There has been a lot of discourse and debate surrounding the men’s England football team at the Euros throughout this month, from the decisions made by Gareth Southgate and Jack Grealish’s haircut to the idea of reclaiming ‘progressive patriotism’. Yet, in addition to England’s eventual loss to Italy in the final, there was another depressing coda to the whole affair: the racist abuse which was directed to the Black players on the football team in the aftermath of the loss.
Much discussion has already been had about how appalling it has been for the players, fans, and ethnic minority people in this country more generally to witness such behaviour. It had led to people feeling disenchanted with the positive fervour which they had previously had for the game and the nation, and many even felt unsafe travelling back home after the match in case of racist attacks. Their ability to feel welcomed as members of the team or fans of the game was conditional. Conditional upon Black players being perfect (to a higher standard than their white teammates). Conditional on whether it was convenient for people to temporarily put aside their prejudices for the sake of supporting a successful team.
Yet what is less commented upon, but insidious in its own way, is this other tendency for commentators and the like to emphasise the value which these immigrants and descendants of immigrants supposedly bring to the country in order to argue that they are undeserving of racism which is sent their way. This is an issue that extends far beyond football, but being the nation’s favourite sport, it is the arena where the phenomenon can be most clearly seen. The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays edited by Nikesh Sukla and first published in 2016, reflects upon this idea that people from minority backgrounds have to work harder in order to be accepted in this country, rather like an extension of the ‘model minority’ myth but taken beyond racial groups to the individual level. When people tweet that footballers don’t deserve the abuse they get because they are upstanding members of the community and brilliant sportsmen, it reinforces the idea, intentionally or otherwise, that they have earned the right not to be subject to the racist prejudice that the rest of us ordinary folk have to get used to.
This white saviourism of the liberal class does frankly little to help communities being targeted, and I doubt that the patronising tone does much in the way of challenging the views of bigots either. Thus the people who profit the most are those who are doing little to tackle entrenched problems. It is both obvious to point out, yet concerningly necessary to remind people, that ethnic minorities should not have to be truly perfect and exceptional individuals in the eyes of white people to be deserving of proper treatment.
Furthermore, this exceptionalism also often rests on a hierarchy that favours the rich, powerful and famous as the measure of worthy success. The white, liberal media will make social media and poster campaigns out of, say, Marcus Rashford in the aftermath of the loss in order to express support and solidarity (as BT Sport and ITV had done) because it looks good for their brand to ally themselves with a talented player who has done a lot of exceptional work – it also conveniently overlooks the fact that BT had to pay out £80,000 recently to a former member of staff who was discriminated against on the basis of her race and gender, to cite merely one example of hypocrisy. For those who don’t have a platform of support for people to rally around, their experiences are rendered invisible by this metric.
Take, for example, the case of Belly Mujinga. She was a key worker in the transport system (and Congolese-born migrant) who was spat on by a man and later died from Covid-19, yet as she was a low paid employee, there would be no justice for her and her family, despite a petition from 2 million people and a wave of public outcry from anti-racist activism. She demanded protection and respect (as well as appropriate PPE) on the simple basis that she was a human being just going about her job. Yet the harsh truths around the failures (and, let’s be honest, likely racism) which contributed to her death don’t make for comfortable sloganeering, in part because it would require actual belief that minority groups, including ordinary working-class people, don’t require a PR makeover before their lives are valued.
People are not calling for calculated PR campaigns in order to express solidarity. We want to be able to live as human beings in this country with dignity, safety and respect. That requires more than shallow virtue signalling and a rebranding exercise. The Black Lives Matter movement (not ‘moment’, as the Labour leader Keir Starmer had dismissed it as) had prompted many organisations to issue statements of support and points of action that they will take, but one mark of earnest anti-racism is the ongoing commitment to tackle the issue, no matter how difficult the task may seem. If I seem overly cynical in my tone, it’s because I know that change for the better can be achieved, but the actual will to do so continues to be inhibited by the desire to take the easy route and only go through with shallow performativism. This country can do better.