or, Musings on the Racism “Revival” Pt.2
In case anyone thinks that bringing up the Suárez incident is passé, consider this picture that was Tweeted by head of the Homeless World Cup, Gareth Parker, from the 6th February game between Liverpool and Tottenham:
My sentiments exactly. Mr Parker, incidentally, was subsequently called a “clueless c***” by a Liverpool fan because “Negrito is nothing racist in spanish”. *Sigh*
So clearly my point still needs to be made. By the end of Part One of this inquiry into the nature of racism, I proved that:
a) you can be racially abusive without using specifically racist terminology, and
b) avoiding potentially racist language was a damned good way of appearing not to be racist.
This has, I hope, gone some way to exploding the defence of Luis Suárez that “Negrito isn’t a racist term”. It doesn’t need to be, if the context of the usage is one where confrontation is involved. Harking back to my assessment of Moussa Démbélé’s red card against Wisla Krakow, a simple piece of elementary logic, it becomes similarly apparent that if Suárez doesn’t mention Evra’s race at all, the offence does not exist.
That incisive summary dispensed with, time to tackle the second prong of the defence that was offered:
ANSWERING DEFENCE 2: “SUÁREZ ISN’T A RACIST”.
Many have indeed been quick to back Suarez, not least of all Liverpool’s Jamaican legend John Barnes and current “mixed-race” team-mate Glen Johnson. “I’ll defend who I want,” said Johnson, in response to criticisms levelled at the Liverpool squad, who had worn “Suarez 07” shirts in a (misguided) show of solidarity with the beleaguered Uruguayan hit-man. This despite the fact that he has subsequently admitted using a race-based term (apparently “negro”, according to his tribunal), meaning he probably could have sorted the whole tawdry affair with one immediate apology. Johnson’s loyalty to his colleague was admirable, and demonstrates that solidarity cuts across racial and national lines on many occasions.
Which brings me to my next point. In psychology, there is a little phenomenon known as “In-Group Out-Group Bias”, whereby people will attribute positive characteristics to people that they see as “one of us” and a valuable individual, while writing off outsiders as “all the same”. Sociologist William Sumner provided the basis of the phenomenon in 1906:
“Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exists in its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders.”
In simple cases, it accounts for such social phenomenon as nationalism or ethnocentrism, but it throw up some interesting side-effects in more complex cases. For example, it accounts for the trench-mentality tribalism demonstrated by large tracts of Liverpool Football Club – not least their manager – and support, who presume to understand linguistics and racism better than anyone else in the UK, all the while inadvertently becoming apologists for racists everywhere. It also accounts for the well-known bigot’s excuse of “Some of my best friends are [x]!”, which anyone from a minority group will know only too well. There were people within my circle of school-friends who had never said a racist word in front of me during 6-10 years of friendship. With “in front of me” being the operative phrase. They wouldn’t use the words in front of me because “I was a mate” and they understood that it would be hurtful. However when I wasn’t there, they were free to write off everybody else with brown skin as whatever less-than-us category of “smelly” or “stupid” or “untrustworthy” that they felt appropriate. They only stopped when my other friends pointed out the inconsistency of their insults. However to them, I wasn’t a “darkie” or “One of Them”, I was their mate or “One of Us”. This logic is highly relevant. For Suárez, Johnson was “one of us [Liverpool players]”, and vice versa. However Evra was “one of them”, and theoretically open for abuse.
A friend of mine was nearly ejected from Hearts’ Tynecastle Stadium about 10 years ago. He ended up clocking someone in the row behind who had been heaping foul-mouthed racist abuse on Celtic’s Didier Agathe, in the presence of children, despite the fact that Hearts’ frontline was lead by the young Jamaican Ricardo Fuller, now of Stoke. The fan in question saw nothing wrong with abusing an opponent, while the terms of abuse would be equally repellent to his own front-man, and influential to any children in earshot. My friend objected several times, but the perpetrator persisted, until he received what we call in Edinburgh a “sair mooth“. Luckily for my friend, some public-minded (i.e. non-racist) citizens in the crowd set the intervening stewards straight on the situation, and the right man was removed.
Of course, this is not to say that Scottish football is in any way superior in these matters. It was only 24 years ago, on January 2nd 1988, that Rangers player Mark Walters was racially abused by fans on both sides of the Old Firm divide. The Celtic fans threw bananas and made monkey chants. The Rangers fans, in “defending” Walters from this racist behaviour, chanted “I’d rather be a darkie than a Tim“. Glasgow has suffered well-documented problems with religious discrimination, so racial abuse is only a small (goose-)step away. However it was Edinburgh, specifically Tynecastle where my own Hearts team play, that was “the worst place of all” according to Walters.
What Walters discovered from his own support is that we are all, to a person, guilty of categorising people. The world, especially the social one, is too vast and complex to navigate without the use of descriptive words. By an accident of cognition, we are forced to automatically associate certain terms with people: man, woman, black, white, straight, gay. This is unavoidable. This is also the source of stereotypes. The major problem comes when certain negative associations are inherent in the word.
“Darkie” was clearly not the appropriate choice for Rangers fans to use, because it is used entirely as a term of abuse. When Alan Hansen used the term “coloured“, he was merely using the old PC term; but indeed you can see first a grimacing Lee Dixon, then a faltering Hansen himself, realise that he has made a PC error. I genuinely believe he had no racist intent. The problem is that “coloured” implies that “white” is some kind of standard, which is why it was dispensed with as an acceptable term. Of course, as always the subsequent YouTube comments provide ready evidence that we are tilting steadily towards some polarised apocalypse. One commentator is offended by “coloured”, another commentator is offended by that offence, and the next moment racial slurs are flying (NB: this seems to happen in all YouTube posts except cat-based ones). Yet all Hansen was suggesting was that players suffer less racist abuse now than 25 years ago, but that there is still room for improvement. Hardly Mein Kampf material.
My point is, the difference between a racist and anyone else is that they use racially motivated language to cast aspersions about other ethnic backgrounds. People spent weeks claiming Suárez wasn’t racist because he played with multi-racial teammates who supported him, but that means nothing alongside all the “some-of-my-best-pals-are-racists” evidence, weighted above. To call a spade a spade, and correspondingly demonstrate a particularly American example of innocent language that is better avoided, if you use racist language with the intent of offending some target, then you are a racist.
I say again, Suárez need not have used the word “negrito” (or whatever he said) at all in a confrontation situation. I also say again, Hansen’s intent was a defence of racial Others. As everyone is inherently prejudiced, the only way we can say Suárez is not guilty of being a racist is to judge him by either his actions or his intent. Of course, intent is something that we are ultimately denied access to, so the whole second “Not A Racist” defence falls under the Scottish legal term “Not Proven” – that is, Not Guilty but Not Innocent (or “Not Guilty and Don’t Do It Again”). As Suarez admitted using the word without later apologising – remembering that he was similarly unapologetic for his “Hand of God” moment against Ghana in South Africa 2010 – his only possible defence can be that he doesn’t understand the existence of racism, his “third defence” in this long-winded series of articles. A defence which I will tackle with the relish that Karl Henry displays against Joey Barton, all in due course.
We all have the potential to make sweeping judgements about people of other backgrounds. The difference is whether you do it often, whether you genuinely mean what you say, and whether you do it to hurt people. We’ve all probably made an edgy joke at some time or another. The issue comes when you weren’t being ironic, or when someone was offended by it. As cross-dressing comic Eddie Izzard said, in a marvellous subversion of homophobes’ “I-just-don’t-wanna-see-it” view of gays:
“As long as they’re homophobic behind closed doors, and don’t hurt anyone, I’m fine with it.”
Well, that goes for all the racists too. When is a racist not a racist? When they didn’t mean to cause any offence, or when they keep their intent to themselves.