It's been the most exciting English Premiership season for years, but the game has been marred by two racial incidents. Patrick Barclay shows how football can move on...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
If only, if only. Just look at football. Seldom since the darkest days of hooliganism, when bones were broken and lives lost, has the world’s favourite game endured such trauma as during this otherwise refreshing English season. Twice the spectre of racism has visited an environment hitherto regarded as a model of ethnic blindness.
Two little words: “black”, allegedly prefixing an anatomical insult aimed at the QPR defender Anton Ferdinand by John Terry, the Chelsea and (then) England captain, whose version of the incident will be heard in court in July; and “negro”, lobbed by the Liverpool star Luis Suárez at the Manchester United elder Patrice Evra (both pictured above). Two words? This, at least, was the contention of Suárez, who cited affectionate usage in his native Uruguay. The Football Association, unconvinced, suspended him for eight matches.
The incidents occurred within weeks of each other. Suddenly football, which had seemed to rival rock music in contributing to the silent revolution that is Britain today, had catapulted us back to the society that needed a Race Relations Act to outlaw discrimination and abuse. Social media spat poison and the targets included Stan Collymore, a footballer whose ability might have brought him more than three England caps but for a personality affected by depression, and who now broadcasts copiously; to Stan, a pause is more of an opportunity to tweet.
It was Stan who hardened my suspicion of the way “black” is used. He rang me shortly after Barack Obama’s election, to complain that the new occupant of the White House was constantly being described as the first black president when he was, in fact, of “mixed race”. The same was true of the young sportsman who once looked capable of establishing dominance over all other exponents of the middle-class activity of golf: Tiger Woods.
Collymore is of mixed race; his father was from the Caribbean, and he was brought up by a white mother in Staffordshire. Many English footballers are of mixed race, including some 20% of those who have made debuts for England since the turn of the millennium. They already outnumber Afro-Caribbeans on the field and, to judge from trends in society generally, may become as prevalent as whites within a few decades.
Alan Hansen and another broadcaster got into trouble by reaching for the taboo word “coloured”, whose association with South Africa’s shameful apartheid era may have conspired in the Twitter storms that followed. Yes, they erred in terms of taste. But, semantically speaking, they were more accurate and respectful than the many commentators (me included) who have tended lazily to lump together all non-whites as “black”.
About 15 years ago, I asked a friend, a journalist whose parents were a black American and a white woman from Sheffield, why she spoke of herself as black. “Because that is how society sees me,” she replied. As European society evolves from overwhelmingly white to increasingly pluralistic, that view has surely been overtaken by Stan Collymore’s attitude, or that of Ashley Cole, the Chelsea and England defender, who, while denying that he is insulted by the description “black”, gently remarks that he was brought up in “a predominantly white home environment”.
I believe continued misuse of the word “black” can no longer be justified in football or any other sphere. As at least one of the game’s tawdry episodes tends to emphasise, crude categorisation has become little more than a magnifying glass for grievance.
Twitter storms, it is true, should lead us into other debates, including the one about whether some media distort unacceptably. Most of us go through our daily lives without ever giving or taking racist abuse and there is no sign yet of an increase in tension caused by the incidents on the field. But false labelling has always been an enemy of clear thought and, as Britain ponders what it is to become and whether we need a test of citizenship, it is time to get real.
“Black” is an imprecise word in most cases. “White” can mean anything from pink to olive. “Mixed-race”, though more accurate, is cumbersome. Why don’t we give them all a rest?
Patrick Barclay is the football columnist on the London Evening Standard, and the author of a biography of Sir Alex Ferguson, "Football—Bloody Hell!"
Picture credit: AP