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By Rhea Cartwright
or Black people watching the football last night, there was a visceral feeling of dread watching Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka miss their penalties. It was not triggered by England’s loss but because we knew that inevitable racial violence would ensue.
Black players were instrumental in leading England to the finals in the same way that Black people have been unequivocally conducive in the progression of this country’s so-called dominance since colonisers pillaged, raped and murdered their way to free labour.
“The Black community is already well-seasoned in knowing that our existence is conditional. We are brought up knowing that whether we are accepted by society depends on our performance.”
What Black people have contributed, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, to this country is immeasurable. And yet, as the narrative instantaneously shifted from “it’s coming home” to “go home”, Black people were reminded of our sub-human experience that is reminiscent of modern-day slavery. When we meet expectations we are celebrated but when we fall short we are punished.
Despite the notion of England as a racist nation being constantly up for debate, the Black community is already well-seasoned in knowing that our existence is conditional. We are brought up knowing that whether we are accepted by society depends on our performance. As young children, our parents tell us that we will have to work harder because they know all too well that we will not be afforded the ability to be average. Be it through football losses or lack of choice when it comes to bronzer shades, Black people are perpetually reminded that we are never good enough.
Of course, racism in football needs to end but this toxic prejudice is not confined to the beautiful game. The hate has long been planted and seeps into every system and intuition that this country knows. While demands have been made for social media companies to block racist hate comments and to require verified identification when opening new accounts, there is often a misconception that the racial abuse of today lives solely online like a purely digital disease germinating in someone’s comments. The truth is that while football fans are the most grotesque representation of racism, their way of thinking is the disturbing ideology shared by so many other people and is the undercurrent beneath the social structure of this country.
“Black players were instrumental in leading England to the finals in the same way that Black people have been unequivocally conducive in the progression of this country’s so-called dominance since colonisers pillaged, raped and murdered their way to free labour. What Black people have contributed, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, to this country is immeasurable.”
Among the barrage of “niggers”, monkey emojis and “go back to Africa” slurs, this breed of abuse is nothing new in a country that vehemently denies being racist. The vitriol comes as no surprise when Boris Johnson, our own Prime Minister, has called Black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.
Johnson initially refused to condemn fans that booed players for taking the knee to highlight racial inequality and discrimination, as his spokesperson said he was “more focused on action than gestures”. And yet, the morning after the match, Johnson tweeted that the “England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves”.
Prince William also tweeted that he is “sickened by the racist abuse aimed at England players after last night’s match”and that “it is totally unacceptable that players have to endure this abhorrent behaviour”.
Interestingly, however, he made no such public statement when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex accused members of the Royal Family of making racially-fuelled comments. It is a resplendent reminder of the echo chamber within social media and that real allyship and activism starts with uncomfortable conversations at family dinner tables rather than posting arbitrary Black squares and sharing the outcry-du-jour on Instagram stories.
Black football players have the duality of being expected to sing the national anthem to celebrate Queen and country, and shortly after take the knee in a symbolic gesture against racism. The irony that colonisation initiated by this country is the perpetrator of racial injustice is a reminder that to simply survive in this country as a Black person is to be well-versed in cognitive dissonance. We live at the conflicting juncture of being Black, but also being British.
To state the obvious, not all white people are racist but to quote the famous American essayist and activist James Baldwin, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”
“Systemic and institutionalised racism is why Black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth”
While today’s catalyst is football, we all know that racism extends further. Black people are too often reprimanded for making “everything about race” and yet the glaringly apparent evidence is impossible to deny. Systemic and institutionalised racism is why Black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth and it is why less than 1% of venture capital funding goes to Black founders. Being disadvantaged is why Covid-19 deaths in England were disproportionately higher for Black people during the first wave; it is why Black people are 9.5 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police and account for 7.7% of the prison population despite only 3.4% of the UK as a whole. As Baldwin said back in 1968, Black people are expected “to make an act of faith on some idealism which you assure me exists”, which we have never seen.
Be it the reactions to the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert last year or the venomous comments on social media today, there is a suffocating fear that comes with the Black experience in this country. It is all too easy to condemn the commenters as cowardly keyboard warriors but behind these faceless accounts are real people with jobs, children and families. Hiding, or perhaps not, in plain sight and revelling in spewing racial hate when opportunity knocks.
While social media galvanises pre-existing racism, it existed without it and will continue to do so. If anything, the online lynching is for the benefit of white people as Black people are already abundantly aware of the constraints and abuse that comes from living in a country built on white supremacy that hinders us. In some respects, we have become desensitised to the trauma like a chronic pain we’ve numbed in our minds and learned to live with.
To offer true empathy has perhaps always been the hardest of skills to master and with race there will always be such striking distinctions in those experiences that is near-on impossible for a non-Black person to understand. With heavy hearts and burdened minds, Black people woke up today worried about their future and their safety in a country that does not seem to support them.
We are yearning for the day that Black people will not only be seen and treated as equals but also freed of the proverbial shackles that force us into shape-shifting into more palatable versions of ourselves. Although the journey feels long and arduous, it will come.
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Social media abuse of Black England players for missing a penalty shows that racism is still rife in this country.
By Rhea Cartwright