Associate Professor of American Studies Jasmine Mitchell’s book Imagining the Mulatta: Blackness in U.S and Brazilian Media (University of Illinois Press, 2020) is the culmination of many years of research and immersion in Brazilian culture. Mitchell, who grew up in the United States and identifies herself as a mixed-black woman, first visited Brazil in 2001. From 2003-2004 she taught at the American School of San Paulo. As the first teacher of African descent hired by the school, Mitchell frequently encountered racism from students and their parents. The majority of Mitchell’s students were wealthy white Brazilians. Students frequently mistook her for a custodian, and some parents did not believe that she had attended college. Mitchell observed a great deal of de facto segregation in day to day Brazilian life. Shopping malls and airplanes were thought to be the space of white Brazilians. Many buildings in Brazil have both service elevators and elevators for residents. Employees, who are usually black, are expected to use the service elevator. Mitchell was sometimes told she should be taking a service elevator, including in the building where she lived.
Despite the de facto segregation and negative stereotypes towards black Brazilians, Mitchell observed that most Brazilians do not think of themselves as racist. One reason for this is that, unlike the United States, Brazil never had legally enforced segregation. Many Brazilians adopt the attitude, “The United States is racist, but we’re not.” However, Mitchell views both countries as nations that have never grappled with the legacy of colonialism or slavery. A common narrative in both the United States and Brazil is, “We used to have slavery, but look at how much progress we’ve made since then.” Mitchell notes another parallel between the United States and Brazil. Both countries entered a period of optimism on race relations in the 2010s. Where in the United States, the election of Barak Obama gave many citizens hope, the 2002 election of President Lula De Silva ushered in an era of progress in Brazil.
As someone who grew up poor and never attained education beyond middle school, Lula was seen as a politician who spoke for the masses. He created policies that helped lift many Brazilians out of poverty, including those of African descent. In addition, he extended affirmative action at universities. In another parallel with the United States, Brazil is now going through a period of backlash. Jair Bolsinaro, who was elected president of Brazil in 2018, is a polarizing figure who engages in racially heated rhetoric. He has made many disparaging remarks towards black Brazilians and has encouraged the deforestation of indigenous lands. Bolsinaro and President Trump, a similarly polarizing leader, have often expressed admiration for one another.
In Mitchell’s view, both the United States and Brazil have used the image of the mixed-black female body as an instrument to buttress white supremacy and discipline people of African descent. Although controversial and potentially offensive, Mitchell chooses the term mulata to describe Brazilian women with a mixture of African and European heritage. Mitchell uses the term “mulatta” to describe women of mixed African and European heritage in the United States. According to Mitchell, mulata is not only a historical term, but a sexualized one. In Brazil, mixed-black women embody fantasies of interracial desire. In Jasmine’s view, the terms “mixed race” and “biracial” do not specify black-white mixture and do not have the same historical symbolism as mulata.
The mulata figure is celebrated in popular culture and heavily promoted by the tourism industry. The mulata is often portrayed as a temptress and a symbol of Brazilian sensuality. Yet, the fantasies Brazilians project onto mixed-black women is a form of objectification and enforces racism. Mitchell is quick to point to a common saying in Brazil, “Branca para casar, mulata para fornicar, negra para trabalhar (white women for marriage, mulata women for sex, black women for work). While the eroticized image of the mulata is supposed to be a symbol of racial harmony, it betrays a devaluation of black womanhood. In Mitchell’s view, the mulata represents a longing for racial harmony without doing the actual work of dismantling structural racism.
In Imagining the Mulatta, Mitchell observes a similar objectification of mixed-black women in American media. Michell specifically points to the 2001 film Monster’s Ball and the 2004-2009 premium cable television series The L Word for featuring characters who neither opt out of or transcend blackness. Monster’s Ball features Halle Berry as Leticia, an impoverished woman who has lost both her husband and son. While the character of Leticia is prone to what Mitchell terms “tragedy and tropes of black pathologies,” (p 144) a graphic sex scene with a white protagonist also fuels the stereotype of the mixed-black women as temptress. Mitchell notes that in The L Word, the character of Bette Porter (portrayed by Jessica Beals) is another example of using mixed-black women to portray danger and sensuality. As in Brazil, media portrayals of women with mixed African and European heritage often fail to challenge existing racial hierarchies.
As an Assistant Professor in the American Studies department, Mitchell makes a deliberate effort to bring her knowledge of Brazilian history and culture into the classroom. She is quick to note that American Studies classes should not focus exclusively on the United States. To do so would be “navel-gazing” and myopic. Mitchell’s Fall 2020 American Studies Seminar class is spending a week discussing race in Brazil and the influence of Barak Obama on Afro-Brazilian politicians. When Mitchell teaches African Americans in Mass Media, she has her students view Brazilian telenovelas and learn about their cultural significance. Mitchell also teaches an upper-division class on Hip Hop Cultures. She devotes part of the class to studying Brazilian Hip Hop. In Brazil, Hip Hop music is very politically charged. The musicians are closely aligned with the Afro-Brazilian political movement and their lyrics are overtly critical of racism and the Brazilian government.
In an era of political divisiveness and increasing racial tension, Old Westbury’s focus on diversity and social justice is more important than ever. Both as a scholar and a professor, Mitchell exemplifies the values on which Old Westbury was founded.
Written by Jon Kleinman