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 myriads of emotions.
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. Brazilian left-wing extremists, 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 jokers to the right 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 issue I have with the current mood when it comes to Brazilian talking about race. The varying issues are not treated as a human 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 (or came off as blatantly racist) 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, generally, is a country that prefers a more “See no evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil,” approach to living.
This lack of dialogue creates an almost schizophrenic or bi-polar society.
As it relates to race, here the black body, black culture, the black experience, and even black religions are exploited and lauded while simultaneously being kept in their “proper” place in another poorer but not so far off Brazil.
Here (with few exceptions) the mostly black-occupied ghettos are built side by side to the mostly white upper-class neighbourhoods – there is no real 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.
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 while pleading for blacks 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 racism and prejudice does happen. One example is the Daniel Alves story and the lot of monkey business involved with it.
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, though, 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 goalkeeper for the Brazilian team Santos, was called a monkey by Gremio fans (video here). Clearly, 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.
This incident is a microcosm of the major problem with most things Brazilian – there are rarely attempts to find real solutions to social ailments, but there are plenty of band-aids and bananas to go around. The whole episode was almost laughable if it weren’t so backwards and unsophisticated.
This nonsensical approach towards “fighting injustice” from one segment of society doesn’t fix much, rather, it creates a launching pad for other segments of society to take an opposite approach. They echo Morgan Freeman’s stance on racism: if you want it to get better then stop talking about it.
For many black (and even white) Americans, Freeman’s thoughts on the matter were reason for ridicule and so far removed from the very outspoken nature of the conversations we don’t fear having with each other about race relations, whether for good or bad. For many Brazilians, it is the status quo. Prevalent racism, by and large, really does not exist in many minds here.
Given the current political climate in Brazil which has caught up with the 1st world’s left vs right narrative, 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 and social 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 racist call him a monkey.
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