White Anti-Quarantine Protesters Have Cruelly Co-opted an Enslaved Black Woman from the 18th Century
White “reopen” protesters from California to Germany have paraded the image of Anastácia, a shackled Brazilian slave. It is the height of white appropriation and privilege.
Earlier this week on Twitter, Penn State University linguistics professor Uju Anya posted a photo of a white woman in a red scarf holding up an image of an enslaved black woman, Anastácia, held in a muzzle and choker in 18th century Brazil. Next to the image, the white woman in the red scarf—who, in this photo, is protesting COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders and many counties’ and businesses’ requirements that patrons wear masks—has placed a message reading, “MUZZLES ARE FOR DOGS AND SLAVES. I AM A FREE HUMAN BEING.” The woman holding the sign is Greta Stenger, from Humboldt County, California. She alleges that someone handed her the sign, and she didn’t realize it was racist until she was criticized. Shelter-in-place protesters in Germany and elsewhere have also used Anastácia’s image to make a similar statement.
In the post, Anya explains that Anastácia, whose image Stenger used as a protest prop, was muzzled because her mistress “ordered that [an] iron spike torture device [be] put [on] to deform her face and squeeze her neck out of rage and jealousy that [the mistress’s] husband wouldn't stop raping Anastácia.” Anya goes on to explain that though Anastácia’s image is a “symbol of Black women’s power and resistance,” it has just as often been appropriated for white rebellion and protest.
Often referred to as “Escrava Anastácia,” or “Enslaved Anastácia,” the image of a young enslaved woman muzzled in iron offers one of the more dramatic, and visually literal, depictions of slavery’s cruelty against black women specifically (the real existence of Anastácia in history has never been verified by historians). In many of these images, Anastácia has striking blue eyes. She’s been unofficially ordained a saint within Brazilian Catholicism, particularly as a symbol of resilience for some poor Afro-Brazilian people, and is seen as a curer. Still, her status as a militant figurehead is disputed—slave-era folk tales can serve as double-edged swords, speaking simultaneously to resilience and assimilation. Anastácia’s co-optation, then, should come as no surprise.
But the resilience and rebellion of enslaved people has regularly been appropriated, twisted, and even refuted by white protesters on every end of the political spectrum. As demonstrated by the misguided yet revealing campaign for the 2014 white feminist movie Suffragette, in which Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep wore T-shirts that said “I’D RATHER BE A REBEL THAN A SLAVE,” there is a deep history of white women proclaiming their supremacy only to insist that they, themselves, are the true victims of oppression. In the COVID-19 era, when it’s clear that black communities are suffering disproportionately from infection with the virus, we see white women and men following in the footsteps of slave-owning mistresses and masters. I am white, so get out of my way, they’re saying.
In his essay in The Atlantic “We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholder’s Republic,” historian Ibram X. Kendi writes, “Slaveholders desired a state that wholly secured their individual freedom to enslave, not to mention their freedom to disenfranchise, to exploit, to impoverish, to demean, and to silence and kill the demeaned. The freedom to. The freedom to harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom to infect.”
He goes on to explain that “[t]he slaveholder’s freedom to seceded from Lincoln’s “house divided against itself”—divided between the freedom to and from. [...] Americans went to war. Americans are still waging this same war, now over COVID-19. There is a war between those fighting to open America back up for the sake of individual freedom, and those fighting to keep America closed for the sake of community freedom. A civil war over the very meaning, the very utility of freedom.”
When we talk about freedom in the U.S., and across the Western world, there is in fact no “we,” and there never has been. “I AM A FREE HUMAN BEING” read that woman’s sign, which is to say, “I AM A WHITE HUMAN BEING.” This subtext is why white people, even well-intentioned ones, do not like to be called white—it reveals a sordid history that is still very much present, that plays a huge role in determining who lives and dies, who can demand respect and who should expect violation, whose right to freedom is enshrined and whose is inconvenient. When the white woman in the red scarf decided to use Anastácia’s image to make her point, she happily evoked her whiteness. COVID-19 is not the great equalizer, but the great revealer: Cruelty is the point.
The “freedom to infect” and “the freedom to enslave” are part of a seemingly endless constitution of white rights—to inflict. This is a slave-owning, colonial history, one in which American Indian land was occupied and tribes decimated to make room for a manifest destiny just as Africans were kidnapped to produce capital. In The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, queer theorist Jasbir Puar describes the “biopolitics of settler colonialism,” which is to say she explains the ways in which colonized bodies—bodies that belong to black, indigenous, and Palestinian people, for example—are debilitated within settler states. Puar argues that “‘The right to maim’ supplements if not replaces ‘the right to kill.’ Maiming as intentional practice expands biopolitics beyond simply the question of ‘right of death and power over life.’ Maiming becomes a primary vector through which biopolitical control is deployed in colonized space[...]”
And maiming, Puar points out, often falls outside of legal conceptions of harm. For instance, if you spit in the face of a black worker, saying you have COVID-19, because that is your freedom, and that worker dies from COVID-19, nothing will happen to you, at least not in the moment. The worker will be made by management to return to her station and continue to work without protection; management will do this to protect capital. In fact, if that black worker had any underlying health issues, her death can easily be dismissed as preordained. Oh well, she had it coming. If there is any kind of indictment of the spitter or management within the legal system, the defense will surely use the black worker’s underlying condition to argue that neither party is directly responsible for her death—this would be a legally admissible argument, one very likely to convince a white jury or judge.
The very disdain for masks and general public health guidelines being shown by majority-white protest groups throughout the U.S. and Europe is based on their assumption of freedom from debility and the right to justice in the face of potential harm. So when these protesters hold up signs of varying language saying, essentially, I AM WHITE, believe them.