A Head Wrap Becomes a Lightning Rod For Massive Debate on Cultural Appropriation in Brazil

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Be it samba, capoeira, or staple foods like acarajé, most of the cultural expressions we think of as “authentically” Brazilian actually have their roots in West Africa; which makes sense given that nearly half the country’s population can trace their ancestry back to the region. Yet, with the much-touted effectiveness of Brazil’s “racial democracy,” we may be tempted to assume that these marvels of transatlantic cultural preservation are the popular patrimony of all Brazilians, regardless of race or origin.

But, of course, we would be wrong. Indeed, Brazil’s own complex legacy of racism and implicit color hierarchies have come to the fore over the last several years – inspired in part by movements like #BlackLivesMatter – and the latest battleground to emerge in the polemical debate over Brazilian identity is one of the most culturally charged symbols of negritud: the head wrap.

It all started earlier this month when a white Brazilian woman named Thauane Cordeiro (who wears a “turbante” to cover her hair loss from chemotherapy) was purportedly harassed on a train by several black women who accused her of cultural appropriation. Cordeiro ultimately responded by posting a selfie on Facebook along with her recollection of the incident, topped of by a casual description of herself as a “black white woman.”

After the post went viral, Cordeiro’s anecdote racked up well over 100,000 comments and emerged as a flashpoint in the growing rift between clueless white Brazilians and emboldened Afro-descendants who are stepping up to call out pervasive white supremacy. Ironically wrapping themselves in the language of “respect” and “equality,” Cordeiro’s defenders coalesced around the garbled hashtag #VaiTerBrancaDeTurbanteSim (#WhiteWomenWillUseHeadWraps) to whitesplain black activists about a fantasy world in which globalization has broken down the barriers between cultures.

Citing international staples like pizza and blue jeans, the whitelash attempted to frame the use of head wraps around the cultural fluidity of modern life while espousing a conveniently colorblind vision of Brazilian identity that negated the inherent blackness of the garment. Some more extreme commenters even went so far as to cry discrimination, and equate their struggle to wear head wraps with the struggle of blacks and homosexuals.

For their part, dissenters have taken to various platforms to school pro-appropriation warriors on the hopeless naiveté of their worldview, and explain the cultural resonance of the turbante for Afro-Brazilians. One popular video features a white woman spewing off the usual platitudes of racial democracy while symbolically covering her eyes and mouth with the head wrap; while in a powerful column for The Intercept, writer Ana Maria Gonçalves summarized, “For you the head wrap is temporary housing, the kind that you may come and go from as you please and as style dictates, because you always have another place to go, which is the place of whiteness.”

Apparently overwhelmed by the attention, Cordeiro eventually took down the post and wrote a follow-up lamenting the controversy and apologizing for any offense she may have caused. Nevertheless, her cotton-candy platitudes about deconstructing racism through education and respect suggest she still doesn’t quite get the point. In the end, for observers in the US, this controversy holds up a fascinating mirror to our own persistent racial power dynamics, and suggests that despite the many faces of of white supremacy, our struggles are one and the same.