On the Matter of Black Representation in Popular Culture
by Diogo Henrique Bispo Dias
I am a man. I am a black man. I am a black man from Brazil. I am a black man from Brazil living in the United States. And it is from that perspective that I want to talk. Because while black social and political movements have had and continue to have a strong effect on American society and politics, things are a little different where I come from.
Of course we have black movements, and black Brazilian people fight against oppression every day, in every way that they are able. But while it’s possible for a movement like Black Lives Matter to flourish in the US and have a profound effect on American policing, such a movement could never even get off the ground in Brazil, for a simple reason: Everyone involved would be silenced in one way or another. The groundless arresting, brutalizing, and killing of black people by police in the US, which finally, after far too long, have become a serious concern in American politics, remain ordinary, accepted parts of Brazilian daily life. (The respective stories of Amarildo and Rafael Braga provide a glimpse of this ongoing, tragic reality.)
Segregation in the US was horrible and impossible to justify, and it’s amazing to realize how the American black community was able to turn such a nightmare into a source of power. Black neighborhoods became a focus of unity and resistance and birthed a rich amalgam of social and cultural movements. In Brazil, the story developed somewhat differently. Ours was more an economic segregation than a racial one. Poor people, regardless of their color, were pushed into the outskirts of the city — creating what are called favelas — where black people were and still are marginalized. We are constantly surveilled, arrested without warrant, and killed. When the police decide to invade these areas, usually claiming to be looking for drug dealers, more often than not black people are the ones caught in the crossfire. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, today, the security of Rio de Janeiro is literally being put into the hands of the military, with top-ranking General, Eduardo Villas Bôas, demanding that military personnel be given blanket immunity for their actions. In other words, they want a license to kill, and it isn’t hard to guess who their victims will be.
Last year, a law was proposed – and fortunately rejected – to ban and criminalize funk. A distinctive musical style born in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian funk is different from its American counterpart. The songs are frequently about intense violence and sex, and they are inflected with misogynistic undertones, although recently, more female singers have taken up the genre, as an opportunity to talk about women’s empowerment. The relevant point here, however, is that Brazilian funk is made by black people. The significance of this cannot be understated, because beyond this controversial musical genre, any form of culture created by black people was and/or is, persecuted: samba, rap, graffiti, and candomblé — a religion with African elements — just to name a few.
I’m stressing these differences, because it sometimes seems that Americans have a rather US-centric view of black people, their struggles, and their goals. To see what I’m talking about, consider Marvel’s most recent cinematic offering, Black Panther, which endeavors to depict a “successful black country,” named Wakanda. In doing so, we are told that Wakanda has infinite resources, vastly superior technology, and possibly the most powerful weapons in the world.
But that’s pretty much it. They spend more time showing the effective and visually stunning transportation system than the living conditions of the people. We have no idea what anyone’s life is like in Wakanda. Does the population have access to the remarkable medical advances we are shown? Are they free? How is wealth distributed? How do the Wakandans deal with conflict? What is the role of the common people in public affairs? Are men and women equal? (We know that both can be warriors and spies, but that’s it.) What are the values that this community embraces? The movie almost completely ignores such questions. Success is defined in largely American terms: power, resources, technology, and wealth. Do we black people want to be defined by that standard?
Progressively minded Americans today are all about promoting inclusiveness. We want more women in positions of authority, more overweight people in fashion marketing, and more black people pretty much anywhere we can get them. What worries me is that there is a common theme underlying all of these cases, one that is reflected in Black Panther’s Wakanda, namely that capitalism defines what it means to be included (and successful) in a society.
In a capitalist society, inclusiveness is defined in terms of being seen either as a product and/or a consumer. Black people have been seen as a product for centuries. We’ve been bought, sold, and exploited in every conceivable way. But now we are being seen as consumers too: there are movies made for black people, toys based on black characters, cosmetic products specifically designed for black hair and skin, etc.
But what if we want to question the consumerist identity that has been imposed on us? What if we want to reject being defined by capitalism? I mean, do I really want my kids to watch Denzel Washington movies and think that the American way of life is made for them too? Do I want them to believe in the myth of the self-made man? Do I want them to believe that if they work hard and remain true to their consciences, they’ll get what they deserve? Do I need another toy that I can’t afford? Is this the best way to tell my kids that society sees them as equals? Black people have been using oils and homemade creams to treat their hairs and skins for ages. Why, today, do we have to buy specific and very expensive products to do exactly the same thing?
Having black people promote products does give us a certain “equality,” but one defined in capitalist terms. Black consumers are the same as white consumers precisely because, at the end of the day, we are all consumers. We were forced into the capitalist system, we didn’t choose it. Indeed, being seen as products was the very premise upon which we entered this country. This is a framework that was neither designed by us nor for us.
Now that we finally have a voice, I think we should take a step back and ask ourselves if we really want more representation in all the entertainment and fashion industries. Do we want to be a part of a game that we have never been offered the opportunity to opt out of? I’m not suggesting an answer, but it seems clear to me, if nothing else, that the whole push for inclusiveness, which means being represented in all sorts of profit-driven celebrity institutions, already starts from the assumption that we want to be part of this system, and this is something we should question, in the toughest of terms.
And one thing I know for sure is this: No black kid will be any less likely to get shot by the police, because there’s a black guy in Star Wars.