De/visualizing Blackness


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.

Looking back on 2015: A disturbing trend in Brazil


Graffiti artists’ protest against the Cabula massacre, seen in that district in 2015. Photo by Sabrina Gledhill (all rights reserved)

On 6 February, 2015, policemen shot and killed 12 robbery suspects in the Cabula district of Salvador, Bahia. An internal investigation by state’s Public Prosecutor’s office found that the victims – all of them young black men – had been executed. The black movement calls it genocide, a disturbing trend in a country where racism has traditionally been veiled and racially motivated lynching almost unheard of. That being said, exterminating street children (the best-known incident being the Candelaria massacre in Rio in 1993) and known or suspected criminals as if they were vermin is nothing new in Brazil. Ironically, there is no official death penalty in that country.


The graffiti art in the photo illustrating this post was not the only response to the Cabula massacre by the Bahian arts community. From May to August 2015, the Museu Afro-Brasileiro (MAFRO) held an exhibition curated by the museum’s director, Graça Teixeira that displayed thought-provoking installations and artworks protesting the genocide of black youth in Brazil.































What do Brazilians look like?

I recently came across an article that has sparked all kinds of responses online and the time has come to add one of my own. Titled Future Humans Will All Look Brazilian, Researcher Says it naturally caught my eye! Without even reading it, my first question was, which Brazilians, from where? 

Xuxa and Pelé

Xuxa and Pelé when they were dating

While I was brunching in Paris with a fellow Brit earlier this year, two women asked to share our table and started speaking Spanish. I initially assumed they were from Spain, since we were in Europe. Also, one was “Mediterranean” looking and the other was a blue-eyed blonde, which is entirely possible in Iberia. When we eventually joined in the conversation (in English), it turned out that the “Mediterranean” woman was from Argentina and the blonde was…wait for it…from Brazil! My British companion was surprised, and said she didn’t look Brazilian. I explained that they come in all shapes and sizes.

The reason for that is immigration – and a policy of “whitening” that began in the 19th century. There is a large population of German descent in southern Brazil whose best-known representative nowadays is Gisele Bundschen (note the German-sounding surname!). It comes as a surprise to some that long before the influx of Nazis on the run after Hitler’s defeat in the mid-1940s, a much bigger wave of migrants arrived in what is now the state of Santa Catarina in the 1800s from the region now called Germany. There is even a city called Blumenau, founded in 1850, that holds an annual Oktoberfest.

Many Italians settled in the Central South, and there is a large population of Italian descent in São Paulo. A popular soap opera, Terra Nostra (1999-2000), portrayed the stories of white immigrants from Italy who replaced black slave labour on coffee farms in São Paulo State at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries.

Centuries of racial mixture and  immigration, not only from Europe but from Asia and other parts of South America, as well as more recent arrivals from Africa (particularly former Portuguese colonies) have resulted in Brazilians of all colours on a wide spectrum ranging from Pelé to Gisele and even paler and blonder than she (like TV children’s presenter Xuxa Meneghel, also Pelé’s former girlfriend). However, there is an image of what Brazilians should look like, formed among Brazilians themselves.

The original “three sad races” of Brazil are Amerindians, Europeans and Africans, in order of arrival, and the population that resulted from that mixture is considered “typically” Brazilian. For that reason, people of Asian descent, for example, may never be considered 100% Brazilian. A third-generation Sansei will find him or herself referred to as “Japa” because of their appearance. I have read of cases where Nipo-Brazilian workers in Japan – dekasseguis – feel more Brazilian outside their country than they do at home.

For more information on race relations in Brazil today, see my entry on that subject in the Brazil Today encyclopaedia

A new fable: the blind men and Brazil

It often happens that people from different backgrounds come to Brazil, visit one or two parts of the country, and reach general conclusions based on their own specific experience. It is like the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, each of whom concludes that the creature is a  rope, spear, wall or tree trunk based on the part they have been able to touch – a slender tail, a sharp ivory tusk, a broad flank, or a a stout, round leg. Well, Brazil is just like that elephant – the sum of its very different parts.  Not only that, but the response a visitor will get depends on several factors: national origin, skin colour, and above all, money – or lack thereof.

A wealthy white woman who can afford assistants, nannies, tour guides and the best hotels, will find herself showered with love. If her baby scatters food all over the table and crawls on the floor of a restaurant, the waiters and cleaners will grit their teeth and only speak up when the tyke gets too close to the stairs. If the visitor is a woman of colour with a small baby, she might get some sympathy. Then again, people might assume she is the nanny. If she finds herself in the wrong neighbourhood, she could get caught up in the sweep of “undesirables” leading up to the World Cup. And if the woman of colour has money, she had better show it – appearances are everything.

An African American clad in Gucci or Prada will never feel the sting of racial discrimination, but woe betide a member of that community who turns up in an old T-shirt, flip-flops and bermuda shorts. Until they open their mouths and display their accents – or complete lack of Portuguese – they could find themselves lined up with the usual suspects, or worse. Younger African American women will be considered sex objects in Brazil. If they stay at a fancy hotel, they could find themselves treated like hookers and refused service at the restaurant. Unless they’re wearing Gucci or Prada…

Back to blogging

Oba Gesi and Wara OminIt’s been quite a while since I’ve posted on this blog. I’ve been inspired to get back to it by a British blogger who is visiting Brazil and posting her impressions. I also get questions on Brazil – especially race relations – via Facebook, which has been my main “blogging” platform for the past few years (basically because I’ve been too busy to sit down and write). What has changed? Today is Mardi Gras – an official holiday in Brazil. Plus, I turned in my dissertation on 18th February – I’m due to defend it on 18th March – so I can focus on other things. To start with, here’s a link to an entry I wrote for Brazil Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic, titled Race Relations in Brazil Today I welcome your comments and questions (especially those which can’t be answered by Googling).

Seminar on Manuel Querino

Last week, from August 25 to 29, I took part in the National Seminar on the Life and Works of Manuel Querino at the Geographic and Historical Institute of Bahia (IGHB) in Salvador, Bahia. The speakers during the week-long event included Maria das Graças Andrade Leal, the author of a PhD dissertation on Querino’s life (a biography based on his work), Vanda Machado, who discussed Querino’s impact on African-Brazilians today, Vivaldo da Costa Lima, an anthropologist who focused on Querino’s work on Bahian cuisine, Luiz Alberto Ribeiro Freire, who discussed Querino as a pioneer in Bahian art history, Wlamyra Albuquerque, who spoke about Querino and his involvement in an African-inspired Carnival group, Mestre Cobra Mansa, who gave a presentation on his research into the African roots of Capoeira Angola, and Ilana Seltzer Goldstein, the author of O Brasil Best-Seller de Jorge Amado, who concentrated on Tent of Miracles and its main character, partly inspired by Querino.

I gave two talks, one on Manuel Querino’s struggle against pseudo-scientific racism and another, representing Consuelo Novais Sampaio, on E. Bradford Burns’s studies of Querino. For more information (in Portuguese) see my blog on Querino –

Manuel Querino at Brasa IX

I attended Brasa IX, the ninth congress of the Brazilian Studies Association, held at Tulane University in New Orleans, from March 27 to 29. On the afternoon of the 29th, I gave a presentation on Manuel Querino: the biographical section of “Manuel Querino: Um Pioneiro e Seu Tempo” (Manuel Querino: A Pioneer and His Time).

The conference was a very rewarding experience – well worth the long, exhausting and expensive trip from the Northeast of Brazil. Better yet, most of the panels I attended made it clear that Manuel Querino is more relevant and significant than ever. Several papers stressed the need to produce and disseminate positive images of blacks in Brazil, from slave times to the present. That was exactly what Querino strove to do during the last stage of his lifelong activism (after being a republican, abolitionist, labour leader and politician) – he was one of the “indispensable” ones, as defined by Bertolt Brecht.*

The audience for the panel in which I took part was small, but the response was very encouraging. It became clear that Querino has something to offer to people from different fields: art history, ethnography, folklore, black history and Brazilian history in general. One question that came up after my presentation merits further reflection: why was Querino overlooked and excluded from the official history of African-Brazilian studies in Brazil, by none other than Gilberto Freyre?

The simple answer is that he was a victim of ostracism and scorn because of his colour. But it goes further than that: in the words of folklorist Frederico Edelweiss, “How often [Querino] must have heard that pat and still common line: ‘what an uppity Negro!’ His vindication of his black brothers made him more enemies than friends; many more enemies…” In other words, Querino is yet another example of the “trap door” aspect of the “mulatto escape hatch”.

*There are men who struggle for a day, and they are good;
There are others who struggle for a year, and they are better;
There are those who struggle for many years, and they are very good;
But there are some who struggle all their lives,
And they are indispensable.

– Bertolt Brecht

Talk on Manuel Querino in New Orleans

BRASA IX, the 2008 edition of the Brazilian Studies Association’s annual conference, will be held in New Orleans from March 27-29. I will be giving a talk on the 29th, titled Manuel Querino (1851-1923) – Brazil’s First Black Vindicationist as part of the panel on Racial and Ethnic Representations in 19th-Century Brazil

You can download my paper “Manuel Querino – Um Pioneiro e Seu Tempo” here (BRASA website) and here (my Querino blog)