Defending Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has been talking about his decision to take a prominent campaigning stance against racism, and what motivated his decision to speak out.
Bullying and racial taunts had been a consistent feature of Hamilton’s childhood, but his father Anthony told him to “Always do your talking on the track” and so for many years in F1 he kept quiet.
“I’d be in Newcastle and people would shout, ‘Go back to your country,’” he told The Guardian newspaper this week in an interview conducted over Zoom.
“Or in Spain in 2008, when people painted themselves black and put on wigs and were really mocking my family, he continued. “I remember the sport not saying anything about it.”
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His jokey comment that the reason stewards targeted him during the 2011 Monaco GP was “Maybe it’s because I’m Black” – Ali G’s catchphrase – caused a furious backlash at the time.
“It often felt that maybe I didn’t speak about it in the right way, or wasn’t great at explaining it, or maybe educated enough to talk about it,” he said.
“Either way I got a lot of pushback and it seemed like more hassle than it was worth, so I reverted to just doing my talking on the track.
“I remember not being able to be myself,” he explained. “Of not being able to speak the way I want to speak.
“I remember feeling that I had to be a different shape. The entry point to my sport was a square and I was like a hexagon, and I thought: ‘I’m never going to fit through that bloody thing.’
“That’s the point of all this inclusivity, including people and not asking them to change in order to fit,” he added. “I had to morph my way in in order to fit into that world, and then try to get back into the shape I was before.”
But last year everything changed for Hamilton after the death of George Floyd at the hands of US police officers. Hamilton led the way in drivers taking the knee before the Austrian GP, only to have the F1 world feed cut away to show skydivers instead
“This wrath [sic] of emotions came up and I couldn’t contain myself,” he explained. “I was in tears, and this stuff came up that I’d suppressed over all these years.
“It was so powerful and sad and also releasing, and I thought: ‘I can’t stay quiet. I need to speak out because there are people experiencing what I’m experiencing, or ten times worse, or a hundred times worse – and they need me right now.’
“When I did speak out, that was me letting the Black community know: ‘I hear you and I stand with you.’”
Hamilton insisted that his focus on diversity and social justice hadn’t been a distraction for his ‘day’ job of seeking to secure an eighth world championship in 2021.
“I feel like I was built for this,” he said. “There’s got to be a reason that I’m not only the only Black driver but the one at the front. And it’s not just about winning.
“I won the world championship last year and in that year everything became visible, and I felt that my purpose was shown to me and now I’m on that journey.