Kick anti-racism out of football

With overt racism a thing of the past, we should show Herman Ouseley and his racial etiquette police the red card.

Duleep Allirajah

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At what point, I wonder, does Kick it Out decide that its job is done and puts its placard and banners ‘beyond use’? I pose the question because Lord Herman Ouseley, who chairs the campaigning group, has twice this week issued the Kick it Out equivalent of a yellow card for racial incidents: to Carlton Cole’s tweet about Ghanaian fans at the recent England friendly and to Spurs fans for alleged racist taunting of Emmanuel Adebayor. Is this proof that racism is alive and kicking in football? I don’t think so. Rather it’s further evidence of the extent to which the censorious Mind Your Language culture has pervaded football.

In the 1970s and 1980s, English football was blighted by overt and vicious racism. Fans taunted black players with monkey grunts and pelted them with bananas. Stereotypical prejudices about black players and their lack of mental toughness abounded. But, gradually, as black people became more integrated into public life and black footballers excelled themselves on the pitch, the racist chants died out and the racial stereotypes were debunked. However, even though the worst expressions of terrace racism have virtually disappeared in this country, anti-racist campaigners have found a new role for themselves as self-appointed referees of racial etiquette.

It’s worth looking at both controversies in turn to see how relatively trivial incidents have been racialised and inflated. This week, the FA charged Carlton Cole with improper conduct for an inappropriate jibe about Ghana fans during the recent friendly at Wembley. The West Ham striker tweeted: ‘Immigration has surrounded the Wembley premises! I knew it was a trap! Hahahaha. The only way to get out safely is to wear an England jersey and paint your face w/ the St. George’s flag!’

If Cole is guilty of anything, it’s the crime of laughing at his own unfunny joke. But, as racial slurs go, it’s pretty innocuous. Cole insisted that his comments were intended in jest. However Lord Ouseley failed to see the funny side. ‘What can seem like harmless comments can be deemed offensive by others and lead to unwittingly reinforcing negative stereotyping, including racist ones’, said the Kick it Out chairman. ‘We will work with all our partners to ensure that education on what is and isn’t unacceptable behaviour is ongoing.’

Lord Ouseley was called into action again after Real Madrid’s on-loan striker Emmanuel Adebayor accused Spurs fans of racist chanting during the Champions League quarter-final match in Madrid. The offending chant contains the words: ‘Your dad washes elephants and your mum’s a whore.’ It’s the washing elephants bit that Adebayor didn’t like (well probably the whore bit, too). ‘Big players better than me have tried to stop that, but it’s not easy at all’, said the Togo striker. ‘Racist? We have done everything we can to show the red card to racism. But people are still into it, that’s part of life.’

Tottenham, however, denied that the chant was racist. A spokesman for the club said: ‘The chant referred to has been previously discussed with the Crown Prosecution Service, who do not consider it racist.’ Lord Ouseley acknowledged that the chant wasn’t overtly racist, but said ‘it is abusive and it has racial undertones to it’. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live he said: ‘If you asked Spurs’ black players if it was something they would find inoffensive if it was sung about them, I think you wouldn’t find a different result….No-one is saying this song is overtly racist. But, clearly it is offensive and it’s about setting standards.’

What are we to make of all this? The Adebayor chant is undeniably offensive as many terrace chants are. But what’s the difference between a racist chant and one with racial undertones? And, more importantly, who decides? Kick it Out evidently sees itself as a football version of the British Board of Film Classification (aka the film censors), deciding whether a chant is racist and to what degree. Judging that the Adebayor chant has racial undertones is a bit like giving a film a PG rating. It’s not X-rated adult racism, just racially insensitive and therefore parental guidance is required.

If we look at the Carlton Cole tweet controversy, the significant thing about Ouseley’s statement is that he doesn’t explicitly accuse Cole of racism but of ‘unwittingly reinforcing’ racial stereotypes. The term ‘unwitting racism’ gained currency with the publication in 1999 of the Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. It meant that people could be racist without even realising it, through ignorance or insensitivity. Macpherson marked a key shift in the redefinition of racism from a social issue of unequal power to a question of inappropriate or insensitive conduct. The democratic aspiration to equal treatment is supplanted by an authoritarian demand for cultural sensitivity. Fighting for social change is replaced by undertaking lessons in how to observe the arcane rules of correct racial etiquette.

Frankly, I think Herman Ouseley & Co are inventing problems that don’t exist. Racist chanting in English football is virtually non-existent. Black players are very rarely subjected to booing. Football grounds are no longer hostile places for black and Asian fans to visit. It begs the question: Do we even need a campaign against racism in football? The answer, in my opinion, is ‘no’. It’s about time we gave Kick it Out and their patronising sermons on cultural sensitivity the boot.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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