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Racism in Brazilian Football and the Silence of Pele

racism in soccer 1“What is the difference between chuchu and Xuxa?” goes the question.

“Chuchu is eaten by poor black people……”,  goes the answer.

The dialogue above is part of a Brazilian once-popular humor program in the 1980s. The missing part of the answer is actually a racist joke directed at the legendary Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele), a one-time boyfriend of Maria da Graça Meneghel, popularly known as Xuxa (pronounced Shusha), a highly popular blonde TV presenter. Perhaps it was the most common joke among the adults that frequented our house when I was much younger. This particular dialogue was contained in a cassette recording in a selection of “jokes.” The concluding part of the joke is “ … and Xuxa is ‘eaten’ by rich black man.” In Portuguese language, eating (associated with food) may also take the meaning of having sex with someone. Thus while chuchu (pronounced shushu) is the food of poor blacks, Xuxa, is the food of rich black man (Pele). The joke is still common in Brazil and is shamelessly cracked by adults and children alike.

It had been about 10 years after Pele’s retirement, having participated in three world cups, two interclub championships and more than a thousand goals to boot. Not even his imposing record in football insulated him from racist ridicule in public and among families.

As an adult, I had found myself wondering if Pele had ever heard the joke and if he did, how did he react? Above all, I often wondered, what would have happened if Pele, the footballer of the century, a man powerful enough to stop a war in Africa, had protested the joke? Would he have hit the table? Would he have hit the wall? Would he have stopped an entire nation by joining in the constant struggle against his own exclusion by the society?

My answers came this morning after reading what the greatest footballer of all time said about a recent case of racism against Aranha, the goalkeeper of Santos, a football club from Sao Paulo, where Pele himself once shined. During a football match about two weeks ago, Aranha drew the attention of a referee because a supporter was yelling a racial slur against him and calling him monkey. Luckily, cameras in the stadium caught a young woman in the act. The case once again showed how racism is so common in Brazil within and outside the football stadium. When requested by media, Aranha refused to meet the girl in a popular show clearly organized for publicity and not for any genuine desire to address the problem of racism. “I don’t want to meet her. Let her face the law,” Aranha said.

According to Pele, Aranha overreacted and should not have interrupted the match when he was being insulted in the first place. His unbelievable words: “If I stop a match every time someone calls me monkey or creole, all matches would have to stop”; “The football fan yells anonymously”; “I think we need to curb racism but public places are no places for curbing racism”; “ The more we pay attention to this, the more it is sharpened.”

For the idol of Santos and the Brazilian national team, being called monkey is not reason enough to stop a football match (let alone stop a country). For him, the world is like this because that’s the way it is; cruel, and all you have to do is to pretend that the cruelty doesn’t exist and boom, racism will die. Apparently, the strategy has worked and with good results. It has been so since May 13, 1888. It has worked so perfectly well that 100 years after abolition of slavery in Brazil, the greatest footballer of all times is a subject of racist joke cracked in front of children for befriending a white girl who is shamelessly referred to “the food (comida) of rich black man.” The creator of the joke has managed to package the worst things about Brazil in one swing; being racist and sexist at the same time. Now if this is not reason enough to vomit, I don’t know what to call nausea.

Awhile ago in a Sao Paulo shopping mall, I watched the movie about Abraham Lincoln, who history has vindicated as the U.S. president who defeated his white colleagues to approve abolition of slavery. Leaving the cinema, I remember thinking how humanity has advanced between then and now. However, my enthusiasm soon died out as I was leaving the mall, hit as I was, by the realization that there were no black people back in the cinema or in the shopping mall. The few black people I could see were clad in uniforms as cleaners or guards. I only reunited with the real Brazil at my bus stop. Suddenly I was in a tiny spot amidst an of ocean of humanity, grappling with invisible barriers and chains, separating the Brazil in shopping mall and the one at the bus stop.

This barrier exists because, in the face of classist and racist insults, masqueraded as jokes, and which we sometimes downplay, we choose to continue with the match. We hesitate in locking up our criminals. Right from childhood, we have quietly listened to our teachers, politicians and public figures undermining their own intelligence by saying, in a loud voice, that racism is the prejudice of black people against themselves and that Brazil has more important problems to address. It is as if “discarding the humanity of a person in a trash, by calling them monkey” (to use the expression of the rapper Emicida, in an interview he gave to Ponte), is not enough motive for rebellion.

The barrier exists because knowingly or unknowingly, we create the condition for racism to flourish by assuming that ignoring our historical incompetence will make it vanish. But it won’t vanish. Racism is in full swing and comfortably accommodated in our deafening silence, fear and futile hope.

Racism hurts, as Aranha repeatedly said at the end of the match in which he was insulted. It hurts. It is possible that it hurt him as much as it hurt Pele, but only one of them is courageous enough to protest and show us his pain, which translated into the pain of an entire nation. The other simply asked for the match to continue. Silence on racism is the driving force that has victimized an entire nation for more than a century. The pain will only go when the world gets to have more of Aranha than Pele.

Matheus Pichonelli

This article first appeared in Portugues on Carta Capital

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