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Three weeks ago, Brazil’s latest soccer sensation was at the center of another controversy in regards to the question of race. Santos soccer club/Brazilian national team superstar Neymar (da Silva Santos Júnior) made headlines after he approached an opposing coach and asked if he had made a racial slur against him during a game. Neymar’s image, the complexity of his racial identity, stance against racism and marketability says much about the marketability of black public figures, Brazilian and American. Below is how Rafa Santos reported the incident. BW of Brazil’s comments will follow the article.
Neymar, racism and the question that goes beyond a simple game
by Rafa Santos
“Did you call me a macaco (monkey)?” Neymar asked in images caught on television. The target of the question was the coach of the Ituano team, Roberto Fonseca. The confusion between the two started after the Santos star received a hard entrada by one of the players of the team coached by alleged perpetrator of the insult.
Neymar still walked over to the fourth referee of the match, Paulo Estevão Alves da Silva, and complained: “Did you see that? What’s (up with) that? Is that legal? You didn’t see him calling me a monkey?” insisted Santos’ number 11 jersey. In turn, Fonseca retorted: “Are you deaf, boy? Are you deaf?”
In an interview with Bandeirantes TV, the fourth official said he didn’t hear Coach Ituano’s alleged racist insult. At halftime, Neymar wasn’t sure of having been called a macaco. “I didn’t understand what he said, so I went back to ask … Then he said I was deaf.”
Fonseca was also asked by the press and seemed irritated by the question. “He must be deaf, I said that he is cai cai (fall fall), that he falls all the time. He’s going make a divination too,” he said.
Many people will say that Neymar is exaggerating, that he ‘just wants to show off’ or this or that. However, his attitude was the best possible. He went to the supposed speaker of the insults and asked face to face what he said. He wanted to confirm before formally accusing the rival coach.
Indeed racism exists in Brazil. It’s a fact. In spite of much of Brazilian society adopting a ‘culture of misunderstanding’, as well defined by Michel Blanco right here on Yahoo!
Also please note that Neymar has already been the victim of racism. In 2011 during Brazil’s victory against Scotland by a score of 2-0 he had a banana peel thrown in his direction. The star showed indignation and received support from teammates.
Later it was discovered that the perpetrator of the “joke” was a German teenager and the Scottish Federation demanded that Neymar publicly apologize for having ‘offended’ local fans. Number 11 once again did the right thing and refused to apologize …
In 2012 Neymar was again the target of bananas, this time wearing a Santos jersey in the Libertadores em La Paz game against the Bolívar team. As if the bananas were not enough, the athlete was also hit by an object thrown by the crowd. The big wigs of Conmebol (tournament organizers) did nothing and Bolívar went to the Copa Libertadores 2013. The team was eliminated by São Paulo.
However, I believe that the attacker acted very well to directly confront coach Ituano. If he didn’t hear very well (what was said) he was entitled to ask for a confirmation. Period. Neymar can’t accept that everything is ‘misunderstanding’. He needs to know. He has reason to be bothered and worry about racism. One simply need remember the other cases of racism involving the striker.
If the main Brazilian soccer player in activity has suffered with racism on the field …What is the reality of so many other black athletes far from the focus of cameras in Brazil? The question remains…
So, again, the “black blond” bomber tipped off another question of racism on the soccer field. The words black and blond are both in quotes because Neymar once said that he was not “preto” (black) and his blond hair is courtesy of a can. The question of Neymar and race is an intriguing topic for a number of reasons. First, for the previous accusations that he made about being the target of bananas on the field, one of a number of racist practices associating African descendants with monkeys that has plagued black soccer stars around the world for a number of years. Second, as mentioned above, Neymar once said that he was not “preto” (black). And third, he once appeared in a music video with two black Brazilian singers in which all three were dressed in gorilla suits (see our analysis here). And four, Neymar’s affinity for blondness, a dominant standard of beauty in Brazil.
While Neymar has been straightening his naturally kinky/curly hair for a while and also using blond hair coloring in his Mohawk hairstyle, recently he’s also been seen in photos with blond facial hair as well (1st, 2nd, 3rd photos). When the star posted photos of his one year son online in November of 2012, Brazilians commenting at Holofote (wp.clicrbs.com.br) online participated in quite a debate about the paleness of the child.
Some people commented on how the child didn’t take after his father too much while others stressed that Neymar’s mixed ancestry was similar to that of many Brazilians. Still others revealed their own family backgrounds as evidence that brown skinned people having lighter-skinned children is normal in Brazil.
Now, black, or “would be black” soccer stars and white women in Brazil are nothing new and any Brazilian can affirm this. In 2009, comedian/TV host Danilo Gentili became the center of accusations of racism when he tweeted the following joke…. “King Kong, a monkey that, after going to the city and becoming famous, gets a blond. Who does he think he is? A soccer player?” (1). So does Neymar saying he isn’t “preto” (black), his preference for bleaching his hair blond, his relationship with a white woman and subsequent birth of a very pale child mean that he may have been influenced by the concept of embranquemento (whitening) in which African descendants purposely try to whiten themselves and/or their descendants for purposes of social acceptability?
The thing about Neymar is that, obviously he is quick to point out racism. He also seems to be familiar with the association of black people with monkeys. Without his having proclaimed himself to be black, it’s a little perplexing to know how Neymar sees things in terms of race. Does he see himself as white like retired superstar Ronaldo once proclaimed himself when discussing racism against black players in European stadiums. When Neymar said that he wasn’t really “preto” (black), did that mean that he saw himself as a “pardo” (brown) and maybe only partially black or did he mean “pardo” as a means of saying that he is of a racial mixture that doesn’t fall under the category of black (2)? Or did he perhaps mean it in a similar vein as former US Secretary of State Colin Powell when he stated, “I ain’t that black”? There’s really no way of having certainty. To be sure, regardless of how the star sees himself in terms of race, this doesn’t negate his right to protest when he feels he’s been the target of racism. Let’s face facts: Neymar being personally attacked doesn’t mean he would be willing to take up the anti-racist cause in general.
This is nothing new. Dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, sociologists Roger Bastide, Florestan Fernandes and anthropologist João Batista Borges Pereira argued that black Brazilians ascending to middle class status distanced themselves from their communities of origin. This is often still the case today. In his 2011 dissertation on black executives in São Paulo’s corporate world, Pedro Jaime Coelho found that practically none of the 50 black execs he interviewed were involved in any anti-racist initiatives of the Movimento Negro (3). At the time of the interviews, all the execs were also married to white women.
Over the years, black Brazilian soccer stars, Pelé in particular, have frustrated Brazil’s black civil rights organizations (Movimento Negro) with their silence on issues of race or refusal to dedicate themselves to such topics. But it is also true that, nowadays, more black Brazilians in general are becoming aware of the dictatorship of whiteness/Eurocentrism that dominates Brazilian politics and media. As such, many persons of visible African ancestry are demanding more representation and respect for phenotypes that are not purely European in appearance. For example, more than a month ago, a woman from São Paulo initiated an online petition campaign to encourage the “black blond” bomber to start wearing his hair in its natural state again. Her reasoning? Her black son wanted to emulate Neymar (4). Here’s what she posted:
Rafaella Nepomuceno, São Paulo, Brazil
Neymar, leave your hair natural please! My son is a handsome black boy with curly/kinky hair and told me that he wanted hair like yours, including straight, I responded:
– Neymar’s hair is curled like yours my son
– How does he make it straight, mom?
– Chapinha (flat straightening iron)
– Then I want chapinha mom…
– Mom, so is Neymar preto (black)?
– Ah, still quite (black)!
Now (can you) imagine a child with self-esteem problems because of not having straight hair? Neymar as an idol and example for so many children like my son could be more sensitive (about this issue) and accept his hair as it is.
Once again, we have a question of the social responsibility and influence of public figures. African-American basketball star Charles Barkley once famously said that he was “not a role model” in a Nike gym shoe commercial. I remember years ago a critic once saying that NBA basketball legend Michael Jordan had about as much social consciousness as a pea. Clearly, public figures have a huge influence on the public. Corporations that have products to sell know this very well. Remember the “Be Like Mike” campaign featuring Michael Jordan? Or how about singer Beyoncé’s recent $50 million endorsement contract for Pepsi, which led to some calling the singer out for accepting such a deal considering the alarming rates of obesity and diabetes in the US, particularly among children.
Beyoncé, being an international superstar that is female and black is very popular in Brazil. From the Brazilian media constantly using her name in comparison with any black Brazilian women in the media at any given moment, to the imitation of her famous dance in the “Single Ladies” video, to the influence of her hairstyle, there’s no doubt in her selling power. In Brazil, Neymar seems to be everywhere as the pitchman for a number of products including Claro (telephone), Red Bull, Panasonic, Nextel, Lupo (underwear) and at least six other companies. All told, Neymar earns only about 15% of his monthly R$3.6 million real (US$1.8 million) salary from the Santos team. The rest is from endorsements. Thus, as the bottom line often boils down to the money, is it really reasonable to expect Neymar or any other star to accept the responsibility of being a role model or is he or she a role model whether he or she chooses to be or not?
It’s actually on old question. But let me say this. If you’re waiting on the day for sports figures and entertainers to accept social responsibility and take unpopular stands on issues of the day, FORGET IT! Often times, entertainers and athletes are chosen for endorsements precisely due to the fact that they are not activists, maintain a politically neutral positions or don’t get involve with anything considered controversial so that they don’t fall out of favor with the public and thus lose their marketability with companies who often sacrifice or have no ethics when it comes to selling products to the public even if potentially harmful to public well-being.
So, in closing, I will say that Neymar is nothing more and nothing less than the current “flavor of the month.” No doubt talented, but still the “flavor of the month”. And while it would be inspiring to see people with such influence take important, unpopular stands on whatever important issue of the day, Neymar, like Beyoncé and Michael Jordan before him, has too much money riding on his marketability to “fight the power”. I’ve seen it all before and I don’t expect him to.
1. A few minutes after tweeting the King Kong joke, Gentili tried to justify the joke. “Can someone give me a reasonable explanation why I can call a gay veado (literally meaning deer, but similar to faggot), a fat person whale, a white man a gecko but never call a black man monkey?” He followed that up with, “In the joke about King Kong, I didn’t say the color of the player. I said that the blond goes out with a guy because he’s famous. It’s prejudice that’s in your minds.” It seems that Gentili didn’t note his own words as he had already asked the question of associating a black man with a monkey. As we have shown countless times, the terms macaca (feminine) or macaco (masculine), meaning monkey, is one of the most used racial slurs against Afro-Brazilians. In reference to his “joke”, one doesn’t have to actually say that the player is black because it is implied that and the image in the social imagination already associates black Brazilian soccer stars with white/blond women. White men are the least likely in Brazil to marry interracially, thus they are expected to marry white/blond women so stating a white man’s preference for a white/blond woman doesn’t apply because it is expected. Black men and white/blond women, on the other hand, has a whole other set of social ramifications.
2. For clarification and further discussion of Brazilian terms regarding race and color see previous articles here, here, here and here.
3. Coelho Júnior, Pedro Jaime. Executivos negros – racismo e diversidade no mundo empresarial. Uma abordagem socio-antropológica
4. Neymar’s influence can seen throughout Brazil, particularly in São Paulo where one can see many young men, black or white, wearing straight or straightened, blond Mohawk style hairstyles. Blond hair among black youth is also popular among participants of bailes funk or funk carioca music in Rio de Janeiro.
Source: Yahoo! Esporte Interativo, Folha de S.Paulo, Coelho Júnior, Pedro Jaime. Executivos negros – racismo e diversidade no mundo empresarial. Uma abordagem socio-antropológica. University of São Paulo. Department of Anthropology. Post-Graduation in Social Anthropology, 2011.