What does calling Brazilian women “sexy” actually mean?

An article on the impact colonialism has in the lives of Brazilian women today.

By Mirna Wabi-Sabi

 

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Photo by Douglas Barros, set in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC), iconic architecture by Oscar Niemeyer, in Niterói, Brazil.

Niterói is the city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, and its name means “hidden water” in Tupi. The leader of the now extinct Temiminó tribe, Araribóia, founded Niterói in the late 1500’s. It’s the only city in Brazil to have been founded by an Indigenous person. In the 16th century, Portuguese settlers married Indigenous women and rewarded Indigenous leaders, such as Araribóia, with expensive gifts and prestigious positions. In return, the Indigenous tribe would join the fight against other Indigenous tribes, and European settlers from France and the Netherlands.

These other European countries that fought Portugal for control over the colony were not as successful in collaborating with the locals. This was because they preferred to preserve the racial, religious and cultural segregation for racist reasons. Despite the Pope’s claim that Indigenous people had a ‘blood defect’, Araribóia eventually converted to Christianity and changed his name to Martim Afonso. Portugal’s ability to convert the Indigenous to Christianity, and to have mixed marriages and offspring, lead to ‘successful’ alliances in war and land development. Of course, these alliances were not motivated by sentiments of equality, but instead by patriarchal capitalist interests.

Today, the few people in Niterói who remember Araribóia consider him a traitor for converting to Christianity and for allowing the Western domination of his tribe. It’s becoming widely known, though, that Indigenous collaboration with Europeans was done ‘at knife point’, and was also a survival strategy that allowed for the preservation of a small portion of the Indigenous population. My great-great-grandmother was an Indigenous woman who was ‘hunted down by lasso’ by the much older white man who was my great-great-grandfather, and I can safely say this is a common tale among Brazilian families. Whether this story can be taken literally or not, Christianity, marriage, sexual assault, and slavery were a brutal reality for Indigenous women nevertheless.[1]

Statue of Araribóia in Niterói. Photo by Mirna Wabi

Mixed marriages, or miscegenation, became an unavoidable part of Brazil’s sense of identity. It’s been considered a weakness to be fixed through racial cleansing, or a source of power, beauty and pride if well managed. Unlike the United States’ ‘one-drop rule’, white Brazilian men tried to claim that they could genetically ‘fix’ the ‘lower’ races. This concept came from white European men who wanted to justify their sexual relationships with women of color, and their emotional attachment to the families they were creating. “The sexual fantasy of the erotic encounter with the Other is simultaneously the fantasy of whitening/browning the nation by eliminating “Africanoid exaggerations”” (Alvaro Jarrin, 2010). This was the beginning of Brazil’s mingling of medical research, race, and beauty.

“Cosmetic citizenship” is a term used by Alvaro Jarrín in 2010 to describe Southeastern Brazil’s relationship with beauty in connection to race, class and gender hierarchy. We still struggle with the white supremacist ideology imposed on us during hundreds of years of colonization, and we hold the Brazilian working class (economically) hostage to white bourgeois beauty (and behavior) standards. We associate beauty with health, wealth, white(er)ness.

Too many people talk about the plastic surgery phenomenon in Brazil and the sexualized exoticism of Brazilian women as something we brought upon ourselves, claiming Brazilian women have nice asses and are wild in bed because that’s what they are ‘by nature’, as if that statement was an objective fact (the neutral gaze). This idea is reinforced by the media and by popular culture, which is dominated by white capitalist patriarchy in Brazil and abroad.

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The view of Rio from Niterói, over the Guanabara Bay. “Guanabara” comes from the term ocean-breast in Tupi. Photo by Nicolas Prieto

Whoever makes claims that Brazil is past colonialism because we’ve become some kind of superpower needs to stop listening only to the Brazilian elite, and start listening to the Brazilian masses. We have an incredible amount of resources, and we struggle every day to seize control of them. We are not an American style imperialist power, even though the Brazilian elite might want that. They are mesmerized by the American dream of financial success and by the European dream of white supremacist racial cleansing, while the majority of the population is held financially hostage and struggles to survive.

Even though the Brazilian elite participates in this oppression, it doesn’t mean Western powers aren’t responsible. In fact, they are responsible for the destabilization of all of Latin America for hundreds of years, and still are today. Brazilian women should not and will not be reduced to the stereotypes of being sexy and spicy, nor subjected to exoticism and harassment. As a Brazilian woman, I’m tired of white Western Europeans trying to educate me about my own country, and even on how I should perceive myself.

Niterói is my hometown. Much of our Indigenous heritage has been devalued, destroyed and forgotten. The legacy of this destruction defines us today. The white supremacist sexual assault of Indigenous and African women, the slaughter of Indigenous peoples, languages, spirituality, and culture; these are all still part of our lives whenever we see a Christian church, whenever we forget what the names of our neighborhoods mean, whenever a woman feels pressure to conform to an elitist and racist beauty standard, whenever we reject our Indigenous blood and heritage, and whenever we worship foreign currency over nature.

So, next time you see the “Brazilian Issue” of something with a picture of a big ass on the cover, see it for what it really is: the colonized female body being dissected, analyzed, criticized, sexualized, and sold.

(Additional references: bell hooks, Angela Davis, Gloria Wekker)

Footnotes:

[1] TW: rape. This is not only true in Brazil. “Indigenous women in the US experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country” (Aljazeera). See Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast on Pocahontas and Rape Culture.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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is an intersectional feminist and decolonial activist from Brazil currently investigating Indigenous heritage. She publishes zines (Something Printed for Reading), and organizes educational events (DIY Workshop).


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Notes on Rojava

An opinion piece on the problematic aspects of the Rojava hype.
By Mirna Wabi-Sabi

The biggest hipster hype engine, Vice, has called Rojava “the most feminist revolution the world has ever witnessed” (1). Variations of this statement were widespread through radical media for over a year. We must be cautious with the media because it has the power to advertise political ideas that justify Western terrorism (11) and imperialism. We fall for it because it’s a story we want to hear: a force against ISIL that caters to the radical neoliberal audience. But we can, without realizing, be promoting the rise of islamophobia as a pretext for further Western military intervention in the Middle East.

Claiming Rojava represents a feminist oasis in the Middle East implies anti-feminism in its surroundings. This is islamophobic rhetoric. Carne Ross, writing for Vice, even went on to write that Rojava represents “the right of self-defense against all anti-woman practices and ideas, including those of traditional society, not just the extreme violence of Daesh” (1).

What kind of feminism are we talking about here? One where “women become worthy of respect as long as they turn into men of arms and sacrifice themselves on the battlefield” (5), just as American women become executives and earn almost the same as their male peers? It’s a kind of feminism that perpetuates islamophobic stereotypes, that fetishizes images of Kurdish women with guns (7), that justifies foreign military occupation, and the violent destabilization of a region by the West. We don’t see a real Rojava, we see a reflection of our own reactionary feminism.

Vice gives a glimpse of something no one wants to see when it states that the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces “currently enjoys US and allied military support”, while the “US and indeed Western governments are involved in a grotesque contradiction in which they permit NATO “partner” Turkey to attack the SDF”. Then they quickly distract the audience with another article called “We Need to Talk About Simon Cowell’s Jeans” (8)…

There must be another way to prevent Turkey and ISIL from crushing Rojava, other than to “loosen counterterrorism rules” (13), to deploy American forces to the region (4),  and to bomb civilians (12). Perhaps an alternative is to use NATO to rebuke Turkey’s actions, as opposed to using it for air-base access (14), or to stop selling billions of US dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia (15). We’ve been adding fuel to fire, thinking only conflagration could defeat ISIL.

Last year, Rojava had its own temporary embassy inside Oslo’s parliament, helping the city build its reputation as the ‘peace capital of the world’ (16). We should be able to support Rojava and Kurds in general, but are we able to show solidarity without making it about ourselves? Turning people into tourist attractions and tokens is not an act of solidarity. And when we engage in political propaganda, whose interests are we promoting?

After seeing islamophobic and racist speeches by politicians in the Netherlands about how Turkey will never join the EU (2), I can’t help but think that maybe the Kurds are being made into what Western Europe wanted the Turkish to be (10)(17). We haven’t stopped endorsing what the West wants, and manufacturing an ideological supply for our own demands.

We can still learn how to make better political affiliations, be critical towards the media, and continue to share information about this even if it contradicts things we’ve said before. If we are serious about anarchism and feminism, it’s important to focus on the anti-woman practices and oppression proliferated from your own communities.

We need to start listening to people like Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, the 22-year-old poet who said: “If you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one who’s not human” (6). Rojava isn’t the only place worthy of attention just because they have proven their humanity to us.

Yes, we support Kurdish autonomy and independence. Even though we respect everything they have done, fought and died for, we must also fight islamophobia in general with every bit of energy we’ve got. Let’s not forget and let it happen never again (18).

References:

1- https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/43dmgm/the-most-feminist-revolution-the-world-has-ever-witnessed

2- http://www.reuters.com/article/us-netherlands-turkey-wilders/dutch-far-right-leader-wilders-tells-turks-you-will-never-join-eu-idUSKBN0TN1UM20151204

4-http://www.thedailybeast.com/us-troops-18-miles-from-isis-capital

5-http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/08/rojava-libertarian-myth-scrutiny-160804083743648.html

6-http://www.huffpostbrasil.com/entry/suhaiymah-manzoor-khan-slam-poet_us_595d26c9e4b0da2c7326cf5c

7-http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37337908?SThisFB

8-https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ywweax/we-need-to-talk-about-simon-cowells-jeans

10- http://www.newsweek.com/turkeys-syria-intervention-sign-weakness-not-strength-501516

11- http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-civilian-deaths-syria-iraq-middle-east-a7649486.html

12- https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/world/middleeast/syria-us-airstrike.html

13- https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/politics/trump-loosen-counterterrorism-rules.html

14-https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/07/economist-explains-21

15- http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/saudi-arabia-arms-sales-theresa-may-britain-extremist-funding-poll-public-a7843061.html

16- http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/78967/oslo-architecture-triennale-2016after-belonging/

17- Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks. New York and London: Pluto Press, 2011.

18- https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/davidnovak637850.html


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Mirna is an intersectional feminist and decolonial activist.

White Privilege in Dutch Anarchism

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi, on race, colonialism, and identity

Author’s note: “De Pinkster Land Dagen (Pentecost days in dutch) started in 1927 by young anarchists from the Netherlands. In 1933, they bought a potato field from which they made a camping site, and where they organize a drug/alcohol free Anarchist festival every year.”

At Pinkster Land Dagen 2017, University of Color gave a workshop on white privilege and “post”-colonial identity as an attempt to start a conversation about decolonizing anarchism. The workshop and talk was difficult and many of the responses were problematic to many different degrees. We don’t believe this was due to a few loose cannons in the audience, but more likely illustrated the systemic problems in these circles that we aimed to tackle with the workshop.

This attempt requires a tremendous amount of emotional labour on the part of the UoC members, and here we would like to outline why.

  • This is not a philosophical discussion about subjects we read in books. It’s about the pain we are still feeling now, and struggle with every day. Books can help white people learn about this, and for people of color to find the vocabulary to express and process this pain. If you are a white man and you don’t listen to women of color on issues of racism and sexism, don’t be surprised when they choose not to listen to you. If you think you understand racism better than people of color then you are exercising white privilege, white supremacy and reproducing colonizer’s attitudes.
  • If white people are hurt or offended when they are called ‘white’ this is called White Fragility. This means that they experience the issue of ‘race’ so rarely, that when they are confronted with this statement, the situation itself is the worst version of discrimination they have faced. People of color are confronted with this so often that if they reacted extravagantly every time someone pointed out their race, they literally would not be able to do anything else in life. It would also probably lead to arrest or death.. One person calling you white is not the same as a whole world, institutions, governments, policies, armies, physical violence, history and so on constantly labeling you and controlling your life. Color-blindness is an offensive exercise of white privilege and does not help people of color, or lead to the eradication of racism. Denying the problem because you get to does not lead to solving the problem for those who actually suffer from it.
  • There is no such thing as ‘reverse racism’. Calling someone white is not a racist act, it’s only a statement of a fact, the fact that there is Institutionalized racism, there has been for hundreds of years, and white people just do not experience it. It’s called white privilege and this is not a racist statement. Racism is not discrimination based on skin color, it’s systematic institutionalized oppression of people of color and the ‘global south’ since the genocide of our people and our culture by western European entities.
  • Equating colonial violence in Latin America to the Dutch struggle between Catholics and Protestants: Don’t. Color blindness/white privilege at play again.
  • Equating culture to nation states: Culture is something people in colonized countries had to fight to preserve in-spite of European nation states. We are proud of our culture and we fight to preserve it, it does not mean we are proud of our Government. It’s also problematic that the anarchists that present this argument don’t acknowledge the existence of the anarchist culture they so cherish.
  • What’s wrong with white European men leading indigenous, feminist, and other Latin American movements? Everything. Indeed white men can be aware of the issues, but they also need to be aware of how much space they take, and to allow the space for people to speak for themselves. We don’t want to need the validation of white European men because this is just another exercise of colonial attitudes. Even with the best intentions, white dutch anarchist men acting like they know better around people from the ‘global south’ creates an incredibly unsafe environment for people of color. They can try, but they just don’t understand what it’s like for immigrants of color, and how we often feel like we need to ask permission to be somewhere, or to say or do something.
  • If you are a white person and you truly feel like you know better than a person of color when it comes to racism, or you know better how to communicate ideas on the subject… stop and think ‘Where is this feeling coming from?’ ‘Where is it rooted?’ ‘Is it valid?’. It’s coming from entitlement, which comes from being a white European. It’s rooted in white supremacy, it’s not valid and it can create an unsafe environment for people of color. For instance, it is very problematic when Dutch people try to educate a Brazilian woman on Brazilian ‘post´-colonial identity.
  • As a white dutch anarchist it’s important to realize that disagreeing with a person of color doesn’t just mean philosophical differences with any other fellow comrade, but a very real and practical exercise of racial power. Because white dutch anarchists have the access to resources, spaces and history in the Netherlands. These disagreements lead to alienation and series of racial micro-agressions that make it virtually impossible for people of color to stay in a white dutch anarchist space without feeling subjugated.
  • For instance: Tone policing. ‘We agree (in theory) with what you are saying but we don’t like how you are saying it’. That is to say: you are probably right because I’ve read it in a book, but I don’t like it that you are so emotional about it because it’s not ‘gezellig’ or respectful to us. The thing is that of course we are emotional about it because we are still suffering and our wounds are still open. Many white people are willfully ignorant to this because it’s in their best interest to maintain the [racist] status quo, while also maintaining the “not racist” label.

Decolonization and Identity

Almost every time I tell someone they are white or Dutch, they respond defensively with: “But you are kind of white too”, or “you’re not black,” or the best one “How would you feel if I called you Latina or Brazilian?” It’s laughable and worrying that they take such a statement as an attack. Yes, I am Latin American, and I am Brazilian. No, I am not black. That doesn’t change the fact that they are white and Dutch.

I think they do this because they think that me labeling them what they are and pointing out their privileges implies I don’t have privileges and therefore I’m better. It’s actually the opposite, I point out their privileges because I see them in myself.

This wrong assumption is a serious aggression to people of color because Western Europeans have always felt comfortable labeling others while remaining neutral, and this has been paramount to the persistence of white supremacy. It’s also very telling of how unusual and repulsive it is to them to feel subjugated based on their skin color or nationality, which people of color are way too used to. Having to admit they cannot be the objective voice of reason on a subject for once is incredibly painful to people suffering from white fragility. And when it comes to racism and decoloniality, they are not the voice of reason that should lead the movement. For once they will not be the center of attention, and we do not want a seat at their table.

I’m an incredibly privileged person, and I’m always trying to deal with this privilege carefully, critically and consciously. It’s tricky to recognize when you are being treated differently or being discriminated against, because you can’t switch passports or skin color freely. Sometimes we don’t see the micro-agressions and oppression because we know nothing else. This leads to a lot of gaslighting, paranoia and many even believe black people are collectively suffering from post traumatic slavery syndrome.

Ironically, I learned a lot about what it is like to be Brazilian/Latina, and be treated as such, only after I became European. At borders, at clubs, with partners, with other Brazilians, it completely changed. Traveling was so much easier, at borders I felt confidence and entitlement as opposed to anxiety and fear. Strange white men didn’t flirt with me as aggressively or asked me to dance and shake my ass.

After 10 years outside of Brazil my skin became lighter due to less sun and my hair straighter due to less humidity, which also made clear the difference between being treated as a white girl or a Latina. People were inclined to think I was in Europe to study as opposed to ‘work,’ both implying I was in Europe to ‘better’ myself, and implicitly expecting gratitude from me. Brazilians started talking to me as if I lived like a princess and knew nothing of the turmoil and struggle of Brazilian life. I was always fierce and political as a kid, but the European passport in particular was a radicalizing turn of events.

The alienation from all sides pushed me to take the issue of Identity and belonging very seriously. White Western European people have lived sheltered from these kinds of experiences so they haven’t had the unavoidable motivation to explore their whiteness. So, white people, take this into consideration because a revolution is coming and you need to decide, you are either with us or against us. “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” (Fanon)

I’ve never felt safe in this space (PL and the Dutch white-anarchist-activist scene). Even though it’s wonderful that so many people to some degree acknowledge the problem of white supremacy, and want to make this community safer, it’s been an uphill battle for me in the last 7 years and I’m tired of it.

It’s great that people see the need for these kinds of discussions and aim for diversity in the community. However, it’s not great to rely on people of color to do the work for you, and we hope white anarchists find ways to address and solve this problem themselves.

References: Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Gloria Wekker, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Maria Lacerda de Moura.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Intersectional feminist and decolonial activist