Use of blackface in Brazil Carnival parade sparks debate

A top samba school's use of blackface in a Carnival parade sparked debate Tuesday about depictions of race in Brazil, which is still grappling with a fraught racial legacy.

The storied Salgueiro school's performance in the early hours of Tuesday featured two groups in blackface in a parade that paid tribute to African culture and black women, in particular.

Many took to Twitter to express shock the school relied on a trope that has historically been used to depict black people in demeaning ways. White performers in minstrel shows in the United States used black face paint in racist caricatures of black people through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. While Brazil doesn't have the same history of minstrelsy, there is a legacy of denigrating caricatures of black people.

"Shoot, Salgueiro! Blackface? In this day and age 2018?" tweeted Renan Wilbert, who is from Rio de Janeiro.

Though Brazil was the world's largest slave market and also the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, modern Brazil often perpetuated a myth of a colorblind, harmonious society. For decades, discussing racism was taboo, but Brazilians are slowly beginning to talk about prejudice and the way the country's searing inequality is racially tinged.

People of color, despite making up more than half the population, have only recently begun to gain access in significant numbers to areas that traditionally excluded them, like universities, prominent acting roles and senior political positions.

Dark-skinned Brazilians are more likely to be poor or suffer violence than their white counterparts. Salgueiro even made reference to that reality, ending the parade with a depiction of the "Pieta" that honored black mothers who had lost their children to violence on Brazil's streets.

In their coverage of the night's parades in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome, much of Brazil's media described the face paint in neutral terms.

But many Brazilians thought the use of black face paint detracted from the school's message of celebration and tolerance. Lucia Xavier, who is the coordinator for Criola, a group that promotes the rights of black women in Brazil, said she thought it was distasteful, even if she understood there were artistic considerations.

"It was not necessary to use blackface. There are a lot of black people in this country!" she said.

On Twitter, some defended the school, saying that it was wrong to label as blackface the mere use of black paint since the practice historically involved demeaning depictions as well.

Members of the school told O Globo newspaper that the subject never came up during rehearsals, despite the fact that many of the performers are black.

"The plot was Afro. It was a more historic Afro, so we needed these darker features," Helio Bejani, a choreographer for the school, was quoted as saying. "The makeup was the only way to achieve the right tone."

But Barbara Weinstein, an academic who writes about race in Brazil, said the use of blackface implies some kind of limitation on how black people can present themselves — and that its history is known the world over.

"It's very recognizable, people understand what it meant and continues to mean," said Weinstein, who is a professor of Latin American history, specializing in Brazil, at New York University. "So the argument that this isn't a Brazilian tradition really doesn't work because the African diaspora is a really transnational world."

James N. Green, director of the Brazil Initiative at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, said it made sense that there would be confusion over how to interpret blackface in Brazil, since it originated outside the country: Some people are referencing the American history and critique of the practice, while others are resisting taking on what many in Brazil see as America's more fraught racial legacy.

He said it's possible that the school was using blackface as a way to affirm blackness.

"There's always been a current in Brazilian history of affirming people's Africanness," said Green. It's a way of saying: "No there are not 179 categories (of skin tone), there's just really white and black."


Sarah DiLorenzo on Twitter:

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Nation & World

Florida Little Caesars employee kills man in Halloween mask
Florida Little Caesars employee kills man in Halloween mask

A Little Caesars employee in Volusia County, Florida, shot and killed a masked man who attacked him with a wooden post and scissors late Saturday,  Heriberto Feliciano, 28, was working at the pizza parlor in Holly HIll when he was attacked by a man wearing a "clown mask," police said.  The masked man, who police have not identified...
Marine’s murder in Belize remains unsolved one year later
Marine’s murder in Belize remains unsolved one year later

Brandon Barfield has kept his best friend’s room just the way he left it. Drew DeVoursney’s black suit still hangs in the closet of the West Palm Beach home they shared. And his guitar — the one he used to perform Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers songs while they were both deployed in Iraq — rests beside the bed he slept in...
Delta warns of flight cancellations due to subtropical storm Alberto
Delta warns of flight cancellations due to subtropical storm Alberto

Delta Air Lines is warning that it expects it will have to cancel flights due to subtropical storm Alberto. The storm is expected to make landfall just west of Panama City on Monday afternoon with heavy rain and strong wind affecting areas in Alberto’s path, according to Delta. Atlanta-based Delta said it expects delays and cancellations...
15-year-old girl missing since Tuesday in Mississippi, parents want answers
15-year-old girl missing since Tuesday in Mississippi, parents want answers

A Mississippi family is desperate for answers after one of their own, 15-year-old Eileen Betlinski-Brown, went missing Tuesday in Horn Lake, Mississippi. “It’s just way, way, way too real. I guess you call it stressful to say the least. Scary. Not knowing what’s happening,” said Eileen’s grandfather, James Betlinski. Betlinski...
Man, 79, pleads no contest to raping girl, 5, sentenced to 90 days house arrest
Man, 79, pleads no contest to raping girl, 5, sentenced to 90 days house arrest

A California businessman pleaded no contest to statutory rape of a 5-year-old girl Wednesday, and, as part of a negotiated deal with the San Joaquin County Superior Court, was sentenced to 90 days house arrest and will not have to register as a sex offender. Lyle Burgess, 79, of Stockton, sexually assaulted the girl, who is now 7, after her family...
More Stories