Why I am not a monkey

Update: It turns out this was a planned marketing stunt.

Last Sunday during a soccer match between Villareal and Barcelona, a fan threw a banana at the Brazilian Barcelona defender Dani Alves as he went to make a corner kick. Alves has made internet history with his witty response: without missing a beat, he grabbed the banana, took a bite, then jumped right back in the game. Since then, Brazilian Facebook and Twitter have taken off with photos of soccer players, celebrities, and ordinary citizens posing with bananas, accompanied by the hashtag #todossomosmacacos  or “we are all monkeys.”

Unfortunately, taunts about bananas and references to black people as “monkeys” within soccer is embarrassingly common. And for someone from Brazil — where conversations about racism are often filled with euphemisms and comments about “racial rainbows” — it is exciting to see Alves face racism head on and take a bite. 

But the truth is that not all of us are understood to be less than human due to our skin color. Maya wrote about the temptation to universalize our experiences on social media in the name of solidarity when the “I am Trayvon Martin” memes became popular.

Michel Teló of "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" fame, posing with a banana.

Michel Teló of “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” fame, posing with a banana. Photo credit.

“When white folks adopt that stance, though, it’s…different. I’m sure it comes from a genuine place of empathy. In a society that’s pretty shitty when it comes to talking about race, displays of solidarity can end up being a little simplistic, a little pat. As a white ally, “I am Trayvon Martin” may seem like a way of showing that you care–of showing that you, too, believe this is important and terrible and that it is about all of us. It is, I think, also a way of refusing the boundaries that our culture erects. If racism teaches white people not to see black folks as fully human, saying, “I am Trayvon Martin”–and rhetorically stepping completely into the shoes of an Other–may seem like a rejection of that.

But just as we are not all Trayvon Martin, we are not all treated like monkeys. And allyship means fully recognizing that supporting someone’s struggles against oppression is not the same as experiencing that oppression. Don’t get me wrong, it is unbelievably exciting to see Brazil talking about race in such a mainstream and direct way. But I think we can do better. Posing with a hashtag and a piece of fruit isn’t the same as working to change deeply socialized and institutionalized strains of colonialism and brutal racism. In order to challenge these systems of oppression, we are each required to thoughtfully and painstakingly examine our own privileges and positioning within the system. By suggesting that we are all oppressed, we dilute the conversation on inequity and get distracted from fixing it.

Some Brazilians actually get treated like monkeys. Earlier last month, a group of people displaced by World Cup development were forcibly removed with tear gas and violence from a piece of unused land they had occupied. Brazilian women still face disturbing rates of violence, in a country where 26% of the population thinks that women who dress “provocatively” deserve to be raped. When race and gender intersect, certain bodies are treated as disposable, such as Claudia Silva Ferreira, who was killed after being dragged from a police car for blocks. After her death, social media rose to action, claiming “We Are All Claudia.” People changed their profile picture to her face, and it became hard to distinguish what was true sympathy and solidarity, and what was just jumping on a trend.

Raising awareness can be fun, and it is important. But we have to do more. For as much energy as we spend teaching others about injustice, we should spend equal parts deconstructing institutions and practices that harm us, and working within ourselves to unlearn stereotypes that do not serve us.

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Juliana thinks that monkeys get a bad rap.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 29, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Juliana!

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