"Whaddayamean 'racist'"? What indeed?

I figured my sour note on Aragonés would bring along some line-fudging, and I was right. A commenter said:

Hell, Spain and Europe are full of racist people, sure, but Aragonés is not one of them. Ask Samuel Etoo or any of the black players he had under his orders.
Calling someone "black" is being racist as much as calling someone "blonde" is being racist, and Aragonés said just that to Henry, black.

I understand where he's coming from, but unfortunately I think that like a lot of discussion of racism, whether by alleged victims or alleged perpetrators of the practice, it looks for unequivocal boundaries at the expense of common sense.

First of all my "lazy, thick nigger" bit came from Ron Atkinson, not Aragonés (remember I admitted I had no idea what the latter was saying during the sideline blow-up). In that celebrated case (I couldn't find the whole brouhaha all well explained in one place, but here's Wikipedia FWIW), the TV analyst abused Desailly with the unfortunate phrase when he thought he was off-air. My whole sour bit of dialogue was just one of those "eternal braids of football intrigue" I mentioned. Aragonés had popped off in similar fashion on Henry, probably when he thought no one else would hear him, and here he was playing France, their eternal nemesis, and land of Desailly-the-national-football hero. But do you know one of the things Atkinson said to claim his indiscretion didn't make him a racist? He pointed out that he as a manager (of West Bromwich Albion) was one of the first to employ black players, and that he'd always treated those players well. That rather puts ironic paid to the first defense of Aragonés in the above quote.

It brings me to mind of my cousin, now about to graduate from Med school in London. He was a brilliant footballer in high school. His team went so far in a national youth tournament as to play their finals at Wembley stadium. By his account, his coaches were quite kind to him, as far as football went, but had no patience for his academic ambitions. In effect they told him that a black kid like he was much better off pursuing his football talent than giving himself airs about becoming a doctor. Even his teachers exhorted him towards professional football. I'd readily admit those coaches and teachers were just offering kindly advice, but I expect it doesn't take a lot of pondering to realize that their attitudes were also racist. From what I hear, such cases are very common in England. Luckily for my cousin, his parents, typical immigrants, raised him to think better of exclusively pursuing anything that didn't come with a double-or-triple-barrel degree.

So back to Atkinson and Aragonés. They've probably in practice helped more black players than they've abused. Are they racists? That's a ridiculous question. You can't do a 10-billion person line-up and file into neat boxes who is or who is not a racist. We've all done and said racist things because discrimination is written into our very nature as a defense mechanism. It's actually a miracle of civilization (not only European civilization, BTW) that we are able to mingle together as much as we do with so little incident, relatively.

Movies such as Monsters Ball and Crash like to try stirring us up with the deep insight: "look: that terrible racist is really just human after all". I just roll my eyes every time. Is anyone under any deluded impression that persistent racists are some species apart? On the other extreme a movie like A Time to Kill sets up a scene where an audience is supposed to cheer that a KKK kook has been set on fire. The (mostly white) movie audience with whom I saw the movie happily obliged. I'll never forget that moment. I was astonished. I guess it's quotidian to assume that membership in the KKK warrants summary immolation? That's supposed to be better than the idea that interracial sex warrants lynching? In that movie theater it was obvious to me that those same unthinking passions (typically of a manipulated mob) is the instrument of genocide as surely as of comic book social justice.

Anyway, my point is that Aragonés may be a perfectly fine fellow, but that the Henry episode showed him in a very foul light, and his better nature should have prompted more contrition than he's ever shown. And never mind Aragonés. What of the Spanish FA? They know they are facing a deluge of football-related racism (a lot of it of the truly violent and terrifying sort, not just salty language from old men), and so how could their response be such a ludicrous slap on Aragonés' wrist? Aragonés' comment was be deeply offensive to some, and probably constituted incitement of some others, and the official response was far worse than the original offense. Speaking of incitement, I like many others believe that the Aragonés incident helped fuel the despicable treatment of black English players by the host Spanish crowd in a "friendly" a little while later (of course that's why I brought up Shaun Wright-Phillips, who was subjected to particular abuse). This shows how the wrong words in the wrong mouth can incite far worse than casual insult. Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe has atrocious racist incidents every week, such that it has become a commonplace. And the respective official associations have made it a routine to fine clubs $1000 here and there in supposed punishment. This is the real problem, not that Aragonés had a moment of poor judgment.

There is plenty of racism in England, but after some particular horrors in the 80s, I give the English FA, under--Oh the irony--huge pressure from Thatcher's government, much credit for cracking down with ruthless efficiency on the problem. For this reason, football is one of the areas where the English can be more confident of not encountering serious racism. There is precious little will to tackle the problem as thoroughly in too many other European countries. The problem goes all the way up to FIFA (have I mentioned how much I hate FIFA?). Just before the World Cup Sepp Blatter led a grandiose resolution that FIFA must use the power of football to "help make the world a better place". Of course taking action in some of the worse places is a bit too much of a reach beyond mere proclamation. In 2004 Blatter's response to the abuse of the English players in Spain was that he wouldn't have thought ill of the English team had they abandoned the game. Gee thanks sir. You're such a help. What of actually putting pressure on the Spanish FA to clean up its act? FIFA likes to argue in such instances that they're helpless to interfere in the internal concerns of a national FA. Right. But Blatter now has the bit in his teeth to prevail upon the FA to reduce the Premiership from 20 to 18 teams. Oh that's not interference in an national FA's matters. Whatever makes me think that?

And so I'll move to maybe the most interesting point in my correspondent's argument--that Aragonés just called Henry a "black shit". I think the implication meant is that so abusing a person is not racist. I've heard reasoning like this before, and again I wonder what's happened to common sense. The fact that calling someone "black" and calling someone a "shit" separately could possibly not be considered racist does not suddenly put a halo on the epithet "black shit". When Aragonés says "don't let that black shit beat you" it is precisely as racist as if he'd said "don't let that nigger beat you". Context is more important than precise words will ever be. Even if you've only seen what Aragonés says in print, the impact of the words should be obvious. If you actually see the tape, it's even more chilling. Sure, Aragonés is just trying to do what he can to get into Reyes' head. After all Reyes is Henry's club team-mate, and the coach has to make it clear to him that with the national strip on Henry is now the enemy. I get that. But in using the words he did, Aragonés was obviously trying to trigger a visceral response in Reyes to Henry's color. If Henry had been white he wouldn't have said "don't let that white shit beat you", because he wouldn't have expected the fact that Henry was white to have meant anything to Reyes. Explanations that Aragonés was just using salty language to motivate are so self-servingly simplistic that I think they're disingenuous.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia