In “Blacks in Brazil,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. talked about how Chica da Silva, a slave who gained her freedom and became rich, was able to “almost escape her blackness.” In a film about da Silva, we see the actress depicting her, Zezé Motta, in “whiteface,” thus portraying da Silva’s desire for something more than a privileged life, namely, to look white. Many people are familiar with blackface, a manifestation of racism in which white actors portrayed blacks by painting their faces, usually depicting a stereotyped image of blacks in subservient roles. Even in Brazil, people talk about “blackface,” using the English word. Some people in the U.S. may be less familiar with, and less conscious of, the social climbing through miscegenation that has happened in various societies (not just U.S., nor just lusophone). Of course, miscegenation produces a real whitening of the skin. Whiteface was more like blackface, a literal painting on of whiteness, and yet in some ways it is its opposite. It is, at least sometimes, a way of trying to get closer to that which one wants to be, not a way of oppressing the Other. Another famous example of someone painting his face white to, possibly, reduce or erase to an extent his blackness, is Carlos Alberto, a soccer player who played for Fluminense in Brazil in the early 20th century. No one seems to debate the fact that he put face powder or pó de arroz (literally “rice powder”) on his face. What is disputed is the reason why. Some say it was simply something he did after shaving. Others suggest it is indicative of the racism that existed in the soccer club; that is, that it was a way of seeming whiter, and therefore a way of making him seem more fitting for the team. It’s not hard to believe this was true, given that racism has its links to soccer even to this day, existing among some fans, as well as in the clubs themselves. Racist comments and actions by fans, such as calling players monkeys, are too often tolerated, which has caused an increase in racism, according to a 2015 study cited in the Brazil edition of the Huffington Post. Soccer is, not surprisingly, not the only place where racism is on display. A woman who has been called Brazil’s Beyoncé, Taís Araújo faced similar racist attacks online in early 2015. Meanwhile, Beyoncé, as a reaction to criticism that she was not “black enough,” sat in blackface for a photo shoot at Rolling Stone, and then faced further criticism for this act. Black people painting their faces white seems to be a fairly rare event, but white people wearing blackface – despite the fact that it is almost always quickly and roundly critiqued as racist – continues. As recently as the 2017 Carnaval celebration in Salvador, Brazil, singer Daniela Mercury appeared with her skin darkened and donning a large afro wig. She was immediately criticized in social media. Her response: She is a “black person with white skin,” meaning that she feels more tied culturally to traditions that have their roots in Africa, as opposed to those that originated in Europe. It seems to me that, as a “black person with white skin,” if such a person can exist, Mercury ought to be more sensitive to the history of oppression and racism that is connected to blackface.
https://youtu.be/Gh7c46U5hhY (Black in Brazil, PBS documentary featuring Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
http://www.fluminense.com.br/site/futebol/2015/05/13/conheca-a-verdadeira-historia-sobre-a-origem-do-po-de-arroz/ (about Carlos Alberto)
http://www.huffpostbrasil.com/2015/11/01/tais-araujo-racismo_n_8444978.html (about Taís Araújo)
http://www.huffpostbrasil.com/2017/02/28/daniela-mercury-quis-promover-o-empoderamento-negro-mas-receb_a_21859132/ (about Daniela Mercury)