“Anything can happen tonight. Possibility One, 12 Years A Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility Two, you’re all racist. Now please welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway”
Ellen DeGeneres’s opening salvo at Sunday night’s Academy Awards was greeted with the rapturous laughter us gracious self-deprecating whiteys can now openly enjoy for such references without worrying it’ll end up as a snapshot on an unflattering meme or affect our chances of being bezzy mates with Idris Elba. This is because, as we all know, racism is over now.
Obviously minor, individual incidents still occur, somewhere on the outskirts of Newslandstan, but the true First World institutional variety was chased out of our collective mind town somewhere between Crash winning Best Picture in 2004 and the election of Barack Obama. Around the time Doctor Who got a mixed race assistant, though no one can be exactly sure.
In a moving eulogy for racism, Chris Rock absolved everyone who’d ever appropriated his ‘Black People vs’. bit in the wrong context, Omar Sharif agreed that he’d probably looked “just about white enough” and Sir Ben ‘Krishna Bhanji’ Kingsley declared it was finally alright to feel annoyed by people still banging on about it, saying “it’s really labouring the point a bit now, isn’t it?” The guy who played Sanjay in Eastenders and the remaining members of Funkadelic led everyone in a stirring rendition of Bon Jovi’s ‘Blood on Blood’ and a new era of racial harmony was ushered in astride a blank slate whilst the millstone of contextual baggage was smashed to bits with a Railroad spike hammer. Hooray!
This is all of course, complete bollocks, but it’s hard to feel similar things haven’t played out in the minds of some, such is the often affronted and consistently antagonistic way many people on social media and beyond react to news of race politics.
In football this relationship is an odd and strained one. We know the sport’s past has been steeped in intolerance. We know that racist chanting and vociferous abuse hasn’t been eradicated from the terraces. We know that such incidents on the pitch are no thing of the past either, and that cases involving debatably the league’s best player and undebatably it’s National Team captain are still fresh in the memory (the latter a situation that concluded with a mixed race player being dropped from the Euro squad to accommodate team harmony.) We know the kind of thing many players are subjected to on social media. We know that football exits in a social time warp behind the rest of modern culture. We know that the FA appointed task force saddled with solving the problem of England’s perpetual uselessness was picked from the surviving cast of Last of The Summer Wine. We know all this, and yet whenever a player raises the idea that institutional racism may have played a role, however small in holding them back it is often quickly dismissed, with ad hom reasoning. Perceived as an unreasonable unsubstantiated accusation at best, excuse mongering attention seeking at worst.
Sol Campbell is the latest, and while his assertion that skin colour prevented him from a 10 year tenure as England captain seems unlikely, the reaction to it has been all too predictable in it’s lack of scope or sensitivity. Campbell is a hard man to like. He’s prickly, aloof and seems to carry a radioactive chip on his shoulder. He’s also a man who has unquestionably suffered a lot of abuse during his career, and succeeded in an environment that may not have accepted him as readily as others.
While his suitability over Alan Shearer, David Beckham and John Terry to lead a team of underachievers to a succession of crushing disappointments may only seem evident to a party of one, it’s hard to argue he’s entirely deluded when even the former Chairman of the FA, Lord Triesman has partially agreed with him. It’s also easy to forget how controversial a choice Beckham was in late-2000, whilst Campbell was in his prime. Still pre-gilded and a year from Grecian hero, his most recent notoriety was as the raiser of an infamous middle finger to his own antagonistic fan base after a Euros defeat to Portugal. If such a stalwart bore as Campbell could be overlooked for such a divisive figure as Becks, then perhaps there’s an inkling of a spec of a feather light touch more to it than simply bitter attention seeking? At least legitimately in the mind of Campbell.
Perhaps. Who knows? The plausibility of it isn’t the real issue. Type Sol Campbell into Twitter and you’ll know what is. The same type of passive aggressive dismissal of an important subject that’s all too common when a black player raises such an opinion without a novella sized dossier or sprawling police procedural evidence tree to back them up. John Barnes, Paul Ince and Jason Roberts have all come in for the same kind of pithy affronted disinterest for voicing concerns about life within football for non-white players.
It’s the same attitude that greeted the news of a once mooted potential Black PFA, or any appearance of The Society of Black Lawyers, who seem to exist solely to act as a magnet for the kind of people who think minority advocacy organisations are racist (because God knows Law isn’t an overwhelmingly white and privileged profession where those not befitting the status-quo might do well to rally together.)
The problem here isn’t racism though. Far from it. If anything it’s a lack of understanding and a general ignorance of racism, and how it operates.
This is a white mans world, and those of us who’re lucky enough to belong to these twin clubs of privilege rarely get to see just how ingrained it is, or how it can manifest itself pervasively. Because of this, we can get oddly touchy at even the mere implication it does. This happens a lot with sexism too, another area both football and social media have serious problems with.
It’s most jarring consequence is the belief that accusations like Campbell’s are damaging to the cause, sometimes more than actual racism. That they’re the problem, and genuine prejudice will go unchecked if there’s too much “crying wolf”, a scenario that could only be true if the main objective in speaking out was to seek sympathy from such people. That Campbell’s perceived injustice will only be curtailed by convincing them, and his failure to do so will render other, more significant and completely different examples of prejudice dead to their favour. Which is frankly farcical, and weird, and entitled. And yet it’s very popular.
However much we like to think football is winning it’s fight with racism, and that outbursts like this simply boil down to Ince and Barnes being terrible managers (they were) and Campbell being a difficult player (he was) there is still a reason why they remain amongst the only high profile people in the position to make such statements. There are unquestionably still far too few home-grown black players who’ve attained captaincy or gone into management, coaching or the media compared to their white peers. There’s a reason for this. Just as there’s a reason why more than just a few felt the need to at least discuss a Black PFA in the first place. Even if the reason is less outright prejudice, and more the perceived feeling that this environment isn’t comfortable, it’s still a problem we outside of football don’t fully understand. Those of us who’ve never experienced prejudice because of the colour of our skin doubly so.
So rather than act annoyed, or dismissive, or pithy to things we know little about, we should be receptive to what is clearly a wider issue and its consequences. Otherwise we risk losing a wealth of potential English captains, coaches, managers and pundits, who can all fail just as spectacularly, and be just as analytically insipid if only given the the chance.