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Philosophy, Social Issues

Favelas: Cultural Otherness and the Perpetuation of Exclusionary Public Policy

In Favela:  Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, Janice Perlman dedicates an entire chapter to deconstructing the importance of personhood in regards to people dwelling in the favelas.  Perlman begins chapter twelve by suggesting that favelados are aware of their secondary place in society and in some cases actively try to assert themselves utilizing acceptable cultural norms such as “marrying well, sending children to private schools, and retiring.”  However, they soon realize that their actions are futile because “30 years later, [they remain] light-years away..from becoming gente,” or in other terms, ‘somebody.’  These futile efforts to achieve a better social and economic standing present an unsettling yet fundamental question that requires attention.  Despite inserting themselves within the dominant culture through adherence to societal norms, why then are many favelados “light-years” away from achieving personhood?  Secondly, how does this obstacle affect urban and social policy?  Within this framework, personhood is defined as being “a person, a human..‘somebody’ [who] is accorded the dignity and respect that is automatically conferred on the ‘we’ of the human community and denied to the ‘they.’”  In light of this definition and the socioeconomic situation still befalling favelados, perhaps the root obstacle providing a cognitive disconnect between mainstream society and the relevance of social issues is cultural in nature.  Arguably, cultural otherness, or the othering of certain groups within a society as inferior and non-existent, perpetuates social and economic inequalities.  Therefore, favelados are unable to obtain personhood because they are othered as inferior degenerates within Brazilian society, which fundamentally influences exclusive urban and social policies that seeks to rid mainstream Brazilian society of favelados.  In order to evaluate this societal challenge, it is necessary to proceed with the following main questions:  what is cultural otherness and how does it function in regards to favelados?; what are specific examples of cultural production that facilitate the division?; what is the relationship between cultural prejudices and public policy?; and finally, what are specific examples of exclusive public policy?  Through the analysis provided by these questions, it will be evident that cultural otherness profoundly prevents favelados from achieving personhood as a result of their lack of cultural capital, which influences and perpetuates exclusive public policy as a solution to Brazilian urban and social issues. 

Originally, scholars intended the term cultural otherness, or the combined usage of Orientalism and alterity, to reference the historically domineering relationship the European West possessed with its colonies during colonization and its continuation after independence.  Specifically, the term alterity refers to “a philosophical concept where one group asserts that certain races or groups of people are ‘sub-humans,’ [deeming them] inferior and equally ‘evil’ Others, thus justifying excluding them from positions of power and meaning.”  In addition to the concept of alterity, Orientalism refers to “the creation of non-European stereotypes that suggest the Others are indolent, thoughtless, sexually immoral, unreliable, demented, [and most of all] genetically inferior.” This designation is similar to the stereotyping of favelas as “being linked to poverty, ignorance, sickness, insalubriousness and especially to crime.”  Therefore,  despite the intended connotation of Orientalism and alterity as referring to European powers versus colonies, alterity and Orientalism also exist within the relationship between favelados and mainstream Brazilian society.  Alterity exists within their relationship because Brazilian society continues to judge favelados based on elite social standards in an attempt to show their own superiority.  Furthermore, “those evoking alterity often [do so] to justify their cruel treatment of the Other by [labeling them] as heathens,” with the Other representing “any person defined as different from the” preferred and socially respected identity.  As a result of alterity and Orientalism, favelados will always fall outside the Brazilian ideal because  they are contrary to the preferred norm in terms of race and class.

Because an identity is always relative to an opposite ‘Other’ and constructed in contrast to that Other in order to produce meanings of difference, the use of imagery and representation is particularly strong. Cultural representations of favelados serve to oust them from Brazilian society, deeming them as unwanted and detrimental to Brazilian development.  Because they are Othered as threats to Brazilian nationalism and identity, the Brazilian government at all levels has legitimized and enacted exclusive social policies through the use of alterity and Orientalism.  This combined usage is the crux of cultural otherness where favelados “do not enjoy full citizenship, that is, are not granted access to State services; but also are deemed as marginal, standing apart from ‘regular’ society.”

One of the most prominent modes of cultural otherness that works to strip favelados of their personhood is the Brazilian media.  The media utilizes a type of journalism that creates “a linear coverage that only narrates events without considering their context; that prioritizes official sources, and diminishes common citizens; that credits violence to an alleged inborn barbarism of those who commit it; and that can only understand disputes in a dualistic manner, as a fight between “good” and “evil” –, [in short], the media in Brazil has been helping to perpetuate the stereotypes about the favelas,” which allows governments to use cultural otherness as a means to justify exclusive social policy in order to ‘correct’ the favela problem.  This connection is why alterity and Orientalism have a great deal of power within the realm of culture.  Cultural otherness inherently affects public policy because it is a tool utilized by the dominant elite, who have the power to control the official laws and policies of society; therefore, public policy is almost always laced with personal bias in the form of ‘cultural bias.’  “The in-group [or elites], constructs one or more others, setting itself apart and giving itself an identity.” Their identity gives them a right to personhood, or the fundamental allowance of existence in society as an equal citizen.

Past solutions to the problema favela serve as concrete examples of exclusionary, prejudiced-laced public policy in Brazil, which relies on cultural otherness to legitimize its usage.  For example, if favelados were seen as equal citizens in society then the Brazilian government would not be able to justify building walls to ‘keep out crime’ in an effort to prepare for the Olympic games.  Furthermore, the constant raids and attempts to forcibly remove favelas by the Brazilian military and police serve as reminders that ‘they’ are not wanted in ‘our’ society and thus, ‘they’ should be removed.  These solution attempts ignore the “long process of marginalization by the State, by successive governments, and by the wealthier social classes” that contributed to the current social and economic issues plaguing the favelas.  Therefore, as a result of the connection between cultural otherness and biased public policy, the representation of favelados as socially inferior must be addressed.  They must be incorporated into the acceptable cultural fabric of Brazilian society; in doing this, their place as true citizens will be justified by societal norms.  Furthermore, the favelas must be given the chance to increase their cultural capital, meaning that they are allowed the same opportunities to succeed according to societal norms of achievement.  “Pierre Bourdieu sees the concept of cultural capital as breaking with the received wisdom that attributes academic success or failure to natural aptitudes, such as intelligence and giftedness. Bourdieu explains school success by the amount and type of cultural capital inherited from the family milieu rather than by measures of individual talent or achievement.”

Therefore, in conjunction with Bourdieu and Perlman, the inability of favelados to succeed is not based on inherent degeneracy, as cultural prejudices would suggest, but instead, the lack of opportunities that allow favelados to succeed based on societal standards.  Public policy should allow for equal access to skill development and work to give the “urban poor the opportunity to use their energy and skills to earn a decent living…[causing] their purported self-defeating beliefs and behaviors to disappear as well as those excuses [used] to justify their exclusion.”

Works Cited

Boscov-Ellen, Lisa.  “Out of Sight, Out of Mind:  Rio’s Slum Solution.”  The Cutting Edge News, September 7th, 2009, 1.

Bressler, Charles E.  Literary Criticism:  An Introduction to Theory and Practice.  Boston:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2011.

François-Staszak, Jean.  “Other/Otherness,” International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (2008): 1-7.

Perlman, Janice.  Favela:  Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro.  North Carolina:  Oxford University Press, 2010.

Silveira, Martim S.  “Brazilian Favelas in the Media,” Transcend.

“Update on the Forced Removal of Favelas in Rio de Janeiro,” Mundo Real, April 28, 2010, 1.

“What is Cultural Capital?” Educated Girl.



2 thoughts on “Favelas: Cultural Otherness and the Perpetuation of Exclusionary Public Policy

  1. Extremely well-written, BJ. I’m proud of you!

    Posted by Preiyaa | April 23, 2012, 8:42 am

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