Untold Arsenal is now on twitter at UntoldArsenal
By Tony Attwood
It is being reported in the UK this morning that last night on a TV programme an MP was speaking about a new 50 year defence treaty signed by France and the UK. Defending the decision to sign the treaty the MP said that the treaty would not mean that British soldiers had to learn French, wear striped shirts or have onions round their necks. A member of the audience apparently shouted out, “Racist!”
I wonder if such a childish remark was indeed racist, and it is something that interests me because I have been called racist off and on since starting this blog. And of course as Arsenal’s programme regularly reminds us, racist chanting along with homophobic chanting and other forms of anti-social behaviour is not accepted in the ground.
In football, the attempts to stop homophobic chanting (follow just one of these issues) is not uniform as we saw at Portsmouth when they played Tottenham. Reports and film showed a very significant number of Tottenham fans indulging in homophobic chanting, with no action taken there and then by police or stewards, and only about 1% of people involved punished in any way subsequently. No action was taken against either club by the EPL, nor the civil authorities.
In such a climate of inaction, Arsenal’s stand is to be welcomed, but the attempts to stop racism and homophobia finding a home safe from prosecution in football, should not mean that we should push ourselves into a position in which we are afraid to make any comments. Which brings me back to the MP. Is it racist to make a stereotypical jibe against the French?
I am, self-evidently, a white citizen of the UK, born and bred in north London, and thus have limited experience of what it is to be the subject of torment, violence or hatred because of my looks. I did however have some experience of this when living and working in Algiers for a year, where I was mistaken for a Frenchman on occasion, and it was of course singularly unpleasant. Having stones thrown at you is never nice – even less so when it is done because of how you look.
But with my liberal middle-class leanings I try to do the right thing as I see it, and thus I was shocked in the early days of this blog when I found myself being called a racist.
The reason was that I had called Eboue a clown. I meant the phrase in what I thought was a nice way – Eboue had come on the pitch as a sub in a match we were easily winning, and performed a series of extraordinary step-overs which utterly mesmerised the opposition defender. Unfortunately Eboue then did one step over too many, and lost the ball and fell over and the defender who was still standing with the ball at his feet, gratefully took it up and cleared his lines.
My article meant to say, “Eboue was clowning about” – that is to say, messing about, having fun, or if you like, “taking the piss”.
This was long before the incident when Eboue was substituted as a substitute – so there was no highly charged issue about Eboue at the time. But what then happened was that I got a load of abuse for being racist. Now clearly had I called Paul Merson a clown (and if you never saw him play the 90 minutes you might not know that he had a great ability to behave in a self-mocking, clown-like manner on occasion) clearly I could not have been called racist because Merse and myself seemingly share the same genetic ancestry.
But if the player is black, the opportunity to call someone racist is there if he is criticised. Worse, in this case, because I wasn’t being critical at all – I was actually celebrating the way in which one of our players could come on and have fun – even if it was ultimately at his own expense. Yet even if I had been saying, “Eboue is one of the worst players I have watched at Arsenal” then that in itself is not and cannot be racist, unless you find evidence that I praise all the white players and criticise all the black players – which of course I don’t, so you can’t.
But this is just one part of the issue. The other was highlighted recently with the issue of Man Arab. A correspondent wrote and said that calling Manchester City “Man Arab” was racist.
This raises another part of the issue – which descriptions of people are racist, and which are descriptive? Generally speaking the laws of the UK tend to see racist as related to “race” rather than nationality. If I call someone a “fucking Argentinian” that may be highly unpleasant but it is not racist, because being an Argentinian is not generally considered as being of a particular race. Likewise calling someone an “American”, or a “Yank” or a “Brit” is not racist either.
But what of “Arab”? Saudi Arabia is a nation, but there are many other Arab nations in the middle east and north Africa – and the general dictionary definition (see www.dictionary.com for example) is that an Arab is a term for a citizen of Saudi Arabia or a person who speaks Arabic. Neither of these are racial definitions.
Of course problems can arise. I have heard Alan Greene on BBC Radio 5 call a player who has done something he doesn’t like, “a typical German”. Now I know such stereotyping can also be positive, “A typical Brazilian goal with typical Brazilian flair”. The same construction, but different intent from the negative: “played with typical German efficiency”.
That last quote has endless negative overtones for citizens of the UK over a certain age as it is reminiscent of the way in which Germany under the Nazis was portrayed in Britain – a soulless state run with ruthless efficiency. And this stereotyping is where we started – with French men being onion sellers on push bikes.
The fact is that quoting and using these stereotypes are not illegal in the UK and can be used positively or negatively. I fully recognise that using a country or region to make a grand judgement is usually false, and it can on occasion be very annoying, but it is not racist.
So “Man Arab” cannot be racist because “Arab” is not a race – it is a desecription of a group of people spread across a number of nations, and just as statement about a person being of a particular country cannot be outlawed, so the use of the grouping of nations cannot be outlawed.
And there’s a very good reason for that. If I can’t speak of a person from the Arabic nations being an Arab, then I cannot speak of a person from the European Union being a European. I am, as it happens, proud to be a European. If you call me a “filthy little European” then that’s abuse, but it is not racist.
What’s more if we were to start banning statements about a person’s country or region of origin, then we would have real trouble in running internationals and the Olympics (although maybe on second thoughts that would not be a bad thing).
But there’s a final point – the desire of a few people that I have now witnessed on various occasions, to leap in, and without any explanation, call a writer “racist”. If as writers we start dancing around this issue, then we end up saying, “I can’t criticise that guy because he is black, and people will think of my criticism as racist.” That we cannot have, and that is why I get annoyed about the attempts to charge this site with being racist. Not so much because the accusations are wrong, but because they are an attempt to stop the proper and reasoned use of language to explore issues of mutual interest and concern.
If Shawcross had been black, I would have laid him as much as I have with him being white. I would still have started to say of players who have suffered evil tackles “he was Shawcrossed”. But if Shawcross had been black I would, I fear, have been called a racist, and the attempts to publicise the evil of the system that allows players to commit these fouls on a regular basis would have been sidetracked by the ludicrous notion that I was making the point just because Shawcross was black.
Why people throw out the racist allegations in the way they do, I am not sure. But then I am not sure why people go around copying passages from other sites and putting on Untold (it still goes on every day but I manage to stop most of them before publication). And I am not sure why people feel it is necessary to use multiple names and personalities to try and put an argument across on this site. My feeling is, if you can’t set out the piece in a straightforward argument, it probably isn’t much of an argument.
But clearly there are people who behave in ways I can’t comprehend. but as you may have guessed I do find the “racist” arguments annoying and they touch a nerve in me.
If you have battled through to the end of this piece, thanks for reading, and even if I have not convinced you, I hope you understand why I might on occasion delete comments from readers who call me a racist without any justification. Just saying “racist” to a person for something they said or wrote can be quite an insult, if the allegation is not backed up by facts.
Untold Arsenal is now all a Twitter. @UntoldArsenal
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