, but also how people define themselves. And the two don’t always match up. For example, a person may see and identify themselves as pardo, the racially ambiguous moreno or mestiço, while someone else may see the same person as black.
What I’m getting at here is that Danrley Ferreira’s appearance classifies him as black to me, but as Brazilians often claim that pardos and mestiços aren’t black, according to these criteria, Ferreira would not be black. People may even refer to Danrley as a racially ambiguous moreno. Where I see the contradiction here is that skin color, hair and other physical characteristics play a key role in how a person is classified along lines of race, hair texture being perhaps the most important. It is sometimes said that if a person is clearly sitting on the racial fence, it is the hair that will often define whether a person will be classified as white or non-white.
Growing up in a black community in the United States, I know that many black folks would be of the opinion that Ferreira has “good hair”. It is not straight but it is far less kinky than many hair textures associated with the black people. Yet, in Brazil, where someone like Ferreira probably grew up having people, friends and family included, tell him that he wasn’t black and that he shouldn’t identify himself as such, he has probably faced discrimination and criticism throughout his entire life due to his hair texture. In terms of identity, this must be very confusing. On the one hand hearing you’re not black, but then on the other hand being constantly ridiculed for having a particular featis the target of ridicule outside of as well as within the black community itself.
My assessment here is that Brazil allows people to identify however they wish, but the general population will still discriminate against them for having attributes associated with blackness. As such, it becomes the choice of the individual that faces such treatment to accept or reject a black identity when the society simultaneously undermines the acceptance of such identity while still penalizing people for possessing the physical markers associated with the blackness.
In terms of Meaghan Markle, for the most part, if she were born in Brazil, she would probably be accepted as white, but in Great Britain, regardless of her very light skin, her non-whiteness has still been the source of ridicule that she has faced from the British press. She may not have dark skin, but references to Markle as being “(Almost) straight outta Compton, possessing “exotic DNA” and then having her son by Harry being compared to a chimpanzee are not so subtle ways of connecting Markle to her African ancestry and making her physically blacker than she actually is.
Perhaps the most blatant example that the British media used to make Markle know how she was seen in terms of race was a caricature of her as shown on the BBC program, Tonight With Vladimir Putin. The program featured a type of puppet, clearly meant to mimic Markle’s appearance, again, with the intent of emphasizing Markle’s African ancestry with the caricature being presented with much darker skin than Markle’s actual skin tone. It was almost as if they were saying, “You might think you’re one of us because of your fair skin, but let us remind of your racial background.”
In both cases it is clear that Ferreira and Markle are of mixed racial ancestry, but in a Eurocentric world, both in the established whiteness of the “Old World” as well as in the Tropics, where a certificate of whiteness remains the goal, the old guard of white supremacy will continue to remind mestizos, mulattos and persons of mixed race that they aren’t and will never be on the “right team”.