Notes on the Racial Contours of Visual Culture in São Paulo, Brazil

Notes on the Racial Contours of Visual Culture in São Paulo, Brazil

Volume 17 (2012-12-18)

Reighan Gillam, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Department of Afroamerican and African Studies
University of Michigan

In this three part series of essays I will consider some of the aspects of race and visuality in Brazil. This article will lay out the dominant ways in which Afro-Brazilians are represented in the public sphere and describe the racial logics that sustain these images. The next two articles will probe the domestic and international incursions into the racial visual field.

On one of my meetings with Renato Ribeiro, an Afro-Brazilian media worker, we walked along the crowded streets of São Paulo en route to eat lunch and talk about his experience working in mainstream and alternative black media. I jogged beside him in order to keep up with his short, brusque strides, and listened to him tell me about the hegemony of whiteness in the national media. He suddenly stopped in front of one of the bancos das revistas or magazine stands that punctuate the city’s sidewalks and illustrated his point by gesturing towards the covers facing us and saying, “look at the capas (covers) of the magazines facing us. They are all white people…of course except for Revista Raça (Race Magazine).” Race Magazine is Brazil’s only national magazine that represents Afro-Brazilians and a quick scan of the magazine’s stand’s content proved his point. In recognizing the magazine stands as visual sites of racial representations, Renato also drew attention to the ways in which visual culture is embedded within the landscape of the city and the racial implications of its depictions.

That someone would point out the dominance of whiteness in the media is not new. What is different is the national context of Brazil and the racial ideologies that underpin the forms that some representations take. Although becoming increasingly more common, racial critiques of the media and other areas of power have largely been silenced or ignored by the belief in racial democracy that many Brazilians sustain. The idea of racial democracy in Brazil ascribes the origins of the national population to mixture between Portuguese, African, and Indigenous peoples. It is commonly thought that this mixture blurred the boundaries between distinct racial groups and thus acts as a barrier against racism or racial prejudice. Although scholars have documented the ways in which racism continues to marginalize Afro-Brazilian access to economic, political, and social power, general ideas about racial democracy continue to underwrite a pervasive silence around discussing race or racial inequality among the general Brazilian populace. Thus when Renato levies a racial critique of the magazine stand’s visual contents, he articulates a view often unheard among many segments of the population…

Read the entire article here.

Read part 2, “Watching Everybody Hates Chris in Brazil” (2013-03-05).
Read part 3, “Afro-Brazilian Public Sphere” (2013-05-07).

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