If you logged on to Surfline last night, like I did, to read the coverage of the final day of the Billabong Pro in Rio, you might have been surprised to find a strange diatribe about the behavior of Brazilian surfers. The article, written by Matt Pruett proved so incendiary that it was actually removed from the site late last night after the discussion boards lit up in condemnation. In the captions, there is a note:
Editor’s note: After internal deliberation and evaluating reader feedback, we decided that the best way to tell the story of Jordy’s win in Rio is with photos and captions. Stay tuned for Surfline’s Power Rankings for a full performance breakdown of the event.
Clearly, something went wrong. Let me explain.
What was perhaps most striking about the piece was the way it attempted to mask prejudice by playing good cop/bad cop; first, it acknowledges that stereotyping is wrong, and then proceeds to trot out the same tired stereotypes. This is not “real talk” designed to investigate hard truths or open debate. Those things would require a working knowledge of Brazilian culture and history, as well as the way that stereotypes work. That said, it doesn’t quite qualify as “racism” either, because “Brazilian” is not a race. It was, instead, the unthinking and discriminatory rhetoric of cultural imperialism that (intentionally or not) serves to demonize one supposed type of people while subtly vindicating another.
I won’t waste your time detailing every false accusation Pruett makes, but I would like to highlight the one that stands heads and tails above the rest. In the piece, he asks rhetorically: “So why do Brazilians have such a hard time burying the stereotypes?” Pruett goes on to answer his own question by describing the way some surfed and behaved on the last day of the Rio Pro.
There are two levels of false reasoning in this argument. The first is that the onus is on Brazilians to somehow prove to others – presumably Pruett and the other surfing literati in America and Australia – that they are not as they have been stereotyped. The second is that it is possible for an individual to do this at all. The very definition of a stereotype is that it is a gross generalization based on a false correlation between behavior and biology. An individual can neither disprove a generalization (which is made about a collective) nor can he prove or disprove something that is, to begin with, based on fallacy. Pruett actually demonstrated as much inadvertently when he wrote that Adriano de Souza was the “most composed and humble surfer on the beach.” So why doesn’t his behavior disprove the stereotype?
Because, for those set in their beliefs, cases will always exist that justify their world-view. Filipe Toledo and Gabriel Medina, for instance, did not surf and behave with the required levels of Protestant restraint and obsequiousness that Pruett expects from anyone not from Orange County, Sydney, or various East Coast surfing hamlets. Prejudice, you see, is like believing in Big Foot. It does not matter how much evidence there is that the ape doesn’t exist, true believers will always find “proof” that will support their delusions because they want to find it. Scientists who conduct experiments in order to obtain a set of desired results are called charlatans.
The really bat-shit crazy part of all this is the apparently unconscious double standard used to describe the Brazilians. When Medina hassles in a heat with Slater-like intensity, he is labeled over-eager and disrespectful. When Felipe Toledo displays passion in the water reminiscent of Andy Irons, it is considered hackneyed and pompous. The issue is not that Brazilians claim or do not claim, it’s that, instead of being an individual reaction, it is strongly implied that this is “Brazilian behavior.” If you watch any of the heats from Rio which are still on demand, you would see is flatly false.
I am so tired of having the same old conversation about Brazilians and why they supposedly act in certain ways. My theory is that it’s less about the actual behavior of many Brazilians and more about the fear, frustration, and disillusionment of surfing’s content creators who are witnessing the sport they love convulsing under the strain of its own demographic explosion.
This may lead you to wonder why I’m writing a detailed takedown of an article about Brazilian behavior that no longer exists. The reason is because, whether or not Pruett’s article sits on a web site or is relegated to an old file on his computer, the ideas contained in it have long since infected the world of surfing. The fact that Pruett’s article even saw the light of day attests to this. We cannot forget that these ideas float among us. We cannot eradicate them by only half acknowledging them. We have to stand up as a society, as many have already done on Surfline’s message boards, and make it plain that we will not tolerate this.
I have no particular connection to Brazilians other than the feeling that all people of dark complexion and “ethnic” features share when we participate in a culture dominated by those of lighter complexion and “Anglo Saxon” features. It is the queasy suspicion that under each stink eye, each drop in, each admonition, lurks the assumption that, based on my innate biological characteristics, I do not belong. Every time a Brazilian is criticized for some arbitrary breach of hoary rules of conduct like being too demonstrative, or competing too hard, I hear a single phrase: “You are playing our sport, and you will play it by our rules.”
If Pruett and Surfline really believe that, and if they have taken down Pruett’s article to save face while they still actually support his underlying ideas, then this conversation is over. No one will ever mention Brazilians on Surfline again, and the culture will maintain its current strain of unvoiced bigotry. But if they don’t, and I would like to believe they don’t, then they have an opportunity to start a real dialogue. Perhaps with an apology. Everyone is allowed to misstep, but it is long past time that the people who run this culture stand up and denounce bigotry.
Screenshots of the article in question can be found on page two.