If Dave Whelan’s a racist, then I’m a Chinaman

The Wigan chairman’s only crime was to belong to a less PC generation.

Duleep Allirajah

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So now Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan is a racist, is he? Jesus wept. If he’s a racist then I’m a Chinaman. Oh wait, I probably can’t say that. Whelan’s only crime, as far I can see, is that he comes from a different generation, one that isn’t schooled in the hypersensitive racial etiquette that is steadily suffocating public life. Not that that has stopped the Football Association from charging him.

Whelan initially came under fire for appointing Malky Mackay manager of Wigan Athletic. Mackay had been considered damaged goods after it was revealed he’d exchanged inappropriate text messages with his former sporting director Iain Moody, when the two men were at Cardiff City. At the time, I defended Mackay’s right to send private text messages in which he expressed views he wouldn’t dream of airing publicly. Yes, the texts were puerile and unpleasant, but they belonged to a private exchange. It should be a core principle of a free society that citizens are at liberty to express inappropriate, obscene, bigoted or profane sentiments in private without fear of punishment or persecution. It’s not a difficult principle to understand, is it? Yet the shrill clamour to punish Mackay showed that our hard-won rights are in danger of being trampled all over by language cops who want us to fall in line with the illiberal ‘you can’t say that’ orthodoxy.

Whelan was always going to be slaughtered for hiring Mackay. However, to make matters worse, Whelan himself was accused of racism, and then charged by the Football Association, for a few clumsily expressed sentiments in a newspaper interview. When quizzed by the Guardian about Mackay’s alleged references to Chinese people as ‘chinks’, Whelan said: ‘If any Englishman said he has never called a Chinaman a chink he is lying. There is nothing bad about doing that. It is like calling the British Brits, or the Irish Paddies.’ The Wigan owner was also questioned about the offensive texts Mackay exchanged concerning Jewish football agent Phil Smith. His response was more ill-judged than malicious: ‘The Jews don’t like losing money. Nobody likes losing money. Do you think Jewish people chase money a little bit more than we do? I think they are very shrewd people. It’s telling the truth. Jewish people love money, English people love money; we all love money.’ It’s a good job Whelan wasn’t asked about gay snakes or else gay-rights campaigners – not to mention the snake lobby – would be up in arms.

Whelan’s words were unfortunate, but that doesn’t make him a racist. He’s a 77-year-old man who grew up in a different era and made his fortune in a sector – the retail trade – that hasn’t been completely infected by today’s stifling ‘mind your language’ culture. He simply isn’t familiar with the PC etiquette that has become the norm on university campuses and in the public sector. But here’s the thing. This wasn’t hate speech. Whelan clearly didn’t intend to insult Chinese or Jewish people. As soon as realised his faux pas, he had the good grace to apologise. ‘If anyone takes offence to what I’ve said, please accept my apologies’, he told Sky Sports. An apology seems to me to be a proportionate remedy in this situation. And that should have been the end of the matter. But the race inquisitors aren’t interested in intent or context. The Football Association has now charged Whelan over his comments. And, more damagingly, Wigan’s commercial partners – shirt-sponsor Premier Range and drinks-supplier Ipro Sport – have announced that they are severing their ties with the club.

There’s an element of life imitating art in this ludicrous shitstorm. Whelan’s protestations of innocence were pure Father Ted. ‘I’ve got loads of Chinese friends and I would never, ever insult the Chinese’, said the under-fire Wigan owner. It’s an uncanny echo of the episode in which Father Ted inadvertently insults a Chinese family and feels compelled to organise a celebration of cultural diversity to prove he’s no racist. (‘And best of all, the Chinese people themselves. Look at them there, aren’t they great? The Chinese: a great bunch of lads.’)

We can all have a good chuckle at the way Whelan has dug a bigger hole for himself by trying to defend Mackay’s appointment. But this is no laughing matter. It’s indicative of the putrid state of anti-racism, which has degenerated from a struggle for equal treatment into a purge of inappropriate language. There are parallels here with feminism. In a recent Guardian opinion piece, the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Julie Bindel, argued that feminism was ‘in danger of becoming toxic and repressive’. Bindel was particularly critical of contemporary feminism’s ‘call-out culture’. ‘Instead of attacking the root cause of women’s inequality, we’ve moved towards the vilification of individuals’, she observed.

Just as feminism is now preoccupied with sexist behaviour, anti-racists have shifted their focus from police harassment, deportation cases and immigration laws to the micro-regulation of individual conduct. That football has become the focus for language policing is ironic. Why? Because football is one of the few colour-blind professions. Black people are over-represented in the professional game – over a quarter of professional footballers are black and the Premier League is awash with overseas players. But anti-racists are no longer bothered about equal treatment. They’re preoccupied with observance of the correct racial etiquette, which only the initiated – who tend to be university-educated – really understand. Invariably it is working-class people, be it fans, players, managers or administrators, who tend to fall foul of these new behavioural codes.

There’s nothing remotely progressive about this snobbish demonisation of those who express verboten sentiments. It is utterly reactionary. By prohibiting the expression of racist sentiments rather than challenging them through open debate, the sphere of politics becomes ever more constricted. Frankly, I feel I have far more in common with an old codger like Dave Whelan, who maybe doesn’t know the niceties of racial etiquette, than I do with the self-righteous race inquisitors who are asphyxiating public life.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

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