The perceptions we adopt of the people and places we are unfamiliar with can be quite dangerous. To assume and project the ideas or messages we receive from the world to the unknown, creates an us v. them complex. This complex allows us to feel a sense of security in finding our own perceptions and ideologies as good or just, and those of the ‘other’ as not.
I noticed this most during the Olympics this past summer, when reports of the Brazilian government forcing people out of their homes, and wrongly mistreating the subsequent protests, to build the infrastructure for the Olympics. When speaking to others, they seemed to find the actions of the Brazil as an anomaly, a special case, an outlier amongst world governments. None of that is true. The basis of some of this city's foremost problems lie within forced removals of people experience poverty from their homes and those experiencing houselessness from finding safe spaces to sleep at night. The homes that people have lived in almost their whole lives, have just been destroyed to make room for more desired attractions. What is more desirable than home? Rio de Janeiro and Portland, share qualities that are one in the same.
Yet, that is not the perception that I have seen portrayed. So often I see, stories of Brazil that focus that are reflective of few things-- soccer, Carnival, beautiful beaches, the deforested Amazon, favelas, crime, corruption and violence--almost as if they separate from society, or removed from the larger social systems in place. Rampant poverty and crime takes on a different face and medium here, but it still exists. However, in that very statement, the skewed and biased perceptions of an entire nation is summed up. How often do we see the regularity and simplicity of day-to-day life portray in Brazil? How many movies have you seen set in the sequestered favelas, ridden with gang violence and no order? Often. If not, frequently.
My perceptions were completely changed when 12, racially, ethnically, sexually and culturally diverse Brazilian students, spoke with me about their stories. With big smiles, big hair and big personalities these 12 individuals dive deep into this open space. These youth Brazilian Ambassadors from all over Brazil, visiting with the World Affairs Council and the US State Department, were the brightest, optimistic and realistic people of their communities. They were overrun with this desire to share their experiences. To create their own platforms, to stand, with full attention and relay the entirety of their respective lives.
It is almost ethereal when people from completely different worlds come together to discuss their worlds. It is so subtle and beautiful and simple, that is almost seems divine. The impact of two hours on the lives of thirteen individuals, including myself, is not conscious in the moment. Rather it builds. Going from topics about water accessibility to opportunities to better our lives, every point struck a chord with each of us. Initially, I functioned as the facilitator. But, soon found myself looking upon this moment, outside of my own self, looking on, as these people transcended their geographical, political and social barriers to instinctively connect as human beings. To not argue. To have each and every one of our stories validated by one another.
Truly, I began to see the parallels of our country’s horrific racist pasts, playing out in being followed around at the mall or treated differently when we were with a darker parent, rather than the other. I began to see the purposeful limitations and barriers established to stop, thoughtful, engaged and intelligent young people from changing the systems that provide profit for those in power. I began to see that the objectification of the female body and the degradation of the female spirit as an ugly universal reality. I began to see my own privilege of being born in a place where aspiring to be better was not just a dream but a potential reality. I began to see my own privilege in never having to worry about having water, but instead drowning in a wasteful abundance. I was beginning.
To begin is where all progress starts. Forcing ourselves to challenge our perceptions, to empathetically address the plight of people universally, to acknowledge our blindspots, to connect. The power of connection can fortify and destroy the largest and most minute perceptions we adopt. Allowing our perceptions to persist, even though we know no one of those we are perceiving is beyond ignorant-- it is an active decision to discriminate.
Begin to interrogate your understanding of everything you know or perceive to know. In doing that, I have 12 new friends and a redeemable invitation to a place just as racist, corrupt and unconcerned as my home now. Only difference, is the people there more authentic and human.