Black balled: Gymnast Ângelo Assumpção on how racism derailed his career
Note from BBT: Black balled? In the 21st century. It’s a reality. When I became aware of this story last week, I thought about the comments made by a sort of underground YouTuber that I listen to occasionally. A white American guy, early 50s, who speaks about alot of topics that you may not come to hear in the mainstream news. He likes to discuss history and current events, the media and American military adventures of the past century. This particular host doesn’t consider himself a white nationalist, but rather someone who simply likes to speaks truth on a range of topics. I’ve said it many times, if it’s the truth, I don’t care who says it. Black or white, Christian, Muslim, liberal or conservative, the truth is the truth.
This host has said many times on past videos that he’s not racist and has no problem with anyone, regardless of their race. If someone treats him well, doesn’t disrespect him and has an open mind, he’ll get along with said person regardless of who the person is. The guy has never come across as even slightly racist to me. The problem that I have with this host is that he truly believes that racism no longer exists in American society. He’s said this on a number of occasions so I took it that he truly believes this.
In one of his recent programs, he said this once again. “Racism isn’t a problem in America anymore. It’s not,” he said. He then said something so typical that I couldn’t believe that such a free thinker could say such a thing. Especially considering how knowledgeable he is about so many topics. “I mean, look at all of these multi-million dollar black athletes out there,” he said. It wasn’t shocking as he’s provided his “evidence” of the non-existence of racism in the US before. But still I just had to shake my head at the idea that he believed that, because there are, let’s say, maybe 1,200-1,500 black athletes in the NBA, NFL and MLB, making tens of millions of dollars that the race problem as a whole no longer exists.
It’s funny how the United States is slowly turning into Brazil in a number of ways, including the acceptance of this idea that people of African descent in both countries are treated totally equal to persons of European ancestry. As I have devoted many years to exposing how racismn functions in Brazil, I won’t get into the myriad of ways that the country continues to keep black people in the “place” reserved for them, I simply wonder how it is the underground YouTuber would react to the story below.
In posts from a few years back, I featured the subject of today’s post, gymnast Ângelo Assumpção, in a story that exposed how his teammates found humor in making clearly racist jokes in a video in which Ângelo partipated with them. As what typically happens, the other guys simply apologized and went on went their lives. Meanwhile, Ângelo, a promising athlete with numerous medals on his resume, continues to be victimized by a Brazilian society that still treats its black population as if it were in bondage.
Ângelo was fired from the athletic club where he trained, leaving one’s of the country’s most talented athletes without training, guidance or a facility to continue honing his talents. Ângelo’s story is nothing new. Apparently, he had been the target of racist abuse for some time at the club and after having spoken out, he was dismissed from the club. As his name is now dirty in the eyes of other athletic clubs, others don’t seem willing to open their doors to him, a six-time champion.
Should I assume that racism “simply isn’t a problem” in a Brazil that has long denied its very existence?
It’s an important question. Recently, the creator of the website Mundo Negro, Silvia Nascimento, described some issues she’s been dealing with for a number of years. Having left her hometown and family years ago to advance her career, she had been in various scenarios in which she was the only black person in a particular setting. At a certain point, she felt the need to address her feelings through therapy. Although the white man and white women she initially sought help with were somewhat adequate, in the end, none of them really knew how to address her issues of being a black woman in a racist society. In some ways, although the psychologists listened, she felt that they were evaluating her as well-being “normal” because of the image of the “strong black woman” who had it all together.
Years later, Silvia sought the counseling of a black psychologist, another black woman, who treated her concerns in a manner in which the white psychologists didn’t seem capable. She related to the black female psychologist in a way in which she wasn’t as uncomfortable as when she was treated by the white psychologists. She didn’t have to explain those little details of racism that only another black person would understand. Being black herself, and bringing ancestry and black femininity into the dialogue, her new psychologist, Camila, already understood. In Silvia’s view:
“Our mentality cannot escape the context of what it means to be black in the world. To dissociate my mind from what my body represents in a racist society is to erase my identity. A white therapist, no matter how hard he tries, doesn’t know what this place is. No matter how much I describe how that look in the fancy restaurant bothered me, it takes being black to know how looks hurt our humanity, where it hurts and why. A black therapist knows.”
It’s not that the white therapist isn’t/wasn’t good. It’s just that certain things they simply won’t “get”. In the same piece, Sylvia continued:
“I had white psychologists who weren’t bad, but I can’t pretend that certain views on their part when I described situations related to my blackness bothered me. They didn’t know how to do that kind of listening. There are sessions with Camila in which I cursed the white people who treated me badly. Racism has a high impact on my professional life. I believe that with a white therapist I wouldn’t talk about it, not for fear of offending them, but because of the feeling that there would be no understanding.”
These are the things that came to my mind as I read Ângelo’s story below. How he was treated and the bout of depression he went through due to the entire ordeal. For this reason, when I hear white people say that “Racism isn’t a problem anymore…It’s not”, I simply have to ignore what they say on this topic. There will probably be several other things about this life that we can agree on. This just isn’t one of them.
Closed doors: Ângelo Assumpção and his mother, Magali, talk about racism and the dismissal from Pinheiros: “it’s not the club, but the people”
By Demétrio Vecchioli and Roberto Salim
Ângelo Assumpção’s isolation has lasted 11 months. While other gymnasts who, like him, dream of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (which will be played in 2021), train comfortably in Portugal, the 24-year-old from São Paulo exercises in his backyard. The pandemic makes little difference when what prevents the boy from training is, in his view, racism.
Placing fifth in the jump and sixth on the ground in the last Brazilian Championship of Specialists in artistic gymnastics, Ângelo was removed by Pinheiros in October last year, when he received a one-month suspension. Supposedly for trying to make complaints to the club’s board, bypassing the coaches. At the end of the suspension, he was fired.
After 16 years of polishing a jewel, Pinheiros abandoned him. It would be natural for any other club to see an opportunity there to hire a reinforcement of weight for the team and plead to end the hegemony of the elite club in São Paulo, with six-time Brazilian champion Ângelo. But no one gave him shelter.
“Since I was little here at home I learned a lesson. In any activity I would have to be three times better to be recognized. And my career has been like this so far. But there are times when it’s tiring to have to show our value all the time,”he laments.
His career on hold and with no perspective, he went into depression. Now that he is overcoming his illness, with the help of a psychologist, he’s made a promise to himself. “I will never go into depression again. And I’m going to compete again. I will be training in the near future. And I will not limit myself to competing only on a Brazilian club. If it’s to go through difficulties, I can go through them outside Brazil too.”
Club chosen in dream
With her head on the pillow of a house on the far east side of São Paulo, Magali Dias de Assumpção dreamed that her son would take an elevator and grow in life as a gymnast. At that time, in 2004, Ângelo, at the age of seven, was looking for a new club after the project in which he participated in the Centro Olímpico (Olympic Center), of the city hall, was closed.
The Serc/São Caetano gym didn’t have an elevator, nor did the Mesc/São Bernardo gym. Magali understood the divine sign: Ângelo should train at Pinheiros, the only one of the three clubs in which he passed tests that had an elevator. The relationship that started with the dream, however, didn’t end well.
“Pinheiros is really a great club. The problem is not the club, I will make that very clear. It’s the people, the people who work at the club. But the club itself is not. It has very good support and we can’t complain about the club itself. The problem is the club employees,”she says, without giving names.
For more than a decade, Ângelo and the Pinheiros men’s gymnastics rose together. The peak, for the gymnast, was the gold medal he won at the Copa do Mundo (World Cup) held in São Paulo. It didn’t mean that the boy would compete for a medal at the Olympics. But the fact that the tournament was in Brazil gave him unprecedented visibility. And then, as if the steel cable had been broken, the free fall came.
Racism revealed in video
Weeks after that gold medal, Ângelo was recorded by his own teammates as a victim of racist offenses. His aggressors were three other youngsters from the national team: Fellipe Arakawa, from Minas Tênis Clube, Henrique Flores, stepson of the Brazilian national team coach Marcos Goto (who is black) and his athlete in São Caetano, and Arthur Nory, also from Pinheiros.
Until then good friends, the friendship of Nory and Ângelo ended. The two started training at different times and the atmosphere at Pinheiros gym was heavy. Meanwhile, the black boy was divided, as he revealed at the time. On the one hand, the desire to calm spirits and focus on his career. On the other, those who advocated zero tolerance.
“My mom came straight to me: ‘Why did he do that? Aren’t you going to sue?’ And I said: ‘Mom, it’s not like that, it was an uncomfortable thing, but we will solve this in the best possible way so as not to influence my gymnastics or Arthur’s’. We want to erase that, because we have a bigger objective. Representing Brazil in the Olympics,” Ângelo told Globo Esporte months later.
Even so, the Educafro Association went to court in defense of Ângelo and against CBG, Fellipe Arakawa, Henrique Medina and Arthur Nory. The case was filed because, recently, the NGO stopped manifesting itself in the records. In practice, it gave up on the suit.
Ângelo, then 19, was caught in the crossfire. Since then, he has come to see more clearly, in the opinion of close people, that he lived in a racist society. This was done in an elite club in São Paulo that, at that time, was being investigated by the Public Ministry for discriminating against nannies – many black like him.
Pinheiros version for the dismissal is brief
For now, this is a story that has only one side. Ângelo says he does not understand why he was fired and claims to have suffered racism in the gym. Pinheiros says that the decision to dismiss him was made taking into account technical, financial and behavioral issues. It didn’t go beyond that. Other people involved are prohibited by Pinheiros from giving interviews and, therefore, their versions haven’t yet come out.
Ângelo understands that “the issue of racism is historical”. “The problem of racism is not of blacks. The problem of racism is that of those who are having a racist attitude. All I did at Pinheiros was to try to make the environment healthier,”he says.
For a while, it worked. So much so that, in June last year, Pinheiros published a report on its website that was highly commendable to the gymnast, who reciprocated. One of those that praised him was the coach Hilton Dichelli Jr., who has monitored him since childhood.
“We have a very good father and son relationship. It’s not always smiles, hugs and affection, because there is a job in the middle too. But today when I’m more mature, I see it much more calmly and I see him as a partner, a father, because he wanted to be part of my training as an athlete and a human being,”he said at the time. When and if coaches were allowed to speak on the subject, the messages shouldn’t be friendly.
“As if I were a stranger”
Three months after that complimentary report, Ângelo was released from Pinheiros and left the club through the back door. Literally: after being told that his badge had been canceled, he would have little time to clean out his locker. He had to say goodbye to a few people and pass through the turnstile one last time.
“I can’t forget the day they put me out of there after the termination. They said: ‘get out… get out…’ touching me as if I were a stranger who didn’t spend much of my life inside. As if I were a marginal.”
In an email attached to an internal audit report published by Esporte Espetacular, of Globo TV, the club’s gym coordinator, Raimundo Blanco, explained. The decision had been made because Ângelo “made the decision not to respect hierarchy and passed over the coach and supervisor when taking one or more complaints to sports management.”
Even though he was the third most representative sportsman on the team that has Nory and Chico Barretto (Olympic and world finalist), Ângelo ended up being fired. The family sees racism in the decision. “Having your own opinion and pride of the race shouldn’t be a reason for dismissal. Quite the contrary, right?”, comments Magali.
Market closed to Ângelo
Since then, Ângelo has been trying to rebuild. However, it seems unlikely to happen in Brazil. The country has only a few clubs that pay salaries for professional gymnasts – Minas Tennis Club, Flamengo, Serc/São Caetano and Grêmio Náutico União. None was interested in contracting the former Pinheiros athlete.
The subject is taboo. Good Brazilian artistic gymnastics coaches are few and in constant dialogue. The rule is that the same gymnast has the same trainer throughout his adult career, except in rare exceptions. No one will admit publicly, but no coach is willing to give a gymnast who has been fired for (officially) indiscipline another chance.
Even so, Ângelo does not give up and believes that, if given an opportunity, he will be able to compete at a high level within a period of 10 months. “Today, I would say that I have 30 percent of my physical condition, but my head is firm, despite the uncertain future, financial worries and not being trained properly. Hence the importance of working with the psychologist.”
“I train here in my backyard and I am looking for a gym for muscle strengthening. I tried one recently and it didn’t work out very well, but soon I will find a suitable place,” he says, hopeful, and admitting the chance to train abroad, something that is also unlikely. Those who left to train in the US must pay to use gyms. The Portuguese clubs (Benfica, Sporting and Porto, in particular) who have strengthened themselves with Brazilians in different modalities don’t invest in gymnastics.
Racism is a weapon against young black people
Meanwhile, Magali sees her son with mixed feelings when training in the yard. “Sometimes he gets stronger, because it encourages you to be prepared, who knows, for a future club contract. But sometimes it’s depressing because it’s the other way around, there is nothing foreseen.”
Magali is a retired civil police officer. She faced two hours of public transport to go and two to return when taking her son to train. As such, she suffers seeing him in this situation.
“When a black person is doing well, he will always have another one who won’t like his victories. He will want, as they say, to pull the rug (from underneath), right? And what is the weapon they cowardly use? Especially for a young man? It’s racism. With the young black man? It’s racism.”