De/visualizing Blackness

mulher-negra-devassa

Condemned as racist and exploitative of black women, this controversial advert for Devassa dark beer did something far worse

Last week, I attended a thought-provoking seminar, ‘Visualizing Blackness in Latin America & the Caribbean, 16th-19th Centuries‘, held on 29 & 30 May 2018, and organised by the Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Study, London. Among many other interesting topics, in her keynote lecture, “Colour and Undertones: On Black Subjects in Latin-American Visual Culture”, Dr Tamara J. Walker mentioned an advert for Devassa dark beer which sparked controversy in Brazil a few years ago. In 2012, the National Council for Self-Regulation in Advertising (Conar) determined that the makers of Devassa – a product line that also includes a ‘blonde’ beer, and whose name is defined as ‘woman devoid of modesty or morals with regard to sex’, which could be translated as ‘slag’, ‘slut’ or worse – had to change the advert, as it was considered racist, a crime under Brazilian law.

When I saw the advert again after all these years, something else struck me about the image. Everyone at the seminar agreed that the woman portrayed is lovely and sexy in the old-fashioned pin-up style of glamour. The racism is more to be found in the text, which reads: ‘you can tell a true black woman [dark beer] by her [its] body’ (as the word for beer is feminine in Portuguese, this sort of double entendre is easily conveyed).

The main problem I saw with the image was that, according to Brazilian racial categories, the woman portrayed is not ‘black’ at all, but the classic sexualised and romanticised ‘mulata’ (once known in English as a ‘mulattress’). In other words, the text of the advert is not only racist and sexist, but the image has failed to represent black women as presumably intended – thereby effectively de/visualizing them and deleting them from the picture.

I had some difficulty explaining this to an African-American scholar, presumably because the one-drop rule in the US has led to greater solidarity and unified self-identification among a relatively small portion of the population, based on ancestry and the common experience of historical enslavement (as I argue in my PhD thesis, President Obama was only legitimised as a representative of the African-American community by his wife, Michelle, as his father came directly from Africa and therefore did not share that experience of historical enslavement), whereas in Brazil, African ancestry is so widespread that many people who would be considered black elsewhere see themselves as white or ‘brown’ (pardo). As a result, ‘blackness’ is based on appearance and placed at one extreme of a continuum, the other end of which is ‘whiteness’. There are many shades and categories in between.

In Brazil, ‘race’ is identified not through ancestry but through markers – particularly skin colour, features and hair. Although she has full lips – de rigueur among models and actresses of any ethnicity nowadays – the features of the woman in the advert are European and considered attractive according to the white racialist aesthetic, particularly her nose. Even among the very few black women who make it into the modelling world in Brazil, there is a distinct preference for those with a ‘nariz afinada’ – an aquiline or Roman nose. This is nothing new, as racialist discourse has long given preference to such noses, seeing them as superior to ‘snub’ or ‘broad/flat’ breathing apparatus (N.B. by way of full disclosure, I have a ‘snub’ or ‘retroussé’ nose, and although, as far as I am aware, I am ‘white’, a white supremacist once told me that I could be black, based on the shape of my nose and lips).

As I pointed out to my African-American interlocutor – and I hope I made clear then and now – I am not denying that the fictional woman portrayed could, and probably would, self-identify as black in Brazil. I am not negating her self-perceived Blackness. The problem with the picture is that, to be truly ‘black’ by Brazilian lights – especially in Bahia – she should look more like Zezé Mota or Taís Araújo. Better yet, to mention a more familiar example for non-Brazilians, she should strongly resemble Lupita Nyong’o.

One response to “De/visualizing Blackness

  1. Agree totally. the experience of African ancestry is so different between the US and Brazil. In the US the choice is binary, as you note per the one-drop rule.Any unmistakably black features made you black. Whereas in Brazil, to an outsider, it seems there are an array of choices. I guess this owes in part to considerably more interrelations, historically, than in the US.
    But according to something I read some years ago, a surprisingly small percentage of the population in Brazil self-identified as black. It was an astonishing figure given the great numbers of Africans brought to Brazil. Given the economic marginalization and explicit racism faced by people of African (or Native) ancestry it’s little wonder why anyone given the ‘choice’ wouldn’t want to lighten their load.

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