Tales of Transnational White Privilege: Gender, Race, and Nationality on the Streets of Rio de Janeiro

Tales of Transnational White Privilege: Gender, Race, and Nationality on the Streets of Rio de Janeiro

It’s old news by now that on August 14, 2016, American swimmers Ryan Lochte, James Feigen, Gunar Bentz, and Jack Conger claimed that they were robbed at gunpoint by police officers at a gas station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In an interview with NBC, Lochte said that the four swimmers had been pulled over while in a taxi back to the Olympic Village. The alleged assailants put a gun to Lochte’s head and took his wallet.

What Did Ryan Lochte Do?

When the city’s investigative police began looking into the allegations, another story emerged. According to the police, the four swimmers had stopped at a gas station on their way home from a party. Inebriated, they urinated behind the station, ripped down a poster, and trashed the bathroom. When they tried to leave, two security guards stopped them, asking them to pay for the damages. According to a bilingual eyewitness, the guards brandished their weapons but never touched the swimmers. Eventually, the swimmers paid roughly US$50 and went on their way.

Brazilians swiftly reacted to these clarifications. Cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro), were rightly enraged at the news that Lochte had played on stereotypes of Rio de Janeiro’s supposed criminality to hide their own miscreant behavior. The swimmers had to wade through a crowd of people yelling “liars” after giving police depositions.

Soon after, USA Today published an article stating that, in fact, both the police and Lochte had fabricated their accounts. Security footage and eyewitness statements showed that the Americans had never entered the bathroom, and thus had not damaged the interior. Nevertheless, they had still urinated in public and vandalized the sign. The basic facts remain the same.

Many commentators have outlined the immense white male American privilege that surrounds the event. As men, the swimmers felt safe taking a taxi late at night while incredibly drunk. As Americans, they believed they could do anything, anywhere, including peeing behind a gas station. As whites, they could easily play on international tropes of Rio de Janeiro as a dangerous and “uncivilized” city. These tropes are inherently racialized when employed willy-nilly by a bunch of Wonderbread swimmers, as they stem from deeply-entrenched historical discourses of supposed Latin racial inferiority and criminality.1

A still frame from a CCTV video that seems to show Lochte and his team mates at the gas station. (ABC/Twitter)
A still frame from a CCTV video that seems to show Lochte and his team mates at the gas station. (ABC/Twitter)

This toxic combination resulted in Lochte believing he could spin the story to his advantage without suffering the consequences. As anthropologist Ben Penglase wrote, “they [the swimmers] seemed to believe that whiteness, wealth and American citizenship bestowed upon them the privilege of treating the city as a giant frat house.” And when compared with the reaction African American gymnast Gabby Douglas received for not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem, it’s clear, as Emma Gray wrote, that “If you’re wondering what white, male privilege looks like, this is it.”

The initial revolting interview that Lochte gave to NBC demonstrates the extent to which white, male privilege underpins the entire story:

[gblockquote]We got pulled over in our taxi and these guys came out with a … police badge …. They pulled us over, uh, they pulled out their guns. They told the other swimmers to get down on the ground, they got down on the ground. I refused. I said: “we didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not getting down on the ground.” And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead. He said: “get down,” and I was like, I put my hands up, I was like: “Whatever.” He took our money, he took my wallet. He left my cell phone, he left my [Olympic] credential but he took my wallet and he took all the guys’ cash.[/gblockquote]

In this fictitious version of events, Lochte is the brave white man, resisting injustice in the face of danger. While “whatever” is not the usual rallying cry of the white male warrior, (William Wallace’s “Freeeedoooom” comes more to mind), it serves Lochte well as he shrugs off this harrowing event, like the cool white man that he is.

White Tourists/Brown Robbers

The Ryan Lochte affair angered me on many levels. But it also made me remember how I experienced my own white privilege while in Rio de Janeiro from 2012 to 2013. At that time, I was living with my partner Clayton, who was a Brazilian police officer.

In November 2012, when Clayton was still in police training, my mother came to visit. It was her first time in Brazil and her first time meeting Clayton. On an evening walk around our Copacabana neighborhood, my mother needed to withdraw money. The first bank didn’t accept her American card. On our second attempt, I went inside with her, while Clayton waited outside. When I turned around briefly, I saw two police officers pointing their guns at his head. Clayton was up against the glass window with both arms raised. As they began to frisk him, one hit Clayton. I could hear Clayton calmly saying that he was with me and my mother and that I was his girlfriend.

I ran outside, confirming this in Portuguese. The two officers eventually holstered their weapons. Apparently, they had received an “anonymous” denunciation that a “suspect” man (read brown skin) was taking two female tourists to various banks and forcing them to withdraw money. The officers simply hadn’t believed Clayton when he said he was a police officer and that I was his girlfriend. They berated him for acting incorrectly, saying “If this was the North Zone [a poorer area of the city], we would have beaten you up.”

After the officers had calmed down, I told one that I wanted to file a complaint because of their abuse. They were not pleased with my request. A yelling match ensued in which they called me hysterical, while I belittled them for shoddy police work (if they were so intent on solving the crime, why hadn’t they even bothered to question my mother, the woman being “robbed”?), for their uncalled-for use of violence (Clayton had clearly followed all their directions, putting his hands above his head and letting them frisk him), and for their disrespect to me, my mother, and Clayton (during the exchange one officer told Clayton, “If I were you, I would control your woman”). The officer was implying both that Clayton was less of a “man” because he could not control my actions and that I had no right, as a woman, to state my opinion.

Like Lochte, my actions were buoyed by white, American privilege on many levels. I was able to walk freely on the streets of an upper-middle-class neighborhood because my skin color marked me as well-off and possibly foreign. To the police officers, I “belonged” there. Clayton didn’t. I had the ability to question the police’s actions and argue with them over their tactics because my Portuguese was accented, my skin was white, and I was a woman. They couldn’t touch me in public. My privilege meant that I was seeing the everyday effects of racism hit close to home for the first time while abroad. Though I was outraged and shocked, Clayton was calm; he faced this discrimination all the time. His profile as a brown man meant he was constantly marked as possibly criminal, despite being a police officer. Our differing reactions highlighted my privilege even more.

The Consequences of Privilege

In the end, both Lochte’s and my white privilege negatively affects Brazilians. On the one hand, Lochte’s foolish antics diverted precious police attention away from serious and real investigations. The fact that his story was mainly fabricated adds insult to injury.

Police officers at Rio's international airport protesting severe lack of funding and resources. (airstrike/imgur)
Police officers at Rio’s international airport protesting severe lack of funding and resources. (airstrike/imgur)

Leading up to the Olympics, police officers hadn’t been paid in months. They had gone on strike several times, relating that their precincts lacked paper, ink, and even toilet paper. In a nation considered the deadliest country outside of Syria, and where only 8 percent of murders are solved, the police’s need to investigate the fabricated armed assault of a swimmer is an injustice to the many residents of Rio de Janeiro who are robbed at gunpoint or whose loved ones are killed.

Lochte’s white privilege was compounded by international reporting on the event. USA Today, for example, felt the need to produce an investigative piece on how the police were slightly wrong. It turns out that Lochte and his gang of hooligans had not actually damaged the interior of the bathroom. This new knowledge didn’t change our understanding of the case at all.

Perhaps looking at the structural inequalities that underpin why 10 percent of the world’s homicides occur in Brazil (with Afro-Brazilians twice more likely to be killed than their white counterparts) would have been more useful than clarifying to the world that the swimmers only urinated outside the bathroom and not inside it.

White privilege doesn’t just protect certain people from violence, negative consequences, and mistreatment. It isn’t a positive force for those who have it and a neutral force for all others. Rather, it directly and negatively affects anyone outside its invisible force field. If the police had not investigated the supposed armed robbery of famous white Americans, they would have been ridiculed by the international community. Even if Lochte’s story had been true, his privilege still meant that his case received more attention than many incidents involving Brazilians. He sucked in much more attention than he ever deserved.

On the other hand, my white privilege allowed me to push back on what I believed was injustice, yet it too negatively affected those around me. My privilege allowed me to act in the moment without retaliation, but overall, it changed nothing. The power structures that value whiteness (and conversely devalue people of color) go unchecked in Brazil. The entrenched myth of a Brazilian “racial democracy” still holds sway, and Brazil continues to be stratified by color. As I have written before, Clayton was shot in the back nearly 20 times on his way home from work on April 28, 2015. His murder was an execution, where several corrupt colleagues sold him out to drug traffickers.

As Clayton’s homicide case slowly and painfully makes its way through the court system, I often wonder if just a quarter of the amount of manpower that was put into Lochte’s investigation had been aimed at Clayton’s, would it be solved by now? The police know who killed Clayton; they have wiretap evidence of police officers selling him out; yet it takes months for the investigation to move from one precinct to another (remember: no paper). They’ve arrested two traffickers, but the cops are still out there, working the beat. Maybe they will “inadvertently” stop and frisk a young, brown man who was “caught” walking with some white tourists. And the cycle continues.

Further Reading

R. Ben Penglase, Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014).

Graham Denyer Willis, The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2015).


  1. See Carlos A. Aguirre and Robert Buffington, eds., Reconstructing Criminality in Latin America (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2000); Luz E. Huertas, Bonnie A. Lucero, and Gregory J. Swedberg, eds., Voices of Crime: Constructing and Contesting Social Control in Modern Latin America (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2016); and Ricardo D. Salvatore, Carlos Aguirre, and Gilbert M. Joseph, eds., Crime and Punishment in Latin America: Law and Society Since Late Colonial Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001). Return to text.

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.