Racism is one of those tricky things. When we’re accustomed to the vision of racism as overt violent hatred, we’re beginning to wake up to the realization that racism has more wide-spread roots than lynch mobs and white hoods. It’s not an easy transition to make, especially if you don’t spend your life immersed in it. Those of us for whom it is a major contributing factor to our outlook on the world live in it every day – most others don’t give it a lot of thought unless we have to.
And when you grow up with that ‘classic’ vision of racism, sometimes you end up saying stupid things:
England and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand says he is stunned by Sepp Blatter’s claim that football does not have on-field problems with racism.
Asked whether he thought racism on the pitch was a problem in modern-day football, Blatter told CNN World Sport: “I would deny it. There is no racism. There is maybe one of the players towards another – he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”
And the palms hit the face.
I can understand and appreciate Mr. Blatter’s thought process here. FIFA has made major strides in eliminating racism from the game of soccer, and the kinds of behaviour that would have been tolerated a few years ago is now rightly vilified. So much progress has been made, in fact, that players can learn to look past occasional racist comments that occur in the heat of play, shake hands at the end of a match and be done with it. They days of racism in international soccer are over.
But again, this line of thinking is all predicated on a definition of racism that uses open hostility and violence as its set point. Any actions that fall below that median point are thereby reclassified as ‘not racist’. The problem with this thinking is that while the expression of racism has shifted in size and method of expression, the cognitions that underlie the expression still remain. As evidence of this, the fact that the handshakes and forgiveness on the part of the maligned party are even necessary suggests that racism is still a part of the game, and work still needs to be done.
If Mr. Blatter had said “FIFA has made great strides over the years, and players can expect a welcome and open atmosphere no matter their racial background” that would have been… well, at least less wrong. I’m sure that’s what he wishes he’d said. What he should have said is that FIFA continues to lead the international community in the fight against racism, and that he was proud of the progress they’d made and would continue to make in the future. What he ended up saying, though, was that racism was fixed and it’s the job of the victims of occasional racist attacks to “be the bigger man” and forgive and forget the little incidents. Boneheaded to be sure.
But interestingly, and also indicative of the “hands-off” approach we take with racism, is the reaction from the other side:
When asked if Blatter should resign, [English sports minister Hugh] Robertson told BBC Radio 5 live: “Yes. I can’t see there’s anything terribly new in this. We’ve been saying this for some time. “What Sepp Blatter said, in this country, is just completely wrong as well as being morally indefensible. Racism is a criminal offence in this country and anybody who’s caught indulging in it will face criminal sanctions. If you’re going to put pressure on Fifa, it’s going to need more than an outcry in this country – and I think that commercial pressure is the one that in the end will tell.”
I find it interesting that the response to racism is either an underreaction, in the case of Mr. Blatter’s tone-deaf dismissal of the reality of racism, or what I see as an over-reaction in calls for him to resign over it. If Mr. Blatter was, for example, in charge of a department of FIFA responsible for addressing racism and equality, then his comments would reveal him to be completely unqualified for his job. However, to say that because he has a backwards view of how racism works in sport that he should be fired (and apparently charged criminally, if Mr. Robertson has his way) is pushing things a bit. To be completely fair to Mr. Robertson and other advocates of Mr. Blatter’s resignation, there appear to be other allegations of mismanagement suggesting that the president is not doing an effective job overall.
If Sepp Blatter resigns, then while FIFA saves some face, they lose a key opportunity to have the conversation out in the open. Mr. Blatter has already expressed publicly that he understands that what he said was wrong, but not why. His comments reveal that he has a deficient understanding of what racism is, or how it is combatted. The answer is not necessarily to install someone who is more enlightened, but to give the public an open forum to learn how race can be discussed, with the end goal being a better-informed FIFA president (and, in so doing, football-watching populace).
Racism is not something that deserves a blind eye or a ‘pat on the head’ response to the occasional bigoted statement. It is not a minor issue, or something that can be settled with a handshake and a kind word. It is a serious problem that deserves serious and ongoing attention, and lots of conversation. Vilifying people who express outmoded racial ideas does not advance that conversation – it shuts it down. Shutting down ‘racists’ doesn’t mean there is less racism, it just robs us of opportunities to explore and parse it.
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