Pelé needs to stop telling people how to deal with racism

Pelé’s at it again. This time, however, he isn’t speculating about World Cup results or predictions, or slandering Lionel Messi. This time the Brazil legend is entering Sepp Blatter’s wheelhouse (HANDSHAKES!) and telling us how to handle racial abuse.

According to Pelé, we pay too much attention to racists. “The big problem is focusing the attention on these idiots who go to games, who are not fans but hooligans,” he told UOL. It’s a fair point, and one that shouldn’t be dismissed. The historical record is littered with examples of racism disappearing because it was ignored.

He continued. “If everyone did what Daniel [Alves] did, when they threw a banana at him as he took a corner, if they ate it and did nothing then nobody would do anything again.” Really? I’m not so sure about that.

But Pelé isn’t really telling the world to eat their problems. What he’s saying is actually even worse. He’s saying that if we don’t react to racism, it will go away. He’s suggesting that Alves, by casually eating a banana, somehow made racism disappear, even if temporarily. Except that it didn’t, because that’s not how racism goes away. Racism isn’t a sitcom that resolves 30 minutes of tension with a corny, self-deprecating joke and a laugh track. It’s real, and like most abuse, it affects different people in different ways.

If Pelé’s way of handling things is to pay less attention, then good for him. But suggesting that responsibility should somehow fall on the victimized to remain silent or ignore — to either literally or metaphorically eat their abuse — is laughable. And he isn’t just talking about players; he’s saying we all pay too much attention to racism — and that includes the media, presumably. If he’s talking about the media being complicit in silence or ignoring, that’s borderline crazy, because he’d be effectively advocating for a safe(r) space for abuse.

It seems that what Pelé’s really advocating for, quite selfishly, is his own peace of mind. He seems tired, and understandably so. He’s been through a lot. He notes, “If I’d started fighting every time they used the N-word in the United States, Latin America and Brazil, I’d still be suing everyone.” So Pelé chose to ignore.

But let’s not act as if there isn’t any middle ground between ignoring and blindly filing lawsuits every time someone calls you a name. Let’s also not act like we don’t see the irony in Pele saying we pay too much attention to abusers only a few breaths away from stating he wouldn’t have enough time to confront everyone who called him a racial slur. That’s pretty amazing. It sounds like the good ol’ days, when he was busy ignoring, were saturated with slurs. It doesn’t seem like the ignoring worked for anything beyond allowing Pelé the space to breathe. That’s valuable, but hardly a solution for everyone.

Pelé’s certainly entitled to handle himself as he see fits, but he’s offering some dangerous advice. Pelé had the luxury of choosing to ignore so he could focus on enjoying his life. Good for him. Others don’t have that luxury. Others don’t have the luxury of achieving honorary whiteness, a status afforded to Pelé in Brazil because of his success and fame — a luxury that still didn’t relieve of him of having to hear racial slurs in his own country, apparently.

Telling someone to stand tall and ignore abuse places an unreasonable burden on the abused. “Don’t speak up” is an awful signal to send.

Pelé was an exceptional soccer player. He is not, however, exceptional at advising the general public on how to deal with racism. We can add that to the list of things that Pele is not great at.

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