Politics Sport

The Post- Racial Pitch ( from The New Turn Magazine)


Only 50 years ago foreign players were very rare in British football leagues. Glasgow Celtic’s European Cup winning team of 1967 for instance, all grew up within 30 miles of one another. In 1982, out of a selection of 39 English clubs, there were 19 teams without a black player in their squad, and only 27 black players in total. In the minority, but more saliently, aesthetically different, these Black and Asian players experienced severe racial prejudice: racist chants echoed throughout the stadia of Britain, banana skins were thrown at the feet of black players and many suffered wage discrimination. Although equally as talented as the home grown players, it was the colour of their skins and the purported dispositional and cultural differences this symbolised, that obscured their skill and saw them subjugated within the British footballing culture.

Fast forward to the present and to be accused of being racist in modern British football is beyond reproach. Indeed, the only thing worse than being accused of being racist is being falsely accused of being a racist.  Of course, this polarisation between the “normative” white European players and the “subordinate” black and Asian players no longer exists in the same way as it did in the 60s and 70s. This is particularly true in England, a country whose cosmopolitanism is more developed than that of the rest of the continent:  in 1990 wage discrimination against ethnic players ended and in 1991 the Football Offences Act banned racist chants in all stadia. To put this into perspective, in Spain Luis Aragones was allowed to keep his job as the Spanish National coach after calling Thierry Henry a “black shit” whereas, in Britain, John Terry faced criminal charges for what one might, tentatively, argue was a less offensive slur against the Queen’s Park Ranger’s player Anton Ferdinand. And who could forget the liberal deployment of opprobrium and disgust after Luis Suarez, a Uruguayan international, called Patrice Evra, a Frenchman of Senegalese birth, a “Negro” on British soil.

Although, superficially, this might appear a positive step towards racial equality, a public demonstration of cultural acceptance, this hypersensitivity to race causes its own problems; problems that are not so far removed from the more patent racism seen in the 60s and 70s. Indeed, it seems that the media and public reception of racism in the Suarez case is paradoxical, and that the event itself has been covered in a way that has revalorised ethnic and racial stereotype. To invert Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor: modern racism in football is pretending to be naked whilst at all times being fully clothed.

 The Suarez debate begins with a linguistic ambiguity.  It has been reported that the Uruguayan called Patrice Evra “negrito” is often used in the Spanish language as an affectionate term to mean “friend” or “mate”. Whether Suarez meant it in this way is of course impossible to find out. However, what is certain is that this lexical ambiguity has become central to the footballer’s defence. Indeed, he claimed that his use of the word was not intended to be pejorative, but friendly; and that his misunderstanding of the word’s connotations was a cultural aberration- a result of his Uruguayan upbringing and not inherent xenophobia. Such a defence falls under cultural relativism, in which society is not something absolute or universal but relative, and where morals and ideas of how to behave are true only as far as the boundaries of one’s particular culture extend .Unsurprisingly this plea of cultural naivety was met with an equally culturally relativistic reply in the press: “It doesn’t wash. Suarez is living in our culture now. There are hundreds of English black footballers who would not perceive the cultural nuances of Suarez’s words and should in no way be expected to understand them, either”, reported  the Daily Express. So it seems that central to the debate is the presumption of cultural assimilation, and the defiance of it. Not only was Suarez racist to another foreigner, but he could also be considered anti- British, by the very fact that his defence is in some way a declination of British sensibility.

Being a non- normative, and within this footballing context I mean a non-white European player, Evra would have been perceived in the past, as racially subordinate to Luis Suarez, who although Uruguayan is of white European heritage. However, in our hypersensitive society the black football player’s hierarchically inferior position has been reversed. This is because many black players have, or more realistically are perceived to have, deferred to their host culture; relinquishing their own practices in favour of the home practices. To clarify this point, take the external example of the Turkish Alevi Muslims in Germany. The Alevis often practise the concealment of their culture, known as taqiya (females often do not wear headscarves, for example).  This is perceived by the normative German population, those with white Christian European lineage, as an attempt to fit in with the German culture, even though it is in fact the complete opposite. The Alevis’ practise of dissimulation in Germany is fundamentally the same, in fidelity to itself, as the Sunni’s more apparent displays of Islam there. They are both enacted as they would be in their home countries, it is simply that the Alevis’ practise of concealment is less incongruous with German societal norms than the Sunni or other Islamic groups.

Returning to the case of Patrice Evra, one can identify a similar public reaction in Britain. Like the Alevi, Evra seemed to be acting in the way of his adopted home country, having responded to the racial slur in a manner that adhered to the common British perception of what racism is and how it should be responded to. Regardless of whether the term is as offensive in French as it is in English, by bringing it to light and by complaining to the English Football Association (FA), Patrice Evra was seen to be acting in a British manner. He acted to help Britain eradicate racism where Suarez did not, and so he could be held up by the FA as a nationalistic symbol of foreign integration and a poster boy of British anti-racism.

However, Evra’s poster-boy status falls under what the German newspaper Der Spiegel recently termed “bipolar thinking”: a term that accounts for the exaggerated positive reaction towards foreigners. Now everyone is naming their favourite “darkie” and avoiding claims of xenophobia by stating black people as amongst their closest friends. In essence, the integration of the foreigner on the public stage and in the more intimate social realm is an act through which people can communicate their openness to difference. Here we encounter the paradox. On the one hand the treatment of this case demonstrates a very anti-racist sentiment because it shows the assimilation of the foreign other into the nation’s collective imagination (Evra), and the repudiation of those who refuse to accept the foreigner’s place there (Suarez). On the other hand, this overt sympathy for the foreign other turns the Patrice Evras of this world into functional devices which, if handled with care and sympathy, can be used as personal and collective anti-racist propaganda. Evra’s plight is merely a sign of the normative culture and race still being white British. Like Barthes’s French soldier, the incident might echo racial equality, but behind the scenes sits the editor of the normative culture, only making it seem that way.

Moreover, labelled as marginalised and abused figures, foreigners become social mousetraps: volatile groups who are likely to take offence at any ambiguity. Indeed, how often does the average person check themselves before addressing or referring to a foreigner: is he/she black, coloured or brown? This drive for political correctness induces the feeling that these racial groups need to be treated differently, in order to be integrated and treated the same. People become uneasy at the thought of associating with ethnic groups because they are afraid of inadvertently insulting them and so incurring the wrath of an uneasy public.  Racial segregation is therefore passive, unspoken and arrives through the paradoxical situation of trying to avoid segregation.

Finally, the contradictions of the Suarez debacle are further reinforced if one examines the incident from inside the black community. Glenn Johnson, Liverpool FC’s only black player at the time, came out and defended his team mate against the charges of racism. Along with the rest of the squad, Johnson wore a pro- Suarez T-shirt before the game against Wigan Athletic to demonstrate his belief that Suarez was not a racist. The Liverpool player was branded a deserter of his “people”, an “Uncle Tom” figure, as Marcel Garvey the black England rugby International, commented on Twitter last year. The black community, particularly those high up within professional sport seemed incensed by his lack of loyalty, ‘If I was in Glen Johnson’s position, I would have thrown the shirt to the floor,’ said Paul McGrath, a former Manchester United Defender. So what are the reasons behind this internal attack?

It has been well documented that a form of anti-racism amongst the black community has been the raising of black consciousness, in which black people emphasise their blackness and pride in their roots. This movement accepts the black and white divide and tries to reinterpret it positively. Johnson’s apparent betrayal of this black solidarity might have been one of the reasons he aroused such ill-feeling. Indeed, his story is similar to that of the black American journalist and writer Anatole Broyard. Broyard didn’t want to be known by the colour of his skin, he pretended to be white so as to flourish within the New York literary scene. Although he managed to outfox most of his white editors because of his pale complexion, he never managed to convince the black community, who denounced him as a charlatan and a coward for running away from his social and “racial” roots. Johnson, by denying Suarez’s racist act, didn’t go as far as pretending to be white. But as with Broyard, many in the Black community see him as having defended the ruling white’s superiority -deserting his own cultural and social roots in the process.

Yet by attacking Johnson, the black community paradoxically separate themselves from the white community and marginalise those of their own who wish to be assimilated within it. They therefore perpetuate racism by adopting the same superior position that they reject in normative white culture and frowning upon any inter-racial solidarity. In an attempt for self-definition the black community drives away any possibility of complete racial cohesion.

In many ways the Suarez case has demonstrated the more insidious nature of our modern racism, which unlike the physical segregation and outspoken attacks of the past, is coated with a feel good rhetoric of racial deconstruction and integration.  Moreover it presents us with a paradox in which the caustic reactions of the press and the FA, intimate a sense of social cohesion and a quelling of racial tensions, when in reality they simply re-inscribe the extant racial tensions in a more insidious manner. Segregation and racial wariness still exist; it is simply that they are now expressed in anodyne sentences. Evra, an example of how Britain is not racist, is at the same time symbolic of a marginalised minority. And Johnson, in an attempt to quell racial tensions is marginalised and labelled as a betrayer of his own heritage.  The face of racism may have matured with the progression of time, but its youthful thoughts remain very much the same.

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