At Northwestern Law, the PC Police have a long and storied history. You are, of course, free to say what you want to say, but if you offend other people’s cultural sensibilities, you had best expect a reaction from other Northwestern students — whether the cultural slight was real or just perceived.
This week, a group of Northwestern Law students planning a study abroad trip in Brazil got smacked down by the PC police for being insensitive toward Brazil’s culture.
Now, in fairness, everything I know about Brazil comes from cultural stereotypes. If I went, I’d expect to be hanging out with amazingly attractive women who get horny for Jesus, while the men play soccer by day and capoeira dance-fight at night. It would all be a wonderful time, unless I went into the rainforest, where I’d die in short order from either a new species of venomous mammal or at the hands of illegal loggers who are selfishly destroying the world’s best carbon scrubber.
Is that wrong? According to some Northwestern kids, I am way off base….
This particular kerfuffle started because of Northwestern’s International Team Projects (ITP). It’s some kind of study abroad program, and a group of law students were taking their talents to Brazil. The students sent out the following email to the listserv. We’ve redacted the names, so let’s just say we’re dealing with two competing visions of Brazil: we’ll call one group “Students With Shaved Nether Regions” and the other “Full Rainforest.”
That’s what we’re planning for ITP Brazil, except a blowout of scholarship, friendship, and learning, not the hairstyle made famous by [redacted].
The ITP lottery closes today (Wednesday, 10/19) at 5pm, so be sure to fill it out here: https://www.law.northwestern.edu/form/private/REG_ITP_Entry.cfm. Please also note that signing up for any ITP trip requires a $250 deposit, also due at 5pm on 10/19 (in RB166). The deposit is refundable if you (1) drop the course before Nov. 4th, (2) can’t get into your preferred trip because it’s full, or (3) upon enrollment in the spring.
There isn’t really anything else we can say about our trip that the Vengaboys can’t say better:
[Vengaboys song lyrics]
However, we can pretty much guarantee that our trip will look something like this video by Brazilian pop band sensation Bellini: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SplD86dmAM.
[Students With Shaved Nether Regions]
If you click on the links, you’ll be taken to two music videos by what I surmise to be Brazilian pop stars. They’re music videos, so they play on many of the cultural stereotypes I listed above.
But this email really angered other Northwestern Law students. A few responded on the listserv:
Dear [Students With Shaved Nether Regions]
We sincerely hope that you change your image about Brazil after this ITP Program.
Definitely those videos are not appropriate to describe such trip.
Please, see the video below about Brazil as an example of a truly Brazilian experience:
We hope that you enjoy a lot Brazil, make new friends, learn a bit of Portuguese and change your view about our country! If you want to learn more about Brazil and our culture before your trip, we are more than happy to help you and your group.
One gets the point that the Full Rainforest kids are trying to make, but come on — the ITP kids are going to Brazil. Sure, the Full Rainforest people found a tame, “official” tourism video that focuses on the country’s natural beauty, but trust me, there are a lot of Brazilian tourism officials who don’t mind the way others emphasize their people’s natural beauty (or enhanced beauty, at least for some).
The law students going to Brazil shouldn’t have really engaged with this email, but when have you known a law student to leave well enough alone? Of course, they responded:
Thank you for that.
We are fully aware that these videos are as far away from true Brazilian culture as American shows like the Jersey Shore, Gossip Girl, and some music videos are from American culture. The sheer absurdity of the videos in this context is exactly why they are funny. (Also, if Brazil was really like these music videos, I don’t know why you’d ever leave!) This type of intentional misrepresentation is a prevalent form of humor here in the United States, and I hope you have a more positive experience with it in the future.
I would also like to add that my own stepmother is Brazilian, and my interest in the trip stems largely from stories she has shared with me about Brazil’s culture, people, and food. Her brother is a criminal defense attorney in Rio de Janeiro and he has already agreed to help us with our research. I am excited to learn more about your country with my classmates in the spring! (2Ls and 3Ls: there’s still time to sign up for ITP Brazil!)
I apologize for any misunderstanding.
If you have any further questions, comments, or concerns, please contact us privately.
[Students With Shaved Nether Regions]
I have a Brazilian friend! Or maybe my dad just traded in his first wife for a younger Brazilian version. Whatever. Let’s be cool.
Look, when someone accuses you of cultural insensitivity, don’t come back with platitudes about how much you love their culture. It just looks disingenuous.
I wouldn’t have responded at all. But if I was for some reason forced to, I think I would have gone with something short: “Oh, I didn’t understand what Brazil was really like; ITP to Costa Rica.” You know, something to emphasize that it’s absurd to go study abroad to a place that you don’t expect to be fun — and I’m not talking about the kind of fun that happens when you are birds-of-paradise watching.
As for the Full Rainforest crowd — and again, I see their point — if they were worried that other Northwestern students really thought Brazil was the thing of music videos, then let the trip itself be the lesson.
Bottom line, if people are being culturally insensitive, actual experience with the culture is going to be a better teacher than an email to a listserv. There’s a great chance nobody has ever learned anything important from a listserv email.