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The fight against prejudice involves all Sunderland fans: Racism

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Anton Ferdinand and Gary Bennett have both stood up to racism in football and wider society, but what can all Sunderland fans do to play their part in challenging discrimination?

Fulham v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

If you saw former Sunderland centre-back Anton Ferdinand’s documentary on racism in football on the BBC recently, you will have been shocked – but possibly unsurprised – to see how everyday racism in society is played out in the context of our beautiful game.

We saw close up how a white footballer in a position of power, accused of racism, was treated like a victim – and how the black man who was the target of that racial slur was subjected to abuse from the terraces, disbelief from the authorities and intense scrutiny from the press.

John Terry may have convinced a magistrate that there was some doubt that the slur in question was used criminally, but the evidence in front of our eyes suggests the real victim was Ferdinand. The measure of each man is their attitudes to meeting up almost a decade on from the incident in the question; Ferdinand offered the chance for conciliation, Terry never responded.

Now, I’m a white, straight, cis-gendered, university-educated, home-owning, salary-earning man. My native language – English – is universally spoken and understood even here in the mountainous heartlands of the Welsh language.

I work for a trade union that has equalities at its core, and I’m actively anti-racist and anti-fascist, but I must also recognise both my own conscious and unconscious prejudices and biases and the limits of my lived experience, particularly the way that I simply cannot understand what it is truly like to live your life as part of a disadvantaged minority group in society.

It is my privilege that I will never be referred to by the colour of my skin by anyone acting in a professional capacity at work, or in almost any other walk of life. A fourth official will certainly never shout at a referee, “the white one over there. Go and check who he is. The white one over there, it’s not possible to act like that” to differentiate me from others.

FBL-EUR-C1-PSG-BASAKSEHIR
Basaksehir assistant coach Pierre Webo, the former Cameroon international, was shown a red card during a fierce row on the touchline with staff from the Turkish club appearing to accuse the Romanian fourth official of using a racist term.
Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

Former Newcastle United player Demba Ba made this point very clearly during the recent abandoned Champions League fixture between PSG and Istanbul Basaksehir, following the apparent use of a racist term used by the fourth official towards the Turkish team’s Assistant Coach Pierre Webo.

He responded in no uncertain terms to the official in question by explaining “You never say ‘this white guy’, you say: ‘These guys’. So, listen to me, why when you mention a black guy do you have to say ‘this black guy’?”

It may be less extreme – nobody choked the life out of anyone – but the incident represents the same dynamic as that which rekindled the flame of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer. At almost every turn, in majority-white societies, BAME people suffer both daily interpersonal racism and systems that have evolved or been designed to exclude them.

The football industry has, very publicly, stood in solidarity with the campaign, and the outrage at the scenes in Turkey on Tuesday has been almost – but, sadly, not entirely – universal.

But football can and should do so much more.

Personally, I have found it a bit strange that the Sunderland team seem to have chosen not to take the knee in solidarity this season. We’ve only seen this happen at a couple of away games so far since the return of football in the autumn.

I hope that it wasn't nervousness about how our fans might react to the act that resulted in the decision not to make it part of our matchday ritual during the lockdown, but the club has demonstrated its solidarity with the movement in other ways throughout the year.

Those football fans who have felt it necessary to boo players taking the knee, most notably at Milwall, but Cambridge and elsewhere too, are – to my mind – either hopelessly misguided or overtly racist.

Some of those who have supported or failed to condemn the booing, including a Tory government minister no less, have sought to portray movements for equality as Marxist plots to undermine civilisation (strange, as my critique of Marxism has always been that it prioritises class identity over all others). But they only do so to camouflage their prejudices and deflect attention from the real issues at stake.

Yes, incidents of vandalism against War Memorials venerating those who have fought and died to protect us against fascism and authoritarianism by those claiming to act on behalf of BLM should be condemned unequivocally – but let’s keep reactions in proportion.

Statues of imperial ‘heroes’ and vicious slavers don’t have feelings. Even when damaged by paint or dumped in a river, they don’t suffer. And we all learn a little more about our history every time a public bronze of a ‘Great Man of History’ comes under scrutiny.

But let’s be absolutely crystal clear; the BLM movement does not want white people to suffer, it wants to stop BAME people from suffering from interpersonal and systemic racism and for past suffering to be fully acknowledged.

I have heard some people who like to think of themselves as ‘not having a racist bone in their bodies’ responding to the global campaign for racial justice with calls of ‘but all lives matter’.

I ask that they consider this simple analogy: if your neighbour has broken their leg and needs help getting their shopping, to refuse because you have a bit of a dodgy knee and ‘all legs matter’ would be ridiculous.

A simplistic ‘colour blindness’ involves blindness to the differences that mean our experiences of life are unequal.

Martin Luther King Assaulted During March
Martin Luther King assaulted while praying on one knee during a 1960s civil rights march

In 2020, much to our discredit, to state black lives matter and stand in solidarity with a global movement that was born in 2013 but carries the torch of anti-racism and anti-colonialism that stretches back to the Haitian revolution and below, is still seen as controversial.

As Emy Onorah in the Guardian recently stated in reaction to Milwall’s claim that everyone wants to see them fail:

Yes, taking the knee – much like refusing to give up a seat on a bus – is a political act. But it’s an act that any fair-minded individual should support and empathise with. And... the acts of those in positions of power, from football club owners to government ministers, have set back the cause of race equality.

Yet still, there are those who bemoan this challenge to an intolerable status quo as ‘divisive identity politics’, yet these same people also seem to want to preserve one particular set of ‘traditional values’ and ‘protect our British culture from outsiders’.

They may want to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask who is really the one obsessed with their identity and the identities of other people.

Nobody has a monopoly on suffering and hardship. Some fear that promoting the interests of a disadvantaged group will mean that less will come to them.

There will always be those who will, no matter how lowly their own position in the social and economic hierarchy, have their sense of self-worth inflated by the fact that there are others below them in the pecking order.

But there are also very many working-class white people who are – and have been – politically, economically and culturally excluded for generations, and whose resentment at this has been directed by elites towards those with whom they have much in common – their fellow working-class people.

This idea needs to be challenged wherever we find it – in our schools, workplaces, on the streets and online.

Yet, as football fans, we know the feeling of tribalism very well indeed. Even the most open racists seem to support our players whatever the colour of their skin, if only for 90-odd minutes once or twice a week.

We’re okay as long as, comparatively speaking, our rivals are in turmoil, and it requires a shift in imagination to put these differences aside and call for what is in our collective interests as clubs, supporters and the game overall.

But social, cultural and economic equality is not a win/lose, zero-sum-game like football.

The centuries-long struggle against racism and for universal human rights in our society has been at its most powerful when those on the receiving end of racism in Europe and in our Empires – usually working-class Black and Asian people – have had the solidarity of working-class white people, from the Cotton Mill workers in the 19th century, through the Bristol Bus Boycott up to young footballers taking the knee in the 21st century.

And improvements in rights and outcomes – social, cultural and economic – for one group tend to have positive consequences for all.

These positive consequences of anti-racism feed back into the tribal game of association football, which is deeply loved and rooted throughout the UK and almost all of its national, ethnic and religious divisions. In dressing rooms around the country at all levels, people from all ethnic backgrounds mix, form teams and form friendships.

Our game is enriched by diversity and footballers as employees – and as citizens – clearly take racism seriously, and want to fight it.

Former Sunderland midfielder, Jordan Henderson, reflected in conversation with Ferdinand about how he has learned and developed his understanding since joining in protests by Liverpool player against the banning of Luis Suarez for racism in 2011.

Nevertheless, in the upper echelons of football governance, you can count on one hand the number of people from a diverse background.

No British person from a BAME background owns a football club, runs a league or controls a major sports media company.

And we, as the bedrock of the football community, can all play our part in improving things.

England v Turkey
Police officers wrestle a man to the ground during skirmishes ahead of the Euro 2004 qualifier between England and Turkey at the Stadium of Light in 2003.
Photo by John Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Gary Bennett has previously spoken of the racist chanting that he suffered as a Sunderland player in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Our beloved former captain has been a familiar face in local antiracism campaigns over the years, and he took the knee in solidarity during the BLM protest in the city over the summer.

We rightly applaud this and support Gary’s efforts. But, as anti-racist Sunderland fans, we should reflect on the fact that we have all seen and heard overt racism and homophobia in the pubs, stands and concourses from our fellow supporters.

Even those who wouldn't ever utter such words have a responsibility to stand up more often and more vociferously – the more of us who do, the easier it gets.

We’ve seen incidents in recent days of supporters in grounds calling-out and identifying those disgracing their clubs by booing the players.

Do we report racism to the stewards every single time? Do we have the Kick it Out app on our phones ready to log each incident we encounter? On social media and forums, do we all report the racism we see and read from fellow Sunderland fans to the moderators?

A good few people reading this might have called someone a homophobic slur when they shied out of a tackle or even used the same term that John Terry used towards Anton Ferdinand when a black opponent once fouled one of our players.

Hopefully, if this is the case, you’ll take some time to read, listen and learn more about people’s lived experiences of racism and how structural racism holds back the cause of equality our society and our game.

We should remember with shame Sunderland fans’ history of racism this century.

In 2003, there were disgraceful scenes at the Stadium of Light during England v Turkey. In 2010 a Sunderland supporter was banned and for three years and sent flowers in apology after racially abusing Darren Bent’s Mam outside Wigan’s ground, while in 2012 a supporter was found guilty of racially abusing Romelu Lukaku at the Stadium of Light in 2012.

We may hope that things have improved in the near-decade since, but we know that the far-right influences still circle.

Anton Ferdinand’s documentary showed us the huge and detrimental impact of racism in football and the media on both him and his family.

As a year when we’ve made major breakthroughs in terms of public consciousness of racism and its consequences draws to a close, and many clubs decide to bring an end to the taking of the knee in the new, let’s resolve to continue to challenge prejudice where we see it and resolve to stand, or kneel, in solidarity with those who still suffer the consequences of racism.

Look out for part two in the coming days, when we delve into homophobia