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Complicating the narrative: A different perspective on the PSG vs. Istanbul Basaksehir racism incident

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I know that this isn’t the typical Juve-related content, but I felt the need to share my views on the controversial events that happened in Paris on December 8.

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Paris Saint Germain v Istanbul Basaksehir - UEFA Champions League Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

Note: This story is being published so late because of the seemingly endless flurry of games that Juventus played over the past four weeks. We didn’t want this to get lost in the clutter, so we waited till the mini-break to launch it.

One of the best ways to risk a premature end to your journalistic career is to voluntarily write contrarian articles on highly controversial topics (like racism). Well, here I am, ladies and gents, doing just that. Specifically, I want to talk about the events that occurred on the evening of Dec. 8, 2020, during the game between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir in Group H of the Champions League.

I felt compelled to write an article about this not just because I’m black and this is an issue about racism — come on, did you really think that I was that simple-minded? — but because I’m really disappointed in the lack of nuance and constructive debate/conversation that occurred in the aftermath of this controversial incident. In case you missed it, here’s a detailed recap of everything that happened.

A few months ago, I read a fantastic article by the Solutions Journalism Network* (which I’ll come back to later in this piece) in which the author discussed the need for journalists to ask questions that “complicate the narrative.” I love that phrase and I try to use it in every area of my life. Hence, I hope that this article will do just that: complicate the narrative and add some depth and nuance to an incredibly difficult, thorny topic.

*I came across this article thanks to award-winning newsroom the Richland Source, which is the main newsroom in my city/county. The Source produce, in my opinion, some of the best and most sincere local news I’ve ever read, which is also why I’m a paying subscriber. Make sure to (financially) support your local media!

The cost of outrage politics? Nuance

In the aftermath of the incident, I found a very interesting comment thread started by our regular, Romanian contributor Antonio Munteanu. With permission, I’m reposting (lightly edited) what I found to be the most important part of his comment:

“We don’t have many POC [people of color] in Romania. We do have Europe’s largest gypsy community, but, not until recently at the least, we had virtually no contact with people of African descent.

To most of us, a person of color will always stand out and I don’t mean it in the slightest racist form. We simply haven’t been educated that identifying a man by the color of his skin is racism. I apologize to everyone that felt insulted, but I also feel sorry for my fellow Romanian who had no clue he was being racist.”

I think that this is such an important comment because it highlights exactly what we lose/give up when we let outrage blind our judgment: nuance. We’ve all been so busy crucifying the fourth official Sebastian Coltescu for the racist comments that he made during the game, but amidst all that how many people have actually bothered to talk to him to ask him for his perspective?

How many have actually bothered having a conversation with him (besides Ousmane N’Doye in this telephone call he facilitated)? If more people had done so, we might have learned that, as Antonio points out, there aren’t many people of color in Romania, so Coltescu would likely have grown up in an environment where (objectively?) describing a person by his skin color was not a big deal. OK, now we’ve learned something that shows us that Coltescu might not have meant any malice at all with his comments.

Or we might have learned that in Romanian (and most Latin-based languages), the word for “black” sounds a lot like the N-word in English, meaning that there’s a greater probability for things to get lost in translation (for comparison, imagine if the word “green” in English sounded very similar to the word c*nt, or m*****f**ker, or the N-word in Greek, and that you went to Greece and told Greek people how green the landscape was or something like that). OK, now we learn that there are linguistic nuances between languages that can get lost if we assume that everyone’s language-of-choice is English.

Paris Saint Germain v Istanbul Basaksehir - UEFA Champions League Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

Just for the record, do I think that what Sebastian Coltescu said was racist? Yes, probably. But I think it was more racist from the perspective of “Hey man, in that context, you probably shouldn’t describe people in that way because it can offend people, so please just be more careful with your use of words in the future” instead of “You racist, bigoted pig you don’t care about the rights of black people, do you?”

My point is that the cost of all this outrage without reasonable reflection is that we lose the opportunity to learn. And if we fail to learn, incidents like these will simply continue to happen.

Callout culture

I’m a huge fan of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, his excellent research, and, most of all, his fantastic books. While he has a lot of very astute points about the psychology of morality and moral emotions, it’s unfortunately too much to discuss here. Instead, I want to point out two of his most important arguments that are relevant to this discussion.

First, Haidt warns that in today’s environment of “callout culture,” people gain prestige by shaming other people for racial and socio-cultural intolerance (racism, bigotry, misogyny, etc.). You get “cool points” for calling someone out who said something allegedly racist, bigot, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and so on.

While this is generally good — contrary to popular belief, society is the most racially and socially tolerant that it has ever been — it has reached the point where “people go out of their way to find ways the things other people say could be construed as insensitive.”

Interestingly, he believes that a big reason for this is overprotective parenting, but you’ll have to read The Coddling of The American Mind for more on this. That said, I recommend starting with his book The Righteous Mind (his discussion of the moral foundations theory of politics is phenomenal) and then reading The Coddling of The American Mind.

Second, Haidt argues that we too often assume that someone is guilty-till-proven-innocent when it comes to allegations regarding racism (and other social justice issues). In other words, we don’t give people the benefit of a doubt anymore.

Why am I pointing this out? Because much of this happened in the aftermath of the PSG-Basaksehir incident. Everyone wanted to call Coltescu out for being racist — taking the default position that he was guilty before even allowing him to explain himself — while few gave him the benefit of a doubt (something that, if we had done so, might have resulted in a conversation in which we talked about the nuances mentioned earlier).

Questions to complicate the narrative

In closing, I leave you with a useful quote and some questions from the aforementioned Solutions Journalism article that I hope will help you further “complicate the narrative” in a constructive and respectful manner. I highlighted some of the most relevant questions for this discussion, but you can get a PDF file with all 22 questions here.

  • What is dividing us on this issue? What is oversimplified about this issue? Is there any part of the [other side’s] position that makes sense to you? What’s the question nobody is asking?
  • Why is this important to you? Which experiences have shaped your views? What do you want the other side to understand about you? What do you want to understand about the other side? How has this conflict affected your life? What would change in your life if more people agreed with your stance? What would it be like if people didn’t agree with your stance?
  • What do you think the other group thinks of you? What do you think the other group wants? What do you already know, and what do you want to understand, about the other side? Help me make sense of this. Because a lot of other people are saying “X” ... Is there anything about how the media portrays you or people with your views that feels inaccurate?

“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing more difficult than to understand him.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky