The following article was reproduced with permission from The Times
By John Barnes
IT’S not about football, it’s about destroying modern myths of colour, race and superiority
In 1987 a black friend of mine went into a shop to buy a coat. He asked the assistant if they had it in black and she said no, they only had it in nigger brown. She was a lovely woman, but what would we say if that happened today?
If I were to ask players of my generation if they had made a racist comment in a football match, anyone honest would almost certainly say yes. No one batted an eyelid 20 years ago. Now when Alan Hansen says “coloured” rather than “black” (because black used to be an insult) or Luis Suárez says “negrito”, everyone jumps up and down to distance themselves from such remarks. They believe racism has been consigned to the past.
When Thierry Henry led the campaign to kick racism out of football it might have changed attitudes towards Henry, but it didn’t change anything for the black guy on the Holloway Road. I am often asked if black players can make good managers. That is an inherently racist question, built on an assumption that a manager’s qualities are based on colour, even though the people asking it don’t mean it to be.
The Football Association ticks all the right boxes with its policies and campaigns, the Government passes legislation, the Prime Minister gets involved because someone didn’t shake someone’s hand, people queue up to say ignorance is no excuse. But they are wrong. Ignorance is the excuse. To stop it, we have to start talking seriously about race.
The idea that race is about colour is relatively modern. When Aristotle spoke about races he was differentiating between uncivilised barbarians and civilised Greeks. But it was introduced by governments, backed by the Church, to validate slavery and colonialism, to justify treating some people as less equal than others. Just as Linnaeus classified plants, so people were classified by the colour of their skin. Academics tried to prove differences in skull formation to give scientific support to the idea that black people were morally and intellectually inferior.
But race is not a scientific reality. You could find a tribe in Africa who are genetically closer to Europeans than to an African tribe a hundred miles away. Some Saudis have whiter skin than Italians.
The notion of “whiteness” is an ideology of superiority. Nothing similar has ever existed in black culture. Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda do not see themselves as the same. When the Labour MP Diane Abbott talked on Twitter about “divide and rule” her claims depended on a sense of black identity that wasn’t correct.
Empires that conquer new territory find they cannot impose their own ideas for long. The only way to evolve is to assimilate cultures. The Greeks and Romans learnt that and we are learning it now in Britain.
In the 1970s when the Arsenal and England footballer Ian Wright arrived from Jamaica, his family would have retained their Caribbean identity. And Tony Adams, his Arsenal and England team-mate, would have had his English culture. But their children, like other black, white and Asian children, have grown up together and formed a new British culture.
I was on a train listening to four boys who all sounded like Vicky Pollard. One was black and one was white and, in what sounds like a joke, the others were Asian and Chinese. Their shared culture superseded any sense of race.
It would probably be the same for John Terry and Anton Ferdinand. If they were at a nightclub they would be more likely to gravitate to each other because they wear the same jeans and move in the same world than to someone of the same colour who had nothing in common with them.
As long as racism exists in society it will exist in football. Passing laws saying it is illegal might stop fans shouting abuse in public, but it won’t stop racist feelings any more than theft laws stop people stealing. It won’t stop if we ban players who make racist remarks.
As football finds itself at the heart of arguments about handshakes and insults, let’s use it to make real progress. There is a positive change between the generations and we can speed that up by destroying some basic myths about colour, race and superiority.