How Do You Draw the Lines of Cultural Appropriation When Everyone “Is A Little Bit Black”

19 September 2019

Country: Brazil

by: Sofia Ferreira Santos

Brazilian singer Anitta sparked an international debate when she released a music video for her song Vai Malandra in late 2017. Some praised the singer for showcasing Afro-Brazilian and favela (historically black, often poor and underserved neighbourhoods) culture to the wider international public, as she sported a dark tan and long braids while wearing a bikini made out of black-tape, a style commonly used by favela residents to sunbathe on the roof tops. However, many were offended by her use of these symbols to lucratively promote her song and image–even though she grew up in a favela, herself.

Anitta hit back at the 373 million viewers, claiming that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist in a country where “everyone is a little bit black.” It was not the first time a white or mixed Brazilian celebrity was accused of appropriating Afro-Brazilian culture for Instagram shots or video aesthetic. But, unlike in the West, where the boundary appears clearer, in a mixed-race country like Brazil where everyone really is “a little bit black,” it is difficult to establish clear boundaries around race or agree on a singular narrative when it comes to cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic all over the world, and social media has made it easier for the debate to cross borders. However, Brazil’s cultural and historical context makes the debate more complicated than it is in the West. In some ways, Anitta’s statement isn’t wrong: many Brazilians do lie in a grey area of several generations of mixed racial identity, which becomes particularly confusing when it comes to what they can and can’t do. Because of this, conversations about race and topics like cultural appropriation are often silenced in the mainstream Brazilian media, as opposed to being explored and unpacked.

As a mixed Brazilian living in the UK, it’s easy to notice the difference in media narratives between the UK and Brazil surrounding debates about ‘wokeness’. Whereas UK media debates from both sides of the spectrum, with some outlets rejecting the concept and some denunciating its offenders, the presence of this debate in Brazilian media is almost non-existent. Though the dust is brushed off every now and then when a white celebrity sports an Afro hairstyle or has their tan one shade too dark, the general consensus is that we shouldn’t talk about race. Instead of hiding from the debate and its complexities, Brazil’s many mixed identities would benefit from talking about and establishing an open conversation about race and cultural appropriation. But to do so, we need to create our own definition of these issues – one which isn’t based on Western ideas about race.

Being the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery, abolition in Brazil resulted in millions of displaced African and Brazilian-born enslaved people having to create their own communities – the favelas – and rediscover their African heritage in a new country. It also led to something Europeans named the ‘negro problem’: there were now millions of unemployed and uneducated people colonials could no longer exploit. Worst of all in their eyes: they were all black. From this ‘problem’, the ideas of branqueamento (whitening) and mestiçagem (race-mixing) were born. Europeans and Brazilian-born whites decided the only way to erase this blackness was through mixing with Africans and black Brazilians – they eradicated laws banning mixed-relationships and marriage, which created the wide, Brazilian ethnic diversity that we see today.

As a result, being ‘mixed’ in Brazil can mean a variety of different things – particularly since most Brazilians now come from a long line of ‘mixed’ relatives. In Europe, the concept is different – ‘I’m mixed’ typically suggests one has a fully white and a fully Black, Middle Eastern or Asian parent.  Of course, there are mixed communities in the UK too – but these identities are usually based on two ethnicities, instead of 5 or 6 or god-knows-how-many as is common in Brazil. Though their ideas about race and racial demographics are completely different, one thing Brazil and the UK have in common is that both countries still operate on a system which automatically benefits those who are white and creates obstacles for those who are black.

Think about race talk. Both countries hear a similar excuse from people who have just been accused of saying something racist: “but I have a black friend/neighbour/fourth-cousin, so I’m not racist.” This argument often won’t find any legs to stand on in the UK, but what happens if the argument becomes ‘my dad/mum is black/mixed’ or ‘I’m mixed’? Are people allowed to say the n-word then? Talking to my white British friends, I found a funny yet unsurprising response: there was a consensus that white people can’t, black people can, and mixed people can choose whether they say it or not. But is that necessarily true? And if the majority of Brazil’s population identifies as mixed, how do these rules apply? And why are we allowing white people to make the rules?

There is a desperate need to open up a conversation about cultural appropriation and race which distances itself from Western ideas and focuses on the specifics of a country with a population which does not fit into the Western binary of white or black. Though people of mixed backgrounds still face inequalities, black communities in Brazil face the same racist and colourist oppression that black communities in the UK face daily. People like Anitta aren’t seen as black, and because of this she will never experience the same oppression as black women regardless of her mixed heritage. For Anitta, she was able to pick and choose which “Black” features she wanted: thinning her nose and permanently straightening her curly hair, while enhancing her curvy body and topping up the tan when it suits her aesthetic. Though mixed Brazilians may have black heritage, wearing black hairstyles or sporting turbantes doesn’t pose them any danger as it does to black Brazilians and doesn’t usually carry the same cultural significance as it does to Afro-Brazilians, either. Using mixed heritage as a way of excusing oneself from criticism creates the sentiment of a ‘free-for-all’ around cultural practices and objects which often have a significant or spiritual meaning to some communities. The absence of debates around these issues allows mixed Brazilians and white Brazilians to justify their racist actions because there is no established standard for them to follow, and at the same time, limits how much mixed Brazilians interact with and embrace their heritage. Talking about race will allow Brazilians to establish a right or wrong which focuses on a realistic Brazilian ethnic spectrum rather than a Western one, beginning to erase the grey area which allows Afro-Brazilian culture and aesthetic to be taken and moulded by mixed and white Brazilians when it suits them.

For more about cultural appropriation, check out our data analysis of who Googles it and why, here. For more on Brazil, check out our article on Jair Bolsonaro and the power of memes, here.

Sofia Ferreira Santos is a Brazilian journalist living in East London. She tweets at @sofiferreiras.