“Do you have blacks, too?” Or so George W. Bush is supposed to have asked his Brazilian counterpart, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, when they met in the White House. (Did Dubya actually utter those words? Snopes.com, the urban myth encyclopaedia, is sceptical, but that respected NY Times reporter and veteran Brazil hand, Larry Rohter is confident it’s a true story.) Well, if the quote is genuine, I suppose there’s always a slim a chance the Texan got his false impression from watching Brazilian TV. Because on the small screen over there, non-white faces seem to be all but invisible — apart from on the football field or music shows, of course. I’ve been to Brazil four times now – it’s a fascinating place, and I can’t wait to pay another visit. Yet each time I can’t help noticing that, in a land where the majority of the population is non-white, the TV studios always seem to resemble the UK or the US, circa 1953. Whenever I switch on, the newsreaders are white, the reporters are white, the actors in those celebrated soap operas, the telenovelas, are white. Things were so bad last week that I actually kept my camera close at hand in my hotel room, just in case a black face appeared on the screen. Very, very odd.
More on this in an article I wrote for the Sunday Times last year [£], including a revealing quote from Vicente Lou, editor of Leros, the magazine catering to Brazilian expats in the UK:
Based back in Rio for the time being, he is strikingly upbeat about his country’s prospects. Nevertheless, over a drink in a bar in Ipanema named after the great Vinicius de Moraes, who wrote the lyrics of that 1960s anthem The Girl from Ipanema, he admitted race is an issue that has yet to be fully addressed. Could there be a Brazilian Obama, I asked him. Lou fears the answer is no, at least not yet. “Until recently, Brazilians tended to deny their African heritage, and the tendency is still there,” he says. “Most Brazilian mulattos, for example, tend to call themselves white — even Ronaldo, the former footballer, said in 2005 that he was white in an interview about racism. We only have one black judge in the Supreme Court, and I very much doubt Brazil would elect a black president in my lifetime. It takes more than a generation to change a culture.”
PS: And for another comparison with the US, see Larry Rohter’s observation in my Notebook section.