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Scenarios of Racial Contact: Police Violence and the Politics of Performance and Racial Formation in Brazil

by Christen Smith | University of Texas, Austin

Abstract:
In 2003 Brazilian theater troupe Choque Cultural (Culture Shock) performed the play, “Pare Para Pensar” (Stop to Think) around the city of Salvador. The play denounces multiple forms of racial violence that plague peripheral communities across Brazil including police violence. Using white masks to allegorize the hegemonic social structures of police aggression, Choque Cultural challenges traditional understandings of racial formation in Brazil by suggesting symbolically that performance, performativity, and enactment play a significant role in the production and maintenance of racial hierarchies. Scenarios of racial contact like police violence, inscribe race onto the body and the landscape, making racial subjectivities coherent. This essay critically engages Choque Cultural’s performance by unpacking the way police violence produces racial meaning through the enactment of racial hierarchy. The troupe’s representation of police contact provides a unique example and metaphor for the ways in which performance (both staged and lived) is central to the construction of racial meaning and imbued with political implications.

Performance, performativity and enactment have everything to do with the global politics of racial formation (Elam 2001).1 This is particularly the case within the context of Brazil, where the myth of racial democracy makes race incoherent at times, confounding the ability to confront and denounce racism. Despite decades of qualitative and quantitative scholarship debunking the myth of racial democracy, there is still a pertinacious popular belief that Brazil is a racially harmonious nation with fluid racial boundaries.2 This defines what U.S. political scientist Michael Hanchard calls Brazil’s “racial hegemony” – a system of racial oppression predicated upon the ideologies of racial democracy and racial exceptionalism (Hanchard 1994). The ideological investment in racial democracy within the popular imagination fuels two assumptions about race: 1) that racism is neither insidious nor violent and; 2) that there are no discrete racial subjectivities within the nation (see e.g., Turra, Venturi, and Datafolha. 1995; Sansone 2003). However, while the assertion of the fluidity of race may seem progressive within the context of post-structuralist discourses of hybridity and fluidity, the real ramifications of this assertion are the dismissal of racism as a non-life threatening issue and the disavowal of collective racial identity and struggle (Winant 2001). Particularly, the rhetorical denial of racial subjectivity and/or collective racial identity handicaps those marginalized within the hegemonic racial social structure, hindering their ability to lay claim to certain rights based on historical consequences, social reality and the epistemologies that inform both. This is especially the case for Brazilians of African descent. For example, in the current controversy over affirmative action and racial quotas in the Brazilian university system, many of those who argue vehemently against racial quotas do so claiming that there is no way to determine who is “black” (negro) within the nation (Fry 2007; Santos 2006).3 However, black Brazilian activists rooted in the fight against racism passionately insist that despite the rhetorical claim that blackness is elusive, the lived experience of blackness is continuously reified through the performance of racism in the everyday. These moments of encounter make blackness legible.

In 2007 the BBC Brazil launched a special series entitled, “Raízes Afro-Brasileiras” (Afro-Brazilian Roots). The series investigated the genetic racial breakdown of nine prominent Afro-Brazilian celebrities (Glycerio 2007).4 In partnership with geneticist Sérgio Pena, a professor of biochemistry at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the report found, not surprisingly, that each of the celebrities had some genetic mixture of African, European and Amerindian heritage. The responses to these findings were varied, but several participants in the study noted that there was a disjuncture between the scientific conclusions of their “genetic” racial background and their racial positioning within Brazilian society. One participant, Father David Santos, had strong observations to make. Frustrated with the political implications of the study, Father David remarked, “I’ve never seen a police beating in a bus, for example, where they asked what percent African the person was before discriminating against them” (Glycerio 2007).5 Father David’s observation echoes the feelings of many of Brazil’s black activists: that despite the fact that race is sometimes understood to be nebulous in Brazil, there are tangible effects of racial discrimination that define racial subjectivities and make them legible. The following quote from Djaci David de Oliveira’s exposition of homicide and race relations in Brazil, A Cor do Medo (1998) expounds upon this:

The Brazilian intellectual is no longer able to identify who the black people are in Brazil, but the police, the bosses, the media (especially the television media), in addition to other social groups and institutions, know how to identify black people the moment they physically and symbolically assault them, in the moment they deny them jobs they are qualified for…(Oliveira 1998: 47).6

In other words, when the police7 and employers discriminate, who is black in Brazil is never a question, so what is it about these moments that makes the tangible realities of race coherent?

What the aforementioned quote suggests is that race in part becomes coherent in Brazil during the performance and performativity of violence in moments of racialized encounter. Whether it is the physically violent moment when the police decide to use unnecessary force against black bodies, or the structurally violent moment when employers decide to discriminate in hiring based on appearance, or even the symbolically violent moment when children’s entertainment stars associate black women with ugliness and foul odors in children’s songs,8 words, gestures, actions, movements, looks and attitudes produce racial meaning dialogically and have everything to do with the performance of race in the everyday. Thus, racial formation in Brazil, in addition to being constituted by historical context, social reality and epistemology (as Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1986) suggest),9 is also constituted by the ways race is inscribed onto the body through performance and enactment in various scenarios of racial contact.

The purpose of this essay is to unpack performance as a site of racial formation in Brazil through a close analysis of what I call “scenarios of racial contact.” Two theoretical frameworks inspire my use of this phrase. The first is Diana Taylor’s theory of “scenarios” (Taylor 2003). The second is Mary Louise Pratt’s theory of “contact zones” (Pratt 1992). These two terms provide the theoretical structure needed to think about the role that performance plays in racial formation in Brazil and the socio-political implications of this claim. Putting these concepts together allows us to examine moments of violent encounter when disparate identities meet as performance zones informed by both discourse and action, and productive of meaning. Using the sites of police violence and the theater as ethnographic lenses, this essay examines the scenario of police violence as a point of racial contact that produces racial meaning through the violent enactment of racial hierarchy.

In his essay “Black Cinderella: Race and the Public Sphere in Brazil,” Michael Hanchard recounts the story of Ana Flávia Peçanha de Azredo, the daughter of the former governor of the state of Espirito Santo, who in 1993 was physically and verbally accosted in an apartment building for using the wrong elevator (Hanchard 1999). The incident was widely publicized because of its racial motivations. The mother and son who accosted Ms. Peçanha did so because they said that “black and poor” did not belong in that space (1999:59). Hanchard uses this story to illustrate the existence of “racial commonsense” which informs an epistemology of race that associates certain racial categories with certain stereotypical qualities and creates a “regime of truth” that informs social interaction (1999a).10 However, this story also reveals the role enactment and performance play in producing racial meaning in Brazil. In the moment when Ms. Peçanha was assaulted, race was inscribed onto her body performatively through the enactment of both physical (the punch she received) and symbolic (the derogatory racial remark) violence. Scenarios of police violence operate in much the same way. Although derogatory racial remarks do not necessarily go hand in hand with the enactment of police violence, a close examination of this phenomenon in tandem with the “racial common sense” that scripts blackness as criminality demonstrates a correlation between the violent encounter of police violence and the production of racial meaning. This is the relationship I examine here in this essay.

While hegemonic discourses of racial fluidity and race-less-ness dismiss police violence as a non-racial phenomenon (in part because there are typically no overt transcripts of race associated with these moments like the derogatory remarks directed at Ms. Peçanha), the lens of performance reveals hidden narratives that imbue these scenarios with racial meaning. These narratives are hidden by what anthropologist João Costa Vargas calls the hyperconsciousness/negation of race dialectic - the tension between the pervasive belief that race should neither be talked about nor addressed and the pervading presence of racial discrimination in the country (Vargas 2004). For Vargas, the very exercise of denying race requires a hyperawareness of it. This saturating hyperawareness wrapped in silence facilitates the social disenfranchisement of black Brazilians by simultaneously marginalizing the black population and denying that this marginalization has anything to do with race. The hyperconsciousness/negation of race dialectic suggests that despite the non-existence of immediately legible racial transcripts associated with police violence in Brazil, the very silence that engulfs these moments is in part evidence that these scenarios are filled with racial meaning. By thinking about police violence as a scenario of racial contact we can critically consider the hidden social scripts of race that narrate Brazilian society and their dialogue with the politics of performance.

My goal in this essay is twofold. First, I would like to make the claim that the scenario of police violence underscores the importance of factoring performance into any discussion of racial formation in Brazil. It highlights the ways race becomes coherent in the everyday, in tension with the hegemonic silence that cloaks racism. Consequently, the performance of race in this scenario helps us to demystify the incoherence of race in the nation, in turn subverting the claim that racism does not exist. Second, I would like to argue that the theater is one of the few spaces where this performativity of race becomes decipherable, primarily because the myth of racial democracy, as a hegemonic regime of truth, otherwise masks the social meaning of race and its consequences. The theater, in its ability to reenact the everyday onstage, and particularly through its incomplete mimesis,11 draws our attention to the ruptures, tensions, frictions and contradictions that frame the hyperconsciousness/negation of race dialectic as a hegemonic regime of truth, and as such subverts the hegemonic social structure from within.

My emphasis on the theater’s role in making the performance and performativity of race legible comes out of my work with black activist theater troupe Choque Cultural (Culture Shock). Located in Salvador, Bahia, Choque Cultural employs methods of mimicry and allegory to connect everything from the under-representation of blacks in the media, to poverty, hunger, and police raids. The actors’ primary concern is the periferia (periphery) - the low-to-no income communities located at the literal and figurative fringes of Brazil’s urban landscapes. These communities are conceptually associated with poverty, criminality and blackness throughout Brazilian society and correspondingly are the physical locations that are most frequently the sites of police violence.12 Motivated by the constant “shock and siege” of the multiple forms of violence and inequality in these neighborhoods (characterized by inadequate access to infrastructural resources like water and sanitation, police and criminal aggression, poor education and economic disenfranchisement), Choque Cultural envisions the theater as the ideal space for young black Brazilians to speak out against racial injustice and draw attention to its mechanisms.

Choque Cultural’s signature play Pare Para Pensar (Stop to Think) analyzes the overlapping injustices of classism and racism in the periphery, particularly addressing the question of racial violence. In the play, the actors bring attention to what they perceive to be the link between the conditions of the periphery and racial inequality in Brazil. The result is a sharp and edgy form of theater that interrogates local, national and international power structures, and challenges those who live in the periphery (their primary audience) to “stop to think” about how being “black” in Brazil goes beyond the traditional stereotypical markers of phenotype and historical experience, to incorporate the performativity of the quotidian experience of race which shapes black Brazilian’s relative social position in local and global society.

“The Police Raid” scene, a reenactment of a police raid on a peripheral community, exemplifies the play’s ability to interrogate the social meaning of the scenario of police violence. Using this vignette as a site of analysis, this essay deconstructs the theater’s ability to interrogate the epistemological and political backdrop of racism in Brazil. Race is enacted and inscribed onto the body and the landscape during moments of racially charged encounter. This zone of contact produces meaning as much as it enacts meaning. Police violence is as much a performance and enactment of race as it is a performance of racism enacted by racialized individuals. Whiteness and blackness are in part defined, performatively, during the encounters between the police and the community.

To explore these concepts further, the essay is broken into three interrelated parts. The first outlines my definition of scenarios of racial contact as a theoretical framework. The second is a brief overview of the racial implications of police violence in Brazil. The third is a close reading of “The Police Raid” scene from the play Pare Para Pensar. The last section is based on my fieldwork with the troupe from 2003-2005.

Scenarios of Racial Contact

Mary Louise Pratt’s theory of “contact zones” and Diana Taylor’s definition of “scenarios” are helpful for understanding how race and performance are interconnected in Brazil. By using the phrase “scenarios of racial contact” I gather elements from each of these complex propositions to propose an analytical frame for understanding how violent interactions produce and embody racial meaning. There are moments of violent racial encounter that occur in Brazil that both reflect racial hegemony and help produce it. These moments incorporate narratives and actions that engender race, scripting it onto bodies and landscapes. Consequently, the dialogue between social actors, roles, physical locations, social scripts, gestures, behaviors and attitudes creates racial subjectivities informed by hegemonic epistemologies of race. All of these emerge from tense meetings that are filled with uneven power distributions and informed by historical legacies, social identities and spatial landscapes. Together, they form a complex matrix of interlocking elements that define racial encounter.

While it would be ambitious to do an exhaustive outline of Diana Taylor’s theory of the “scenario” and Mary Pratt’s notion of “contact zones”, I would like to highlight a few points from each of these definitions that directly relate to this essay’s immediate project, beginning with the term “scenario.” Taylor suggests that we use the idea of the “scenario” as, “a paradigm for understanding social structures and behaviors” in order to allow us to “draw from the repertoire as well as the archive” (Taylor 2003:29). The scenario therefore allows us to extend beyond a narrative analysis (archive) of social structures towards an analysis that accounts for and integrates behaviors and actions (repertoire). Taylor delineates the significance of this idea by declaring that the scenario, “includes […] narrative and plot, but demands that we also pay attention to milieu and corporeal behaviors such as gestures, attitudes, and tones not reducible to language” (2003: 28). Thus, the theoretical framework of the scenario encourages us to move beyond a textual analysis of the social towards an analysis of the totality of actions, behaviors, space and narrative, active in the social structure in a given moment. By understanding instances of violent racial encounter in Brazil as scenarios, we can begin to unpack their multivalent elements, including the processes by which race becomes coherent.

I use the word “contact” to complement my use of “scenario” in order to emphasize the necessarily dialogic nature of these spaces of violence and their inherent unequal power relations and tensions. Here I am inspired by Mary Pratt’s definition of “contact zones” (Pratt 1992). Pratt describes contact zones as the space of colonial encounters, “in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with one other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict” (1992:6). She goes on to write,

A “contact” perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and “travelees,” not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power (1992: 7).

Although Pratt uses “contact zones” to refer to the colonial moment, I believe the conceptual framework translates to contemporary spaces of violent racial encounter in Brazil. By fragmenting the notion of a coherent nation-state, we can deconstruct the variant social, political, historical and geographical experiences that stratify Brazilians according to race (as defined by complex processes of racial formation) and examine the intricate racialized interrelations that these scenarios produce.

There is theoretical precedent for this translation. Several scholars have asserted the parallel between the historical legacy of global colonialism and internal colonialism within nation-states, particularly with respect to the marginalization and subjugation of indigenous people and people of African descent in Latin America (Appelbaum 2003; Mignolo 2005). These scholars believe that there is a direct parallel between the patterns of colonial subjugation inflicted on Latin America from Europe (and the United States within the structure of imperialism) and the patterns of internal subjugation that indigenous people and people of African descent experience within the Latin American nation-state. It is my suggestion that this internal colonialism has produced racial contact zones that have, much like the colonial contact zones Pratt outlines, become productive of meanings and identities that emerge from tensions. It is this productive quality of this social space, and its close relationship to performance that is particularly relevant to a discussion of racial formation and police violence in Brazil.

Using the theoretical framework of the scenario allows us to dissect the components of police violence. These include the interplay between three elements of the scenario that Taylor articulates: the embodiment of social actors (including roles, gestures, behaviors, attitudes, actions, etc.), the physical location of the act, and social scripts (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.). Mapping this out onto the scenario of police violence in Brazil, the embodiment of the social actors incorporates the roles, behaviors etc. of the police and their victims; the physical location of the act is typically the urban periphery, and the social script in the case of this analysis is race.13 Together, each element provides a lens for understanding Brazilian racial social structure.

The Racial Implications of Police Violence in Brazil

To many in Brazil’s Black Movement – a loose conglomeration of organizations united, if only disparately, around the fight against anti-black racism and for the equal social rights of black people - police violence is one of the primary threats facing the black Brazilian community today (e.g., Movimento Negro Unificado 1988; Oliveira 1998; Oliveira 2000; Reis 2007). According to a study conducted by Michael Mitchell and Charles Woods on the link between race/color14 classification and police violence in Brazil, pretos, men of African descent with the darkest skin, are 2.4 times more likely to be victims of police abuse than any other subset of the population across the country even when controlling for socioeconomic factors (Mitchell and Wood 1999).

The weight of Mitchell and Wood’s findings is self-apparent, but its urgency becomes unmistakable when we consider that Brazil has one of the worst problems with police violence in the world (Cavallaro, Manuel, and Human Rights Watch/Americas 1997; Amnesty International 2005). Most statistics on police killings focus on the cities and states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. According to Amnesty International, the number of people killed by the police in the city of Rio de Janeiro “rose from 300 in 1997 to 1195 in 2003 falling slightly to 1098 in 2005” (Amnesty International 2007: 17). Although statistics on police killings in Bahia (where Choque Cultural does its work) are not as easily accessible, recent international attention to the rate of death squad murders in the state reveals a similar pattern of epidemic proportions. Death squads are vigilante groups that either murder for hire or murder for their own interests (Cavallaro, Manuel, and Human Rights Watch/Americas 1997). They typically engage in mass-killings involving some form of torture, and they often display the bodies of their victims in plain sight as a message of warning. These groups are characteristically comprised of off-duty police officers whose association with the state allows them to act with relative impunity.15

The United Nations has found that the number of death squad murders in Bahia has increased 212% over the past ten years (Cirino 2007).16 Although death squads are not synonymous with the police, human rights organizations, historians and social analysts agree that death squads share a genealogy with the Military and Civil Police in Brazil (e.g., Cavallaro, Manuel, and Human Rights Watch/Americas. 1997; Pinheiro 1991; Caldeira 2000). This, coupled with qualitative research that has revealed a culture of racial profiling associating blackness with criminality among military police officers in Salvador, and the direct connection between being black, living in the periphery and being a victim of police violence, is what has led the Black Movement in Bahia to call police violence a form of genocide against the black community (Calasans 2007; Reis 2007; Santos 2002).

While the suggestion that police violence is racially motivated may seem relatively familiar for those who live in the United States, where public debates about the racism of police violence have been headlined even if disputed for years, in Brazil, in part because of the hyperconsciousness/negation of race dialectic, this kind of thinking is extremely contentious and controversial. In July 2005, state justice department representative Edmundo Reis of Bahia, said in an interview with Bahia’s statewide newspaper A Tarde, that there seems to be no tangible connection between racial discrimination and police death squads in Bahia, despite the claims of many in the Black Movement. Instead, he posited that the racial make-up of victims of death squads can be attributed to: 1) the tendency for death squads to be active in the poorer, peripheral neighborhoods of Salvador where the majority of black residents “happen to reside; and 2) the fact that 85% of Bahia’s population is of African descent (Ramos 2005).17 In a similar statement, in a public event on violence in the periphery that I attended in Salvador in August 2005, a prominent social scientist from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) articulated the difficulties with attributing police violence to racism by noting candidly that if one were to correlate race with police violence, then in actuality the picture would resemble something more like “black on black violence” than white violence against black people because of the high percentage of black police officers.18 Both statements reflect a pattern of opinion that resists believing that race has anything to do with police violence (Oliveira 2000). Despite statistics and assertions to the contrary, and despite the increasing turn to acknowledge this connection, there is still both disregard for and denial of the racism of police violence in the country. However, a close look at the performativity of race in the scenario of police violence demystifies this connection.

Stop to Think

The performances of Choque Cultural buttress the Black Movement’s claim that police violence is racially motivated by allegorizing the racial hegemony of police oppression. For Choque Cultural, the obtrusiveness of racism in Brazil is a genocidal threat to black Brazilians that is of extreme urgency. The troupe uses the stage to speak out against this aggression, which it understands to be a form of racial violence, and the many other racial injustices that working class black Brazilians face living in peripheral communities throughout Brazil. The actors see their work as a verbal revolution completely without firearms - a subversive act of resistance against racism, oppression and domination mediated through the theater.

From 2003-2005 the troupe performed Pare Para Pensar across the city of Salvador. The play analyzes the overlapping injustices of classism and racism in the periphery, particularly addressing the question of racial violence. The actors bring attention to the link between the conditions of the periphery and the legacy of racial inequality in Brazil on the stage. Consequently their performance interrogates local, national and international power structures, and challenges those who live in the periphery (their primary audience) to “stop to think” about how being “black” in Brazil goes beyond the traditional stereotypical markers of phenotype and historical experience, and extends to shape one’s relative social position in local and global society.

The organization of Pare Para Pensar is strongly tied to its impact. The play is typically performed outside in public plazas or in the street in peripheral neighborhoods. Thus, the audience contributes to the legibility of the play and its energy. Many of the play’s messages are intended for those living in the periphery. The play’s title and refrain, “stop to think”, reflect this focus. The refrain is designed to make peripheral residents “stop and think” about the structural racism that shapes their lives. Although the hyperconsciousness/negation of race dialectic implies that all Brazilians deny race as a coherent category, that cannot be taken as a blanket rule. As several scholars have noted and my experience in Bahia has revealed to me, many Brazilians of African descent, particularly those living in the periphery, self-identify as black despite the use of a proliferation of various color classifications (Perry 2005; Sheriff 2001). However, the taboo around talking about racism and declaring it still remains. When Choque Cultural performs for peripheral residents, most people in the audience are visibly of African descent.19 Given the pervasive nature of racism in Brazil, it is likely that most audience members have had some experience with racism but may not have been able to speak openly about it.20 In this vein, the play provides a forum for identifying and expressing feelings of frustration that may be otherwise difficult to express openly. Part of Choque Cultural’s mission is to move residents toward political mobilization by refracting a mirror image of the peripheral experience with racism back to the people whose lives it shapes, in turn making this racial discrimination comprehensible.

The play is best characterized as a creative collage of poetic vignettes, accented by dramatized allegory. There is a written informal script, but in the performance the actors punctuate the script with improvisation. There is little dialogue, no clear plot, and no chronological story progression. The vignettes might be called scenes, but are neither formally titled nor thematically or sequentially ordered. Without linearity, the play tells a series of short figurative stories. Each of the vignettes in Pare Para Pensar allegorizes an aspect of racism in Brazilian society. The following, which I have called “The Police Raid”, depicts the scenario of police violence in the periphery.

“The Police Raid”

Actors with white masks storm onto the “stage” through a circle of onlookers. The actors, wearing the white cloth masks, take the crowd off-guard as they push through spectators with their hands drawn like guns. When they enter the inner circle, the actors wearing the white masks pretend to assault the actors who are already inside the circle (these actors have just finished the previous scene). The actors taken by surprise are not wearing masks; therefore their “blackness” – the darkness of their skin – stands in deep contrast to the bright white hoods the invading actors wear. Those wearing white masks mimic the police, using their hands positioned like guns to make threats. They shout, “stop,” “don’t move,” “get down.” Suddenly, all actors freeze their poses. The “police” stand with guns drawn and “neighborhood residents” lay prostrate on the ground after being subdued. One actor playing a neighborhood resident lying prostrate on the ground jumps up to break the freeze pose and walks around to each of the “police officers” removing their white masks, revealing their black faces.

Actor 3: They invaded…they invaded Iraq. [They] Killed men, women and children, but where is Saddam?
Actors: Alive!
Actor 3: They invaded…they invaded Afghanistan. [They] Killed men, women and children. Where is Bin Laden?
Actors: Alive!
Actor 3: They invaded…they invaded, but where is Blair?
Actors: Alive!
Actor 3: But where is Bush?
Actors: Alive!
Actor 3: They invaded…they invaded Fazenda Grande, San Martins, Sussuarana, Bom Júa, Liberdade, Alto de Coutos…[a woman from the audience calls out “Plataforma”] but where are the people?
Actors: They are dying….

The scene transcribed above reenacts a police raid on a peripheral community. Here, actors visually represent the scenario of police violence as part of a system of white supremacy and anti-black racism. When the actors enter the circle/stage with imaginary guns drawn, they begin a series of allegorical gestures that purposefully employ incomplete mimesis. Their mimicry of the police is not meant to be realistic but rather a symbolic representation of what police raids signify. The actors’ primary tool for doing this is the white mask. Once the “police raid” has ended, the actors then move into a critical interrogation of global politics and the dialectical relationship between racism, police violence, and global imperial systems of domination, comparing what happens in the peripheries of Brazil to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. By listing Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Tony Blair and George Bush as alive (the play was performed before Hussein’s execution) but noting that the people are dying, the scene purposefully makes no distinction between the power players in the war against terror. Instead, the actors characterize Hussein, Bin Laden, Blair and Bush as the dominant world elite using the lives of the masses as their pawns. The peripheral residents of the communities listed as targets of police raids towards the end of the scene therefore represent the many marginalized communities exploited (and murdered) by global structures of power. The message is that global systems of oppression cannot be separated from local systems of oppression. Thus, the vignette interprets the plight of the Iraqi and Afghani people as the plight of poor, marginalized non-white peoples everywhere. By the end of the vignette, they have painted a complex picture of the performance and performativity of racism in Brazil and its relationship to neoliberal political struggles suggesting that the violence of racism in the nation is inherently linked to other racialized and classed situations of violence transnationally.

There are several rich elements of this scene that merit close reading. However, for the purposes of this essay I would like to focus on the use of the white masks as an allegorical critique of the racism of police violence. The commentary is in direct dialogue with claims that police violence has nothing to do with racism in Brazil, particularly in Bahia. By wearing white masks, actors create an imaginary depiction of police aggression that visually reveals its racial undertones, pushing the audience to think about the association between this scenario, racism, and the everyday experience of living in the periphery.

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Figure 1.
Photo: Grupo A Tarde.

The masks symbolize the police, but not realistically. Despite this, it is clear to spectators, based on my observation of the performance, that the actors wearing white masks represent the police and that this is a reenactment of a police raid. The association is clear because the white cloth masks the actors wear are an obvious play on the masks Brazilian police at times wear to cover their faces while doing either illegal or overtly political acts. For example, picketing police wore ski masks during the statewide police strike in Bahia in July 2001, a “‘real life’” performance I witnessed first hand while doing fieldwork in Salvador that year.21 (See figure 1.) In other contexts, police accused of corruption are often portrayed in the news media wearing ski masks (usually black ski masks) after being apprehended for illegal activities. The ski mask is therefore a widely recognizable marker of police subversion and, I would like to suggest, a symbolic marker of state violence.22

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Figure 2.
Photo: Christen A. Smith.

However, the masks that the actors wear in this scene take this familiar image and invert it, shifting ski masks into white cloth masks using disjunctive mimicry. (See figure 2.) In doing this, the actors make a symbolic association between police violence and the racial social hierarchy of the nation, deliberately connecting police violence to whiteness and power. For Choque Cultural, the police are a symbol of the oppressiveness of white supremacy. In an interview I conducted with the troupe on May 13, 2005, one actor articulated this critique as he spoke to me about the meaning behind the use of the phrase “stop to think” in the play and as the title:

Pare Para Pensar is a play that invites all of society to stop to think, to reflect on the question of racism and show who’s the big villain of history…show the black community that the police that invade the periphery, that kill [a] brother…who’s in command is a white man.23

This comment not only emphasizes the fact that the phrase “stop to think” is a mnemonic device that continuously reminds the audience to stop and think about the politics of racism but also describes the actors’ correlation between the white masks and the power structure of white supremacy buttressing in police violence. The white masks suggest that the power structure of the police force is white, regardless of the racial classification of those enacting the violence. Therefore the symbolic reference contests claims that the participation of black police officers (inevitably low-ranking) in violent aggression proves that police violence is not based on racial discrimination. By claiming that “who’s in command is a white man,” Choque Cultural asserts that police actions adhere to a script of white supremacy irrespective of the racial classification of those enacting the violence. The white command of the police force is a reference to the actual racial classification of the police chief himself and racial understandings of power and social position that circulate within society. Consequently, this symbolic association cannot be easily read as an invocation of familiar racial binaries, for the use of the white masks over the black faces of the actors indicates a complicated relationship between racial identity, racial subjectivity and systems of power in Brazil.

As mentioned in the last section, many who deny the relationship between police violence and racial discrimination support their argument by pointing to the overwhelming number of police officers of African descent across the city of Salvador. They acknowledge that the majority of the victims of police violence are of African descent, but they also hasten to point out that the majority of the city’s population is of African descent as well. However, Choque Cultural’s performance purposefully marks the disjuncture between the police as social actors and the roles they play.

Although we cannot separate police officers’ personal histories from their roles as police officers, we can understand their roles as just that, roles, instilled with histories and meanings that are enacted according to social scripts.24 These roles have unique historical trajectories that are instilled with social meaning. Although police officers have not necessarily been geographically disconnected from the spaces they invade (many actually live in the periphery themselves), and their personal histories quite possibly share a similar trajectory with those they victimize, the historical trajectory of the police charts the characters in this scenario as agents of state control mobilized against marginalized urban spaces and bodies. Thus, there is a production of racial meaning in this moment.

During the military dictatorship (1964-1985), the government instituted the creation of “shock” forces (swat teams) and other ostensible strategies to fight urban guerillas threatening the state. Once this urban guerilla threat was no longer a primary directive, these forces shifted their attention to urban “criminals” (Pinheiro 1991). This terminology is in no way free of racial significance. Thinking back to the epistemology of race/”racial common sense” mentioned at the beginning of this essay, we recall that blackness is almost exclusively associated with criminality, degeneracy, poverty and filth in the Brazilian popular imagination (Caldeira 2000; Hanchard 1999; Nina Rodrigues 1938). As a result, this shift in tactical focus was filled with racial meaning as well, and it has continued to have an indelible impact on the police’s role in patrolling the urban periphery. This genealogy has everything to do with the warlike conflict between the police and peripheral communities in places like Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Salvador (e.g., Reel 2007). The role police play in “containing” urban “criminality” cannot be dissociated from race. These politics of repression connect directly to a structural relationship between the police and the space of the periphery that implies an unequal power relationship that has been institutionalized over time.

Yet, in addition to being reflective of racial social scripts defined over time, the scenario of police violence is also productive of racial meaning and interrelated to the politics of space. The enactment of police violence in and on the geographic location of the periphery also acts to map the landscape of that space. The boundaries of the periphery are in part defined and patrolled by the police, insuring that both the geographic and social borders of these spaces are clearly maintained and delineated. This production of space contributes to the racialization of the periphery. Each act of police violence invokes the historical narrative of the police’s war on urban marginality, re-inscribing racial meaning back onto the landscape. In both the play and the everyday enactment of police violence, the scene/physical location of the scenario is both prescribed by the plot and enacted by the performance. Police violence, as a scenario, inscribes race as a social script spatially onto the periphery producing the periphery both socially and geographically as a “black” space.

The Police Raid scene symbolically and conceptually challenges the claim that police violence has nothing to do with race by recasting the terms of racism outside of individual racial identification. Upon returning to a close reading of the scene, we begin to see multilayered connections. When Actor 3 breaks the frozen pose and begins to walk around, taking the white masks off of the heads of each of the “police officers,” he also reveals the black faces underneath the masks, complicating the racial imagery of this moment. We the audience, always know that the actors under the masks are phenotypically black because of our familiarity with the actors at this point, and the fact that only their faces (not their arms) are covered. Pulling the masks off is a conceptual move to portray the multi-layered raciality of this scenario. This action challenges the argument that black officers perpetrating violence against black citizens is not about racism and white supremacy. Rather, racism is an enactment of race as much as it is a performance enacted by racialized individuals. Whiteness and blackness are at least partially defined by the encounter between the police and the community.

As Actor 3 pulls off each white mask, he allegorically suggests that in the everyday performance of racism, the perpetrators of racial violence wear white masks even if they are not racially classified as white themselves. This implies the need to de-individualize racism and instead posit it as a hegemonic regime of truth that orders the world according to essentialist hierarchies and racial epistemologies. The association between blackness and criminality within this logic is partly why the police disproportionately target people of African descent with dark brown skin in their violent assaults, not necessarily because the police who target the victims are white in appearance.25 Nevertheless, as the actor I interviewed intimated in the quote mentioned previously, the command of the police force is white. This can be taken to mean that either those giving the orders are classified as white, or that the police power structure is constructed on the premises of white supremacy. Either way, the narrative scripting this scenario is the narrative of white supremacy. The symbolic association between whiteness and the violence portrayed in this scene refers back to this same system of logic that has informed notions of race in law enforcement for decades, a connection that shares a genealogy with slavery (Holloway 1993; Silva Jr. 1998).

Racism within Choque Cultural’s interpretation is the effect of a hegemonic racial epistemology that situates blackness as criminal, marginal and desolate, and whiteness as superior, powerful and upstanding. When police officers engage in repressive violence against people living in peripheral communities, this violence is racialized and its enactment inscribes “whiteness” and “blackness” onto the bodies of the social actors. Whiteness is a mask that can be limitedly assumed by non-white people if and only if one distinguishes oneself from blackness in some way to establish distance and authority. In this case, the distancing is through violent acts of rupture (police violence). This moment is fleeting and may or may not have a bearing on how the social actors who play the role of the police experience violence or are affected by racism in their daily lives; but during this fraction of time, race is enacted symbolically. Violently repressing blackness is a key element of structures of power built on white supremacy, but whiteness as a power structure does not always have to be enacted by subjects who are individually raced as white (within the boundaries of traditional essentialist definitions of the term).

For Choque Cultural, police violence is not about curbing criminality; it is a manifestation of the intersection between racial prejudice and physical oppression. More than just a remnant of slavery, or an indirect result of class divisions, for the troupe, this violence is evidence of the brutal, physical effects of the racial social order.

Conclusions

Conceptually, the theater allows Choque Cultural to make several critiques that are important for understanding the correlation between performance, racial formation, and its socio-political consequences. First, the mimicry of police violence on the stage becomes a kind of parody that draws attention to the disjuncture between the discourse of the negation of race and racism and the embodiment of an oppressive racial hierarchical system that is acted out in the interaction between police and their targets.26 To refer back to Taylor’s framework, in this scenario the police and victims are not only performing social narratives (which I would like to suggest are in part the silenced narrative of racism), but the bodies of these social actors are being constructed and this process of construction partly makes race and racism coherent in these moments. This coherence is only made possible by the internal antagonisms that are exemplified in what Taylor calls “the irreconcilable friction between the social actors and the roles” (Taylor 2003: 29). Specifically, Choque Cultural’s performance addresses the controversial issue of racial classification tied to the debate over the racism of police violence. The group’s use of incomplete mimesis to parody this scenario brings “the generative critical distance between social actor and character” to light (Taylor 2003: 29). By underlining this distance, the performance disturbs traditional definitions of race and racism that rely upon essentialisms, and expands the scope of race to encompass one’s relative social position in local and global society.

Second, the reenactment of police violence allows us to understand the connection between, location, action and the production of meaning. As Taylor suggests, physical location is a key component of the scenario because it “contribute(s) to the viewer’s understanding of what might conceivably transpire there…the place allows us to think about the possibilities of action” (2003:29). In the social imagination, Brazil’s peripheral neighborhoods are spaces of poverty and violence. Therefore the relationship between the scenario of police violence and the periphery is not only defined by the periphery’s geographic role as backdrop to this scene but also how police violence defines the periphery socially, spatially and epistemologically. Thus, unpacking this scenario as a dialogue between action and narrative demonstrates how the performance of police violence in the periphery etches racial meaning onto the landscape, once again, linking performance to racial formation by emphasizing the spatialization of race and racism. This extends to the actors experiences as well. The actors are from the periphery (and here I refer to the periphery as both a geographic and a social space), and this familiarity provides them the knowledge of the racial social script that is necessary for the creation of the performance. The periphery, in all of its complexities as a socio-spatial connotation, frames the setting and the social, political and cultural context of this encounter.

Third, regimes of truth and power that invoke hegemonic racial epistemologies inform scenarios of racial contact in the everyday. The daily performance of race is also a site of the production of racial subjectivity. Scenarios of racial contact act out a narrative of race and produce racialized bodies, racialized spaces and define the tensions in between. Looking closely at the multiple dimensions of these scenarios and thinking towards the possibility for collective racial identity, we can make the assertion that these dialogic moments of encounter define a geography of blackness that is otherwise blurred against the backdrop of the discourse of racial democracy. As a result, collective identity and struggle become plausible. This is not to say that performance and performativity are the only sites where race is defined, or to make the claim that performance enacts meaning and produces identity outside of the social, cultural, historical, epistemological frame that defines racial formation. However, by factoring performance and performativity into our definition of racial formation in Brazil we can better articulate how racial subjects are formed. This permits us to argue against the claim that there is no experiential grounding for collective identity and struggle. There are political stakes for incorporating performance into a discussion of racial formation in Brazil. By situating performance as a central component of racial formation, we not only create a space for disrupting hegemonic social structures but we affirm the possibility of subversive identities and lay the groundwork necessary for recognizing the collective identity struggles of marginalized peoples, particularly, within this case, black Brazilians.

To conclude, I would like to return briefly to the vignette to underscore the political stakes of this performance. There is one particular moment in this scene when the imaginary world of the stage and the “reality” of those in the audience coalesce. Towards the end, Actor 3 calls out the names of the peripheral neighborhoods invaded by the police in Salvador. As he does this, one woman from the crowd calls out a neighborhood Actor 3 leaves unmentioned, Plataforma. The woman who called out that day was not a part of the production. She was standing somewhere behind me as I filmed this performance and I neither recognized her voice nor her face when I eventually saw her. Her interjection signifies a moment of recognition and radical engagement between the audience and the performance. I do not know if the woman was from Plataforma, but I assume that her act of calling out the name of this neighborhood signaled not only her identification with the commentary being made but her desire to insert herself into this piece and symbolically join with those who cry out against this abuse. Her participation was a symbolic act of protest and solidarity. She too wanted her experiences with this violence, whatever they might have been, to be recognized.

The “Plataforma” interjection indicates an element of resonance between the audience and the performance in this instance. To say that this woman’s response was an act of recognition is not necessarily a utopic political interpretation, although some may read it as such. It is not that the performance intensely engages in the real and therefore magically elicits an emotional response from the audience. All people in the audience may not have connected with the play. Indeed, most of the performances I attended of Pare Para Pensar did not elicit such a response. However, this moment of recognition demonstrates the embedded political potential of this enactment and draws our attention to the theater’s potential to critically disrupt the common senses and assumed realities of society.

Anthropologist Dorinne Kondo’s observations on the counter-hegemonic potential of the theater summarize the work of Choque Cultural. She writes,

As many analysts have noted, and as many people on the margins in one way or another know from experience, the world of representation and of aesthetics is a site of struggle, where identities are created, where subjects are interpolated, where hegemonies can be challenged. And taking seriously that life-giving capacity of aesthetics, performance, bodies and the sensuous is, within our regime of power and truth, and indisputably political act (Kondo 1997: 4).

What is counter-hegemonic about Choque Cultural’s work is its audacious interruption of the silence of racism. Not afraid to throw on white masks to allegorize white hegemony and talk about racism and police violence, the group denounces the myth that racial prejudice is neither violent nor imposing in Brazil by destabilizing conventional understandings of how racism functions. Through these articulations, the work of Choque Cultural goes against social conventions and is an act of resistance that challenges us to re-think the theoretical role of performance in defining social reality.


Christen A. Smith is an assistant professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. She received her Ph.D. in Cultural and Social Anthropology from Stanford University where she completed her dissertation on theater and the politics of race and citizenship in Brazil. Her current research interests include performance, performativity and the politics of race, nation and citizenship in Brazil and the Americas. Since 2001, she has been working and researching with black activists in Salvador, Bahia around issues of racism and violence that plague that community. Most of these collaborations have been with social protest theater artists in the city, including most significantly theater troupe Choque Cultural, with which she has been collaborating since 2003. Her most recent intellectual project examines the use of theater as a form of social protest within Brazil’s Black Movement and the performative aspects of racism and police violence in Brazil. Her research has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards including awards from the Ford Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.


ENDNOTES

1 The incorporation of “performance” into a discussion of black subject formation follows various trends in African-American performance studies that affirm the integral role performance has played in defining race, particularly with respect to blackness, since the period of slavery (Elam 2001; Hartman 1997). Harry Elam writes that,

…at its inception, the American “race question” is inherently theatrical. From the arrival of the first African slaves on American soil, the discourse on race, the definitions and meanings of blackness, have been intricately linked to issues of theater and performance. Definitions of race, like the processes of theater, fundamentally depend on the relationship between the seen and the unseen, between the visibly marked and unmarked, between the “real” and the illusionary (Elam 2001: 4).

Although Elam refers specifically to race in the United States (although he uses the term American), given commonalities in our history, not the least of which is slavery, his claim can be extended to racial formation across the Americas as well. Moreover, although many scholars, like Elam, use performance theory to affirm the fluidity and malleability of race, the dialogic framework of performance’s ability to converse between “the seen and the unseen…the visibly marked and unmarked” also emphasizes the process by which moments of contact produce and re-inscribe racial meaning. In this sense, performance, performativity and enactment intersect with epistemologies, histories, cultural and social meanings to construct racial meaning.

2 Both João Costa Vargas and Robin Sheriff also make this critique (Sheriff 2001; Vargas 2004).

3 Here and throughout this article, the term “black” refers to the term negro in Portuguese. It is a political term initially used by Brazil’s Black Movement to refer to all Brazilians of African descent (classified as either preto or pardo by the official census) that carry the phenotypical markings of this heritage and are discriminated against because of it (see e.g., Fontaine 1985; Sheriff 2001; Telles 2004). This classification, which evolves out of a pan-Africanist understanding of blackness, is currently widely used and circulated within Brazil beyond the Black Movement, including the media, NGOs, state and federal government agencies. For decades, scholars who work on Brazil have investigated the complexity of racial classification there. They have most often contrasted Brazil’s system of racial classification with that of the United States, noting how cultural concepts of race in Brazil do not fit neatly into the binary racial classification system of the United States one-drop rule. Historically, Brazil was believed to be a racial democracy with a spectrum of racial classifications and consequently little to no racial discrimination (e.g., Pierson 1947). However, over the past fifty years, scholars have rebuked this claim stating that despite Brazil’s multi-dimensional system of color coding (a 1976 survey conducted by A Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios -National Household Sample Research – PNAD - registered 135 different responses for racial classification when the survey allowed respondents to write-in their racial category [Oliveira 1998]) racial stratification in Brazil tends to be bifurcated. Brazil’s system of racial classification reflects a binary racial social structure coded by class in which the social conditions of brancos (whites) can be starkly contrasted to the social conditions of pretos (dark-skinned/blacks) and pardos (light-skinned/browns) (e.g., Hasenbalg and Silva 1988). Most recently however, scholars have shied away from both extreme claims noting both the binary and non-binary aspects of Brazilian racial classification and their affects (Sheriff 2001; Telles 2004).

4 Genetic racial testing is very controversial and scientists frequently note the flaws in this testing. Nevertheless, the purpose of the study was in part to engage critically with the polemical subject of racial identity. The complete online version of the study elaborates on the motives behind the project and the controversies surrounding it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/portuguese/noticias/cluster/2007/05/070427_raizesafrobrasileiras.shtml.

5 "Nunca vi nenhuma batida policial em ônibus, por exemplo, que antes de discriminar perguntasse à pessoa quantos por cento de genes afro ela teria."

6 “A intelectualidade brasileira não está mais conseguindo identificar quem são os negros no Brasil, embora a polícia, os patrões, os meios de comunicação (em especial a mídia televisiva), entre outros grupos sociais e instituições, saibam indentificá-los no momento em que os agridem física e simbolicamente, em que lhes negam empregos para os quais estão capacitados...” [my translation].

7 Here and throughout this essay I use the term “police” to refer to the Military and Civil Police in Brazil. The Brazilian police are “organized at the state level” into three different bodies, two of which fall under the purview of the Secretary of Public Security and operate at the state level: the Civil and Military Police. The third body is under the control of the federal government even at the state level, the Federal Police. The Civil Police are responsible for criminal investigations and administrative processing. They therefore oversee, “recording complaints and criminal events, investigating crimes, producing proof, and initiating (or not) judicial processes” (Caldeira 2000: 109). The Military Police are in charge of street patrol. This unit makes arrests and is the unit most immediately in contact with the public. The Federal Police are in charge of national security, securing borders and “controlling drug trafficking” (2000: 109). Although there are some states, like São Paulo (as anthropologist Teresa Caldeira notes), that have other police units as well, this basic national structure dictates how the police function at the state level (Caldeira 2000).

8 Here I am referring to the controversial song “Look at Her Hair” (“Veja os cabelos dela”) that the popular children’s clown, Tiririca was chastised for in 1996. Anthropologist Kia Lilly Caldwell meticulously analyzes the song and its racial implications in her discussion on black women and the politics of aesthetics in Negras in Brazil (2007).

9 Here I am referring to Omi and Winant’s definition of racial formation.

10 Hanchard borrows the term “regime of truth” from Michel Foucault (1999a).

11 My use of the term “incomplete mimesis” stems from two sources. The first is theater scholar Elin Diamond’s use of the term. In Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theater, Diamond posits that social-history and representation are fully integrated and that “discourse and its products are caught up in fantasies” (1997: iii). She posits that theater cannot rid itself of the impetus to mimic, the search for