Beyond institutional racism: White supremacy in English professional football

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The following is an edited extract from: Lawrence, S. (2017) ‘A Critical Race Theory analysis of the English Premier League: Confronting the declining significance of ‘race’ and racism myth’. In R. Elliott (ed.) The English Premier League: A socio-cultural analysis. London: Routledge.

As another football season comes to a close, the issue of racism in football is once more overshadowed by show piece finales and the customary staining of silverware with champagne by ‘big name’ players and celebrity managers. At this time of year the dearth of black people occupying football terraces and managerial roles and the scarcity of British South Asian professional players is, at best, reduced into a pennant or, at worst, are far from the minds of many involved in football. Nonetheless, while the mainstream media will now turn its attention to feeding the rumour mill or to reporting mega-money transfers, this piece will take an unconventional approach to satisfying the ravishing appetite of football fans, during an international competition-free summer, by asking them to consider the ongoing issue of racism in English football.

Over the years, a number of critical social commentators have consistently argued that colour-based racism in football is more than just a nasty but necessary tactic, designed to put an opponent off their game. In so doing, these voices have helped shift the focus away from individuals and have instead marked entire cultures attached to elite level, professional male football as arenas laden with barriers that affect different ethnic groups in unique and often covert ways. By focusing on the outcomes of policy processes and recruitment procedures (institutional factors), as opposed to individual actions or words they have demonstrated that the under representation of certain groups in football cannot be the result of one act, one person, one set of supporters, one chief executive, one chairperson, one governing body, over one career. The paucity of Black managers and British South Asian players in the English Premier League (EPL) can only be explained with reference to a series of racialised historical, institutional, cultural, geographical, political, economic and social shifts that have impacted, framed and shaped the current footballing milieu.

In light of this I argue it is about time we move away from the terms ‘race’ and racism and find different and more radical ways to understand and challenge racialised hierarchies in sport. One way of achieving this is to acknowledge current elite level footballing structures, policies and cultures as CRT scholars would, as acts of white male supremacy.  By using the term white male supremacy I am referring to “a comprehensive condition whereby the interests and perceptions of white [male] subjects are continually placed centre stage and assumed as ‘normal’” (Gillborn, 2006: 318).  Such an approach is useful here because it helps provide an obverse view of racism(s), which, in turn, allows us to explore the day-to-day privileging of white, male, European social and cultural norms, in elite footballing contexts, how they are used as resources and how they are protected and institutionalised. Dan Burdsey (2011: 52-53) explains, using player recruitment practices as the context:

… there are … clearly a number of privileges that are accrued from being White, which provide players with a better position from the start: being considered worth scouting in the first place; being presumed to have a supportive family background; being seen as possessing the right physicality and temperament and lacking ‘cultural baggage’; being perceived to ‘know the game’; and, crucially, not having been forced to play the game under the threat of [racially motivated] abuse and violence.

Acknowledging this allows us to go beyond traditional anti-racist approaches in football by naming certain beliefs as key enablers of cultural and institutional forms of racism. Thus, not only does an exploration of white male supremacy go beyond the outlawing of far-right or fascist ideologies from in and around stadia (as did the antiracist movements before and during the early 1990s), it also asks anti-racists – including left-leaning, progressives and liberals – to account for how it is they, too, are complicit in the perpetuation of racialised hierarchies, both in and beyond stadia.

Colin King, in one of the pioneering explorations of whiteness in elite male football, explains that “in order to belong [in football, black players] have to behave like white players, or at least act on ‘their’ terms”. In this way, black players are judged both on their athletic abilities and on “the quality of their relationships with their white male counterparts”. This performance of whiteness (or the act of playing the “white working-class man” as King prefers) becomes resource; one that affords black players sufficient cultural and social capital to negotiate acceptance amongst chiefly white male playing staffs. Working in these spaces thus coerces minoritised players to exhibit a necessary cultural artistry by way of learning techniques of inclusion through language, behaviour and even appearance. Applying this same logic, the reluctance of some South Asian sportspeople to endorse white, working-class masculinities as the cultural norm – not to mention the refusal of scouting networks even to consider predominately South Asian leagues as repositories of talent – inevitably leads to fewer opportunities for British South Asian men to progress. Exclusion in this sense has very little, if anything, to do with a coach or manager disliking a player because of their ‘race’, ethnicity or religion; rather, it speaks more to how players – regardless of ethnicity – perform and/ or construct identities around pre-existing and often invisible (to those invested in performing whiteness, at least) racialised codes and behaviours.

Unlike their South Asian counterparts, Black players have fashioned a space within elite football playing cultures but their transition to football management and coaching has been more arduous. A testimony from Ex-England international John Barnes is useful to expand this point. Barnes, a black man, has suggested his inability to find work as a manager, despite being one of the most celebrated footballers of his generation, is “because there’s a certain perception of who can make a good manager”. Barnes infers that the pseudo-science of biological ‘race’, which dictates black men have especially athletic bodies but possess them at the expense of more refined cognitive abilities, still endures covertly in many predominantly, if not exclusively, white boardrooms, as well as and football newsrooms across Europe. Indeed, bio-racism has been evident in numerous forms in recent times: ex-EPL manager and current LMA member and Sky Sports pundit Dave Bassett ‘explained’ how South Asian men were disadvantaged in the pursuit of becoming a professional footballer by “the Asian build” and “nutrition”; England legend, Bobby Robson questioned the cognitive abilities and temperament of “coloured players” ; ex-EPL manager Ron Atkinson pigeonholed black players as “lazy” and “thick”; and one need only listen to BBC’s football coverage to hear the terms “strong and powerful” systematically overused when referring to black players.

While it is popular to dismiss bio-racism as antiquated or anomalous, I contend it is better to understand such actions as racial microaggressions or as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously” (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000: 60).  Importantly then, microaggrssions are vital in maintaining and reproducing white male supremacy in football insofar as while they may seem harmless  the power to shape people’s experience of the world is found in the cumulative effect of a lifetime of microaggressions which results in low self-esteem and confidence. Microaggrssions, whether they present as a racist ‘joke’, bio-racism, ethnic stereotyping or an event dinner that fails to cater for an ethnically diverse guest list, litter the individual career paths of black British and South Asian men. The energy expended on overcoming these obstacles, sometimes unconsciously, inevitably hampers a person’s ability to move forward at the same pace as those who do not encounter such racialised barriers.

Another explanation that helps us understand the domination of white men in most decision making positions of the EPL is the notion of ‘social cloning’. This term describes how people in positions of power recruit and surround themselves with others who share similar worldviews, who engage in comparable social and ethnic rituals or who, at the very least, are reluctant to challenge the commonplaceness (and thus supremacy of) certain cultural norms. Social cloning then is a strategically important enabler of white male supremacy in football in the sense it is a technology that oversees the reproduction and institutionalisation of white male privileges and cultural norms. Therefore, should these privileges and norms come under threat dominant individuals and groups move to protect the ascendancy of such valuable resources. The case of ex-Cardiff City manager Malky MacKay and ex-Crystal Palace sporting director Iain Moody, is able to add context to such an assertion.

During a number of text message exchanges, which were subsequently leaked and made public, the two aforementioned white men shared a swath of racist, sexist and homophobic comments to one another about colleagues in the football industry, while in post at an EPL club.  When the news broke, MacKay proclaimed via a League Managers Association statement that the text messages in question – wherein he referred to South Koreans as “Fkn chinkys”, expressed concern about the lack of “white faces” amongst a list of potential signings and exclaimed how there was “[n]othing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers” – were intended as “friendly text message banter”. The statement read:

These were two text messages sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter … The LMA does not condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws but would also point out that out of over 10,000 text messages and 70,000 documents … it may not be a complete surprise that some inappropriate comments can sometimes be made by employees.

At best the LMA’s statement is poorly worded. But at worst it legitimises MacKay’s and Moody’s actions insofar as the statement attempts to reframe racism and homophobia as perfectly jocular and jovial forms of “banter”. In light of such a denial of severity, and given the sharing of such views did not come as a “complete surprise”, the LMA’s willingness to trivialise what had been communicated, concurrent to their impassivity and apathy, signals a worrying familiarity with such exchanges.  That is, such ignorance from a supposedly representative body, which provoked a number of black members to threaten to withdraw their membership, can only emerge from a social sphere that either on some level condones MacKay’s behaviour, is numb to such bigotry due to overexposure or fails to understand ‘banter’ as the archetypal Trojan horse: hate and prejudice parading as comedy.

Not only should the closing of ranks demonstrated by MacKay and LMA be read as an attempt to trivialise racism and thus reaffirm white male supremacy, it must also be seen, more seriously, as a refusal to set a precedent. This refusal, however, was not without patronage.

First, Mackay received support and a job offer from Wigan Athletic FC chairman, Dave Whelan, who appointed him as first team manager, despite an ongoing FA investigation into the offending text messages. Whelan would go on to evidence the instrumentalism of social cloning in elite football yet further when, while explaining his decision to appoint Mackay, he claimed there was “nothing” improper about referring to Chinese as “chinks” and that “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else”.

Second, and perhaps most significantly, after a yearlong enquiry, despite the strength of evidence against the Mackay and Moody, including a confession from Mackay, because the messages were deemed “private”, the FA ruled against taking any further action . The sanctioning body for football in England, no less, itself an organisation governed nearly entirely by white men, thus refused to stand against such obvious bigotry on the grounds that “the communications were sent with a legitimate expectation of privacy”. Faced with evidence that supports the notion racism in elite level sporting spaces now often operates overtly in private but manifests publicly covertly, the FA refused to act proportionately. Furthermore, not only did such a verdict reinforce the notion race-hate speech is only punishable if it is employed in face-to-face public forums, the FA went further and sought council from “external law enforcement agencies” because of “serious concerns about the circumstances in which particular evidence … had been given” (ibid.). The implication here is that Cardiff City FC had gathered the incriminating communications unlawfully, and so, what the FA had concluded, after following its own internal judicial procedures, was that the exposure of two powerful, wealthy, white men’s bigotry, was not only simply unworthy of reprisal but potentially a criminal act!

If the Mackay, Moody and Whelan examples used above are representative of even a small minority of highly-influential people in football and their attitudes towards ‘race’ equality, much harsher and more drastic actions are required. As the EPL moves yet further toward an even wealthier financial state, off of the back of the most recent £5.2 billion TV rights deal, some of this investment must be spent on strengthening the EPL’s moral economy. It must lead the footballing world in more than simply transfer fees. Nonetheless, few initiatives have considered or challenged directly the instrumentalism of white privilege and/ or white supremacy in wider society, never mind football. Perhaps, in the spirit of optimism, anti-racism campaigners might be well advised to seriously consider campaigns that encourage more hard-hitting taglines such as “check your privilege” or “no to white supremacy”. Draping such slogans around EPL stadia would not only send out a harder-hitting message about their commitment to promoting inclusion in football but would also go some way to challenging unsavoury attitudes in football stadia and beyond.

Read the full version of this piece in the book: The English Premier League: A socio-cultural analysis.

References

Burdsey, D. (2011). Applying a CRT lens to sport in the UK: The case of professional football. In K. Hylton, A. Pilkington, P. Warmington, & S. Housee (Eds.), Atlantic Crossings: International Dialogues on Critical Race Theory (pp. 39-60). Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

Gillborn, D. (2005). Education policy as an act of white supremacy: Whiteness, critical race theory and education reform. Journal of Education Policy, 20(4), 485-505.

Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60-73.

MRes Opportunity: An exploration of football fans’ attitudes towards and responses to social media discrimination

Newman University is launching a brand new MRes and I’m looking forward to working with a highly motivated individual is willing to make the best of this fantastic opportunity! 

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As the digital revolution continues apace, emergent technologies and means of communication have presented new challenges and opportunities to the football industry. In turn, researchers active in a number of disciplines have responded and have carved out a new field of study in its own right: digital football cultures. Despite the growing number of research papers which consider football and its relationship with digital culture, very few have begun to explore the impact of football-related trolling, hate crime and/ or malicious communications sent over social media. Moreover, football fans’ attitudes towards these new forms of social deviance, not to mention the phenomena of football trolling in the first instance, are as yet unexplored. As part of a broader MRes project, this research will seek to address the paucity of literature in this area by centralising the thoughts, feelings and responses of football fans to what is a growing problem. To this end, we might then be better placed not only to understand but to tackle online discrimination.

Kick It Out, football’s premier anti-discrimination organisation, have recently launched a new campaign, entitled Klick It Out, which seeks to raise awareness and challenge the rise in a variety of forms of social media discrimination. The proposed research project will seek to add further value to this campaign. Not only will the successful applicant(s) be given the chance to undertake the research as part of a broader MRes programme, it also offers the opportunity to work directly with Kick it Out and leading experts in the field at Newman University. In this regard, it is expected that the research project will not only contribute to academic knowledge but will be used and presented to the football industry to tackle discrimination in football online.

Deadline for applications: Monday 12th September 2016. The date of the interview will be given to successful applicants soon after the deadline. For an informal conversation about the project please contact Dr Stefan Lawrence who will be happy to discuss: s.t.lawrence@newman.ac.uk.

A more detailed outline of the entire MRes programme and costs, as well as the online application form, can be found here: http://www.newman.ac.uk/higher-degree-courses/4530/mres-social-sciences-sport-and-exercise-science

“Every Day is Black Country Day”: Football, Identity and Fandom

Dr Stefan Lawrence on Drive Time with Paul Franks discussing Black Country Identity and Football Fandom on Black Country Day at Dudley Castle (14/07/16)

Read Stefan’s blog on contemporary Black Country identity here: https://stefanlawrence.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/the-black-country-and-its-contemporary-relevance-amidst-a-row-about-a-flag/

Access Stefan’s research on Black Country identity and football fandom here: https://www.academia.edu/12588449/_We_are_the_boys_from_the_Black_Country_Re_Imagining_local_regional_and_spectator_identities_through_fandom_at_Walsall_Football_Club

Women, football and violence: The ugly side of the beautiful game?

An edited extract from Lawrence, S. and Pipini, M. (2016) ‘Violence’. In Cashmore, E. and Dixon, K. (eds), Studying Football, London: Routledge.

Football has long been thought of as an arena through and in which masculinity is made and/ or proven. Supposedly, it is a social sphere in which ‘men can be men’ by acting on their most primitive of urges. For many, the physical duel between men is a way for participants to prove they are strong, battle-hardened, tough, heterosexual and self-sufficient. Striving for such “ideals”, however, at times has lent itself to aggressive behavior, which often spills over into violence. In turn, violence and aggression, to varying degrees, have become closely tied to traditional masculine approaches to playing and watching football. Football has been accused, therefore, of fostering a culture through and in which hegemonic masculinity – a kind of masculinity that is defined largely as aggressive, heterosexual, white, homophobic, sexist, authoritative and physical  – has been glorified and promoted as the most normal way to “be a man”.

Historically, stories of male violence at football matches, rather predictably then, have been most forthcoming. The death of a volunteer assistant referee, who was kicked to death following a vicious attack at a junior football match in Holland, and the decapitation of a referee in Brazil, after the official had reportedly stabbed a player, are but two recent, international examples. Even so, and while it true to say male football violence is certainly better reported and researched, there have been numerous recent examples of football violence involving women, including the University of New Mexico’s YouTube “star”, Elizabeth Lambert, who was filmed punching and kicking opponents – even yanking viciously a competitor to the ground by her ponytail. Thus, from the United States’ goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was arrested in 2014 after accusations of domestic violence, to reports of a female fan in Paraguay throwing scalding hot tea over a match official at a game between Olimpia and Paraguayos Unidos, violence by women is certainly not unheard of. Additionally, to make the point that this is not simply a twenty-first-century phenomenon, Matthew McDowell points to a historical example from 1898, present in the Port Glasgow Express and Observer, which describes how ‘a general scuffle’ broke out amongst female football supporters after a match, leaving one woman hospitalized. It is important to note here, therefore, that violence is not irrevocably tied to men. As such, we might also say the same about masculinity. To this end, masculinity in football might be thought of better as a part of the dominant culture; a performance; an action; a language; a state-of-mind; in which both males and females might engage.

To elaborate further, Carrie Dunn’s work on female football fans illustrates how women and girls are keen to present themselves as ‘normal’ and/ or ‘authentic’ members of the football community. In order to do this, Dunn argues that women present themselves in ‘typically male’ ways and refrain from disclosing too much of their femininity for fear of undermining their ‘authenticity’. Not only does Dunn’s work, therefore, mark mainstream football culture as ‘masculine’, it also reveals how women, too, might police the game’s association with traditional masculinity and male interpretations of football, for instance, by way of their opposition to other females ‘who are too overtly feminine in their dress at football grounds’. In turn, as opposed to viewing violence as a problem deeply ingrained in the male psyche, one way to respond to Dunn’s call to interrogate and challenge the stereotypes associated with females in football is to document women’s and girls’ perceptions of and involvement in football violence. Future research might then wish to add to the literature on women in football, which rightly continues to illustrate matters of “sexualisation” and “stigmatization”, by considering football’s role in promoting cultures of violence amongst female participants and spectators.

Digital Football Cultures: Second Call for Chapters Eds. Stefan Lawrence and Garry Crawford

Abstract Submission: Friday 26th February, 2016 

Building on vibrant debates generated by the Digital Football Cultures stream at Football as Inclusive Leisure (a one day conference held at Southampton Solent University in May 2015 in conjunction with LSA and LMCFR), Digital Football Cultures will be a timely publication, bringing together scholars working at the intersections of football and leisure studies and digital cultures. As the digital revolution continues apace, emergent technologies and means of communication have presented new challenges and opportunities to the football industry. In turn, researchers active in a number of disciplines have responded and have carved out a new field of study in its own right. Despite the growing number of research papers which consider football and its relationship with digital culture, there are few dedicated texts which bring together key contemporary debates in one edited collection. Given the truly global reach and popularity of the beautiful game, made possible primarily by technological advancement, the need for a critical text is self-evident.

Proposed Focus

The proposed focus of the book will be on a range of conceptual and theoretical issues in football, especially those issues that emerge from or have been exacerbated by the digital turn. Each chapter should be guided by a theoretical framework and will address at least one of the following themes:

· Digital football fandom

· Football and social media

· Football (sub)cybercultures

Each theme will be further divided into sub-themes, which could include (but are not restricted to):

· (Hate) Crime and/ or Trolling

· Blogging

· Celebrity cultures and two-way communication· Digital Stadia

· Fan (h)ac(k)tivism and social movements

· Health and Well Being

· Identity and cyber-selves

· Moral panics (cyberhooliganism, football cyber-lads)

· Fan forums and online communities

· Resistance

· Privacy and freedom of speech

· Social justice

· Surveillance and control

· Transnationalism

· Video gaming

Submission guidelines

Submissions of abstracts of no more than 500 words should be sent to Dr Stefan Lawrence (digicoms@leisurestudies.org) by Friday 26th February, 2016. Please include the following in abstracts:

· Proposed article title· Proposed author names and affiliations

· Theme or sub-theme

· Rationale and aim(s) of chapter

· Principal body of literature/theoretical framework

· Proposed contribution to knowledge.

Key dates and publications timeline to follow after decision made on abstracts.

The Black Country and its contemporary relevance amidst a row about a flag

I was born in the Black Country, a region in England, west of Birmingham, and so were generations of my family before me. For those of you who don’t know, although the ‘exact’ boundaries of the Black Country are regularly disputed, it is generally accepted that the four metropolitan boroughs of Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley and Wolverhampton constitute the locality, today. Folklore dictates that the area took its name from the thick, black smog that idled across the region’s skies during the industrial revolution, a sight that prompted Queen Victoria to request her curtains be closed each time she passed through, what became known as, Britain’s industrial heartland. My favourite reading of the Black Country, however, is one that is less forlorn and offered in Francis Brett Young’s fictional novel Cold Harbour, which paints an elegant landscape, one that emerges from the labour of the industrial revolution:

The high ground along which the road ran fell away through a black, woody belt, and beyond it, for more miles than you can imagine, lay the whole basin of the Black Country, clear, amazingly clear, with innumerable smokestacks rising out of it like the merchant shipping of the world laid up in an estuary at low tide, each chimney flying a great pennant of smoke that blew away eastward by the wind, and the whole scene bleared by the light of a sulphurous sunset. No one need ever tell me again that the Black Country isn’t beautiful.

Surprisingly, serious and focused explorations of the Black Country have, in recent times, been infrequent. There are, however, abundant historical accounts of the Black Country and its customs and peoples, most of which read as chronicles, commissioned to record the region’s supposed coherent character: local people’s pride in its industrial landscape; a predominantly working-class community and culture; a geographical, linguistic and cultural independence, especially from nearby Birmingham; a belief in ‘community spirit’; an inimitable local cuisine; a unique sense of humour; and a distinct accent and regional dialect are all characteristics of ‘authentic Black Countryness’.

Despite a supposedly stable regional personality, local man, Phil Drabble, later of One Man and His Dog fame, warned most bluntly in the 1950s “the Black Country is fast becoming no more than a memory. For one thing it is no longer black”. Others, too, have expressed concern about the impending “extinction” of the Black Country and its rich industrial heritage and regional identity. Indeed, given the economies of the area are less and less reliant on those factories that produced the fumes which gave the region its name, it is easy to see how the idea of the Black Country might have limited significance for residents of the area, today. However, seemingly spurred on by such observations, a number of Black Country conservationist movements have arisen. From the Black Country Society and the Black Country Living Museum to, more recent innovations such as, the Black Country flag and Black Country Festival, the region is well served by a community of people invested deeply in its continuation.

As a proud Black Country ‘mon’, and as a scholar of contemporary Black Country identity, during my most recent research project into Black Country identities, I made a number of observations, which I would like to share with fellow regional enthusiasts. My first point relates to the sheer volume of books and resources available on the region dedicated to and catering for the nostalgia market. Book upon book, page upon page, historical accounts and black and white photographs featuring predominantly white working class men saturate the literature on the Black Country. The lack of up-to-date contemporary geographical, social and/ or cultural research and resources means the Black Country of today is relatively unknown and undocumented.

My second point relates to the contemporary conservationist movement, which operates alongside and arguably emerges from the region’s libraries of nostalgia, and its cultural crusade to ‘save’ the Black Country, by emphasising its historical significance. While I certainly do not object to the central organising principle of this mission – quite the contrary, I support the sentiment of such an endeavour  – I am however concerned by its focus on and tendency to romanticise the industrial revolution. The Black Country flag, for instance, is the perfect emblem of this epoch and the kind of Black Country the traditionalists want to breath life into; thus it is a useful place to begin to expand my second point. The Black Country flag, according to the 12-year-old girl who designed it, is supposed to symbolise the ironworkers who made chains, how the region was black by day and red by night and the Red House Glass Cone which was used for the production of glass. The flag pays homage to the past and says very little of the Black Country many of us live in now. A past that is often conveniently and rather romantically constructed as some kind of industrial working class haven. However, although I do not wish to deny the significance of such readings as markers of ‘heritage’, to me the Black Country, surely has to be more than simply its past given so many identify with it today?

Because of the anchoring of dominant understandings of the Black Country in yesteryear, I understand Patrick Vernon OBE’s comments and his frustration at how the flag is yet further evidence of how “we shy away from” certain aspects of our past, such as the slave trade. I, too, can see how the linked chains on the flag might be the result of a curriculum and cultural heritage uncritical of the region’s links to (white and black) slavery. Irrefutably, the evidence is there to link the region, and even its chains, to slavery. Now, this is certainly not to say that those who celebrate the flag are apologists for slavery or racist bigots, or that all of the people of the region at the time supported the slave trade; to reduce the debate to this level, as have a number of politicians and media, is wrong, divisive and dangerous. It is however to say, if our goal truly is to unite a population of circa one million people under a banner, we should be alarmed by the divisive and vitriolic condemnation of Vernon, a black Black Country man, which ensued after he dared remind us of the region’s links to the slave trade.

I found the backlash, stoked by the populist rhetoric of the Express and Star newspaper, against Vernon to be terribly ‘un-Black Country’ in that it goes against a number of stalwart tenants of the Black Country character historically rooted understandings ask us to be proud of: respect, solidarity and community. Most alarming in its quickness to contravene these unwritten regional social codes, was the response of Sandwell Council’s Darren Cooper, a white man, who told a black man: “It is simply wrong to say the flag is offensive”. Yes that’s right. A white man told a black man, whose ancestors were recorded as “chattels” (e.g. personal possessions), what he can and cannot find offensive. Other responses from posts by readers of the Express and Star were even more shocking:

If Chains are a symbol of slavery and therefore offensive, should we also find Cotton offensive since it was picked by slaves?

An ancestor of mine was eaten by cannibals and the pot was suspended by a chain over the fire and I find this chain offensive!!!!! Probably by one of Vernon’s ancestors.

Mr Vernon, please leave my country alone [my emphasis], you might possibly have been born in England but you certainly have no tradition.

People like Vernon make me sick. No one would ever think of this flag as a symbol of racism except someone like him

Why dont you go after the people who were making money from the slave trade, and leave alone the hard working people of the black country who were just doing what they could to survive.

If their is no racist problem they will prod and poke until there is one. How dare he call the Black Country and its good people racist. Grow up.

if [Mr Vernon’s family] are not prepared to accept our history and heritage, warts and all, then they are quite free to leave as I really cant understand why they are living here.

For the rest of the folk here in the Black Country, we see the flag representing our past industrial heritage, nothing more. if you CHOOSE to read more into the flag, that’s YOUR problem, but don’t try and make it OUR problem.

The point here must be that barely any of the coverage or responses engaged with Vernon’s main argument, which was, not to call anyone racist (given there is no such mention of the word in his communications on the issue) but, to ask us enthusiasts to accept, simply, the Black Country, was a place that profited from the slave trade, which undeniably parts of it did. And where there is an engagement there is a startling willingness to trivialise slavery, deny its severity, read allegations of racism into his comments and for respondents simply to “CHOOSE” to refuse the evidence. As Mairtin Mac an Ghaill would have it, there is a curious aspect of the British condition which causes selective amnesia, especially when something such as morally repugnant as slavery is attached to a region many construct their sense of self around.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the region needs a flag, despite howls from local MPs that assert it has brought together the region’s diverse communities. There is no evidence whatsoever to support these claims and, as such, they are at best anecdotal. As a son of the region, I’m able to make sense of it without a flag. The Black Country I feel apart of today is relevant to me because it helps mark a contemporary economic, linguistic, geographic and cultural independence from the rest of the world (especially Birmingham). My sense of belonging to the region owes only a very small amount to old iron ore production or chain-making; rather, my pride is found mainly in the Black Country’s multicultural and multifaith communities, who live peacefully together, and how it welcomed my father’s family when they arrived from Italy in the 1950s. Thus, while I acknowledge the Black Country’s links to the slave trade – a legacy we must accept alongside the region’s more positive artefacts, and teach to future generations, so they are not doomed to repeat it – this does not prevent me from identifying with the area and its peoples and cultures today, nor does it require me to hold ill feeling toward Vernon as a show of some sort of obligatory regionalist patriotism.

Having researched Black Country folks’ allegiance to the Black Country in some detail, my advice to those who wish to keep this strand of regionalism alive is to reach out to a wider demographic whose labour histories do not extend as far back into the geographical Black Country as others. To acknowledge the less savory aspects of the region’s history, without the fear it will somehow render the Black Country conservationist project morally bankrupt, is vitally important if we are to work towards a plural understanding of what it meanings to be from the Black Country today. A strategy I see as more progressive and inclusive. If we do not, the kind of Black Country the flag symbolizes – a world which no longer exists – will begin to resonate only with those who were raised on a diet of ‘faggots and peas’, and increasingly there are less and less of those people about. In simple terms I am arguing here for us to think collectively, across the region, geographically and ethnically, about the Black Country as a place rooted in the here and now, a region as much about the ‘Balti Mile’ as it is pork scratchings. Only that way will the region avoid its cultural boarders eventually regressing into the Black County Living Museum. I’m not sure if these culinary icons are suitable for any future incarnations of the Black Country flag but, on a serious note, they do speak to a need to move past icons of white labour histories as sole ‘authentic’ regional markers and to focus more on the multiple ways we might interpret Black Country identities today, whatever our gender, ethnicity or labour histories.

Higher education and the spectacle of excellence: An early career researcher perspective

City Campus, University of Wales, Newport

When I interviewed for a PhD bursary, as a 23-year-old, the interviewers asked me why I wanted to spend the next three years of my life researching and developing intellectually. My response, as a critical sociologist motivated by social justice, I rather naively thought, would have been one they’d heard before: I told them that upon successful completion of a PhD I believed I would be better placed to elicit positive social change. My perception of the academy then, as an outsider looking in, was one of an institution, rather than an industry, that produced new knowledge, challenged convention, a safe haven for those people who hankered for a better, fairer world. Oh how very naïve I was.

Now, I can say honestly that there are a plethora of wonderful people who I’ve encountered working in Higher Education (HE), who indeed challenge convention and who, through their work, strive to realise a better world. And I still contend that occupying a position in HE is indeed a very real privilege. However, having worked in the industry for a good while now, as a qualitative research assistant and as a lecturer and senior lecturer at two different institutions, I’ve come to realise that HE is a very different world to the one I had imagined.

At this point it’s important for me to assert that I’m not pointing fingers at any one institution. Rather this piece is an account of my experience of the sector as a whole, as a discourse and as a technology of control.

I was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD bursary, subsequent to the interview I mentioned earlier, and I completed the course successfully, circa 3 years after I started. During those three years, I was guided most expertly by my two supervisors, who, to this day, are academics, professionals and people who I admire. Even now, I still feel I owe them a great deal. But once I emerged from underneath their stewardship, and began to interview for full-time positions as a lecturer, I realised just what a wonderful job they had done, not just in nurturing my intellect but, in shielding me from the politics and operational misnomers, endemic across the sector. While existing, unknowingly, beneath a protective umbrella for the duration of my bursary – one which allowed me to focus on my scholarly endeavours – I realised quickly, in order to become “employable”, I had to develop a completely new ‘skill-set’ and lexicon.

My first few interviews were extremely eye-opening. While I did not expect to be sitting through another viva-type exercise, wherein my intellectual abilities were tested to their limits, I did expect some discussion around my philosophical approach to my scholarly work, my academic integrity and/ or an appraisal of the quality of my scholarly work. I was disturbed when no such enquires or questions were forthcoming. Instead, I became aware that what potential employers were most interested in was my use and knowledge of the language of neoliberalism: “student-centeredness”, “employability”, “enterprise”, “managing expectations”, “industry-facing curriculum development” and “key-person-dependencies” were all terms I had to master quickly if I was to be offered a job. As a critical sociologist, such language was difficult to grasp; in part because these ideas emanate from a cultural and economic paradigm I am not absolutely comfortable with and in part because, simply, these terms feel so empty. Both politically and ideologically.

Nonetheless, I did eventually achieve a full-time post. From then on I was further immersed in the politics and day-to-day operations, and pressures, associated with a HE institution.  Being at the mercy of student evaluations and National Student Survey (NSS) scores, for instance, was no longer a concern of more senior colleagues; they were pressures I was living with myself.

Here you might expect me to launch into some self-indulgent, defensive rant about poor student feedback results. I’m not. In fact, I’m usually very encouraged by the feedback I get from students and I’m often praised for being “entertaining” and “engaging” as well as “informative”. Indeed, one of the adages by which I live my life asserts that style (or spectacle and performance) is as important as (spiritual and/ or intellectual) substance. My point is this: those same feedback forms rarely delight, in quite the same sycophantic way, in my fostering of a culture which encourages deep-learning or intellectual and personal growth. Absolutely, it might be that this is an area of my teaching praxis that I need to improve on. Equally it might also reveal something less benign.  That is, the ’empowerment’ of students through such mechanisms as the NSS, in my view, inadvertently encourages a cult of personality, founded on aesthetic value, performance and spectacle. In simple terms, while being “entertaining” might produce excellent NSS results, and/ or further “enhance the student experience”, it says nothing of the my – or any other lecturer’s – ability to speak meaningfully, intellectually or informatively.

Understanding this also enabled me to understand why millions of pounds were being invested across the sector in new, shiny buildings. What is being delivered in lecture theatres across the country, as far as I can see, is becoming evermore subservient to how and where lectures are delivered. What is important to “the market” it seems, is spectacle. More precisely, a spectacle of excellence. The perception of substance, not substance itself. This thesis I contend can be rolled out across HE: from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to the UK Professional Standards Framework, what is important, is not necessarily the quality of scholarly publications and/ or the development of free-thinking, critical graduates but, the number of “research outputs” and the assurance lecturers are operating within national frameworks, supposedly designed to ensure teaching/ research excellence. In this sense, the myriad new buildings cropping up on university campuses across the UK, the perpetual development of evermore novel seeming digital technologies, such as virtual learning environments and 24-hour library services, are perfect metaphors for the sector’s longing for spectacle.

I do not wish to paint a picture of perpetual doom or to undermine the vast majority of academics who continue to devote their energies to cultures and learning environments rich with, what I have called, substance.  Moreover, I concede also that this piece will teach many well-established academics nothing new. Some may even support this move toward a neoliberal model.  Nonetheless, I do hope that this narrative offers something useful to current PhD students and/ or others aspiring to work in HE. Again, I cannot say strongly enough how extremely privileged I feel to do what I do. It is precisely because I care, therefore, I wish to place my thoughts and feeling on record so as to warn against moving wholesale toward a system that promotes style and spectacle, at the expense of substance.

Defending Malky: Can racism, sexism and homophobia ever be banter?

A few months ago, I wrote a piece focusing on comments made in private space by a number of high-profile white men, from the worlds of sport and entertainment.  The commentary sought to explain what discussions in private space reveal about the pervasiveness of racism and sexism in sport and beyond.  Just a short time later, yet more wealthy, influential white men, each of whom are prominent figures in the world of elite football, have had offensive private text messages made public. During a number of exchanges, which have now been made public, Malky MacKay and Iain Moody made a swath of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks about colleagues in the football industry, while MacKay was the manager of Cardiff City FC.

Once more, as was the case with Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore, MacKay has been forthcoming with an official apologetic non-apology. Within the statement he proclaims that the text messages in question, in which he referred to an official at another club “as a gay snake” and to South Koreans as “Fkn chinkys”, was intended as “friendly banter”. This is hardly surprising. Attempts to trivialise such bigoted and obvious expressions of prejudice are commonplace after a wealthy white man’s PR team advise him how best he might manage the situation.

What is slightly more surprising, although certainly not extraordinary given the track record of English football’s elite institutions in matters such as this, is the defence of MacKay which came in the form of a League Managers’ Association (LMA) statement:

“These were two text messages sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter … The LMA does not condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws but would also point out that out of over 10,000 text messages and 70,000 documents … it may not be a complete surprise that some inappropriate comments can sometimes be made by employees”.

Clearly, the LMA, too, saw MacKay’s actions as mere “friendly text message banter”. But even more peculiarly, the statement, which on the one hand, proclaims “not [to] condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws”, on the other, absolutely condones MacKay’s most putrid of exchanges on the premise he was “working under great pressure”. By the logic of this argument repugnant racist, sexist and homophobic views are “sometimes” absolutely acceptable when “letting off steam to a friend”. Like most of you reading this, I go to the gym to let off steam when stressed at work; my first thought isn’t to pick up my phone and go on a chauvinistic rant to my closest friends. They’d very quickly stop being my friends if I did! The LMA’s defence of MacKay is nothing more than a glorified “I’m not racist but …” self-indulgent rant and should be treated with the contempt it deserves.  

Any serious person would be outraged by the closing of ranks demonstrated by MacKay and the LMA, when such blatant and pugnacious views are made public. However, what both of these statements call for is a better appreciation of the nature and role ‘banter’ plays in sporting environments. In other terms, given it is offered often by those caught behaving inappropriately in sport and media contexts as a serious defence of their behaviour, à la Richard Keys and Andy Gray, the notion of banter deserves critical commentary.

But what is banter?  Well, one conception, the one which MacKay and the LMA are keen we accept, is that it is a playful, light-hearted and non-serious social interaction, which is framed by a genial and comedic tone. From this perspective, opinions expressed as banter thus supposedly reveal nothing about a person’s ‘true’ moral code. Indeed, banter is a handy social strategy, with positive connotations. In more elaborate terms, it is a concept which allows the likes of MacKay, and others who’ve had their morality shaped by (white, heterosexual, working-class) football cultures, to show affection  to fellow heterosexual men (often by embarrassing them through word or action) whilst appearing to deny it. Banter then is certainly an emancipatory social mechanism that permits men to circumvent traditional codes of masculine behaviour, which forbid sportsmen from expressing openly the enjoyment they find in other men’s company.  Far from being oppressive, banter can indeed be “friendly” and homosocial.

While this is true in part, it is dangerous to understand banter in such narrow terms. That is, we must also understand it, at times, as an insidious social mechanism, a (non)linguistic strategy which establishes, preserves and, in some instances, challenges relations of power in a team, organisation, industry or institution. For instance, players rarely ‘banter’ the manager and some players are ‘bantered’ by their peers more often and more aggressively than others. In this sense, banter is also a technology of domination used by particular individuals to express and exert power and establish superiority. Some incarnations of banter then are perfect archetypes of the Trojan horse: hate and prejudice parading as comedy. Again, this is not to deny that banter cannot be “friendly”. On the contrary, that is precisely why crying ‘banter’ is at times a reasonable defence in cases possessing more verbal ambiguity than that of MacKay and Moody. Nonetheless, what is for sure, racism, sexism and homophobia can never be “friendly” and, thus, if MacKay does wish to claim that his comments are “banter” they must be understood and condemned, at best, as Trojan horse-like or, at worst, labelled as clear, unequivocal bigotry. 

UKIP: Racism without the racists?

In light of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) recent successes at the local and European elections, a number of colleagues, friends, family and followers on social media have asked me whether I think UKIP are racist. My answer is always the same. Yes – UKIP is a racist organisation. A significant proportion of people have been surprised by my response; however, I am not similarly taken aback by their reaction to my assertion neither am I shocked that this question has been put to me so frequently over the last few weeks. I’ll explain why during this short piece.

Firstly, to deal with some of the more incontrovertible occurrences of individual racism emanating from UKIP members. Should a UKIP member instructing Lenny Henry to “emigrate to a black country” be considered racist? Yes. Is telling Nigel Farage that “Jewish bankers dominate the world” racist? Yes. Is the expression “bongo bongo land” racist? Yes. Is the following statement from a UKIP member racist: “Go home you free-loading, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking, baby-making, non-English-speaking ********* and take those other hairy-faced, sandal-wearing, bomb-making, camel-riding, goat-********, raghead ******** with you”. Well, irrefutably, yes.

Popular opinion would mostly agree that these kinds of bigoted attitudes, expressed about Black people, would constitute racism. That is because they fit neatly within old, colour–based conceptions of racism as something to do with a dislike or hatred of Black people. Hence, when such abhorrent opinions surface high ranking UKIP officials appear all too aware of this and act quickly to condemn the perpetrators for expressing such indisputably racist sentiment. Moreover, to further distance the party from these increasingly frequent individual micro-aggressions, UKIP professes actively to value highly-skilled Black, South Asian and East Asian people over certain peripherally white people – a position which distances them from the (even far-er) far-right British Nationalist Party. If one then continues to hold to the position that racism should be understood simply as “prejudice … directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”, it is unsurprising that some do not recognise UKIP as a racist organisation. In simple terms, given that it is the official party-line to supposedly celebrate, as opposed to deny, the talents of particular non-white peoples how could an organisation of this nature be considered racist?

So successful is UKIP’s articulation of its ‘anti-racist’ immigration control objectives (an oxymoron if ever I heard one) even the BBC’s chief political editor, Nick Robinson, seems to agree that the broader debate about EU migration (read: white migration), engulfing much of the UK, is indeed “not about race”. This attitude is especially worrying. That is because it fails to recognise how it is white people are indeed raced, and therefore must have something to do with ‘race’, or how differing white ethnic groups are racialised differently. Thus, if the position of Robinson is typical of others in mainstream media, UKIP will continue to receive very little in way of comeback when describing “Romanians” as benefit-stealing criminals or “Polish” people as low-skilled workers because simply it is assumed that these persons and countries are perceived by Britons as white. Failing to understand that UKIP’s vision of Europe as a two-tiered economic space, which has produced supposedly two distinctly different cultural-types of European countries and, importantly, peoples (wealthy, cultured and civilised Western, Central and Northern Europeans and impoverished, barbaric and uncivilised Eastern Europeans), is absolutely to do with ‘race’, legitimises UKIP’s supposedly ‘anti-racist’ position.

Indeed, racism should be understood as a belief in Black inferiority but it should also be considered in much more complex terms if we are to understand the nature of how discriminatory practices function in contemporary Western societies. It is therefore imperative to mark and name the racist practices and beliefs of UKIP and Farage to avoid what Mairtin Mac an Ghaill calls “racism without race”, which is a tendency to downplay the seriousness of xenophobia, jingoism and racialised forms of oppression simply because ‘new’ incarnations of racism do not fit neatly with the ‘old’. To ignore what is implicit within Farage’s anti-European rhetoric – a belief in Europe as a place populated by sub-racial categories of white people, whose cultures are inferior to those imagined to exist in Farage’s mythical little England – is to fail to recognise the sincerity of intra-racial racism and the inherently racist, divisive and contentious intent harboured by UKIP.

Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore: What discussions in private space reveal about the pervasiveness of racism and sexism.

In recent weeks, Donald Sterling (owner of the LA Clippers), Jeremy Clarkson (BBC presenter) and Richard Scudamore (Chief Executive of the Premier League) have found themselves having to defend unsavoury comments made during private communications. Apologists for these three men have taken quickly to radio, television and social media to support the accused, arguing simply: the overtly racist and sexist comments, made by each man, happened in private and were not intended for public consumption. For some then the argument must stop here. Supposedly, there’s no need for any further inquiry or analysis. The social context of the utterances renders them inconsequential. By the logic of this argument it is unimportant Sterling is troubled by his girlfriend “associating with black people”, that Clarkson saw fit to subject his co-workers to the ‘n’ word or that Scudamore, self-proclaimed activist in the “whole equality agenda”, thought it acceptable to ridicule “female irrationality” and crudely objectify women. No. For some, such as Bill Maher (in defence of Sterling), host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, and Michael Gove, Conservative MP (in defence of Clarkson), it would seem that if there is any debate to be had it is about the sanctity of private space. But it is hardly surprising that powerful, wealthy, white men have moved quickly to defend Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore’s right to privacy if these three men are representative of how powerful, wealthy, white men talk to one another.

As with all popular scandals of this nature, whereby well-known figures are exposed as mere mortals, like the rest of us non-mainstream media dwelling creatures, there is an obligatory PR offensive, concerned with damage limitation, spear-headed by an official apology. For instance, Scudamore’s apology reads:

“[The emails] were received and sent from my private and confidential email, which a temporary employee who was with the organisation for only a matter of weeks should not have accessed and was under no instruction to do so”

Sterling and Clarkson, too, made similar pleas asking the public to understand that their utterances were never meant to be heard outside of a private setting. Interestingly, Scudamore’s response, in particular, reads as much as a defence as an apology.  Clearly, he conveys in part that it is he who has been wronged in the wake of his private thoughts coming to light. His explanation asks readers to sympathise: he is a victim in this affair given that his private space has been breached by a third-party. Indeed, while this may be so a willingness to trivialise the significance of these recent revelations should be met with suspicion.

Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore are certainly not the first high-profile individuals to be caught-out. From ex-football manager and pundit, Ron Atkinson – who was recorded, off-air, racially abusing Marcel Desailly – to anti-racism campaigner, Paul Elliot – who resigned after using derogatory language whilst speaking with a friend – uncouth exchanges had in confidence are forever surfacing for all to see and hear. Given the regularity of these types of incidents therefore I take issue with those who seek to downplay the actions and utterances of those men in authority who have been caught in a less than favourable light. That is because implicit within apologists’ pleas for leniency, is a request to accept that an expression of prejudice is somehow less meaningful because of the social context. That because these crude and discriminatory attitudes originate in private space, it would be wrong to suggest that these men fight (and frequently or very occasionally fail) to supress similar exclamations in everyday, professional and public realms. This is not to suggest, nor indeed is it to deny, these men are concealing deliberately blatant and repugnant social attitudes. However, given these men, in the most unambiguous of ways, have been recorded articulating such explicitly offensive language/ attitudes, is it beyond the realms of possibility that sexist and/ or racist tropes inform subtly their world-views, subconsciously or otherwise?

I also take issue with commentaries critical of the three men that have failed to address sufficiently what these private outbursts reveal about the nature of contemporary racisms and sexisms. That is, the language used by each man should not serve as yet another prompt to deliberate the nuances of wealthy men’s right to privacy or, indeed, whether they should be labelled racist or sexist or not.  To proceed along these trajectories is to overlook something entirely more significant. My most pressing concern then is to flag these private utterances as symptoms of a cultural imperative, impelled by liberal social attitudes, which encourage people to shift bigoted and uncensored perceptions of women and racialised Others ‘underground’. In other words, racist/ sexist attitudes have certainly not disappeared from the human condition; quite conversely, they remain operative, languishing in secluded and secretive arenas, away from scrutiny, loitering unchallenged. Therefore, what was said by Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore, in private, away from the glare of the media spotlight, offers us – not necessarily insight into whether these men are, in the words of Les Back, “fully paid up card carrying Nazi[s]” but – momentary access into the social worlds powerful men inhibit and a fleeting glimpse at the types of conversations they perceive as normal, away from fear of reprisal. Far from being inconsequential, private speech therefore reminds those interested in matters of equality that the fight is eternally ongoing.

Now, undoubtedly, driving racism and sexism ‘underground’ has some positive outcomes. For instance, throwing a banana at a black football player, today, as was common in the 1970s and 1980s, would be considered acceptable behaviour by very few British people. This is perfectly in line with modern ‘no racism or sexism in public, please’ discourses. However, sadly, this does not mean ‘jokes’ about black people and bananas have disappeared entirely from private space. We should therefore be careful not to overstate the positive outcomes that liberal policies have produced over the last thirty years, especially those that shift prejudice elsewhere, and seek to understand discrimination in new ways. In short, a reduction in abhorrent overt racist or sexist behaviour and/ or language in public should not be taken as evidence of absolute social improvement.  Private space, and the goings on within, can indeed tell us much about the extent to which attitudes have changed and just how many, and what kind of, inroads have been made in the fight for racial and gender equality.