Caption (image above): © Lianne Milton, portrait of Juliana Marinho, 25, owner of AfroAtitude salon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. ‘White Brazilians are uncomfortable with the ascension of the black woman. I own my business and I’m a business owner. And they don’t believe it. My salon tries to transcend. There were no options before. It was just straight hair. Now, it’s my hair and my way, and I am free. It is not until today that there is more strength among black women. In the salon we talk about everything from politics to exchanging ideas. We talk about everything.’
As usual, I’ve been writing this post in my mind for some days. Yesterday, a national event triggered the actual structuring of it and now I’ll venture into dangerous territory, filling another virtual page with arguments about how racist this country is.
Abstracting from individual cases is always problematic, though some individual characteristics due acquire universal value. Stereotypes are born within civilizations and their human interactions, but then media discourses imprint those generalizations into our daily lives and they turn into stigmas and stigmas grow into excuses to discriminate “the other”.
In an article published this month by e-flux, entitled Can We Share a World Beyond Representation?, author Irmgard Emmelhainz articulates some historical notions about our common existence, the different stages within modern civilization, art movements and the collapse in human relationships, stating that “representation—the dispositif that, via speech and action, enables appearance in the world in common, and also the human capacity for the creation and dissemination of shared meaning and traditions—has been hijacked by capitalism, authoritarianism, democracy, the internet, and spectacle”.
Every country that has a history of colonization is racist: here’s an abstraction we can easily argue for an against. There is an inherent complexity in dealing with that cultural history that translates in denial and authoritarian relationships. In the past few months, the discussion about racism in Portugal has gain a media coverage that is without precedent and, finally, the rhetoric of racism could be out of the bag.
So, a few facts about these recent events in our backyard:
1) In our last general elections, which took place in October 2019, a party called LIVRE (free), who hadn’t yet manage to elect a representative, finally got a significant voting (in Lisbon). That happened after the party decided to change their head of list from the founder of the party to Joacine Katar Moreira, a woman who not only is charismatic, but also happens to black. She was the first black woman to be head of list for a party in Portugal, and one of three black women represented in parliament. Joacine became the talk of the town because she is… “different”. The attacks revealed troubling public levels of nationalism, colonial mentality, racism and misogyny on the mix. Her party has recently dropped her (it’s a dirty business) and she’s now on her own.
2) For the first time, a xenophobic and nationalist party – CHEGA (enough) – got a representative into the parliament. Some of its supporters have been tied to extremist nazi groups and police forces are well represented in this party. The deputy elected for the party has recently said that Joacine (at the time still representing Livre) should go back to her country. We all know, right-wing parties mainly ride on the differences that exist in every society, trying to accentuate them and build trenches between people. The novelty with this two representations got the media excited for more than three months and discourses about “the political other” gained another visibility. Throughout this spectacle, some other events took place, polarizing the debate about racism.
3) Yesterday, a football player named Moussa Marega (from Mali) left the field in the middle of a game because of racist insults that echoed all over the stadium. Football is like a religion here and if you were to listen to the media today you would think there’s a clear condemnation of racist behavior in our society, but that’s not really the case. For instances, you’ll hear someone defending the idea of an inclusive society, but speaking the word “race” to address Marega, who happens to be black.
As author Irmgard Emmelhainz identifies in the previously mentioned article, “[w]hen despotic forms of empathy prevail, action and speech are reduced to sheer appearance”, meaning that “no other human behavior is in greater need of speech than action. This ‘being with’ is neither for or against others, but rather in sheer human togetherness.” In debates about xenophobia, racism and other non inclusive behaviours, we frequently encounter the use of adversative conjunctions in statements that aim at condemning and apologizing at the same time. This adversative is not a mere linguistic slip that has no representation in action. It always does if and when extraordinary circumstances take place. Recently, in Portugal, this adversative has changed from its ordinary arena (racism against non white people) and shifted towards immigrants, in particular immigrants from Brazil. A grand part of the society, apparently educated in relation to discriminatory behaviours, now seems to be taking a step back and choosing another political other to conspire against.
As a result of Portugal and Brazil’s long and difficult history and, obviously, our common language, there’s always been significant migration between the countries. It’s clear that Brazilians’ migration to Portugal has increased. A lot of factors pushed for that and I’m not aware of most. There have been several migratory phenomenons in the world and in this country, in particular. In recent years, for instances, a strong community of migrants from China has been formed and also a very strong community of migrants from Eastern countries, to name just a few.
In linguistic terms, and particularly regarding the use of adversative conjunctions, what is becoming ever more frequent is to find myself in a conversation where the debate about racism against non white individuals starts to integrate some loose sentences about “the Brazilians”. I’ve found myself in the past months saying “good things” about immigrants from Brazil in order to prevent those loose sentences to turn into some structuring discourse about the political other. However, in all fairness, I regret having done so and will try not to be caught in that trap again. Those comments I’ve been making about my recent encounters with immigrants from Brazil (some great students, people who have attended our workshops, artists I’ve been in contact with) sound like if it would be necessary to prove that the generalization is incorrect. But I should know better, for to enter this dialogue is to admit the success of “despotic empathy”.
It’s hard to pinpoint how these cultural stereotypes are born and how they get transformed depending on who’s in control of the representational mechanisms. Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz’s journey to Brazil, in search for proofs that would consolidate his creationist ideology and argue against the Darwin theory, delivers an investigation that may seem extraordinary, if not for the amount of worldwide expeditions that were done with similar purposes throughout the world. Portugal, in regards to its former colonies, has produced its fair share of visual and textual records that promote the idea of the political other, although few have reached the public sphere.
But going back to the idea that brought me here, what is the prevailing discriminatory rhetoric about “The Brazilians”? Instead of feeding the game of the linguistic rhetoric, I went looking for visual essays that were somehow promoting the idea of “The Brazilians” and, guess what, I decided to post none here but the portrait featured above.