Participant Outsider?

During my first research trip to northeastern Brazil, an off-duty police officer took me and three local homeless boys to the middle of a sugar cane field and held a loaded gun to each of our heads. He thought we had stolen his wallet, which contained three credit cards, a few bills, and his badge. The boys and I insisted upon our innocence and begged for mercy. In the end, we survived because I was eventually able to help the officer recover his belongings.

Until now, I’ve only shared this story with a few of the anthropologists and writers I consider to be trusted friends. So far, people have responded to the tale in one of two ways: Some believe that story affirms the power of white skin and an American (or European) passport to cast a protective shield over researchers who study violence in contexts where the primary victims are poor and black. Others understand the event to have been my Balinese cockfight: a shared moment of danger that not only positioned me as in league with my interlocutors, but also illuminated for me many of the subtle and shifting local relationships between violence and order.

To an extent, both interpretations are valid. But neither captures the lesson I gained from the experience. It was the moment when I fully realized that my anthropological insights could come at the expense of the young people who have generously participated in my research.

I was in northeastern Brazil studying the daily lives and personal histories of young boys living in a shelter for meninos de rua (street children). Some of the boys had identified the streets as their home prior to taking up residence at the shelter. Other residents were the children of poor agricultural labors who saw the shelter’s school as an opportunity for their children to escape the family legacy of chopping sugar cane for pennies a day.

One weekend a month, the residents who had family were loaded into a bus and driven to their respective homes by the shelter’s handyman. Boys who didn’t have loved ones to visit were left behind.

Home visit weekends were long and dreary—until I asked permission from the nuns to lead the boys who remained at the shelter on a day trip to a nearby beach. The nuns allowed me to take up to four kids at a time.

photo by Michael Tracy
photo by Michael Tracy

One week, when I was with a group of second graders, two teens from the shelter showed up at the beach. I knew that the nuns had expressly forbidden them to leave the shelter. Even so, I let each fill a plastic baggie with the Fanta I’d bought for the littler boys and I to share.

The teens weren’t with my group for more than five minutes during that long afternoon. We ran into them again around sunset, and shared a ferry across the river that separated the beach from the road back to the shelter. Then the teens disappeared again.

When my group was less than a kilometer from the shelter, a white delivery van pulled beside us and two men rushed out. One was brandishing a gun. He ordered my tiny companions into the back of his vehicle and pushed me into the middle of the front seat. His partner took the wheel.

We drove until the sun had dropped below the horizon. Without warning, the driver plunged the van into a cane field, stopping in the middle of a swath that had recently been burned. The gunman ordered everyone out of the van.

photo by John McQuaid
photo by John McQuaid

Then, he made the boys and I kneel with our backs turned toward him. The blackened earth below us smelled sickeningly sweet. He pointed his weapon at the base of each boy’s head and asked, “Did you take my wallet?’

Sobbing, the boys took turns answering, “No.”

The man turned his gun on me and accused me being like Fagin from Oliver Twist. He was certain I had brought the three tiny, dark-skinned boys to the beach so they could steal for me. His gun was cocked and pointing directly at my temple when it occurred to me that the teens from the shelter who had shared Fanta with my small group might have lifted the wallet.

Before thinking it through, I promised the man I would return his wallet if he took the little boys and I back to the shelter. I explained that two teens may have been responsible for the theft, and insisted that my group had absolutely nothing to do with it. I also played the white foreigner card: I asked him why someone like me would have to steal? The man conferred with his driver then decided to take me back to the shelter to investigate.

I heard the driver mutter, “She’s a gallega (in this case, a light-skinned foreigner). Why would she have to steal?”

The other man didn’t appear to have asked himself the same question. As he shoved me into the front seat, he told me that he’d bring me and the boys back if the teens were empty-handed. He did not care that I was white or that I was from the United States: my life had far less value to him than the contents of his wallet.

When we pulled up to the shelter, the night watchman opened the door a crack and let the little boys who had tumbled out of the van inside. He shut the door in my face, leaving me with the gunman and the driver. I knocked on the door for what seemed like an eternity before he reopened it and let me explain that I needed for him to have the two older boys return the wallet, or I would be killed.

Several minutes later, the night watchman undid the bolt of the door and held out the wallet. As soon as it disappeared from his hand, he bolted the door again. He didn’t seem to care whether or not the two men took me back into the cane.

Meanwhile, the man with the gun checked the wallet’s contents. Without another word, he and the driver climbed back into their van and drove away. About an hour later, the night watchman let me back into the shelter. The next day, the nuns banned all shelter residents from visiting the beach.

As I waited for the night watchman to let me back into the shelter, a single thought played clearly in my head: I had almost gotten three little boys killed.

I have not written publicly of the incident before because I’ve worried that focusing on the insights I gained from the event would come at the expense of acknowledging the danger I unwittingly exposed those kids to.

I am writing about the experience now because, in thinking through what it means to decolonize anthropology, I believe it’s imperative that those of us who are white enough to have the privilege of avoiding, or escaping, the dangers that some of our colleagues and our interlocutors must confront on a daily basis not confuse the insights we gain through our cock-fight-like moments with the notion that we are just like the people we have experienced danger with.

Despite this incident, I when I go to the beach alone, I don’t have to worry that I if wander too close to someone else’s stuff I might be accused of stealing. The boys who accompanied me to the beach that fateful day will never be able to say the same. To claim that after nearly being killed, my anthropological experiences make me a cultural insider does injustice to that difference.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. New York: Penguin Classics. Reissue edition 2003.

Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 1973. pp 412-454.


I am a cultural anthropologist and professional fact-checker. My research examines the causes and the consequences of youth violence in Brazil. Specifically, work is concerned with understanding how institutions and policies that have been created to curb youth violence can ramp-up its practice.

4 thoughts on “Participant Outsider?

  1. To the author — thank you for sharing your account. Away from the heat of the moment, do you believe to this day that “I had almost gotten three little boys killed”, even as you write that “my life had far less value to him than the contents of his wallet”? My perspective is that the cop’s agency far outweighs your own. What is your perspective?

  2. My comment is a bit late, and provides two responses I had when I read this post: the first was euphoric; “yes, this is such an important intervention to make!” I felt this post struck a middle ground in anthropological literature; it was, and this is my second response (having gestated a bit), deeply personal as well, articulating my own thoughts (and feelings) on the issue – which I tentatively describe as observing a (respectable) distance from the margins of politics, rather than observing a distance; and thus, finding new ways of engagement (which can also include reading – a very undervalued skill in academia, I get the feeling sometimes). I think it is an act of humility for us anthropologists to recognise such limits in our methods, and the broad sense of affects they entail (empathy, solidarity, collaboration, and so on). Events like this remind us the precarity of our fieldwork contexts, of the positions of privilege (or vulnerability) that we’re inscribed in which won’t go away no matter how reflexive we are. At the same time, I don’t think such dilemmas can ever be resolved (and perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask). Thanks again, for writing this!

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