Racism at 30,000 feet! Members of youth group targets of racist comments on flight; airline employees interrogate group after they protest



Note from BW of Brazil: Wow…just wow! Brazil can’t manage to overcome racism even at 30-40,000 feet off of the ground! In reality, there’s nothing surprising about this. After all, the same people who walk on Brazilian soil are the same ones taking domestic flights throughout the country. A lot going on here, so let’s first get to the story. 

A racist incident on a TAM Airlines flight recently made headlines

Racism in TAM: “trade places with the feinha (little ugly one) there,” says employee in flight.

By Negro Belchior

By Douglas Belchior, with information from Correio Braziliense, O Preço, Rua, Sarau AfroBase, Vaidapé

On Saturday afternoon (12/19) on TAM flight JJ3705 from Brasília to Congonhas airport in São Paulo, a group of young artists suffered racist abuse by TAM officials who were on the flight as passengers. According to the report of the artists, the attackers were covered up by TAM stewards, received privileged treatment on the plane and had their racist conduct supported by part of the passengers.

Member of youth group shares details of what happened on TAM flight JJ3705

Young periphery artists returning from Brasília, where they attended the 3° Conferência Nacional da Juventude (3rd National Youth Conference), held for 4 days with around 5,000 young people from around the country and where they discussed, among other things, precisely the issue of race in Brazil.

According to the report, a white man sent a message with racist content to a colleague, also white, seated at some distance of armchairs: “Once they started selling tickets at Casas Bahia, it’s became in style to fly on a plane.” The same man, in a second message to the friend, wrote: “Ask to switch places with feinha (little ugly one) there,” referring to one of the young black women of the group. The airline employees were seated on opposite windows of a row and a member of the youth group, seated behind one of them, managed to read what was written on the cell phone of one of the employees.

Member of youth group repeats dialogue with passenger who wrote racist messages: “And I said to the guy, ‘Do you have some problem with me? Tell me if you have a problem with me. I know that poor people bother you. I know that poor people bother you in these places.'”

Young people, realizing the exchange of discriminatory messages, decided to take satisfaction with the aggressor, which reaffirmed: “To ride a plane, one has to behave right.”

With the argument, the stewards intervened and threatened to call the Federal Police (FP). The young people were direct in agreeing that they call the FP because they were being victims of racism, a non-bailable crime in Brazil. The crew didn’t contact the police, and suggested an exchange of places of the attackers and the flight continued. However, during the trip, the youth realized that one of the attackers had been invited by the attendants to talk separately about what happened behind the flight service curtains and the argument began. “Why does the crew listen to and treat with privilege aggressors and not those attacked?” asked the youth group.

grupo promoveu...
Members of youth group lead a protest on the flight

With the aircraft on the ground, already on arrival to SP, the group of artists decided to organize an artistic intervention (video below at 1:38-3:22) while still inside the plane, with a recital of the poem “Somos” (we are), written by Juliana Rodrigues, known as Afro Ju, one of the young people who was verbally harassed during the flight. It was then that the passengers, uncomfortable with the content of the verses, began to harass the group. “Vitimistas! Mini Marxists! Long live Bolsonaro 2018!” (1) shouted some passengers, according to reports of the young people. In the confusion, one of the young people says that he was pushed by an employee, which can be seen in one of the videos that have surfaced of the incident.

According to the complaint, TAM employees demonstrated discomfort with the group’s presence and one of the messages associated their presence on the plane with the higher purchasing power of (economic) Class C access to air travel.

Member of youth group being held and then pushed by TAM Airline employees

In a statement, TAM confirmed that the two passengers accused by the group were identified as company employees. The airline said it requested the support of the Federal Police on arrival due to the disagreement. The company also says it is sensitive with what happened and repudiates any kind of offense and discriminatory practice.

According to the Federal Police, the crew and the others involved were heard, but there were no arrests. The case was referred to the Internal Affairs Division of the SR/SP, responsible for examining crimes and the institution of police investigations. According to the FP, it still can not disclose more information because the procedure is under review.

See TAM’s note in its entirety:

“TAM Linhas Aéreas clarifies that last Saturday (19), it requested the support of the Federal Police in the landing of flight JJ 3705 (Brasília – São Paulo/Congonhas) in function of a disagreement that took place on board. During the flight, a group of passengers was offended by two other passengers, later identified as company employees. The case in question is being examined by the competent authorities with the cooperation of the company.

About the fact, TAM is sensitive with what happened and clarifies that it values ​​and respects diversity between people regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity.

TAM reiterates that it repudiates any kind of offense and discriminatory practice and reinforces still any opinion contrary to the respect for diversity doesn’t reflect the values ​​and principles of the company.”

Partial media coverage: G1 website lies and reaffirms discrimination

As you might expect, the news coverage done by the Brazilian mass media tended to reaffirm discriminatory behavior and criminalize the victims in such situations.

Although they recorded the story of one of the black youths verbally assaulted on the flight, when making the written report, the G1 article characterized the incident as “turmoil” and states that youth had “assaulted passengers” a version challenged by the young people and duly registered in the police report.

And what fault does TAM have?

Racism is a crime committed by individuals and by companies/corporations. But even in the rare cases where investigations are taken seriously, even rarer are the cases where the institutions are made accountable. The unpreparedness of the staff in dealing with the violation of rights and specifically about the lack of sensitivity to perceiving the practice of racism, the privileged treatment of offenders, as well as the usual climate of standardized, hygienist and “natural” Eurocentrism of airport and flight environments, configure spaces of oppression of black bodies, cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), loud voices, African-oriented clothing and all that opposes the “lightness” and Nordic behavioral conduct. A corporately racist environment, thus, the company’s responsibility.

Youth group denounces racism of TAM Airlines employees and company with the Federal Police in SP

Grupo de jovens denunciam racismo de funcionários e da empresa TAM Linhas Aéreas, junto à Polícia Federal, em SP
Members of youth group denounce actions of TAM’s employees on flight at Federal Police station

Racial slur versus crime of racism: The aggressor always benefits

Although it has been a non-bailable crime since 1988, one of the hardest things is precisely the characterization of the crime of racism. Most cases of explicit racism are recorded as “injuria racial” (racial injury/slur) potentially a “lighter” crime.

Injúria racial is provided for in Article 140, paragraph 3, of the Criminal Code, which establishes a penalty of imprisonment of one to three years and a fine in addition to the penalty corresponding to violence, for those who commit it. According to the mechanism, injuring would offend the dignity or decorum using elements of race, color, ethnicity, religion, origin or condition of an elderly or disabled person.

Declaration made with Federal Police

In general, the crime of injury is associated with the use of derogatory words related to race or color with the intention of offending the honor of the victim.

The crime of racism, provided for by Law n. 7716/1989, constitutes discriminatory conduct directed to a particular group or community and generally refers to the broader crimes. In such cases, it is up to the prosecutor the legitimacy to prosecute the offender.

And there’s the problem of interpretation of the facts. For black men and women, being called “feinha” because of being black is not only an injury or personal offense. It is a crime against an entire people, and more, being or accessing environments or rights, it is the negation of humanity and consideration as an equal.

What do you do in a country that, sociologically speaking, who qualifies and decides what is a crime of racism crime or not, is the very criminal and promoter of racist thinking?

Note from BW of Brazil: As written at the introduction of this piece, there is in fact nothing surprising about this case. For over four years we’ve documented how widespread prejudice, racism and racial insults are in Brazilian society. The fact is, the more we cover these stories, the more previous articles are verified. Throughout the piece above one can note racist views connected to the issue of social class. Of course, someone who continues to believe that racism doesn’t exist in Brazil would probably argue that this wasn’t a issue based on race but rather one of class. Said person would probably continue this line of reasoning by reminding us that none of the usual terms that are generally associated with racist connotations (nega, negra, macaca/monkey, negão, neguinha, etc.) were used in this incident. But as race and class are so intertwined in Brazil, the lack of the utilization of such terms doesn’t negate racist content.

As we have seen time and time again, poverty is generally associated with blackness even though there are millions of poor white Brazilians. In this case, note that any white person on this flight could actually have poor social class origins but as white skin isn’t associated with poverty, no one questions their right to be aboard a plane. As such, how do the people who made the comments automatically know that the young black people on the flight have to be poor origins? Two more things should be pointed out about this incident. 

One: In previous articles, we have pointed out how since about 2004, policies of the 8-year Lula da Silva presidency lifted millions of poor, mostly black Brazilians into the lower to upper middle class giving access to consumer goods and services to many who had never previously had it. We also showed how long-time middle and upper classes didn’t like this ascension by the millions into what they believed to be exclusively theirs. That article specifically mentioned how many people expressed dismay is seeing so many more people being able to fly on airplanes. In the today’s article we see an example of this. In the comment that was intercepted on the plane, the man mentioned how it has become in style to fly on planes since Casas Bahia started selling plane tickets. 

casas bahia - magazine luiza

With the emergence of millions of new Brazilians into the lower to middle middle classes, stores such Casas Bahia and Magazine Luiza have led the way in their marketing techniques to attract this new base of consumers who suddenly had more income to spend. These stores specialize in appliances and electronics, products that until recently, only the solidly middle and upper classes had access to. With the stabilization of the Brazilian currency (the Real), easier access to credit and technology, this consumer from Brazil’s Economic Class C wanted the same quality products and name brands that were previously only within the economic reach of the more privileged classes. In 2010, Casas Bahia announced that it would begin selling boarding passes to TAM Airlines flights and offering consumers the option to pay for flights in installment plans of up to 12 months, further making plane travel more accessible to this new emerging middle class. 

Two: In the video capturing the group’s protest, we see airline employees interrupt and interrogate a male member of the youth group, even pushing him at one point (3:28 of above video). If TAM stands against all forms of discrimination as it declared in its note, why didn’t employees interrogate the TAM employee responsible for the racist message in front of the rest of the passengers as they did with the group? Such an action repudiating racism publicly would have spoken volumes in declaring that racism will not be tolerated; it would have been far more powerful a statement than the typical note that companies divulge when such incidents happen. 

Three: One about the incident taken from the Correio Braziliense website also referred to the youth group as ‘vitimistas’, while another asked if the group’s word about the racist message was proof enough that it actually existed and still another asked if reading private messages wasn’t a crime. The second and third comments are worth further consideration. In terms of the second comment, if it had been a white passenger making an accusation against a black passenger, would the scenario had played out the same way? Would there be any questioning of the legitimacy of the accusation? Would the employees interrogating the protesting black group have done the same thing against a white passenger making an accusation? Considering the very real idea of race and ‘place’ and racial hierarchy that bestows privileges and disadvantages according to skin color, it is a legitimate question. In terms of the third comment, I also agree with privacy in terms of phone calls, text messages, e-mails and conversations between two parties. But I do wonder if the person who wrote this comment would apply that perspective to all situations.

a crime
‘Isn’t reading private messages a crime?’

For example. In the same scenario, if this person were to read a text message of a person seated next to him/her that featured a plan of hijacking the flight in 10 minutes, would this person also apply the idea of privacy and not say anything? If a message from President Dilma Rouseff responded to a text asking for help in covering up her involvement in a huge political scandal, would this person apply privacy logic in this situation as well? There are endless possibilities in a scenario such as this, but knowing how many Brazilians DO in fact subscribe to an idea that ‘certain people’ don’t belong in ‘certain places’, I believe this story but am willing to wait for more details to come out on this case. 

Source: Negro Belchior/Carta Capital, Correio Braziliense


  1. The term ‘vitimista’ is used to label any person who speaks out about how an oppressive system affects them. According to this ideology, these people are ‘playing the role of a victim’. Jair Bolsonaro is a 24-year Federal Congressman of Brazil’s ultra-right conservative wing who has been known throughout his career for inflammatory comments against minorities.
About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. I lost count how many times I saw this type of incident in Brazil. Back in the day they simply didn’t allow blacks to enter some places and that was it (no racial argument given of course, since Brazil there was never segregation..). I remember when I was a still a small kid I was in fancy club with some friends and one of them (white) asked me to pick up his wallet that she left on the table or wherever.. immediately the white folks around assumed I as stealing it. At that time though I was the one who felt really embarrassed and ashamed, so I kept quiet. The same would have probably happened with a group of unprepared young blacks, but luckily those were articulated and knowledgeable enough to see that aggression for what it was and defend themselves.

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