The Complexity of Brazil’s Race Politics and a Little Black Kid Who Wanted to be Abu

During Brazil’s 2016 Carnival season a picture popped up on social media. It was of a little black boy dressed as Abu from the Disney movie Aladdin. He is on the shoulder of a man dressed as the title character, who is himself accompanied by a woman dressed as Jasmine. Not surprisingly this photo garnered a lot of reaction – feelings ran from indignation to indifference to accusations of racism for seeing the only black individual in the picture portrayed as a monkey. It’s important to know about the ugly historical context of how comparing black people to apes has its roots in dehumanizing an entire people to understand these myriad of emotions.

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A happy family. Mateus, Fernando, and his wife Cíntia enjoying Carnival.

The man in the photo, Fernando Bustamante, wrote a quick apology and explanation for the incident. He expressed that the last thing on his mind was racist overtones and that he is the child’s adopted father. Furthermore, the boy, Mateus, chose the costume himself. The intent of the garbs, he claims, was too symbolize a great family.

His comments came too late for those who put ideology above substance, though. The Brazilian left wing, who are like ambulance chasers for their respective civil rights movements, co-opted the image and called for the father’s head without at the very least opening a dialogue. And the right wing did no better. They went to their usual reactionary mantra of racism is only in your head while posting pictures of white children in monkey outfits next to the image of the Mateus and asking, “Why is one racist and not the other?”

This incident exemplifies the main problem in Brazilian race talks. The varying issues are not treated as a reality but as political fodder – a means to an end. A quick analysis of the situation would have shown that the father did not act with malintent, and should not have been vilified in the manner in which he was. On the other hand, right wing talking points excluded many from pointing out the obvious: that image, without proper context, was somewhat jarring for some.

Mr. Bustamante may have been a bit naive to disregard the differences between the white and black experience in this country, but can one blame him? Brazil, like the good Catholic country that it is, either covers its sins well or doesn’t speak about them. This lack of dialogue creates an almost schizophrenic society. Here the black body, culture, experience, and even religions are exploited and lauded while simultaneously being kept in their place in another poorer but not so far off Brazil. Here the mainly black occupied ghettos are built side by side to the mainly rich white neighborhoods – there is no other side of town.  Here “everyone gets along” while keeping their relative distance. This image of a boy and his father is a metaphor for this perfect contradiction. It portrays both a father’s love (and he should be applauded for adopting a black child, as they are still at the bottom of the barrel on adoption lists), and the ignorance that many non-blacks have of the lives of a large portion of the Brazilian population. It’s a photo which is as right as it is wrong.

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Social and racial inequality living side by side.

The question then becomes: How can Brazil begin to move ahead in this conversation in meaningful ways? With the current ideological divide of us vs them, I find it hard to believe that any real progress will be made when it comes to bringing people together. Blacks will continue to feel that they are under represented and marginalized, while whites will continue to feel that Brazil does not have a serious race problem, and that blacks need to stop playing victim. There will be a million Facebook debates and internet memes created in the meantime.

To exacerbate matters, this politicizing of every minutia of daily living has left much of Brazil void of common sense when actual racist events do happen. One example is the Daniel Alves story and the lot of monkey business involved with it.

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“We Are All Monkeys” T-Shirt.

In 2014, Brazilian soccer player Daniel Alves had a banana thrown at him during a match for Barcelona (video here). This prompted the Brazilian made We Are All Monkeys campaign, spearheaded by Neymar and the Loducca ad agency. Daniel Alves himself went on to say that he was not a fan of the campaign at first, as he would rather think of people as humans and not monkeys. Later he changed his tune and said it was hypocritical for people to criticize the campaign which was meant to fight racism – even posing with for a picture with a banana. And indeed many  Brazilian black movements (among other people) were not pleased with the banality of the slogan that compared any human to an animal. To compound matters, only some months later, Aranha, the goal keeper for the Brazilian team Santos, was called a monkey by Gremio fans (video here). Obviously racism didn’t end with the We Are All Monkeys campaign, but a lot of t-shirts with the slogan were put up for sale.

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Daniel Alves posing with a banana.

This incident is a microcosm of the major problem with most things Brazilian – there are rarely attempts to find real solutions to ailments, but there are plenty of band-aids and bananas to go around. The episode was almost laughable, if it weren’t so backwards and unsophisticated.

This repetitive overall silliness from what is mostly the Brazilian left has only created a big void for the right to take its opposite approach. Many have latched on to the Morgan Freeman stance on racism: if you want it to get better then stop talking about it. This may come off as a different or surprising approach to an American audience, but it is an echo of the status-quo here in Brazil. Prevalent racism, by and large, really does not exist in many minds.

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Given the current political climate, this schism of us vs them may never be fixed. The inability to step into another person’s shoes is plaguing constructive resolutions, and not only in Brazil. This father’s picture could have led to great debates and intelligent discourse. The fact that it did the exact opposite is proof of how both blacks and whites in Brazil have sold themselves to the Gods of political ideology that don’t seek realistic answers but cultural domination. In the spirit of looking at this issue from both sides, I truly hope that this little boy had a fun day dressed as Abu, but I also hope he never has to hear a white person call him monkey.

P. Ray

Read my thoughts on Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance here.

Follow me on Facebook at The Bridge Point.

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3 Responses to The Complexity of Brazil’s Race Politics and a Little Black Kid Who Wanted to be Abu

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