It's early 2019, and it seems like our news cycle lately is overcome with disturbing stories about racist behaviour. If we aren't dealing with the fallout of public officials being caught wearing blackface, we're seeing outcries over products that may or may not be offensive. And the problem isn't solely an American one. Vogue Brazil's style director has resigned from her role with the company after being called out for cultural insensitivity.
On February 8, Donata Meirelles hosted her 50th birthday party. Brazilian journalist Fabio Bernardo shared a picture from the night on Instagram, and immediately users began to link the theme of the party to the country's history of slavery.
The photo has since been deleted, but not before CNN Style caught the following comments. "The photo clearly and unfortunately refers to a Brazil of autocracy and slavery, where Black people were serving and white people tended to," wrote Instagram user Roberto Sakiyama, while another posted "I don't see any praise to Afro-Brazilian culture."
Vogue Brazil’s Style Director Donata Meirelles had a very disgusting 50th birthday party theme last night— Shelby Ivey Christie (@bronze_bombSHEL) February 9, 2019
There appears to be a Brazilian slave + master theme. Mucamas (house slaves), who were very clearly darker complexioned, were posed as props alongside guests #DoShow50 pic.twitter.com/NrEY4nJuF8
Shelby Christie, host of the podcast The Girl with the Bamboo Earring, which explores Blackness in fashion, broke down the troubling nature of the photos on Twitter. "There appears to be a Brazilian slave and master theme," she wrote. "Mucamas (house slaves who were very clearly darker complexioned, were posed as props alongside guests."
In the photos, Meirelles is flanked by women in white dresses and head wraps, which Christie points out is the uniform of the "Mucamas." More enslaved Africans who were forcibly transported to Brazil than any other country in the world. Slavery there wasn't abolished until 1888, 25 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S.. Considering these troubling historical facts, it's hard to pass this off as an innocuous party theme. But that's just what Meirelles did.
In another now-deleted post on Instagram, Meirelles said the people in the picture with her were not "dressed as slaves, but as party girls from bahia," and that the chair wasn't a slave mistress chair, but "a chair from candomblé," an Afro-Brasilian religion.
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Em relação às manifestações referentes à festa de 50 anos de Donata Meirelles, a Vogue Brasil lamenta profundamente o ocorrido e espera que o debate gerado sirva de aprendizado. Nós acreditamos em ações afirmativas e propositivas e também que a empatia é a melhor alternativa para a construção de uma sociedade mais justa, em que as desigualdades históricas do País sejam debatidas e enfrentadas. Em busca da evolução constante que sempre nos pautou, aproveitamos a reflexão gerada para ampliar as vozes dentro da equipe e criar, em caráter permanente, um fórum formado por ativistas e estudiosos que ajudarão a definir conteúdos e imagens que combatam essas desigualdades.
Vogue Brazil chimed in on the matter, releasing a statement on Instagram, which translates to "regarding... Donata Meirelles' 50-year party, Vogue Brasil deeply regrets what happened and hopes that the debate generated will serve as a learning experience." The magazine says it believes in affirmative and purposeful actions, but that empathy is the best solution for "construction of a more just society, in which the historical inequalities of the country are debated and faced."
While the fact of slavery itself isn't quite debatable, perhaps the conversation around this incident will encourage Brazilians to explore their history. Vogue Brazil maintains it has not taken the feedback lightly, and will "broaden the voices within the team and create, on a permanent basis, a forum formed by activists and scholars who will help define content and images that combat these inequalities."