Monday, January 9, 2012

Letters from Portugal: The politically-correct Portuguese

You know how a number of us Goans like to say ‘Hanv Portugues’ (I am Portuguese) right? Now get this; while there are some Portuguese who will indeed be flattered by this and cavalierly acknowledge that indeed being Goan makes you Portuguese, or at the very least, quasi-Portuguese; there are also a good number, especially the politically correct Portuguese, who will visibly wince when they are faced with this exuberant assertion by Goans who do not hold Portuguese nationality.

This statement is uncomfortable for the politically-correct Portuguese because it reminds them of the now-embarrassing claims of the Salazar regime, when the Estado Novo claimed that it did not have colonies, but only overseas territories, and all persons therein were in fact Portuguese. Those statements made Portugal an international pariah, out of step with a world that was marching forward into a new ‘post’ colonial order; and to make this claim of a Portuguese identity is today seen as quaint at best.

What these Portuguese don’t realize however, is that when being embarrassed by these affirmations of an also-Luso identity (because most of these Goans are not casting away their sub-continental identity), they facilitate a certain kind of racism. Etienne Balibar, a renowned scholar of citizenship studies, calls this form of a response ‘differential racism’. The kind of racism that most of us are familiar with is a biological racism, one that assumes that genetic differences, that manifest as colour and facial features for example, can be the basis for differences among human beings. Differential racism on the other hand marks differences not between races, but sees cultural differences as insurmountable. 

Sterling examples are provided by the politically-correct Portuguese. They don’t want you to say that you are Portuguese. They want you to say that you are Indian. In their mind this Indian has definite cultural features distinctly not present among the Portuguese. For example the Indians have a caste system, which the Portuguese categorically do not have. There is the usual orientalist imagery of how the Indians take their religion much more seriously than the European. Then there are the observations of how Goan Catholicism is imbued with local syncretism. Inherent in these assertions of difference is the assumption of Catholicism as European, and the existence of a kind of Catholicism that is pure, unblemished by local traditions. The unspoken affirmation is that Portuguese Catholicism is of this sort. What is being set up through these sorts of affirmations is not only that to be Portuguese one must be exactly like them, but also that these distinctions are, at the end of the day, insurmountable. Eventually it boils down to a biological racism, once a brown person, always a brown person.

The tragedy is that while the Estado Novo used the rhetoric of one Portuguese identity mischievously, it did in fact, and continues to; possess interesting possibilities to deal with racism. This rhetoric built on the longer (if restricted) history of the Portuguese Empire that recognized multiple non-continental groups as citizens of the Empire. This made it made it possible for racial discrimination to be actively challenged, either then, or now. What contemporary politically-correct Portuguese seem to not to realize is that it is possible for us to exorcise the baleful influence of the Estado Novo and reuse our common history to a much more interesting end, by affirming not difference, but the commonality of persons across borders. Engaging in this project would eventually be much more politically correct, than unwittingly raising walls of radical difference. 

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 8 Jan 2012)


Jose Lourenco said...

Goans are also guilty of differential racism, aren't they? A settler and his descendants may live in Goa for decades, but are often not accepted as 'Niz Goenkars' by many 'true-blooded' Goans. "Tum khuincho" (From where are you/which village do you hail from?) is a question that pops first to most Goans when they meet someone new in Goa. The Portuguese who settled in Goa were called 'Pakle', and even they were not considered as Goans. I wonder what kind of Goan settler in Portugal is eventually considered as Portuguese.

Unknown said...

José. Excellent observation. Although I was just trolling Jason's posts, which are very intriguing, Goans are very racially biased. That's coming from a person of Goan heritage who has lived in another country all his life and can relate to the diasporia emotion.