Racism and Denial

I’m a big fan of podcasts, they make all the time I spend on public transportation ineffably more tolerable, and in particular I’m always trying out different football podcasts, looking for that perfect blend of entertainment and analysis. Last night I decided to try one called “God Save the Prem,” which turned out to be three USAmerican guys talking heatedly about the EPL. It wasn’t great but it held my attention well enough, they seemed to know what they were talking about (aside from the somewhat strange references to Leeds United as a “small club”) and certainly had strong opinions, which always makes for good listening in my view.

I was planning to subscribe and make it one of my regulars until they got to the topic of racism, unfortunately unavoidable these days if you’re talking about England and football. I always brace myself whenever such discussions begin, but so far I’ve generally been happily surprised by the mature and thoughtful discourse on the podcasts I listen to regularly. Sadly, not so this time. One of the participants claimed that football fans, Chelsea fans specifically, don’t know what they’re doing when they make monkey noises at black players, that they do so out of ignorance. Well, that was the end of my listening. Of course they know what they’re doing; the idea that they don’t is denial bordering on delusion. After the recent brouhaha over Kick it Out t-shirts, the English outrage over the racist behavior of Serbian fans (recently and in 2007!), John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, Louis Suarez and Patrice Evra, and the banning of numerous fans of numerous clubs in recent years from watching football because of their racist behavior, the idea that any English football fan could somehow still not realize the implications of shouting monkey noises is ludicrous. They know how offensive and inflammatory it is: why else would they do it?

I find it particularly telling that no one on any of the British podcasts I listen to has suggested such a thing, and I’ve been thinking about why that might be so. I don’t know enough about British racial politics to come to any definitive conclusions, but one idea I’ve had is that white USAmericans are deeply wedded to the idea that our country is a place of equality and equal opportunity: witness the popularity of so-called “colorblindness.” The fact that we have an amazing capacity for denial when it comes to inequality, racial and otherwise, is well-established. The possibility that people can knowingly and consciously be racist, people who should and do know better, challenges that denial. Furthermore, it connotes guilt in a way that ignorance doesn’t.  Ignorant people can’t be held fully accountable for their behavior; following that logic, one can even go so far as to blame people of color for not sufficiently “educating” their oppressors. Voila, no one white has to feel bad or take responsibility for the past centuries and continuing occurrence of race-based oppression. Self-aware racists can’t just be let off the hook that way though, and if they are guilty, then what about the rest of us, who continue to accept this racial status quo?

Perhaps white Brits have no such fantasy, or at least are less bull-headedly committed to it. I’m not saying there’s less racism in England; maybe there is, maybe there isn’t  I don’t know. I am wondering if it is a different kind, if it doesn’t hide behind a myth of equality the way USAmerican racism so often does. I’ve been told that Great Britain is a much more class-conscious society than the US (admittedly not a difficult feat) and that they are not as committed to believing in the potential for upward mobility and meritocracy as we are. Maybe that awareness of inequality extends to race as well. It’s just an idea; the one thing I know for sure is that I won’t be listening to that podcast again.