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A New Color in Brazil TV

Blacks make up nearly half the population, but they were a rarity on screen. Now there's a channel for them -- one critics decry as racist.

January 12, 2006|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, Brazil — The phone call from the budding station that launched Adyel Silva's television career seemed like a joke.

Sure, as a singer, Silva was used to the spotlight. But who would offer her a shot at fronting her own daytime show?

"I laughed when I received the invitation because I never dreamed of hosting a television program. You never see a black woman hosting a TV show" in Brazil, Silva said. "We were never thought capable. Maybe I'm the first."

It turned out that the channel extending the offer, TV da Gente, wasn't just taking a chance on Silva. The channel itself, which debuted in late November, is something of a gamble -- Brazil's first black-owned TV station featuring programming directed primarily at black viewers.

That it has the potential to be a lucrative venture seems obvious in a country with the largest black population outside Africa -- nearly half of Brazil's 180 million people. But the fact that it took so long to emerge, 25 years after African Americans first established their own cable TV network in the U.S., attests to attitudes about race that are pervasive in Brazilian society.

Surf the channels on Brazilian TV and a clutch of beautiful people quickly crowds the screen: bikinied models, stubble-cheeked soap opera leads, natty news anchors. All are svelte and good-looking. Virtually all are white.

When darker-skinned characters crop up in TV dramas, almost invariably they appear as maids and other domestic workers, or worse. "The soap operas here, the black people are always miserable, and they have an important role only when you're talking about crime," said Silva, 50.

"You grow up with the idea that if you're not blond and you don't have blue eyes, you're not beautiful," she said. "You switch on the television and you see Xuxa," the kittenish, blond former soft-porn actress who is now one of the most popular stars of children's TV in Brazil.

The mission of TV da Gente, or Our TV, is to try to bring a little balance to the scene. Executives at the station speak passionately of the need for the small screen to better reflect the reality lived by the 47% of Brazilians who claim some African heritage.

Yet what might seem a laudable or at least unobjectionable goal, at least by U.S. standards, has whipped up hostility in some quarters here. Critics and commentators swiftly came out of the woodwork to lambaste the new channel as racist in its own way.

By singling out blacks as its target audience and insisting on putting nonwhite faces before the camera as presenters and protagonists, TV da Gente contributes to racial division in Brazil, detractors contend.

"If I put a 'TV for whites' on air, I'd have a thousand lawsuits on my back," read a typical posting on one of several blogs and cyber-forums debating the merits of TV da Gente, which airs on a UHF channel. "I'm white; I'm not racist in any way. But I will not watch a single program on this channel because it's practicing explicit racism."

The channel's founder and principal backer, Jose de Paula Neto, is disturbed by such reactions.

"I never thought that organizing and joining together so many blacks would cause such indignation," said Neto, who hosts a variety show on mainstream TV and is one of the few black men to break into the business. "People say that I'm a Hitler, that I'm segregating the country. This has caused me a lot of pain."

The backlash exposed the extent to which race remains a raw nerve in this country. The debate takes direct aim at one of the most cherished notions of Brazilians' sense of themselves: the idea of Brazil as a "racial democracy" where skin color doesn't matter.

The concept was articulated more than 70 years ago by anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, who postulated that relatively peaceful coexistence and widespread miscegenation among white masters and their black slaves gave rise to Brazil's more relaxed attitude toward race.

Freyre's theory is an article of faith among many here. And undeniably, visitors are often struck by the variety of faces on the streets and beaches, where complexions range from milk to mocha to coal. In one famous survey in Brazil in 1976, respondents gave 134 different terms to describe their skin color, including "cashew-like," "burnt yellow" and "dark tan." (There was also "roseate" and "bluish.") Mixed-race couples are so common they go unnoticed.

But below the placid surface lie uncomfortable truths.

Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to ban slavery, in 1888. The enduring legacy of that is evident in the fact that blacks lag behind whites according to almost every social measure, including literacy and education.

Brazil's vast slums are populated mostly by people of color. Young black males are far more likely than any other segment of the population to die violently. Discrimination, though usually not overt, works subtly and powerfully to help keep blacks in lower-paying jobs.

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