or, Musings on the Racism “Revival” Pt.1

Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt calms Oldham’s Tom Adeyemi after he received racist abuse.

Before we get going, it’s been a while since TE last posted any trademark “wit”, so I’d like to belatedly say:

“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all you lot who read and contributed to the blog in 2011. Here’s to a good 2012!”

Unfortunately, 2012 has started as 2011 ended, with altogether too many football headlines concerning the thorny issue of racism. Luis Suárez and Patrice Evra, John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, Alan Hansen and people who like to get in arguments on YouTube. That last one was actually just an utterly forgivable lack of PC savvy, but the subsequent Tom Adeyemi incident put genuine abuse back in the spotlight again. The problem keeps cropping up with the regularity of Hearts squad members going unpaid. As Twittersphere news developed that Anton Ferdinand had received a bullet in the post last Friday, the Trending link for “Anton Ferdinand” yielded a relevant question posed on the 21st of January.

One Chelsea teenager, a self-professed lover of little more than her boyfriend, her cider, and her club, Tweeted:

We sing “Anton Ferdinand, you know what you are.” Norwich sing “John Terry, you know what you are.” What’s the difference?

Well, to paraphrase the iconic civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, one chant is based on the colour of the player’s skin and the other on the (alleged) content of a player’s character. I think you’ll agree that this is as simple and poignant a distinction as I can make. One is racist, the other is not.

So to business: “When Is A Racist Not A Racist?”. This title echoes the clean – and frankly terrible – joke, “When is a door not a door?”. Obviously a racist can’t be “ajar”, but the underlying mechanism of the joke is based on semantics, and that topic that will crop up in the coming blog about as often as the word “madcap” does to describe Mario Balotelli (seriously, Google it).

Semantics were behind the Suárez-Evra issue that was “resolved” by the FA a month ago. Following the Suárez allegation, Merseyside was suddenly bursting with linguistics experts, eager to correct the broader public on the Spanish dictionary definition of “negrito”. The arguments were roughly three-pronged:

DEFENCE 1 : “Negrito isn’t an insult, it means little black man”.
DEFENCE 2: “Suárez isn’t a racist”.
DEFENCE 3: “He’s South American and doesn’t understand European racism”.

Exhibit A: Boxing Day 2011. A woman walks along a Leith street at night. She is wearing a hijab. Two “gentlemen” approach from the other direction, their flushed features and loose gaits suggesting alcohol has been a large part of their day’s diet. The path is narrow where they pass the woman, and the shorter of the two men leans his face into the woman’s, leering, and says “Merry Christmas!” through nearly-gritted teeth. The woman shrinks into the wall as she passes, and the two men laugh as they go swaggering off up the street.
Exhibit B: Tesco Stores Ltd v Wilson, January 2000.
Tesco security guard files report on Rastafarian cleaner, saying that “you lot think you can get away with anything”, after the cleaner refused to agree to an unnecessary search of his car. Judge finds that “you lot” was “certainly intended to refer to race” and awarded damages according to Race Relations Act of 1976.
There we have it: racial abuse in the words “Merry Christmas”, and also the phrase “you lot”. Yet earlier on, when I said “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all you lot who have read and contributed to the blog in 2011”, neither word pairing was likely to cause any offence whatsoever (unless you hate inelegant phrases like “you lot” on principle).

The fact of the matter is that every communication act require two participants, an utterer and a receiver. Whatever is being said must be understood and contextualised (semantics again). The context can be anything from formality of conversation, to familiarity with the speaker, to the surrounding words, or even non-verbal communication cues (body language). Liverpool fans may self-identify as “Scousers”, but if someone else calls them an “effing Scouse c***” (Ed: that’s “clod”), it is clear that the word “Scouse” is being used as a term of abuse, and they should rightly be offended.
The two “gentlemen” who wished Merry Christmas to a woman in a hijab were doing so precisely because she didn’t celebrate Christmas. They understood it, she understood it, and further down the street I understood it too. Intimidation through Othering. Also one of the subtlest forms of abuse because it deployed no specifically racist language. Compared to this level of “subtlety”, Suárez using the term “negrito” against an opponent in a needle match looks like outright abuse – which funnily enough is what the FA tribunal decided. This was compounded when some particularly charming Liverpool supporters used the same term to heap horrible personal abuse upon both Evra and Stan Collymore, the ex-Liverpool star who had dared to defend Evra on Twitter. For those of you who don’t quite get it yet, here’s the deal: if you use categorising language when talking to a stranger, you run the risk of coming across as at worst a bigot, and at the least as insensitive to cultural variance. Fortunately, TE is here to clear up any confusion.


When considering use of a term that may or may not be offensive, pipe down and consider the following scenarios:

1. THE NEW BOSS TEST: if you wouldn’t use that term to describe a new boss who is of that background, then it probably isn’t suitable chat.
2. THE KNIFE-WIELDING MAN TEST: same idea, just substitute “a new boss” for “an angry-looking man fingering a large knife” in the above sentence.

Bruce Willis calmly reconsidered the cracks about the nice man’s ancestry and haircut.

The thing is, some words aren’t supposed to be used in polite society. Use them with your friends if you like, but keep it to yourself in public. If you genuinely can’t tell what would be inappropriate in either situation, then frankly you’re beyond help. Enjoy screaming expletives at your television set, which was more than likely paid for by hard-working people of all the races and backgrounds that make up “Britain”. Oh, and please feel free to stay indoors with your toxic opinions.

Consider this quotation from the epigram of Bret Easton Ellis’ amazing American Psycho:

‘One of the major mistakes people make is that they think manners are only the expression of happy ideas. There’s a whole range of behaviour that can be expressed in a mannerly way. That’s what civilization is all about – doing it in a mannerly and not an antagonistic way. One of the places we went wrong was the naturalistic Rousseauean movement of the sixties in which people said, “Why can’t you just say what’s on your mind?” In civilization there have to be some restraints. If we followed every impulse, we’d be killing one another.’
– Miss Manners (Judith Martin)

That’s the crux of it: manners and politically correct language are the oil that ease the gears of social interaction. Without them, everything could break down. Now, some of you will be starting to wonder where I’m going with this “keep it indoors” and “keep it civil” business, instead of taking the standard stance of “racism is a terrible thing”. I’ll explain that too.

Next time…