One of the worst things about the abuse the black England players received, particularly Rashford, Sancho and Saka, was how inevitable it was that it would happen.
The truth is…racism in football has been growing for quite some time and, I’d argue, it feels worse now than at any other time since I’ve been going to football. Social media, clearly, doesn’t help.
As a West Brom fan, we like to pride ourselves on our history. We were the first major team to play black players and those three, Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham, the Three Degrees, would go to become a symbol of inclusiveness and equality for many of our fans.
As time has passed, I’ve found myself arguing online with more and more Albion fans that have shown opinions that those three players would have been appalled by. Rather than become a symbol of equality, acceptance of diversity, they’ve become a defence. A way out. “We can’t be racist, we’re West Brom fans…we had the Three Degrees.” It happens more and more.
Going to the Albion when I was growing up and all through uni etc, I never heard any of it. In fact, I used to love the fact that I’d see several black supporters and Asian supporters at the game. That should never be an issue. I often wonder if I just ignored it and it was always happening, but it was never obvious to me. Perhaps I was ignorant to it. But social media has made it impossible to hide from it. Impossible to ignore. And I find it sickening.
When players started taking the knee it sparked conversation between people about racism in football. Debate. And it highlighted so many opinions…from those that were obviously and outwardly racist all the way to those that fully supported it. The debates, the discussions, allowed for education. I listened to black voices. I tried to understand. And, while I never will fully understand (because I’ll never be a victim to racism), I have done as much as I can online to try to always call it out. It’s what I can do…but it’s not enough.
A while back, I saw a sponsored post on Facebook for Southgate’s new book. It had a lot of comments on the post. About 80% of them, if not more, were comments about taking the knee. None of them were good. All of them were from white middle aged (and older) men. I remember seeing it and thinking, ‘if Southgate gets this abuse for just supporting his black players, what sort of abuse are they receiving?’ And, we soon found out.
There are people that sit waiting to give that abuse. Waiting for their opportunity. How sad is that? And why? Why do they do it? It’s something I’ll never truly understand but I do think modern politics hasn’t helped.
I feel bad lumping Brexit voters in this but when Farage stood in front of a racist anti-immigration poster, he legitimised racism. He put the door ajar and invited those racists to sneak in. He gave them a voice and a platform. When Tommy Robinson got involved and supported it…Britain First…and they found supportive voices from Farage and others…it legitimised racism. It validated the opinions of those who don’t deserve to have their opinions heard. It’s a shame because, although I massively disagree with Brexit and the arguments for it, I know full well that not every person that voted for Brexit is racist. It was always the Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson types that allowed for that perception.
And, then, as a nation we decided we were OK with a PM that has likened Muslim women to letter boxes and bank robbers, called black people “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles”, suggested Islamophobia is a “natural reaction” and even ‘joked’ that Malaysian women went to university to find men to marry. When you have a leader that says these things out loud, you give validation to racists and more. You allow them a voice. They have power. Because, if the guy that runs the country says it, it must be OK, right? If Farage’s Brexit campaign left the door to racism ajar, Johnson kicked it wide open.
And even at the start of the Euros, when Boris Johnson and Priti Patel defended those booing the players taking the knee, they were effectively saying “it’s OK to not stand against racism.” The cheek to call it “gesture politics”, claim they don’t do that and then, as England reach the finals, they cover Downing Street in flags, use photo ops in England shirts and then, in a final act of hypocrisy, talk about how awful the abuse is. The abuse they, 4 weeks ago, defended.
None of this excuses personal responsibility, but it goes some way to explain why it’s so prevalent right now. Those hidden voices have been given an outlet from the highest place possible. Permission to do it. And it is disgraceful. It should be our nation’s shame.
But, instead of shame, I already see excuses and cop outs. Voices that say, “Just ignore them”, “it’s just the media trying to cause a divide again”, “it’s not even English fans” and so on. The start of brushing it under the carpet is upon us.
I have a decent following of Albion fans on twitter. One thing that I started doing is screenshotting and sharing and shaming the posts. Highlighting the racism that exists in our fanbase. Calling it out. I originally blanked out names but now I don’t. It’s their words, they should live with the consequence. I do it because it’s the least I can do and because it stops us from brushing it under the carpet. We cant ignore this. Black people deserve better. The BAME community deserve better. As a white person, it should be our responsibility as much as anyone’s to help, support, educate, listen, learn and call it out.
We should, and we can, be better than this.
That England team far exceeded expectation. Gareth Southgate has created a team, not a squad of individuals, and it’s one we can all be proud of. He leads by example and we now have a team of leaders. Rashford has done so much good over the past year, for example. The way the team have rallied in support of the black players. The way the team, despite the booing, continued to protest for equality by continuing to take the knee…something I am sure (and hope) they will continue to do for as long as necessary.
What should have been a time of pride in defeat has turned in to an embarrassment. This country’s shame.
Listen to black voices. Educate yourself. Continue to learn because we all still have more to learn, myself included. And don’t stand by and let these racist voices get away with it.
I look at my kids and I keep thinking about when I should take them to their first football match. I want to. But I worry about the world I am introducing them in to. Do I want Oscar and Imogen in that environment? Do I want them to hear those things? No. And I find it truly sad that something I enjoy, a favourite memory of going to the Albion with my Dad, is an experience that I’m hesitant to give my own kids because of other people.
And, if I feel that way, how do those black and Asian fans that I talked about earlier feel?
We have to be better. We must be better.