Not Enough: Just condemning racism or xenophobia will achieve nothing

Boris Johnson, who had described coloured immigrants as ‘post boxes’ and ‘picaninnies’ before becoming Prime Minister, also condemned racism on display at Euro Cup final. But that is not really enough

Not Enough: Just condemning racism or xenophobia will achieve nothing

Tabish Khair

Up to a day before England took on Italy for the final of Euro 2020, I encountered well-meaning and perhaps necessary articles pointing out the multi-cultural background of most players in the English team.

‘Multicultural England team at Euro 2020 is a legacy of the Windrush generation,’ the Daily Mail had noted on 21st June. ‘Diverse England football team that is winning fans’ headlined Al Jazeera as late as 10th July. It was all good news. It ought to have warmed the cockles of my heart. And it did warm a part of it, though a tired old voice kept murmuring: “Watch out. It means nothing, or next to nothing.”

I think it is the French-Tunisian writer and scholar, Albert Memmi, who, in one of his books on racism, narrates a generic episode that I too have witnessed.

Memmi is boarding a bus in Paris with a White friend who is open to immigrants. There is a group of coloured teenagers in the bus, making a bit of noise. Maybe it is Friday night. His White friend remarks to Memmi: “They are just drawing attention to themselves. This is what gives immigrants a bad name.”

Memmi points out that the coloured teenagers were not doing anything that White teenagers would not do. He points out that similarly loud hormonal behaviour would not be noticed if they had been White teenagers. He correctly highlights how easy it is for the ‘coloured’ immigrant to slip from being good to becoming undesirable.

I have known this as a Muslim in India and a Muslim in the West. In both the places, I have been a ‘good’ Muslim, or the synonym of ‘good’ for Muslims: a ‘moderate.’ No one could identify me by my clothes, let alone my beard, because I did not cultivate even the slight shadow that this pandemic fostered on me a year ago. But I have known how easy it is to be identified by your clothes if you are a Muslim in India – even though many Hindus wear similar clothes too – and, sometimes, by your beard when crossing custom points in Europe, even though many Europeans grow beards too.

And then it happened. The final match – evenly balanced between the two teams – went into the final option of a penalty shootout. When the very talented and very young Bukayo Saka (19 years old) missed his penalty shot by a whisker, I was certain his colour had been noticed by some in England. When two other young players – 20 and 21 years old – had their penalty shots fended away, I knew their colour had been noted by some in England. The very team whose multi-coloured success was being rightly celebrated until yesterday would now appear, in some English eyes, as either black or white.

English hooligans, who had roughed up Italian supporters and booed when other national anthems were sung, did not hesitate in showering these players with racist abuse. It was bad enough for the English team to issue a public statement telling such racists that they were not “welcome” to follow the team. Boris Johnson, who had described coloured immigrants as ‘post boxes’ and ‘picaninnies’ before becoming Prime Minister, condemned the racism.

Looking back, I recall my hesitation to be euphoric about reports of the multicultural background of the English team. Yes, it is admirable, and it reflects the nature of English society today. England has many coloured immigrants, mostly from countries colonised and exploited by England for centuries in the recent past. The English Football League is said to contain more coloured players than national leagues in other European countries. This might well be true. And, again, the management of the English national team is to be commended for standing up against racism – just as its team members are to be commended for speaking up against other kinds of xenophobia too, including homophobia.

All this is necessary, but not enough. Some might even argue that it is a mere band-aid on the ‘smoking wound’ of xenophobic nationalism that enabled Brexit Britain. Moreover, it is simplistic of all polite liberal circles when they imagine that talking of the multiculturality of any team cuts ice with the xenophobe.

It takes much more than that. The superficiality of the public discourse of multiculturalism arises from the failure of its adherents to grab the bull of xenophobia by the horns. Racism, like any form of xenophobia, has deep and institutional roots. It has many contrived passages and cunning corridors, which cannot be just painted over.

I had the first inkling of this, though I understood it much later, as a Muslim boy in small-town India.

Every time Syed Kirmani took an athletic catch behind the wickets or played one of his sweet knocks, I – and all Muslims around me – felt particularly proud and relieved. We had no reason to do so: Syed Kirmani was as much a stranger to us as Sunil Gavaskar. I also remember that the first time I heard a (Hindu) classmate use ‘mullah’ as an abuse for ‘Muslim’ was when, as every cricketer does sooner or later, Kirmani got out cheaply in a crucial match.

Yes, it takes very little for ‘colour’ to show.

Liberal cheerleading is nice, but not enough. Our buildings everywhere need much more than a fresh layer of paint.

(The writer is an author and academic based in Denmark. Views are personal)

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