“My Capoeira Teacher/Friend/Mestre is Awesome, BUT…”

20 06 2008

social friends, ideological foes?

I have a confession. As a feminist, I don’t always do my “duty”. In fact, when it comes to speaking out against things like sexism, homophobicism (a term I made up about 1 second ago, to differentiate between people who just use seemingly homophobic language and people who are actually, definitively, homophobic), and racism, a lot of times I downright fail as someone who allegedly stands for equality.

Like…if a cool friend makes rape jokes (please note the oxymoron) and I don’t say anything, or laugh. Or…if a great capoeira teacher says something sexist and I don’t say anything, or smile. And especially…if a relative gives mortifyingly old-fashioned sexist—or racist—“life advice” and I smile and nod along politely.

In feminist terminology, there’s an expression that goes, “Not my Nigel“. This term refers to the attitudes of women who don’t believe that sexism or misogyny is systematic in society, or that while other men might be sexist or misogynistic, the men in their own lives never are, or “don’t mean it that way”. I.e., “Not my Nigel! He’d never think/do/say that!”

What do you do, though, when it is “your Nigel”, and you know it? How do you react when those you’ve come to like, admire, or deeply respect turn around and disappoint you—sometimes continually—in these little yet ultimately fundamental ways? How do you reconcile the jarring disjoint between your valuing these people in your life, and your values?

Of course, the most straightforward way to solve this dilemna is to just cut these people out of your life completely. If you have nothing to do with them, then you don’t have to be bothered by what they say or do, right? But obviously, “easier said than done” is a major understatement here, especially when it comes to capoeira. It’s not as if you can just leave a class or quit a capoeira group every time a sexist capoeira teacher comes along, nor should you. At the same time, how do you maintain the same respect for, and thus truly effectively learn from, someone whose values you question?

As for dropping friends, I think a close one of mine summed it up best when she said, to paraphrase, “If I were to stop being friends with every guy friend who was a jerk to a girl, I wouldn’t have any guy friends at all.” Wait! Before the comments section explodes, this is of course not 100% true, and I apologize for the extreme generalization. I would have a few guy friends left, and at the same time I might lose a few girl friends, too. However, I hope the point got across. Your friends are your friends, and if you really value them as such, it’s neither easy nor desirable to break ties with them over a verbal instance of bad judgement or two (…or five…or ten…).

Then there’s always confrontation, but when was the last time someone you knew thought it was a good idea to pipe up and go, “Excuse me, Mestre (/Professor/Instrutor/Contra-mestre), but with all due respect, don’t you think what you just said was a little bit—or very—sexist?” Actually…has that ever been done before? How might they react? Would they listen to students’ concerns and be more considerate in the future (or maybe even, against all odds, rethink their views); completely ignore the criticism; or brazenly (or humbly) plead a claim to cultural immunity?

As for friends…pretty much the only thing that happens if you say something is you or all your future related comments lose credibility due to “the feminist” in you. (Because clearly, that detracts from you being a person who just believes in that mystical equality stuff.)

Most people probably opt for one last option: ignorance is bliss! “I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that.” Or are we just up that old Egyptian river*, lacking paddles and all?

It’s a conundrum for sure, and unfortunately, one that I run into more often than normal in capoeira, perhaps due to the nature of the art and its roots. Come to think of it…I think for me, this dilemna does only exist to such an extent in capoeira. All non-capoeirista sexism suspects are cut. (Hey, you! Sexist? Hate women? Join capoeira, and get out of the dog house free! Sign up today!)

I particularly remember a batizado in Italy, which was an awesome bonding experience, but also…well, let’s just say that after some particularly charming pre-party dinner conversation, it’s a good thing capoeiristas love caipirinhas, because—wait, no, I could’ve downed a bottle of pure cachaça after that. (As things were, a Long Island Iced Tea had to suffice. It was either that, or not speak to any of my guy friends for the rest of the night.)

Returning to the issue itself, for me it’s actually part of a larger phenomenon in capoeira, that I’ll be writing about in a near-future, if not the next, post. (Teaser: “The Hidden Dark Side of Capoeira” *dun DuN DUN!*) For now, we’ll just have to keep looking for our paddles—because the only other options are to ride with it…or bail.

*“deNile”

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14 responses

20 06 2008
Sean

If somebody makes a sexist comment, you shouldn’t feel bad asking them about it personally. If they are sexist, what do you care if you make them uncomfortable? If they aren’t sexist, then they should realize what their comments might be communicating.

Of course, this is much easier said than done.

20 06 2008
branca

That reminds me of a confrontation I had in Brazil.
I tried denile, repeating in my head ‘he doesn’t know any better, he doesn’t know any better’. But when he said ‘A man is ok on his own but is completed with a woman. A woman is nothing without a man’. I couldn’t keep quiet. It got way worse before it got better and I left the conversation steaming mad, but at least he left with a different perspective.

21 06 2008
Joaninha

That’s a good point, Sean…but sometimes it also seems like a case of picking your battles, or that some small ones just aren’t worth fighting (for example, getting into a huge argument over one joke made in-passing).

Branca…are you serious?! That is just…amazing. I hope you really gave it to him!

You should show him this line out there English teachers love using on students to show the importance of punctuation…

Wrong: “Woman without her man is nothing.”

Right: “Woman: without her, man is nothing.”

21 06 2008
cigana

Funny you should write a post about the very thing that’s been eating away at me recently. In the absence of capoeira in my city I’m taking jiu-jitsu classes. One of my teachers is sexist and homophobocist (I like the term). At the end of class when people are hanging out and chatting the conversation always seems to take a turn for the worst, with incredibly sexist, homophobic and offensive comments, the majority fueled by my teacher.

I’m never sure what to do – I definitely don’t laugh, I just stand there kinda scowling and sometimes I walk away. I’m pretty sure if I said something they would just brush it off because I’m not ‘one of the boys’ and it would compromise the way I’ve been accepted into the class and the respect I’m given (I’m the only woman, smaller than everyone by 70-200 lbs, and not as strong – in a grappling sport these things matter more than in capoeira).

It’s frustrating because I love the classes and I’m learning a lot and always feel exhilarated afterwards, until all that positive axe disappears with these comments. Not to mention I’m finding it harder and harder to find respect for my teacher – who despite being a jerk outside of class is still a good teacher.

Just had to get that off my chest…And I’m open to suggestions. Water under the bridge? Or fight for it? What would you do?

22 06 2008
Joaninha

Hey Cigana,

Well…this is the place for it! (For getting it off your chest, I mean.) And that sounds really horrible, I’d feel/think the exact same way if I were you.

Honestly…I don’t really know what to suggest. This sounds horrible, but if I really enjoyed the classes themselves, I might actually just try brushing it all off…and I’d feel like a hypocrite for telling you you should tell him/them off, when I wouldn’t/haven’t yet done anything like that in capoeira myself.

One small thing you could try, though, is to pass it off as a joke (in that you tell them what you think but somehow with humour in it)…like dry sarcasm might help get your point across, without actually sounding preachy or whiny or what not. Just some quick, cutting line you insert in passing in response to one of their sexist ones that makes it clear where you stand.

I don’t think I’d do something like bring it up out of the air and list all their past comments or something, but you could just react the next time it happens, and then if that actually goes somewhere, you can point out how they “always” do that, etc.
At least this way they’d be aware then, right? And that also gives them benefit of the doubt…because if you make it clear how you feel about it all and they STILL act the same, especially with you being the only girl, then it’s a bit clearer whether they’re jerks or just ignorant (though those are hardly appealing options)!

23 06 2008
cenoura

This is a topic I’ve been struggling with, even to the point of thinking of leaving my capoeira group. which is sad because I love most of them, but I’ve always been kind of convinced that nothing will happen if I say something, so what’s the point? which is the way stuff like this can continue, I know. but it’s a good post about a big issue.

24 06 2008
Pipoca

My instructor is old-school Brazilian and he can come off sexist many times without meaning to. Sometimes it’s a raw deal for the other guys in class too. My best friend in Capoeira used to do “girly” push-ups while the rest of us did “regular” or knuckle push-ups. His reasoning behind having the girls do this is that he didn;t want them to have big muscular arms. Not because he wants them weak but because they are unbecoming on most females! lol So you see his good intentions paved the way for a huge double standard in the class. The girls got together and started doing normal pushups during class even when our instructor asked them to do “girly” ones. His wife pulled him aside and told him what was happening and he laughed and apologized not realizing what he had done. Sometimes the worst of mistakes come from the best of intentions! That’s how wars start! hahaaa.

Good luck! I wish I could help more.

24 06 2008
Joaninha

Hey Cenoura,

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Like I said to Sean, I think you have to pick your battles…because if you say something every time some comment is made, every class, even if it warrants it…then you might just lose “cred” in the class, like in Cigana’s case, and credibility argument-wise, and possibly have lessened the chances that a stronger, better placed/timed action/comment would succeed later.

About leaving your group though…I’m pretty convinced that this kind of thing is universal, unfortunately. Well, maybe not in some angola groups, but unless you’ve already spent time in the other considered group and know what they’re like, you still might come across more of the same.

24 06 2008
Joaninha

Hey Pipoca,

Haha…you know what the road to hell is paved with, right?

(Just in case, or for other readers…”The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” ) !

The only thing I have to say though, is that…I’m sorry, but I totally don’t consider that story a good example of good intentions! The instructor may not have been giving them those push-ups specifically to keep them weak, but he did want them to stay what he considered good-looking while taking his class…he was placing their physical attractiveness, or his opinion of it, above their progress in capoeira. And not only is that a flawed assumption (what is “becoming”?), but who’s to say the girls wouldn’t mind growing muscles if it meant they’d get stronger? Not to mention that it’s not even true; women have to work REALLY hard to build muscle like men do…they still gain the strength, but the actual muscle mass builds more slowly. (Assuming your instructor was worried about huge rippling-type muscles on the women…not just well-defined muscles that show a person has an above-average fitness level.) Think of it this way: what if the instructor also kept them from eating while in his class, just because certain weights/sizes are considered unbecoming on women? And what right did he have to stunt their progress (however inadvertently) and implicitly (if not explicitly) tell them their physical attractiveness was more important than anything else they were doing there?

Anyway, I still get the point you were trying to make, and sorry if I went off on you there! Hope you saw why, though…

On another note, you said something really important in passing, about it being also a raw deal for guys…soooo many people don’t seem to get that sexism isn’t just bad for women (though we do bear the brunt), but it hurts EVERYONE. We’ve touched on this in the comments of another post…I think it was “Women, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis” (the conversation between “a man” and me). Thanks for the reminder, now I want to write a post elaborating further on this , some time in the future!

15 07 2008
Dantresomi

I am a recovering misogynist. I still say crazy stuff out of my mouth but I need people like you to correct me. if every womanist I knew stopped being my friend (and I know plenty), who would check my behavior or those of my friends? I am being serious.

I need help like several of my brethren.

18 07 2008
Joaninha

You know what…if you hadn’t already contributed several times to this blog, I might have taken your comment for a prank, or really mean sarcasm. But to answer your question, even if it was meant to be rhetorical, I would say that you should be able to stop yourself! It’s not women’s jobs to “take care” of men or be their “moral compasses” (more gender stereotypes), after all. But I suppose I do appreciate your awareness of the issue, and the fact that you felt you could share that with us, so thank you.

18 07 2008
Dantresomi

i know it sounds like I am being sarcastic, I am not.

There are days when I do check myself. I really do. I look back and say , “Travado, you are dead wrong…” but there are days when I am totally oblivious. Remember, I am a guy. So i totally miss the mark.

Pretty much, I speak for all men when I say keep doing what you are doing. I never said it was your job (or any women’s job for that ) to keep all men in check. in a perfect world, all men would be able to sit back and reflect and admit their part in the treatment of women as second class citizenship, but alas, we don’t live in a perfect world.

29 07 2009
Elisabeth Kay

Wrong: “Woman without her man is nothing.”

Right: “Woman: without her, man is nothing.”

Good to know that it’s okay to say that men are nothing without women but wrong to say women are nothing without men.

*vomits*

Sorry, just doing my duty to speak out against sexism.

18 04 2010
Rose

I would suggest, that if you’re going to talk to the instructor, you do so outside of these after-class groups. If you confront him in front of other people, the likelihood that he’ll get defensive is quadrupled, and he’ll be much more likely to attack you verbally in response–since I’d imagine a lot of that trash talk is an issue of performing masculinity that your comment would draw attention to in front of an audience. This is not to say you should say nothing (though you are not obligated to!), just that you’d probably want to find some time to do so that will hopefully minimize his reaction…and it’s possible he’d actually take you more seriously if you talk to him one-on-one. Though I’m making the assumption that he’s a decent human being who’d consider another perspective when it’s brought up, so perhaps I’m being too optimistic. Good luck!

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