Note from BBT: So, recently an incident that underlines and exemplifies Brazil’s racial issues made international headlines. Whenever this happens, I always get a chuckle because it has long amazed me how Brazil has managed to sweep its everyday racial issues under the rug all the while pointing the finger at other nations for being openly racist. Although some international outlets have covered racial incidents in Brazil from time to time, these stories are never covered as often nor as thoroughly as incidents that happen in other countries, particularly the United States. Of course, I’ve known and covered such issues for a number of years, but my media reach is nothing compared to that of billion dollar mainstream media outlets. Consider this, according to reports, although American cops are thought to deal with the African-American population with extreme violence, why don’t we know that police in Brazil kill, by some estimate, five to seventeen times more Afro-Brazilians.
Why don’t most of us know that? That’s my point.
In terms of the story I will discuss today, the main reason that this most recent incident has garnered international attention is because it involves well-known British Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton. Although I have never been much of a racing fan, even not being into the sport, as Brazil’s black media has celebrated his accomplishments so much over the years, it’s impossible to ignore his incredible career. It’s actually ironic that this incident with Hamilton is in the headlines now because, just a few weeks before the incident in question, the owner of a gas station near my home in Michigan gave me a three-minute crash course on the importance of Hamilton. As I’ve said, Hamilton is immensely popular with black Brazilians, many of whom celebrate his accomplishments, and was featured on the cover of the country’s only magazine targeted at Afro-Brazilians, Raça Brasil, some months back.
The situation I will discuss once again brings to the fore the manner in which language exemplifies the way in which Brazilians see race, the idea of race and place and the denial of any sort of racist intent that has been the country’s calling card for decades. I’ve seen these types of incidents since I first began studying the issue of race in Latin America’s largest country. A white Brazilian utters a term or phrase that black Brazilians deem racist, then said white Brazilian denies having said anything meant with racist intent. This time, it involves famed, three-time World Champion race car driver Nelson Piquet and the words he used in reference to Lewis Hamilton.
Before I go any further or offer my analysis, let’s take a look at what exactly happened. According to one article,
Former Brazilian Formula One driver Nelson Piquet, 69, used a term that is considered racist to refer to the 37-year-old world champion, Lewis Hamilton.
Courtesy of UOL and BHAZ
In an interview granted in November 2021 that re-surfaced and returned to circulate on social networks, the Brazilian referred to the Brit as a “neguinho”, when commenting on an accident between Hamilton and the Belgian-Dutch racing driver Max Verstappen, at the British Grand Prix in July of that year.
Referring to the incident, Piquet said:
“The neguinho put the car in and left it there because there was no way to pass two cars on that corner. (…) The neguinho left the car. It’s because you don’t know the curve, it’s a very high curve, there’s no way to pass two cars and there’s no way for you to put the car on the side. He screwed up,” said Piquet.
The speech generated wide repercussions, being repudiated by Hamilton himself, by Formula 1, Mercedes, FIA (International Automobile Federation) and dozens of people on social networks.
“Discriminatory or racist language is unacceptable in any form and has no place in society,” Formula 1 said in a statement posted on an official account on the social network.
Officials from Formula 1 issued a statement also repudiating Piquet’s comment
“Lewis is an amazing ambassador for our sport and deserves respect. His tireless efforts to increase diversity and inclusion are a lesson for many and something we are committed to in F1″, completed the official representation of the sport.
— Formula 1 (@F1) June 28, 2022
In the midst of the repudiation and harsh criticism of Piquet, people connected to the right of the political spectrum began to question whether the use of the word “neguinho” by the former champion was in fact racist. Another aspect of this whole discussion is the fact that Piquet is an open supporter of extreme right leaning current President Jair Bolsonaro, while Hamilton is seen as a phenomenon of sympathy and social engagement, whose popularity can only be compared to that of the late Brazilian Formula One Champion, Ayrton Senna.
Piquet’s supporters also criticized the repercussions of the case in the international press which translated the expression “neguinho” as equivalent to an English expression of strong racist connotation whose use is currently considered socially unacceptable, the so-called “N-word”, as they say today in English-speaking countries to avoid actually saying the word.
Faced with the discussion, three experts were consulted that explained why the use of the word “neguinho”, as used by Piquet, was considered racist.
‘A paternalistic form of contempt’
“The use of the word ‘neguinho’ is a common form of racism in Brazil because it is used in particular to highlight something wrong that someone thinks they did, as someone who says that such a person could only have done that because they are black,” observes Thiago Amparo, a professor at FGV (Getulio Vargas Foundation) in São Paulo.
An example of this is the well known phrase in Brazilian Portuguese, ‘It had to be a black’.
For Amparo, “It is a word that, in the diminutive and in the context, serves to paternalistically reduce black people to intellectually inferior.”
Daniela Gomes, a professor in African Diaspora Studies at San Diego State University in the US, has a similar understanding.
“Brazilian racism is differentiated, it is a racism considered veiled, although not at all veiled. But it has intonations. And there what we saw is Piquet using an intonation in the diminutive, but that was not an intonation of affection, but of contempt,” says Gomes.
“The issue there is the disdain with which he addressed a pilot who is someone of the same professional category as him. Lewis Hamilton has a name and is no personal friend of Piquet’s. In our Brazilian racism, it was a way to inferiorize, to treat him as if he were a boy.”
For Daniel Teixeira, lawyer and director of CEERT (Center for Studies of Labor Relations and Inequalities), Piquet’s comment is a product of structural racism — a set of institutional practices and social, economic and political relations that privilege one ethnic group over another, perpetuating inequalities.
“Due to the structural racism in our society, it is difficult for white people to see black people in an equal position. As Hamilton himself said, it’s not just about language, but the mentality behind it, to reduce a person to the color of their skin,” says Teixeira.
“Piquet wouldn’t do that to a white person. This is the issue that matters and that demonstrates structural racism in Brazilian society. He would not refer to Verstappen as ‘branquinho’ or ‘whitey’, reducing a person, a trajectory, a story, to the color of the skin,” adds the organization’s director.
Amparo, Gomes and Teixeira agree that the word “neguinho” in Portuguese doesn’t have the same weight as the word considered offensive in English. But they reinforce that this does not reduce the load of disdain, inferiorization and ridicule of the expression used by Piquet to refer to Hamilton.
“The N word was used in the United States by slave owners as a form of diminution. Before slavery, we were Africans of different ethnicities. When slavery begins, duality also begins. Whites read themselves as whites and read us as the opposite, so we become black. And the way slaveholders treated the enslaved was through the n-word, nigger or nigga,” explains Gomes of San Diego State University.
“When slavery and segregation end, the black population undergoes a series of political changes. There is a movement to re-signify the word ‘negro’, but the two variations are banned.”
The teacher points out that racism is expressed differently in different places. And that the same word, depending on the context or tone of voice, can mean different things.
“My mother calling me a neguinha can be a form of affection, a stranger, instead of treating me as professor Daniela Gomes, treating me like a black girl, it’s racism”, she exemplifies.
‘Society no longer accepts everyday racism’
For Teixeira, from Ceert, the episode reveals how people with prejudiced views have felt more comfortable to express their prejudices, under political leaders who do the same.
“Many people feel authorized to express themselves in this way precisely because there are political leaders today who strengthen this stigmatization, who use this same language, making it be used openly. This does influence, but these people also reflect a structural issue in Brazil, of how black people are treated,” says the lawyer.
“When black people emerge in their activities, they end up bothering white people who saw themselves as universal, as the standard of certain social places. The black presence questions this standard and, when it gains a Lewis Hamilton-sized highlight for Formula 1, it bothers them much more, generating a stereotypical and disrespectful reaction.”
For Amparo, from FGV, however, the strength of the repudiation of the expression used by Piquet demonstrates the advance of the anti-racist struggle and how certain things are no longer socially tolerated.
“It is commendable that there is a rejection of the use of the word ‘neguinho’ in this specific episode, because it shows a change in society in no longer [accepting] everyday and previously normalized racism,” says Amparo.
“This word is very recurrent in Brazilian daily life, although it is invariably used in a pejorative tone. Rejecting its use implies rejecting the everyday racism, recreational or not, so common in Brazil.”
This is an important point. I have long noted the profound changes in Brazilian society, particularly in the era of social networks. With a rise in access to information, education and widespread sharing of opinions, today, everyday black Brazilians are far more likely to reject this sort of behavior and react against it as a whole than they did just a few decades ago when it was just sort of accepted as bad behavior that shouldn’t be openly challenged.
The other side
After the strong reaction in Brazil and abroad, Piquet released a statement with a public apology.
“What I said was poorly thought out, and I will not defend myself for it, but I will make it clear that the term is one of those widely and historically used colloquially in Brazilian Portuguese as a synonym for ‘guy’ or ‘person’ and never with the intention of offending. I would never use the word I’m being accused of in some translations. I strongly condemn any suggestion that the word was used by me for the purpose of belittling a pilot because of his skin color. I apologize to everyone who has been affected, including Lewis, who is a great pilot, but the translation in some media and that now circulates on social networks is not correct. Discrimination has no space in F1.”
What Piquet refers to is the fact that a number English language articles covering the story either replaced or translated the term ‘neguinho’ with the infamous ‘n-word’, which, again, is not quite a good substitution. For more on this, I will refer you to a number of previous articles from the BBT blog, links of which are posted in the description.
Asked for her views on the topic, the writer Gabriel Nascimento, who is a PhD in Letters from USP (University of São Paulo) and a professor at the Federal University of Southern Bahia, explains that words serve hierarchical systems, including racial hierarchies structured by racism.
Nascimento states that the term neguinho – which is commonly used within Brazil’s black community to show affection – does not always have racist intentions.
“But when it comes to public black people who have managed to conquer very important spaces in life, these terms serve to reduce people.”
Thus, the same term can have different meanings depending on the context and intentions of those who use it. Piquet’s response was a direct criticism of Lewis Hamilton’s actions, so there was no intention to praise or show affection for the athlete.
The expert says that the term used is indexing, which means the same as putting the meaning into the context – that is, a word will have a different meaning to each context of the dialogue.
The word neguinho, in professional environments and in that context of the interview, serves to inferiorize the status of the person, the condition of being human. Lewis Hamilton is a young activist, who identifies with the most diverse causes, such as ecological and racial. Referring to him as a neguinho is racism because he no longer has a name.”
In 2019, Gabriel Nascimento released the book Racismo Linguístico, meaning Linguistic Racism (Editora Letramento), the result of his research on the complexities of language that establish structures of racial inequalities.
“Linguistic racism is a theoretical platform to understand how language is associated with certain profiles of racialization.”
Despite supporting Hamilton, Gabriel Nascimento makes a reservation about the response given by the champion through social networks. “I think Hamilton is rather elegant. This Piquet mentality is not very archaic, it’s really modern, because racism is modern. But I understand his discursive artifice,” he says.
Despite the struggle of black communities and the adherence of much of society that came to understand racism and its penetration in the most diverse spheres of life, including language, denialist positions and delegitimization of these claims are still present in Brazilian society.
Especially in a Brazil governed by a president who has already compared black people to animals, suggesting that quilombolas (inhabitants of quilombos or maroon societies) are weighed in arroba, which can be translated as something like bushel.
Now if this were all that could be said on this topic, it would be enough, but to further exemplify the ways that Brazil continues to deny or even consider that something could or should be considered racist, check out what one journalist had to say on the topic.
Sharing her views on the controvery, during the Jovem Pan “Morning Show” program commentator Zoe Martínez cited well-known singer Neguinho da Beija-Flor to defend that the term “neguinho” doesn’t have a racist connotation.
On the program, participants debated whether using the term ‘neguinho’ in reference to Hamilton was racist. Asked if the episode would be derived from structural racism in the country, Martínez countered: “So Neguinho da Beija-Flor is also, racist, right? And see that he is black, black, that in the darkness we only see his gums”.
“And he’s very proud to be black, the color of his skin. So much so that his name is Luiz Antônio, something like that, and he is known as Neguinho da Beija-Flor because he is proud of his race. What’s the problem?”, she added.
Well, if I may respond (as I have in previous articles on this topic) the problem is that, there are a number of terms that we can use everyday that could be received differently depending on the tone, the situation, who says the term and who the term is said to. We all know what the letters NWA mean and while members of that infamous rap group may refer to themselves in this manner, if the term is uttered by white cops who have a history of brutalizing the black population, the meanings are completely different.
I would argue the same in the case of singer Neguinho da Beija-Flor. The singer has spoken has had his own experiences with Brazilian racism, and if he were to pulled over, violently frisked, treated roughly by police all the while being called neguinho, he would surely interpret the usage of the term differently, even though it is his stage name.
Similarly, I note that the LGBT community may not approve of being referred to with certain expressions from people outside of their community, the f-word for example, but them the same people may use the term with each other. Women may use the b-word in reference to each other, but reject when men refer to them with the same word. A man may not mind his wife referring to him as ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey’, but may reject hearing it from another man. Again, it depends on how these terms are used, by whom, the context and intonation.
So, to Nelson Piquet, Zoe Martínez, or anyone eles that doesn’t get it, THAT is the problem.