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.


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

  1. Am gonna sound like an apologist now but the socialization of people of a certain age has much to explain. I am Spanish and I imagine things pass similarly in England as they do here in Spain I know that in the football here the appearance of the English player Dalien Atkinson of Real Sociodad cause a mountain of racial abuse. This was people of older than me for sure. The Top Gear man is an international hero he should know better than this but I don’t know his background. Where the boss of the football is from I do not know but for me can worse as he grew up in a mixed gender society. Not all of us grow up in societies so diverse that learn to accept difference easily. In a way poor Atkinson was a pioneer – it should not be necessary but that is the way it is. We have women experts of football who are on television. But only when society has completely cleaned the prejudice of the past can we accuse the individual for sure in public or private. Despite I say that the Top Gear guy seems to not learn!

  2. The bottom line IS none of these men can apologize or ask for forgiveness what was said in private..They meant IT..All they are sorry for IS that their private thoughts were revealed..So shove their apologies..Should there be space in our lives that is private? As Bill Maher argues..And btw I dig Maher alot..Sure , privacy is an awesome wonderful thing! BUT when one is an owner of an athletic team that is compromised of ALOT of Black folks? One’s private matters & thoughts can matter..Alot! Truth be told? Alot of Black folks KNOW that racist beliefs are believed IN even when not voiced…It is a deep seeded issue in our country that will take far longer than the cazillion years since the civil rights deaths/years/blood shed to come about..Apparently and sadly..Some of us weren’t shocked ; actually alot of us! that Sterling and others felt this way..It is par for the course. Sadly..The apologies are even more pathethic! They aren’t sorry for the way they feel; only that they were busted.And that it has cost them tons of moolah! Such is life…Some folks don’t realize from where they come from…All civilization springs forth from Africa. Self hate must be the worst kind of hell on earth

  3. I agree that people should have a right to privacy but Clarkson for example was at work when he said what he said. So everyone must listen to his comments whilst the camera is off? If he was at home in the company of friends/ family that is one thing but he was filming with a crew. These people need to be pulled up or they will continue doing as they please.

  4. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Yeah in closed doors if we make of habit of perpetually making fun of others that’s ok, right? Esspecially, if they are people we never have to answer too or respect and we go around with a megalomaniac thrill thinking we control their lives. What a blatant shame.

  5. we all are prejudice to a point. It starts when we are young and even if we fight it, it is there. Do we have the right to put down anyone? Do we really want to cast the first stone? Sterling is Jewish and what he said hurts me for I am a Jew. Did not the Germans use the poison words to justify the holocaust? Life is a special gift and should never be trivialized. We need to think before we talk and our actions should be reflective to our position in life with God in mind. Would God say those things?

  6. “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops.”
    God said that, so you know it’s true. He never sait’s our job to repeat all the negative stuff we hear, though, and accuse people. We’re supposed to treat everyone like we would want to be treated, if we were in their shoes. Mercy over judgment.

  7. I will comment here each citizen has the right to free expression, each has a right to privacy and even criminals are guaranteed legal advice before speaking and if they speak before being informed of these rights; then that evidence is unacceptable in all legal proceedings. African Americans say they feel degraded by the n word, so I must seriously ask why ? On street corners in bars I hear so many using the evil word, while white patrons look on appalled, I wonder and I ponder why is it ok for one to use the offending word? they should be setting the example ,but no. So much laughter at comedians who use it in their acts.. Or rappers when they use it with verbal expletives attached. No I ponder that perhaps it is much akin to a way to control society as a whole and make demands for past injustices. It is being used to take revenge. the thought squads are out the word police are watching just as Hitler had his brown shirts, we have the liberal crates policing us all then stirring up the mod to destroy. I do not see anyone turning the other cheek but many attacking and seeking to destroy. en is the problem almost everyone no everyone has at some point said the N word, so I ask let he who is without sin cast the first stones, seems in a nation of Christian his teaching is lost on the deaf and blind. but averse hate greed envy and jealousy rule the people….

    • Difference being white people come from a position of power. This white rich man was using it to be derogatory a whole group of people, and this is why it is bad. He was being a racist, jerk. He thinks he is better than a black person, therefore he can call them whatever he wants. A person can choose what to call themselves and the instance of a black person using the n-word, they are taking it back and re-framing it. Turning it on it’s head. Similarly some woman use “bit*h” to reclaim the word, and appropriate the insult into something else.

      • So you feel everyone should be held accountable for their use of offending words no matter when where or how. should we place micro-phones in homes, restrooms bedrooms. should we have federal thought squads patrolling our neighborhood asking each person if they heard anything offending? are you old enough to remember the Nazi Party and the secret police and the brown shirts. In my youth I was taught to forgive and forget for if you retain the anger that the ignorant gave you in that insult he or she has won, but if you forgive and step over and out of it you show your superiority to those seeking your harm. If you embrace the anger you lose; if you reject it and forgive the weak pitiful fool you have a victory.
        as to sterling and those others you call jerks they are in their eighties they have seen changes and been part of the changes. never be to quick to judge someone one day you may be in the same position having to defend something you said privately to someone you trusted.
        My bottom-line is this it is an offending word then do not use it or use its oldest meaning of ‘beauty’ odd how man can twist a name into a dirty thing by choice, I choose to see the beauty and forgive the ignorant they won’t be here much longer now will they


      • I don’t know about microphones in homes, but I see the First Lady wants kids to monitor what their elders say and correct them for wrong thought.

      • that has been a hall mark of all Fascist regimes, blame other spy on the civil population restrict gun ownership, chose one group to demonize as evil and focuses attention on them as the reason for all of the wrongs. seems they if the criteria.

  8. Thank you for this post!
    “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”
    I agree.

  9. Reblogged this on Berna's Vibe~The Way I See IT and commented:
    …”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…” Snippet from this excellent commentary by Stefan Lawrence ..A mouthful , indeed! ..When private discussions are revealed; it clearly reveals how alive & well racism is in America..And the struggle continues to overcome! >>Re-blogged by Berna from the Stefan Lawrence blog

  10. I agree that private thought and speech is an indication of true intent (The Bible puts it more eloquently than I could: For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

    *HOWEVER* I do wish to put in my defence of Clarkson. It is NOT that he ‘used the N-word’; if he had, then I would not be defending him. He started to say a counting rhyme that *I* used as a child, that EVERYONE in his age bracket used as a child; that even my six year old son uses – albeit with the offending word now changed to ‘tiger.’ And when he realised his mouth had got to a word that was offensive, his brain kicked into gear and he tried desperately to change it, to NOT use it. He did not start out to use the word, he was not using it to refer to any person in fact, but was caught out by an ingrained rhyme that he had learned as a child.

    I do not wish to defend anyone using offensive language, nor do I make any claim for Clarkson’s heart or intention in any other time or place. But I do think, in THIS case, it is unfair to pillory him as he has been.

  11. Whilst I don’t agree with the opinions that were voiced by Clarkson or Sterling (not heard of Scudamore), I also don’t agree with people being chastised for opinions they have raised in their private life. Everybody has opinions about certain things that are not necessarily in line with the status quo, that cannot be changed. What I believe you must do, however, is not express these opinions in the public forum, which none of them did.
    I feel like western media is becoming more and more extreme in its self-righteousness, and the way these cases get handled is far too much like a witch hunt for my liking.
    If we say we are for tolerance and equality, that shouldn’t just extend to other people with the same amount of tolerance and equality – it should extend to everybody!

  12. Great article. I mean, my problem with the Clarkson thing is that he’s gotten away with so much in the past, and yet, when he seems to make a legitimate accident, he faces a firing squad. I get the reasons why, and don’t worry, I hate the man, but, why now and not all those times before? All those times when he meant to offend large swathes of society. I dunno’. Anyway, wrote a poem about Clarkson, ya’ might like it:

  13. “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.” – No, they can’t. They’re private. That’s the point of private space. While the ‘leaking’ of private information or viewpoints may confirm or deny some perception – circumstantial as it may be, of some ‘wealthy person’s attitude’, it does not qualify as an indicator of considered opinion. To suggest that the casual off the cuff remark, or the interrupted realization one is transgressing propriety (as in the case of Clarkson) who never said, ‘Nigger’, is somehow revealing of deeper and systematic racism or sexism is a leap too far. One is no less likely to discover a casually insensitive remark falling from the lips of a campaigner for racial and gender equality than any ‘wealthy white men’ a phrase dripping of racial and classist overtones if ever there was one. Surely, we have ample examples of overt racism and gender imbalance and prejudice with which to deal, the private world should remain so. Recent acceptance of the revealed private utterances of the well known or ‘powerful’ – out of context and without their consent does no one any good frankly. One should not confuse stupidity with malice.

  14. I think the pendulum has swung a little too far, cannot you see that those in power use such blind prejudice as part of the destruction of ‘Freedom of Speech’.
    The foundation of all freedom:
    Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of a democratic society. It is the most important of all freedoms. It is the foundational freedom upon which every other right we enjoy – from the right to vote to the right to protest – is built. Without the freedom to think, write, publish, depict and debate as we see fit, all our political and social rights become meaningless.

  15. You can choose to be a victim, or NOT.

    Being BLACK, FEMALE, ASIAN, WHITE, MIXED-RACE, or a red-head/copper-top/ginger nut as I am, does not make you (or me) a victim. I choose NOT to be.

    I am tired of people expecting others to be what they are not, and expecting someone else to fight their fights for them. Get a backbone is what I say.

    At 7, I was smaller than all the other kids, at ten, I was still smaller, at 15 I was the smallest in my class, and at 16, I got offered a job as an apprentice jockey, weighing just 6 Stone 7lbs (Circa 91lbs for those from the U.S. or 41½ Kilos) I learned to fight back and that was usually the last time I was picked on.

    People are socialised from the age of ONE to the age of around their mid-20s.

    Socialisation continues after this time/age, but as with any change, it can be a slow process, and as the old adage goes – “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

    NOT that I am suggesting Clarkson et-al are dogs (though you might) but those born since 1970, who have been brought up with different societal values ought to take a step back and realise, that middle-aged white men are not the only prejudiced people on the planet.

    India suffers from stereo-typing – via the Indian equivalent of the class structure – the Caste System. Idi Amin, kicked out all the Asians for being too successful, Robert Mugabe sent his storm-troopers into white owned farms, and almost destroyed his economy in the process, turning Zimbabwe from Africa’s bread-basket, to a basket-case economy all in the cause of prejudice.

    The whole of the middle-east is riven with hatred, because the people they live with are not like them. Many Chinese too, see themselves as superior to many South-East Asian nations, even if Mao tried to extinguish some of that with the communist value system, and killed circa 60million people in the process. The North Korean establishment seems to think that many of their ihabitants are beneath them, and so it goes on.

    We cannot, nor should we expect to change the thought patterns of those who having lived a long life and become relatively successful due to them applying themselves consistently over long periods – just because we think they should be able to do for themselves, and we disagree with them.

    People’s views are borne of education and experience. It is up to those who seek to change those views to educate, and persuade those others of the error of their judgements. Admonition, or public denegration won’t do that,

    Classifying things is how we generalise about things. All fish swim in water – except those who also swim on land – such as mud-skippers, and all birds fly, except there are some who also swim underwater – does that make them fish? And what about those who don’t fly, but merely run fast like Ostriches?

    A simpe slip of the tongue while using an old nursery rhyme that those under forty have not perhaps even heard let alone said, is not (In my view) a reason to write to the extent that has been written, when there is so much more wrong with the world.

    I might in closing use an expression used from a book cover I read recently “SUMO – Shut Up, and Move On.”

    And to paraphrase Tony Blair – Educate, Educate, Educate!

    Anything else is just censorship, and therein lies tyranny.



    (Sorry noticed some errors in my last post.)

  16. Pingback: Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore: What discussions in private space reveal about the pervasiveness of racism and sexism | Solent Sport Blog

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