Trigger Warning: This post contains ableist language and may be upsetting. Please look after yourselves.
You don’t really want to read this. I don’t really want to write this. But I have thoughts.
I don’t normally talk about this side of me, but I feel like I should because it makes today’s events into context. For those who don’t know me very well, I have ASD. Also known as Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s on the Autistic spectrum, a spectrum that is vast, complex and varies. ASD is generally high-functioning but affects people in different ways. Often, social skills and communication are affected. It can be very rough.
And the worst part was… I didn’t realise I had it until I was 17.
I knew from a young age, I wasn’t like most kids. A lot of doctor’s appointments where you’re playing with the squiggly lined bead racks while your Mum’s amassing the folder full of special needs, hoping you’re not listening in. “He’s not like most kids, he’s very quiet, he doesn’t make friends easily in the nursery.”
She was right. And school was hard. Of course, you grow as a person, and of course, it can be a great experience. But it has no mercy. I was the kid on the special table in the back with the learning support teacher. And when you’re young and you have an ego and know you’re pretty smart, you think you’re above it. You’re not. But it doesn’t make you feel any less awkward and uncomfortable with your surroundings. It just makes it even harder to feel like you’re normal. Back then, I just didn’t really know how to express that.
It only really became full-scale bullying when I got to High School. If it wasn’t for the Australian accent (It wasn’t), it was being too old to play Yu-Gi-Oh with some of the geekier kids, or not really having a social group to fit in with, or not talking like a “typical black man”. My school’s special needs department was a safe space for me to study and peace out, and I got called the R-word or “spastic” when I left the building on occasions.
Or it was for dating a girl in the year below even though our birthdays were only three weeks apart. It was hell. I broke down in my own tutor room twice. I considered quitting two or three times. There was a horrific accident in a PE lesson where I was in a tackle that broke a man’s leg in a game of football and the one subject I loved, Maths, became insults, teasing, and having gum in my hair by that same person, with a teacher too scared to actually sanction people while I was crying in the back row.
Thankfully, it eased up after Year 11 and my GCSE’s as the worst of the dickheads left, and I became a bit of a cult hero for making video blogs on YouTube to pass the time. It was… kinda cathartic. It wasn’t until the amazing Miss Cumberbatch in my special needs department said: “Hey Dre, have you ever considered being tested for Asperger’s?” And it fit. It was relieving because for the first time I was truly recognising who I was. I still struggle socially to this day. I’m awful with body language, picking up cues, and tone. I still get overwhelmed sometimes by group settings. My own Discord server sometimes makes me want to jump out of the window… but I’m getting there. I’m not quite the lone wolf I was as a child. And that’s okay.
As I said, school sucked. It set me up for a lot of negative shit and broken confidence. But it also made me the person I am today, and for that, I’m genuinely grateful. But that’s what makes today’s incident with Max Verstappen so painful.
After a needless FP2 clash between Max and Lance Stroll, Max referred to the Canadian as a “retard” and “mongoloid”. This is a slur against people who deal with disabilities such as mine. It’s become normalised in the last 20 years of culture and discourse, and it should never have been. It is completely unacceptable to call anyone this. Ever. I made that point very clear on Twitter after it happened. And of course, a bunch of people immediately got uppity in my mentions telling me to chill.
When you’ve made it to your 29th year of life, and the above page of A4 is what you’ve had to go through to get to this point, to see someone of Verstappen’s position on TV blurt that out in frustration is very disappointing. He’s not a child. Sure, it’s his second language, but he’s absolutely fluent in English and understands tone and nuance. I don’t care if it’s the “heat of the moment”, that’s clearly a part of his vocab, a similar act to what Kyle Larson did in NASCAR back in April. And it needs to be erased. This is not me flashing my siren from the top of the “PC Police” van. It’s a word that hurts people. Isolates people. Discriminates. Causes pain. Labels. Judges. It can go on and on.
I hate that my own reaction to this feels like I’m on trial. I can’t be angry, because that’s what the defensive folks want you to do so they can shout “Haha, triggered!” like some sort of Twitter trap door. These people want their sports in a vacuum, devoid of context, guilt, or emotion. They want F1 wrapped up in a neat little box so they don’t have to feel guilty about what they’re watching. For many, it’s a privileged escape. For me, it’s a reminder of a lot of pain.
Verstappen is a frustrating figure. I can totally see how he could be the glue that galvanises F1 when Hamilton eventually hangs it up. He’s a new school streamer and modern day-dork. Different to the class of 2019 and the Twitch gang, awkward, but still charming. Actually reminds me a little bit of me when I was younger. But he also has that old school, hardcore racers pedigree that the older crowd still harbour for. Incredibly fast, ruthless, stubborn. He’s the best of both worlds. It could be great, but it causes problems.
This isn’t the first time he’s put himself in hot water. He had to apologise in 2016 for xenophobic comments made about Brazil and Felipe Massa after japes were made about each other’s racecraft. Max often showed his ultra-defensive, flippant side, unrepentant as he pushed the line of acceptable conduct. He put his hands on Esteban Ocon after contact in Brazil a couple of years ago. He made a complete Horlicks of the “End Racism” protests when the season started and called racism “complicated”. And to double down on his actions yesterday with “Not my problem”, is the classic 2020 non-apology of “Sorry if you were offended”. It’s not an apology. It’s washing your hands of accountability and putting the onus on you for your reaction.
Verstappen is the present and the future of this sport. He’s almost never had to answer for anything he’s done, on or off track, in five seasons, four of which at the very top of the sport. He should be held to account more for his conduct, but we’re in a sporting environment that wants precisely NOT that. It’s why the buzz term “Cancel Culture” doesn’t really exist because exceptions are almost always made, he’s the walking embodiment of that, and a lot of his fanbase lets him get away with that. He should know better, but I fear he just doesn’t, and at this point, I’m not sure he ever will.
There are roughly 171,000 words in the Oxford dictionary that are in common use. All most reasonable people are asking, is that you don’t use… maybe twelve of them. TL;DR – Just call him a dickhead next time. You can be angry and heated, without having to potentially upset massive subsets of people. It’s really not that hard. At least, it shouldn’t be.
If there’s one thing I’d like you all to take away from this piece, it’s this. Please, have empathy. Respect people’s difficulties in life. It’s harder than ever out there, and little things like yesterday cause more damage than you think. The world needs more empathy right now, more than ever. Don’t let something stupid like a young man’s ableist outburst take away from that.