Hamilton sees diversity gains in F1 years on from his ‘traumatising’ experience of racism

2023 F1 season

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed more about the racism he faced growing up and how it drove him to push for greater diversity in motorsport, in an interview published this week.

In an hour-long discussion with Jay Shetty – an “internet personality, storyteller, podcast host and purpose coach” – Hamilton talked at length about the prejudices he faced growing up as a mixed-race child in Britain in the eighties and nineties.

“School was the most probably the most traumatising and most difficult part of my life,” Hamilton recounted. “I already was being bullied at the age of six. I think at the time, that particular school, I was probably one of three kids of colour, and just bigger, stronger bullying kids were throwing me around a lot of the time.

“I was always the last picked – when you’re standing in the playground and you’re in the line when they’re picking teams for football, I was always the last one chosen or not even chosen. Even if I was better than somebody else.”

The abuse included “constant jabs” and racial slurs, said Hamilton. “The things that are thrown at you like bananas, or people that would use the ‘N-word’, just so relaxed. People calling you ‘half-caste’. Just really not knowing where you fit in. That, for me, was difficult.

“When you then go into, like, history class and everything you learn in history, there were no people of colour in the history that they were teaching us. So I was thinking, well, where are the people that look like me?

“I mean, in my school there was only around maybe six or seven black kids out of 1,200 kids and three of us were put outside the headmaster’s office all the time. The headmaster just had it out for us and particularly for me, I would say.”

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Hamilton explained why he found it difficult to discuss the racism he experienced with those around him, including father Anthony and stepmother Linda.

“There were a lot of things that I suppressed because I didn’t feel I could go home and talk to my parents that ‘these kids kept calling me the N-word today’, ‘I got bullied and I got beaten up at school today’ or ‘I wasn’t able to defend myself’.

“I didn’t want my dad to think I was not strong. So if I had tears I would hold them back. If I had emotions, it would be in a quiet place.”

He discovered karting at the age of eight. It eventually put him on the path to becoming the most successful F1 driver of at all time, but to begin with it was an outlet for his frustrations. “It wasn’t really ’til I started racing that I was able to channel this emotion that I had into my driving,” said Hamilton.

“Superman was my favourite, I loved how he fought for the people and I loved how he did the right things and he was a really inspiring character for me. But again, no superhero was of colour. But you can still aspire to be someone if they don’t look like you.

“Dad would say: ‘Do your talking on the track'”
“So I remember going to karate, I remember putting this helmet on and racing, it felt like it was my cloak. My superpowers would come out when I was driving. And I was battling with these kids and I was able to do things that they seemed to not be able to do as well. And that was my love.”

Hamilton’s biological parents split up when he was two years old. He described his dad as an “amazing figure” who helped him cope with the challenges he faced.

“One of my best friends, his dad was never there. I know there’s not many people that have separated parents and being shared between parents is not an easy thing: Some days with your mum and some days with your dad. My mum was the soft, loving parent. That’s where I really I feel like I learned a lot of compassion and empathy. I feel like I get it from her.

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“My dad was that kind of stronger rock and also just someone that looked like me and he would say: ‘Do your talking on the track. Don’t be distracted by it. Don’t listen to what they’re saying. Do your driving on the track and show, let’s just be quiet and walk away winners.

“My dad was someone that also faced adversity through his life and he’s like, I want to do everything in my power to create a better life for my kid so they don’t feel or experience the things I have encountered him through my journey.

“But I think for me, it was also difficult. I’m biracial, so having a white mother, for example, and a black dad, I knew my dad would understand the racial slurs that are thrown at me, my mum couldn’t understand it. So I couldn’t really speak to my mum about it. She was loving, but she’s never been educated within it. She didn’t know anything about black history and slavery. So it was very difficult. But I had love there, which was the most important thing.”

Today Hamilton tries to use his social media posts to give encouragement to those who are going through similar experiences to his. “[When you’re] kids, you just want to enjoy yourself, you want to be included. And [when] you’re kind of outcast a little bit, it’s difficult for kids.

“So that’s why today if I’m posting something, I hope that when I do click that button, I hope that it is a positive wave for some of the kids out there that are being distracted by all this stuff that’s going on around the world.”

While he is embarking on his 17th full season as an F1 driver this year, Hamilton has only become outspoken about racial issues relatively recently in his career, particularly when the Black Lives Matter movement began following the death of George Floyd in May 2020. He said he appreciated the support of other drivers who joined him in ‘taking a knee’ before races that year and in 2021.

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“I’ve tried to be create allies, like, in having the difficult conversations with some of them. I’m so grateful for, I’ve had a couple of them that took the knee with me in 2020.

“On that, my dad never let me cry as a kid. He said it was a sign of weakness. ‘Don’t let me ever see you shed a tear’. So I remember just holding back through those difficult times as a kid, holding back most of that stuff. And in 2020, I cried. I hadn’t cried for at least 10 years, maybe more. There was a lot of bottled up stuff that came up that I had not realised, I didn’t even know about suppressing a pain or a feeling.

“I remember kind of being on my knees thinking what is happening in the world? I’ve got to be outspoken, I’ve got to take that chance because if I don’t do it then no one’s going to do it. If I don’t take the knee, if I don’t let people like me know that I care and I hear you and I’m with you and I’m going to do something about it, I’m going to risk it all. I don’t care if my partners want to drop me because I don’t to be associated with this narrative. I literally let go of all the fear and that’s why I came so forward with it.

“I know it’s not easy for everyone to do that. But I would just want to really try to encourage people out there to be themselves, to speak out if they’ve got a problem, if they see something within their working environment or experiencing something, you’ve got to be outspoken about it. And there’s a right way to do it.”

Ahead of the delayed start to the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hamilton decided he would make a gesture of support for Black Lives Matter, and was unwilling to embrace F1’s broader We Race As One campaign which incorporate social issues beyond racism.

“The first day I was going to take the knee, I remember I didn’t feel like I could tell my team,” he said. “I felt that they wouldn’t understand how important it is for me to do this. So I had my Black Lives Matter shirt hidden and I just wore it out there and I went ahead with it.

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“The sport had made all these T shirts [with a] ‘We Race As One’ slogan and they gave these T shirts to everybody. And I was like ‘I’m not wearing that’. That’s not what this is about. And so this is what I’m doing.

F1 drivers take a knee, Red Bull Ring, 2020
Drivers took a knee for the first time at the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix
“Afterwards my team were like, if you just told us we could have prepared better. But I had this fear that they would try and stop me, perhaps. But that was just a fear. They’ve been massively supportive through the whole thing.

“My hope was that kids would be watching and be like: ‘What is that? Why is he taking the knee? What does that shirt mean? What is going on dad, mum?’ And then the parents being in an awkward position having to explain it, maybe.”

He subsequently founded the Hamilton Commission which published a report on the lack of diversity within motorsport and is now working to promote it.

“What was really encouraging for me was when we started really getting into the whole diversity and inclusion, we did the research, out of 2,000 people in the team there’s 3% diversity. So since then we’ve been on this mission. The team have started new projects. We’ve discovered that the sport generally hires from one group of universities, which is not diverse. And if there are any young black students that go there, they’re twice as unlikely to be hired when they come out compared to their counterparts, and also paid less. So there’s all these things that perhaps people didn’t know.

“That just was interesting to experience that now. Now we’re working on a diversity charter that all the teams have to be a part of. And it’s not mine, it’s for the sport and it’s to encourage those teams because there’s still not any diversity within, if you look at Ferrari, they have hardly any. Most teams don’t.”

Hamilton is already starting to see signs of the change he hoped to promote in F1. But he wants it to become more obvious to those who do not work in the sport.

“When I go back to my team, to the factory, normally our marketing department wasn’t very diverse initially, and I walked in after the pandemic and I started seeing such a more diverse group of people. I was really quite emotional because I was like, oh my God, I’m starting to see change. But you don’t see that on TV.

“So when I talk to the bosses of the sport, I’m like, there’s all white men and me facing the camera at the start of the race – where are the women? Where are the people of colour. We’ve got to be showing so the young kids are watching and they’re like, ‘oh, there’s a place for me there. I can be there, I can be an engineer, I could be a mechanic or whatever it may be. And even for young girls, I can be a racing driver or an engineer or strategist or whatever’, So representation, is so, so key to inspiring the youth.”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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25 comments on “Hamilton sees diversity gains in F1 years on from his ‘traumatising’ experience of racism”

  1. A lot of what he writes about his experiences at school, are experienced by almost all kids at school, of any race. except for the N-word obviously but then something else will be called, like glasses or overweight/underweight. Were these bullies realy racists? Or were they just bullies?

    1. Specifically targeting a minority group with racial slurs is racist, yes. They had had it normalised to them because British society in the 90s was very racist (and still is) but that does not on any level make it normal or not racist.

      Lots of children, unfortunately, experience bullying but this is extremely specifically racially motivated (Hamilton selected for his race) – two things can exist at the same time.

    2. I think he was just unpopular and unskilled at things.
      If he was awesome at football, he’d have been picked first every single time.

      You’re absolutely right. Most kids, regardless of their skin colour, are on the receiving end of some form of bullying at school – and many still get it later in life too.

      1. That’s not true. Children pick people on non-merit bases all the time. In fact, they have to be taught to pick people on merit, else they never do it.

    3. Depending on age, a perceived difference between persons might lead to seeing people as groups, which might grow into racism. However, like you say, every difference can be used to bully, even just a name that makes for a “clever” rhyme.

      1. Hamilton and Prince Harry doing a roadtrip special for Netflix would be an amazing programme.

    4. True. I was bullied for having red hair and was called many things because of that. It’s the way children can be, unfortunately. They’ll find something to hurt you, and with Hamilton they found not his hair colour, but his skin colour. It has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with bullying.

    5. A friend of mine had a grandson with a white mother and black father. This was a very confident lad who at about 8/9yo asserted he was the most popular boy in his class. That was quite an eye-opener on all kinds of levels, but mostly because it challenged the ‘narrative’

  2. I hope he gets over his persecution complex some day – he’s clearly had it since primary school. I’m sure he can afford the therapy now.

    1. I hope he gets over his persecution complex some day

      It ain’t paranoia when they really are out to get you.

  3. I’d be traumatized too by being signed up at 8yo to team McLaren and all my dreams coming true.

    Still I whine.

    ps – yes, I know suffering painful experiences and achieving your dreams are often not mutually exclusive, but I think a lot of Lewis’ little scoldings are performative and he has a large and receptive audience who will mostly lavish him in praise and apologies for his “amazing successes in the face of traumatic adversities.”

  4. 3% diversity? What does that even mean?

    1. Yeah, I was thinking about that too. Surely there’s 100% diversity, right? They aren’t all clones.
      Or at least, I don’t think they are.

      In reality, we all know that Hamilton is just doing his usual profiling. Only people who aren’t a straight white male are “diverse.”
      Unfortunately for him, automotive engineering and motorsport (worldwide) happen to be heavily populated by people who just happen to fit that description – even though they are incredibly diverse.

      1. Whatever Hamilton’s thoughts behind said statement, it seems best to leave lists and charts with the “correct” percentage of certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds in the 19th and early 20th century, together with other bad and discredited ideas from that time.

        Making motorsport more accessible (by lowering costs) and education more attainable (by contributing to the national education budget via taxes) is a great idea from which anyone can benefit. Hopefully Hamilton tweaks his, no doubt well intended, message a bit.

      2. I was thinking about that too. Surely there’s 100% diversity, right?

        I’m trying to decide whether that’s a seriously failed attempt at the mathematical aspect, a disingenuous comment to attempt to detract from the obvious fact that there were very few people that didn’t fit the white male from just the right school/college tag, or just the usual “I’ll bully with nasty comments from behind this safe spot”

        If you’re bad at anything mathematical, just say so and we can give you a little slack.

        Speaking as a white male that did look around at (technical) Uni and wonder why the intake seemed so white, something wasn’t right then and has gone a long way in the last few decades.

        1. I’ll be honest – I’ve never, not even once, entered into any institution and mentally divided people into ethnic groups. Every place has vast diversity, even if everyone is about the same colour.

          My comment was purely that looking at a group of people and judging them based on their ethnicity or appearance is disgraceful. It dehumanises every person into a mere demographic.
          But it’s okay when a black guy does it, apparently…

    2. The consensus is you’re an awful racist for asking what “3% diversity” means. 🤦‍♂️

      Speaking of racism, corruption and the need for reform, Germany’s ruling party, the SPD is basically as bad as it could possibly get. Might be a good area for him to touch upon them at least once since the SPD and CDU have made Mercedes’ success, and by extension his, possible via cheap Russian energy imports whose cost we’ve all seen.

      1. That’d be unfortunate! As noted, Hamilton’s message seems well intentioned. It would be great if everyone who wants to pursue a career in motorsport has that as at least an option. Obviously teams will still make their own selections, and more people in motorsport will work outside than inside F1, but improving access to education and emphasizing and having a wide variety of role models is a good thing.

        However, if he says that Mercedes has only 60 people working for them that qualify as “diverse”, it seems rather odd not to indicate what that means. What is he measuring?

        And it’s rather amusing that he then takes an unsolicited jab at Ferrari. Given that F1 is basically an English sport, Ferrari being the only Italian team of note and a constant participant in F1 would seem to be a good thing – but for whatever reason they’re instead singled out for criticism.

        1. Agreed. I don’t think anyone objects to his aims. It’s rather about some, not all, of the ways he goes about it. Particularly in criticizing teams for not having achieved the level of diversity he is seeking less than two years after he began the campaign. These types of missions are not the work of a day. If he and they want to see long term results they should be funding things like special STEM programs at schools with a good likelihood of producing engineers as well as seeking out promising minority students who are already interested in engineering/tech to provide scholarships, internship experiences at the team, mentors (engineers at the team who can share advice on educational routes, career etc.) and creating small engineering competitions in communities where the schools don’t have $ to support things like SAE competitions. That would be very exciting.

    3. It means 3% that aren’t the “expected” background for someone (in this instance) in that team. As this is a narrative rather than the study itself, it’s hard to tell what exactly was the definition of “the expected background” for the team, and from that perspective, it’s a perfectly sensible question to ask. Hopefully Mercedes’ research is somewhere that the details can be determined.

  5. With Seb now gone, I wonder how Lewis feels about leading the charge on social issues he cares about, and losing someone who seemed to really support him. I respect the transformation he’s gone through since 2020, but wonder how much he can achieve against such entrenched biases – comments above being case in point.

    It’s very telling regarding his comments on seeing the Mercedes factory personnel. I suspect it’s the main motivator for him to stay in F1 at this stage, to enact true change rather than just being outspoken.

    1. You genuinely believe his main motivator for continuing to drive in F1 is diversity initiatives? I also find it sad that you think you can divine people’s motives from…well, nothing. The comments above are hardly acerbic or lacking reason. My son is 1/2 white (my side) and 1/4 black and a 1/4 Mexican (my wife). You really think it’s my dearest desire to see him fail in life?

      My issue with Lewis is that he’s part of an “activist demo” that has driven the polarization of society and is making genuine progress harder, not easier. Constant and provocative blanket statements don’t help get people on the band wagon. It’s cheap fodder for allies you’v already won, but exactly the opposite for attracting folks to your cause who are neutral or the opposite.

      Above all though, Lewis should know that, even if his efforts are successful beyond his wildest dreams, the results aren’t going to show up until after he’s retired. After all, the diverse group of youth he’s trying to attract to the sport have to grow up, matriculate and apply to F1. That’s not the work of a season or even five.

      …but Lewis is use to INSTANT gratification and if he doesn’t see it NOW, NOW, he’s going to throw a tantrum.

  6. Because you wouldn’t deny it is happening to others in that case S.

  7. Not everyone in society is treated equally and fairly. And until that happens, there will always be the need for those with loud voices to point it out and draw attention to it.

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