I suspect I’m about to get a fair number of people upset and annoyed with me here but I think that the recent storm that has been kicked up by Sepp Blatter is somewhat misrepresenting what he tried to say and smells distinctly to me like a lynching job. The opinion of almost every voice on this matter seems to say that Blatter is, at best, woefully ignorant of the issues of discrimination and, at worst, clearly racist himself by suggesting that racist comments on the pitch should be dealt with by a handshake at the end of the match and then forgotten about. I can understand the uproar and, considering he is in the public limelight, it probably wasn’t the wisest of things to say, but I have to say I don’t agree with the attitude of the media.
Now don’t get me wrong – before I get tarred with the same brush people are delighting to paint him with – I don’t condone racism in any form be it verbal or non-verbal. Nor do I think that any kind of abuse (of women, children, age related or whatever) or discrimination in any form is acceptable. I grew up in an English town in the 80s where the National Front had terrible control and saw, firsthand, the pain and suffering which victims of racism could receive. I will never forget seeing an Asian man’s stall smashed to pieces by rampaging skinheads as he himself fled out of the side door, running (literally) for his life.
Likewise, whilst living in Bangladesh, we’ve known what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism. The downside of learning more and more Bangla is that you get to understand an increasing amount of the things that are said about you as you go into the markets and the rail stations. Of course, the majority of Bangladeshis are appalled by this and the ones I know are often apologetic on behalf of those they have called “uneducated and rude beyond belief”.
So, I have no reason to defend Blatter (especially as what I know about sport you can write on the back of a postcard !) except for an incident I was told about many years ago as a young(er) teacher.
OFSTED, the much loathed group, which assesses schools and can make or break their reputation, had come into a particular school. A certain lesson had taken place and all had gone well. The teacher had done well, the class was good; lesson objectives had been met. But instead of the praise this teacher had expected, they were marched by the inspector to the Head of the school who was ‘ordered’ effectively, to suspend both the teacher from working and a student from the class.
In the hearing of the inspector, this student had used a racist slur against a black kid in the class. The teacher had done nothing about it and this was deemed an instant “FAIL”. The inspector felt disciplinary measures were needed against the teacher and that the boy guilty of the slur needed to be brought to attention. So far, this would be reasonable action in a British school in a culture which is desperately trying to root out racist tendencies.
But what the inspector failed to accept – despite the teacher’s protests – was that it was known that these two boys were the best of friends and that what the inspector had heard was private banter. Indeed, the black kid was known to make similar remarks to his white friend which were equally racist and equally taken in good humour. This was no abusive relationship; there was no victim here. At most, a slap on the wrists for the boys and making them aware of the danger of such language being heard was needed – but not suspension for one of them and certainly not the damage of a teacher’s career.
Whilst I can’t tolerate any form of prejudice, I have observed that what seems abusive to some is not necessarily abusive to others. I worked with a Roman Catholic colleague for eight years and we had the best of working relationships and the best of respect for one another. Yet he would mock my Protestant background and I would throw insults at him related to his Catholicism such that if anyone had reported us or if it had been written down the things we said then either of us could have been in very serious trouble. In reality we laughed ourselves silly with such banter. Neither felt hurt, humiliated, dishonoured or anything else. We were typical British men who acknowledged our friendship with words which sounded the very opposite.
Similarly, my first job in Leicester was working in a garage putting radios and speakers into cars. All young men but some white and some Asian, we worked closely and we worked long hard hours, six days a week. Whilst tempers sometimes frayed, most of that time was spent in pretty typical testosterone-fuelled working class banter. The words that came out turned the air blue and were incredibly racist – in both directions – but not one person was abused. I didn’t use swearwords or racist remarks as a young, impressionable teenager who was still wet behind the ears but the result was that I never quite bonded so closely as the others. I didn’t speak ‘their language’.
Again, let me reiterate that abuse is abuse when it is felt or intended and should be stamped out without a doubt. But I’ve seen Asian friends abused in the UK by their employers without a single racist remark being uttered – they were too clever for that. It was obvious to all though, that the problem was racial. Where racism occurs on the pitch in intent, then it must be dealt with by the authorities. But I think that Blatter was attempting to say that much of what is being reported as racist is actually just competitive banter and the “handshake at the end of the match” is an indication of just this.
I spoke to a number of white friends about this before I wrote this and I found it fascinating that most were not willing to even contemplate this. “Racism is racism” was the general response “you can’t accept any racist words no matter what the true situation is.” Whilst this comes from the best of intentions, I think it reveals limited understanding of both how people relate to one another and how prejudice spreads. Stamping out the words does not stamp out an attitude. In fact it often makes things worse.
We live in a kind of legal action culture these days in the west as a result of the continuing Big Brother style Nanny state – a monster created by ourselves. We are constantly on the lookout for what others have done wrong and defending our jobs and decisions from the criticisms of others. We turn issues into rules that must fit everyone. We don’t even look to see what the truth of the matter is – are the boys friends? Do the colleagues clearly respect each other? Did the player believe he was genuinely abused? Instead it all has to be reported, written up and inquests begun. Action must be seen to be taken if none is warranted. Day by day what is seen as abusive increases and I fear a time will come when we can’t say anything without a lawyer being present. The most awful thing about all of this is that racism, true racism, won’t go away with this approach. It will merely go underground and become hidden making it much harder to root out and making the lives of many – of all skin tones – much, much harder.