Respectability Won’t Save You: Police Violence Across the Diaspora

by Rachel Cantave

“Respete tet ou!” is what Haitian parents say to make their children act right. It translates to, “Respect yourself!”  Growing up Haitian-American, I knew what respect meant: use your manners, be humble around elders, don’t speak unless spoken to, never whine or ask for soda when you’re at someone else’s house.  As I got older, I internalized respect and built my identity and self-confidence around being a respectful bookworm. I wore the Huxtable sweater and depended on my “goodness” to grant me access to things like jobs and education. Respectability was my security blanket. I knew how to “act right,” and used this to secure what little power and status I could get. But in the end, my Huxtable sweater and respectability politicking couldn’t save me from police violence. 

In August 2014, I began my Ph.D. dissertation research in Brazil. I had been to Brazil years before as an undergrad, and fell in love with Brazilian culture. Thus, I was excited to return as a Fulbright scholar to begin a year’s worth of fieldwork. 

Foreigners residing in Brazil for more than 3 months have to register their presence with the federal police. Initially, I planned to register with another Fulbright researcher. However, I was deep in an apartment hunt, so I decided to go the day after. Before leaving the house that morning, I called him to get affirmation of what I knew would be an exhausting endeavor of dealing with Brazilian bureaucracy. Even understanding what forms had to be filled out and printed had been an exhausting task.  So I double-checked with my colleague and he told me he was able to register, no problem. 

“But, they did ask me if I had an appointment.” This was something that was mentioned online but most websites seemed to agree was unnecessary.

“Don’t worry though. I just played innocent and said I didn’t know and they helped me.” 

“Okay, great.” I replied. 

I was anxious to get this step over with, as I was pressed for time—foreigners are given only 30 days to register and two weeks had passed just collecting the paperwork. I was also trying to hit the ground running with my research while still looking for a place to stay. 

On the ride over to the federal police office, I looked over my application meticulously, making sure I had every form and picture. I dressed in my best Brazilian professional outfit—jeans, cardigan, blouse, flats—and left the house early enough to arrive before lunchtime. 

I arrived at the office at about 9:30am. There was no one in the office except for a man standing at a desk in the front. I approached and, in my best Brazilian accent and sweetest voice, asked if I could register. He asked if I had my paperwork. I said yes enthusiastically, thrusting my folder of documents over to him. He then asked if I had an appointment.

“I need an appointment?” I asked coyly to a stoic face. 


“Is there any way I can register now?”

“Hold on.”

He walked into an adjoining room and a woman came back in his place. She came in with a stank face, her blondish hair pulled back, and she looked at me blankly. 

“Hi. How are you?” I asked, attempting to elicit a smile from her with my Brazilian politeness. No luck. I told her I was here to register.

“Do you have an appointment?” 

“No, but I was—“ 


“I know you are all very busy, but it won’t take very long—”

They were not busy. There were no other clients in the office.

Still her response was, “No.” 

“Can I just sit here and wait to see if someone misses their appointment. Then I could take their space?” 

“No, and I’m not going to tell you again.”

“Excuse me? I’m just trying to understand if there’s any way I can—“ 

“No. I’m not going to tell you again to leave. “ 

If she had been more cordial, open to answering my questions, or even remotely interested in letting me complete a goddamn sentence, maybe things would have happened differently. But she wasn’t. She was rude and gave me a look so vile, it prompted me to look her in the eye and say, “You know, a friend of mine came in yesterday. He is white and he was able to register in this office with no appointment. You know that could be seen as racism?”

She looked shocked and angrily denied my accusation.

Satisfied that she knew I knew that an act of injustice had just occurred between us in the land of supposed color-blindness, I said, “It’s true. He can confirm it himself and it could be said to be racism.” 

And with that, I turned to leave.

In an instant, I heard the slick tearing of papers and saw scraps of the documents in my hand littering the floor. Then I felt a cold, hard, THUD. In shock, it took a moment to comprehend what had happened: She had ripped my papers, grabbed me by the skin exposed at the v-neck of my blouse, and threw me up against a wall. Her other hand was reaching for my neck when two men appeared, pulling her off me before she could choke me. It happened so fast and I was so thoroughly unprepared that I just moved with her grip.

Why did I think my self-respect, my outfit, my Portuguese, my understanding of Brazilian socio-political history, my American-ness, my degrees, or my status as a Fulbright Scholar could ever guarantee my safety?

In shock, I began yelling (well, more like stuttering), “Do you have the right to put your hands on me? Do you have the right to do this?” 

As she regained her composure, she looked at the two young men holding her back and said, “Calling a federal police officer racist is a crime and I’m having you arrested.”  
At that moment, my stomach dropped. Jail? In Brazil, the country of City of God and gun toting children?! Oh hell naw! Hot tears came instantly. 

I looked desperately at one of the two men, black by American standards, who had pulled her off of me and I said to him, “When they arrest me, are you going to tell the truth or are you going to lie for her?” 

I knew the answer, but for a moment I thought that honesty might prevail and our mutual Brown-ness could stir some solidarity. Then he looked away and my suspicions were confirmed.  

After they took me into holding, I was charged with three offenses: (1) disrespecting authority; (2) attacking her (she spun the story to say I had attacked her—even though I was the one with bruises); and (3) accusing someone of racism without evidence (really?). 

A month later, I had to return to the same federal police office to register, for real.  I had gotten a lawyer, and was told I would most likely have to pay a fine and do community service; I was patiently waiting for my court date.  With my paperwork in hand, under the pretense that I was getting registered, they took my passport into the back room and canceled my visa with a swift red stamp: they were deporting me. 

Once my visa had been stamped, there was nothing I could do. I signed the documents confirming that I had seen and understood the terms of my deportation. In fact, I hadn’t understood anything. No explanations were given to me as to who petitioned the State department to cancel my visa or why.  

In a way, my deportation was the best and worst thing that could’ve happened to me. After my traumatic attack and living in constant fear of police retaliation, I had started to go down a toxic path of self-doubt and blame. These feelings were abetted by my precarious dealings with the Fulbright Commission who, outside of my direct liaison, were quiet and unsupportive. However, the deportation was a sign that the federal police were desperate to cover up what had happened. Why else would they not let it play out through the judicial system, especially if they were pressing charges against me? 

The canceling of my visa was a bombshell no one could have foreseen: my lawyer, my friends, not even my Fulbright representative could believe it. I figured, “It must be really bad when even Brazilians are shocked by my experience with police corruption.” I laughed, said my goodbyes, and left Brazil.
Eventually, I returned. I had to jump through every hoop imaginable for their State Department to issue a new visa to me, including writing a letter of apology to the female officer. I lost a chunk of my Fulbright funding and valuable time in the field, but the most important thing was completing my research. 

What happened to me happens every day to Brazilians. Police violence is so commonplace against poor (and primarily Afro-descended) Brazilians that no real explanation is ever needed to justify police related deaths. Investigations are rarely done and  justice is rarely served. I recognize that the trauma I experienced will never compare to whole lifetimes and generations of injustice and violence perpetrated against Black Brazilians.  

I admire and support Afro-Brazilians in their fight against racism (and classism). Perhaps that’s why I felt obliged to say something when injustice was being perpetrated against me. There is a poem by Donna Kate Rushin that I love about women of color and our backs being bridges, in which she says: “Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody… / The bridge I must be / Is the bridge to my own power/ And then/ I will be useful.”

As we fight for the right to life and dignity for our sons and daughters in the United States, let us not forget our Diasporic families in the banana republics and on coconut beaches. We live in a world where being black—whether in Missouri or in Rio de Janeiro, whether teenaged boy or a renowned academic, whether wearing a dress or wearing a hoodie—begets the exact same thing: apathy, fear, violence, and—often—death. Even worse, our deaths and the aggressions performed against us are met with disbelief, blame, and the added burden of proving our innocence. The benefit of doubt falls, almost always, on the side of the white authority. 

I get the sense that Brazilians think the corruption that happens in Brazil doesn’t happen in the U.S., and Americans forget that deaths by police shootings happen with even more frequency across the bridge. Michael was right: They don’t care about us (be we Brazilian or American) and we’ve all got the strange fruit to prove it.

Photo Credit: SIphotography

Rachel is a PhD candidate in Anthropology. She is originally from NY and is currently writing a dissertation on religion and social justice in Brazil.

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