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On the ongoing problem of racism in football

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Unfortunately, this is still a topic we have to talk about. Here’s my personal take on it.

Juventus v Empoli - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

We all know about the terrible incident that occurred on April 2 at the Sardegna Arena. The young Italian striker Moise Kean was subjected to racist abuse from the Cagliari fans and the reactions from the players and coach were, well, not ideal.

As a result, Danny asked me to write a piece on what I think about the fact that racism still happens in a sport I love so dearly, from the perspective of a 26-year-old black male who has followed the game for a decade and a half. Well, here I am!

Before I start, I have to confess something. I avoid talking about racism in football — and society in general — like the plague because it is a powder-keg subject. It’s such a controversial topic that, in my experience, it almost always results in heated and nasty debate.

I’ll admit, I’m very cowardly in this respect. I look for any potential cop-out that will allow me to not talk about this issue and avoid the inevitable shit storm that will ensue from such a discussion. As a result, I didn’t really know what to do for this post.

Where do I run to now? Do I have anything useful to say given that I’ve never experienced racism personally? Do I preach about how terrible racism is? You obviously know that already, so I would be preaching to the choir if I did that. So what is there to say? What is my message?

As a result of this internal conflict, the structure of this post is going to be a little different from that of my typical content. Specifically, it’s going to be a bit more of a “stream-of-consciousness” type of post than usual, in which I’m not entirely sure what my eventual point or message will be. Nevertheless, I hope it will be useful to you.

Let’s begin.

Pace, Power, and Insecurity

Last summer, during the World Cup in Russia, I read an article that resonated with me powerfully and accurately described my personal experience with racism in football. In his excellent article “Senegal are more than their ‘pace and power,” Zito Madu discussed how subconscious forms of racism occur in football through the language that pundits and writers use to describe black players and many African teams.

These players and teams are always stereotyped as having incredible “pace and power” and are almost exclusively described through the lens of “physicality, raw talent, tactical naivety, disorganization, swagger.” Madu sums it up perfectly in the following excerpt:

“Before Senegal had even kicked the ball, they were being described not by their skill, creativity, or their decision making, but with the standard words you hear about African teams: Pace, power, physicality, raw talent, tactical naivety, disorganization, swagger, and all the other terms that are part of the same old language that pretends to compliment black players by reducing them to their physical bodies and derides them for not mentally understanding the game. It’s the historical idea of the black man as a senseless brute, repackaged in sporting language.” — Source

And then here:

“If you take away the words “pace” and “power” from writers and commentators, they would be utterly lost trying to describe black players.” — Source

As I said, I’m a young black male and played football for roughly a decade for my local club when I lived in the Netherlands. I’ve never had — and probably never will — a big, bulky, and imposing physique. I have a pretty slight build and was extremely lightweight for most of my life. Somewhat ironically though, my greatest asset is/was my pace.

But I don’t think I realize how much I subconsciously struggled with this stereotyping of black players until I became older. I think that I secretly felt that since the pundits always talked about the pace, power, and physicality of black players, that I should also be like that. I wasn’t though — not at all — and it made me feel inferior, both as a player and as a human being. Why was I not as strong and imposing as people said black players should be?

This insecurity was exacerbated by the fact that I grew up in an almost exclusively white society and, therefore, was almost always the only black player on the pitch. This caused a very conscious internal struggle because I often battled with the thought “Oh God, what if I fail? They’ll think all black players are bad, since this is the only black player they’ll likely ever play with and/or see on the pitch.” It was like a twisted, racial version of the spotlight effect.

Since I was almost always the only black player on the pitch then, I knew I couldn’t screw up. I had to be strong, I had to be great, I had to show no weakness because I, perhaps erroneously, felt that I represented the image of black football players.

“To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people.” — César Luis Menotti

Emotional Exhaustion

I’ve been fortunate enough never to have been the victim of any form of racism in my life. Sure, there are always the slightly off-color jokes, but given that I laugh at jokes from the likes of Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, I clearly don’t mind some slightly risqué humor.

Like I said before, though, I’m scared of talking about racism, both in football and society. I think one of the reasons for this is because, emotionally speaking, I’m absolutely exhausted of the topic.

I remember reading a ‘Humans of New York’ post on Facebook a few years ago in which a young Ghanaian man explained why he moved back to Ghana from the United States with his wife and son. I don’t remember it verbatim, but I remember that his main point was that he moved back because he wanted his son to grow up in a place where he wouldn’t have to explain the color of his skin.

I never expected that post to stay in my memory as vividly as it has all for these years. It did, though. It really, really did. Although I have no desire to have children in the future, I’m at the phase of my life where I’m thinking about where and how I want to spend my long-term future. And when I do this, I always think about that story of the Ghanaian man and his family.

His story had a big impact on me because as I’ve grown older, I really understand why he made that choice. I realized that I too would like to settle down in a place where I don’t have to constantly think about the color of my skin or about the fact that I’m the only black player on the pitch (or in the room). I don’t want to devote so much of my emotional bandwidth to worrying about how and why life for people with my skin color is different and having to participate in the emotional warfare that frequently results from this discussion.

You have to understand that it’s really not a fear of or concern about being the victim of racist abuse. It’s more the emotional exhaustion from having to constantly debate and explain the social implications of having a different skin color.

It’s so, so, so exhausting.

Reality

I always say that football is a microcosm of society. It shows the best and most beautiful sides of society, and its darkest and most shameful sides. The fact that racism still occurs in football reminds me that even though I use football as a way to escape from reality, it is, and always will be, very much a part of reality.

And no matter how hard I try, I can’t hide from reality.

I was afraid for all of my life, right up until the day I knew my life was ending. That was when I realized that as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place you can get a decent meal.

Because reality... is real.

— James Halliday from the movie Ready Player One