Black Actresses as Symbols of Resistance to Brazilian Racial Democracy

This post is part of our forum on “Race and Latin America.”

A group of women pose for a photo during a march to mark the International Afro Latin American and Afro Caribbean Women’s Day on July 25, 2017. (Shuttershock/Nelson Antoine)

“Sou negra” (I am Black), declare Taís Araújo and Camila Pitanga, two of Brazil’s most marketable actresses. To declare oneself Black in Brazil is to affirm a Black identity in a nation that encourages Black disidentification in Brazil. This affirmation of Blackness challenges narratives of Brazilian racial democracy and mestiçagem (racial mixing). Racial democracy and mestiçagem are intertwined ideas that forward the claim that extensive racial mixing and fluid racial categories resulted in the absence of racism in Brazil. The disavowal of racism coupled with Brazilian identity as a mixed-race nation restricts the potential of Black affirmation, but Araújo and Pitanga present a transgressive vision of Black affirmation. Araújo and Pitanga reject the hegemony of racial democracy, and critique stable ideas of a singular Black woman’s experience. They refuse to render their Black female identities on behalf of idealized notions of racial mixing and racial democracy. By utilizing their celebrity stardom across various media platforms, their messaging of Black pride reaches a broad base of fans.

Brazil is crucial to understandings of Black resistance and anti-Blackness in the Americas. With the second largest population of people of African descent after Nigeria and with nonwhite Brazilians making up the majority of the Brazilian nation, the presence of a high Black population does not translate into Black empowerment. Brazil has long promoted itself as a racial paradise and a racial democracy based upon racial harmony and mestiçagem. Racial democracy relies on the idea that because there are no rigid racial lines that delineate Black from white in Brazil, racism and racial discrimination do not exist there. The espousal of racial mixing as a progression towards whitening coincides with the use of Black and Brown women’s bodies to produce a whiter nation. Although mixed Black women’s bodies are celebrated during Carnaval and samba shows, whiteness is prime social capital. Brazilian ideologies of whitening, based upon transnational scientific racism and eugenics, carved out public policies related to reproductive health, policing, education, housing, education and immigration. The idea of racial mixing became a solution for the Brazilian nation with the hope that whiteness would triumph. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the dominant national narrative of racial democracy began to crack with increased recognition of racism and Black social movements. During this same period of intensified Afro-Brazilian activism, Black actresses played an important role in strengthening Black identity and pride.

Celebrities function as symbols of the nation and as corporal conduits of meaning of national identity. Writing from a U.S. context, Sarah J. Jackson argues that Black celebrities challenge how mainstream media maintains oppressive structures. Concerning Brazilian female celebrities, Eurocentric ideals of beauty and associations of whiteness with modernity circulate to present Brazil as a white aspiring nation. For example, celebrities such as fashion model Gisele Bundchen present an ideal of beauty that the vast majority of Brazilians will never possess. Camila Pitanga and Taís Araújo’s ideas of Black consciousness, pride, and beauty stand in contrast to the dominant national narratives. Furthermore, Pitanga and Araújo activate their celebrity status and platform to explain the dynamic of racial democracy.

Taís Araújo and Camila Pitanga are the two major Black actresses in Brazil doing telenovelas—serial primetime television dramas. Due to the limited number of actors in the Brazilian telenovela studio system and the marginalization of Black actors, Araújo emerged as the principal Black actress from the 2000s onward. Brazilian telenovelas serve as a key base of Brazilian identity in both national and global imaginations. The leading Brazilian network and producer of telenovelas, TV Globo, reinforces racial myths. Telenovelas have historically marginalized nonwhite Brazilians while signifying whiteness as the ideal, as evident in the work of Joel Zita Araújo, Samantha Nogueira Joyce, and Reighan Gillam. Araújo and Pitanga stand out as exceptions in a white landscape. In 2004 Taís Araújo became the first Black actress to be a protagonist in a TV Globo telenovela in Da Cor do Pecado (The Color of Sin). Taís Araújo’s character of “Preta” (“Black”) in an interracial union with a wealthy white man also served to sexualize Black women as taboo. Araújo later was cast as the first Afro-Brazilian lead in a primetime telenovela in Viver a Vida (Seize the Day) in 2009. In the same year Camila Pitanga also played the protagonist in the telenovela Cama de Gato (Cat’s Cradle). Notably, both Araújo and Pitanga have phenotypical features associated with European beauty standards. With Pitanga’s lighter skin color, many Brazilians surveyed in 2008 regarded her not as Black but as morena, a vague term connotating a brunette-tan that was considered a polite way to address Afro-Brazilians due to the stigma of Blackness.

Although Pitanga’s role as a domestic in an interracial romance with a white male lead served to reinforce notions of mestiçagem through women’s bodies, the stardom of Pitanga and Araújo also served to present Black women’s identities as counternarratives to Brazilian discourses of mestiçagem. Pitanga’s and Araújo’s stardom coincided with increased recognition of the failures of the Brazilian promise of racial democracy coupled with continuing forms of racial violence and racial discrimination. The advent of affirmative action in universities and the mandating of the teaching of Afro-Brazilian history and culture in schools are all key markers of Black activism that coincided with the rising stardom of Pitanga and Araújo.

Araújo and Pitanga utilize their celebrity status as a mechanism to engage broader publics around questions of racial identity, and gender and racial justice. Rather than the Brazilian saying that “money whitens,” Pitanga and Araújo’s star power increased as they persisted in Black identification. Beyond telenovelas, they appear in films, television commercials, magazine covers, and advertising campaigns. Pitanga directed Pitanga, a 2017 documentary film on her father Antonio Pitanga, a well-known Afro-Brazilian activist and actor. Araújo has starred in and produced major theater productions on race. With this star power, they use interviews, television talk shows, NGO campaigns, and social media to specifically address racism. As Bruno Guaraná argues, Taís Araújo has taken control over her celebrity persona and in this process, become Black through the articulation of a Black identity. Pitanga has consistently resisted the morena label and pointed out that the inability to see her as Black, or that she is “too pretty to be Black” is an indication of the pervasiveness of racism. In this case, Pitanga is actively resisting the push with an embrace, rather than a rejection of Black branqueamento (“whitening”) identity. In a campaign video for her role as an ambassador for UN Women, Pitanga stated, “não sou morena, nem mulata. Sou negra”—“I’m not morena or mulata. I am Black”—as a way to subvert the Brazilian celebration of mixture for whitening or connotations of sexual availability. Instead, negra becomes a political identity as Pitanga states that to declare oneself as a Black woman is not just an identitarian affirmation but a political affirmation. In a campaign for the 2010 census, Araújo declared a Black identity and stated her skin was “preta” (Black). As preta has been stigmatized as ugly or undesirable, Araújo’s embrace of Blackness and her encouragement of Brazilians to be counted means that claiming her Black identity is political when put in the context of Brazilian ideologies of mestiçagem.

Black magazines such as Raça in Brazil and social media accounts offer ways for Afro-Brazilian celebrities to critique and challenge the racial order. Araújo has openly shared her experiences with racism. On her Facebook page, users left derogatory remarks comparing her to animals or made sexually explicit remarks highlighting the presumed hypersexuality of Black women. Araújo chose to use social media as evidence of the pervasiveness of racism while also taking legal action. Social media users used the hashtag #SomosTodosTais as a mode of support. Even though this attention was paid to celebrities rather than everyday Brazilians, Araújo did further bring the discussion of racism into the public sphere. Araújo’s expressions of the material impacts of racism are significant in a country that often fetishizes Blackness. For example, in an interview with Xuxa, a famous white-blond blue-eyed singer television personality, Araújo related the realities of Black struggles. Xuxa had expressed that she wishes she was born Black and would have “golden, tan, Black” skin like that of Araújo. Yet Araújo quickly took away the façade of Blackness as romanticized sensual pleasure for consumption. Araújo responded that she loves being Black, but the problem is not her, but the world outside. Aráujo’s response demonstrates that the problem is not Blackness itself but anti-Blackness. In the 2023 Forbes survey to determine the most admired Brazilian women, Taís Araújo emerged as eighth overall, and one of two Black women, along with political activist Marina da Silva. The path towards Black feminist empowerment still demonstrates a struggle in that the second most admired woman was Michelle Bolsonaro, the wife of right wing ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly made racist and misogynistic remarks. Nonetheless, actresses such as Araújo and Pitanga are symbols of Black feminist empowerment and see themselves as part of a long-standing legacy of Black women in uncovering the myth of racial democracy for a new vision based on racial and gender justice.

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Jasmine Mitchell

Jasmine Mitchell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Media Studies and Communication at the State University of New York-Old Westbury. Her book, Imagining the Mulatta: Managing Blackness in US and Brazilian Media examines contemporary media representations of mixed-black women in the US and Brazil.