The racist abuse of football players is still, sadly, the ‘real England’

As the final penalty was saved on Sunday night and Buyako Saka stood forlornly, head in hands, for what must have seemed like an eternity before his teammates arrived to console him, I, too, found myself staring at the front of my own palms. Not because of the football – I had enjoyed the tournament, watched all but one of the games, and wanted this England team to do well, but I didn’t care about the result on the same visceral level as many ‘real’ football fans. No, the source of my despair was the fact that, of the five penalties the team had taken, two were scored (by white players) and three were missed (by black players). The skin colour of the players involved shouldn’t have entered my head, of course, but from the moment Marcus Rashford’s kick bounced off the post, the uneasy knot had already started to form in my stomach.

It was obvious what was about to be unleashed. That the nasty underbelly of this country was once again about to be laid bare was inescapable, inevitable, and Giorgio Chiellini had barely finished raising the trophy aloft before the n-word began to trend on Twitter.

What followed in the hours after the game was an unedifying mix of the most horrific racist abuse imaginable, bigoted dog-whistling from some Tory MPs and crocodile tears from others, attempts from some of those on the ‘right’ side of the argument to excuse, rationalise or minimise what we were seeing, and, somewhat unbelievably, The Sun trying to paint itself as an unshakable pillar of anti-racism. A mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester was daubed with racist graffiti. Far-right shitheads, desperate for a few hundred likes, snidely tweeted about how he should have been practising penalties instead of sticking his nose into politics. Know your place, Marcus. Know your place.

What this final really exposed is what black people, immigrants and other minorities have known all along: that their acceptance in this country is entirely contingent on their success. That is to say, not their own personal success, or any achievement that may benefit them in some way, but those successes that prove useful or desirable to the straight, white, cis, nominally Christian majority.

This multicultural team of caring, decent and talented young men had just made it all the way to the final of a major tournament for the first time in 55 years. They had matched a world class team – the team most had fancied to win it at the outset – for two hours, and in the end, the only way they could be separated from the early tournament favourites was by way of a penalty shootout. Had a couple more of those penalty kicks been successful, they would have been legends, icons, lions. We’d have been waking up on Monday morning to headlines lauding the courageous exploits of Sir Marcus Rashford, Sir Buyako Saka, and Sir Jadon Sancho, holding them aloft as a great symbol of national pride. Instead, we woke up to yet another stark reminder of how you only get to be black in this country on terms strictly defined by white people.

It’s so endlessly alarming how quickly the mood can shift, how little a young black man has to do to fall from our affections. This is exactly the same group of individuals who have brought us so much hope and joy and excitement and exhilaration over the past month. The same lads who delivered the 4-0 win against Ukraine and the historic victory against Germany. The same lovely, pure-hearted boys who have conducted themselves so impeccably throughout, who have given football – Englishness, even – back to those to whom it had been a stranger for so long. They’re the same young men in whose reflected glory the louts who booed them taking the knee, smashed up Leicester Square, stormed the security gates at Wembley, kicked an Asian man in the head as he lay helpless on the ground and inserted flares into their rectums would have been so happy to bathe, but for two kicks of a football. Two kicks of a football, which rendered them worthless to us, and therefore worthless. Two kicks of a football: the difference in this country between being a national hero and a, well, you know what.

Further, maybe less obvious, examples of this phenomenon could be seen the following day, as various well-meaning outlets posted images of Marcus Rashford helping out at food banks and praising his work in forcing the government u-turn on free school meals last year, alongside messages decrying the racist abuse he was suffering. But this, too, misses the point. His charitable work is utterly irrelevant in this context. If he had never lifted a finger to help anyone but himself, it still wouldn’t be ok to racially abuse him, and we shouldn’t be expecting black people to be superhuman before we’ll treat them as human. Racist abuse is always wrong, whether it’s directed at a saintly figure like Rashford or an intrinsically evil one like Priti Patel. It’s just wrong.

Sadly, though, it is still, in 2021, a defining feature of English society, and it’s far from just a ‘football problem’ (though it is undoubtedly worse in football than anywhere else). There were those who were breaking their backs in the aftermath of all this horribleness to stress that it was just a ‘tiny minority’ of people who were ‘not real fans’. Not only is this patently incorrect, it feels like a very deliberate attempt to absolve ourselves – the good, decent people – of any responsibility for the fact that we live in an undeniably racist country.

In the wake of the Sarah Everard murder, I wrote a piece in which I compared misogyny to a pyramid, with the relatively few rapists and murderers of women sitting at the top, but propped up by those ever-wider layers of people underneath who carry out, actively condone or passively tolerate various lower-level acts of misogyny. The same analogy can be applied here.

Yes, it was a very small minority of the overall population who took to Twitter and Instagram to post monkey emojis and racial slurs on Sunday evening, but that is self-evidently far from the whole picture. We live in a country where the letters BLM – Black Lives Matter – are met with widespread derision and demonisation. We live in a country where the likes of Rod Liddle and Richard Littlejohn make a living as journalists, and very few in the profession ever bother to call out their consistently and nauseatingly vile content in any meaningful way. Indeed, the vast majority of the press in England is either overtly or surreptitiously racist, and huge swathes of the population gleefully purchase or click on their content, lapping up their divisive winks and nudges like so much runny dogshit. We live in a country where those seeking to escape violence, oppression and persecution are routinely vilified, criminalised and othered, and where parties who promise to deal with them harshly are more likely to achieve electoral success. We live in a country where ‘free speech warriors’ routinely take to the internet to shriek about ‘cancel culture’ because an episode of a 1980s sitcom that contains a racial slur is no longer broadcast, or because they’re not allowed to wear black face at the office party. We live in a country where people who are not white experience worse outcomes in terms of education, health, employment and criminal justice, and where a government-commissioned report dismisses any structural explanations for this, but instead uses racist tropes to shift the responsibility back onto the victims. We live in a country where the Prime Minister is a man whose pre-government career was characterised by the regular farting out of newspaper articles in which he compared Muslim women to bank robbers, referred to black children as ‘piccaninnies’ and argued that colonialism in Africa should never have ended. He now enjoys an 80-seat majority in parliament because enough of us either don’t care about his fairly obviously racist ideals, or, in many cases, enthusiastically support them.

The psychologist and author John Amaechi famously said quite recently that our culture is defined by the worst behaviour we will tolerate. Our culture is currently a thoroughly unpleasant one, in which the most appalling behaviour is not only tolerated, but blithely accepted. This is not a ‘tiny minority’. Or anything like. Racism is woven into the very fabric of our society. It is ubiquitous, allowed, excused and often celebrated. It’s who we are. If you’re genuinely sitting there and arguing that this isn’t the ‘real England’, you are a fairly significant part of the problem, and a long period of education and introspection is required.

There is some good that can come of this, though. The inclusiveness of this English team, the way they’ve used their platform to promote the message that they represent all communities, religions, sexualities and ethnicities, and how clear they’ve made it that they do not want the support of those who don’t share those values, provides a much-needed glimmer of hope. Tyrone Mings’ timely and powerful condemnation of Priti Patel’s hypocrisy was refreshing to see, and there’s a tentative sense that they are starting to galvanise those with anti-racist beliefs around their measured but stubborn advocacy.

It can’t all be left to them, however, and it’s up to us, the beneficiaries of the inherently racist society in which we live, to take the fight forward. It shouldn’t be down to black people to carry out the emotional labour necessary to bring about an end to a problem created, promoted and sustained by white people. It is not enough to be ‘not racist’. You don’t win any prizes for managing to get through the day without saying the n-word. And burying your head in the sand, hiding behind protestations like ‘not true fans’ and ‘not the real England’, is helpful only in assuaging your own conscience whilst perpetuating the white supremacist culture that brought about Sunday’s ugly scenes.

Pride Month 2021: Step the fuck up or fuck the fuck off

We did it, queers! We solved homophobia! Transphobia no longer exists and biphobia is a thing of the past! Praise be to Billy Porter that we can now put the long fight for LGBTQ equality behind us and focus on more important things. Like brunch. And interior design.

Yes, this Pride Month has seen almost unanimous appropriation of the rainbow flag by governments, charities, public bodies and private businesses alike, which must mean they all unequivocally support our community and every individual of which it is comprised. Except when doing the absolute bare fucking minimum is a bit difficult for them, of course, in which case they promptly release a statement saying, “Fuck this, homos, you’re on your own.”

I wrote last year about how challenging Pride Month had been for LGBTQ people, how many of us were isolated from our support networks, cut off from our friends and those we might think of more as family than the people with whom we share our DNA, excluded from the only spaces in which we can really be our whole selves. That remains true this year for those of us who have resisted the urge to throw caution to the wind as a more transmissible and at least partially vaccine-resistant Covid-19 variant spreads through the population, but even with the relaxation of the rules some of us have enjoyed, this year’s Pride Month seems even more bleak and depressing than the last.

At the time of writing, we still have nearly a week of June left, and we’ve already seen a seemingly interminable parade of performative allyship that folds in the face of even mild resistance from those who would do us harm. Company after charity after governing body after politician, lining up to demonstrate that they care about us deeply, but only when it’s easy or convenient for them to do so.

It goes without saying that corporate rainbow-washing during Pride Month is nothing new – it’s the same every year – but it feels like there’s been a fairly significant shift this year. Like we’re slipping backwards. Like the examples of organisations using us to tick a diversity box then shitting on us from an orbital height seconds later have been so relentless and egregious that it’s hard to believe they’ve all been crammed into the same month.

Earlier in the month, the official Twitter account of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme tweeted a supportive message to LGBTQ youth, in which they posted links to some charities where they could seek help and advice if they needed it. Charities including Stonewall and Mermaids, for example. Needless to say, this prompted a fierce backlash from the fundamentally evil but well-coordinated transphobes of social media, whereupon @DofE decided to quietly delete their tweet, thereby clearly articulating how much they really value the young queer people on their scheme.

A few days later, after tweeting a message about how much they respect and cherish their LGBTQ students, it emerged that academics employed by the Open University had set up something called the ‘OU Gender Critical Research Network’. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology, ‘gender critical’ is a term transphobic bigots have ascribed to themselves to lend their hateful bullshit a veneer of respectability. And with some success, it has to be said. Whether or not the OU have officially sanctioned this network is unclear, but they have not, to the best of my knowledge, taken any steps to distance themselves from it.

The Royal Academy, their official Twitter account replete with rainbowy loveliness, announced a couple of weeks ago that they would not be restocking the work of a particular artist in their gift shop following concerns about transphobic content on her social media pages. Cue the howls of indignation from those who spend their entire lives trying to strip rights, dignity and appropriate healthcare options away from trans people, followed by the Royal Academy folding like a fucking deckchair and issuing an apology that they had compromised the bigots’ right to free speech.

UEFA, after insisting from their Pride-pigmented Twitter account that football is ‘everyone’s game’, launched an investigation into German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for wearing a rainbow armband during one of their Euro 2020 group games. They eventually backed down on this after a fairly significant public outcry, accepting that the armband was a symbol of diversity, and therefore not political.

Which made it all the more enraging when they refused a request from the Mayor of Munich for the Allianz Stadium to be lit up in rainbow colours for Germany’s match against Hungary. Their reasoning, somewhat fucking perplexingly, was that such a gesture would indeed be political because Hungary’s government is so proudly and vocally homophobic.

So we’re left with the situation whereby UEFA are expecting us to accept that a symbol of support for human rights is not political, but where that same symbol might upset those who seek to deny us those rights, it becomes political and is therefore impermissible. This is, of course, an entirely coherent and legitimate position, much like, for example, “Yes, we obviously agree murder is wrong, but please keep those opinions to yourself in the presence of my friend, the murderer.”

I’ve heard lots of people saying over the past few days that human rights are never political, but I’m not sure I agree. I tend to think such issues are inherently political, they’re just not remotely fucking complicated. There’s a right side and a wrong side, and it ought to be very simple for anyone with a shred of basic decency to decide which is which.

Everything we do – or, equally importantly, do not do – where equality is concerned is a political act. Choosing, for example, to allow a country with an authoritarian, homophobic, transphobic government to host games in your football tournament is a political act. Refusing to allow another country to respond by saying, “We support the LGBTQ community even if you don’t,” is a political act. So-called neutrality on matters of human rights is never that – it’s simply a means of enabling those who would oppress others to carry out that oppression. Silence is complicity, inaction is tacit support.

This applies across the board, whether you’re the governing body of European football bowing to pressure from a homophobic government, a charity claiming to defend a persecuted minority then backing down because it’s too difficult for you to stand up to ‘gender critical’ trolls, or an individual deciding to stay out of the ‘transgender debate’ (ugh) because it’s ‘too complicated’ or ‘too controversial’.

We face this shit every day of our lives. For some of us, it is our lives. We don’t get to opt out.

I have every possible Twitter filter dialled up to 11, but I still receive daily homophobic abuse. Vile comments equating me to a paedophile, doubting my suitability to parent my own child, wishing me dead. And that’s just the stuff that makes it through the ‘quality filter’. And the thing is, I’m one of the lucky ones. For all the toxicity I deal with every day, it’s but a fraction of that experienced by the average trans person. By choosing to ‘stay out of it’, you are making a conscious decision to allow that abuse to continue, and to continue with your silent blessing. If that’s not a political act, nothing is.

The days of performative allyship have to come to an end. If a rainbow flag and a ‘Happy Pride’ is the best you can manage, we don’t need you. It is utterly fucking exhausting to have to sit here every June and watch organisations and individuals cosplaying support for our rights without lifting a single finger to advance them in any meaningful way. And it’s as infuriating as it is exhausting to see the creeping normalisation of attacks on our community, sheathed in the language of ‘free speech’ and ‘legitimate concerns’, while those who profess to have our backs passively allow (or actively encourage) it to happen.

It falls to all of us to do better. This is especially true for those who seek to profit from the use our symbols – whether financially, professionally or politically – but there’s also plenty we can do as individuals to ensure our allyship is more than just lip service.

Educate yourselves. ‘It’s complicated’ is not an excuse. Follow trans, non-binary and other queer accounts on social media. Listen – really fucking listen – to what those accounts are saying about their lives, their rights and the abuse they face just for existing. Do a fucking Google. Donate to LGBTQ charities, and call out those who profess to support us but fail to do so when the going gets tough. Write to your MP to express your support for GRA reform and a conversion therapy ban. Don’t buy, subscribe to, or visit the websites of newspapers that promote anti-LGBTQ content (this includes the fucking Guardian). Resolve to never, ever vote Conservative (though I accept that certain other parties aren’t much better in this regard). Refuse to back down in the face of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic hate. Don’t raise the profile of hateful people by arguing with them online. Block the bigots and post something positive on your own account in response. Speak out in your homes, workplaces and friendship groups. Make it clear that you are someone who will always strive to promote the rights of LGBTQ people, and that you will not tolerate those who wish us ill. Lose friends, if you have to. Saying, “Julie is a really nice person who helps me with the kids, she just doesn’t want trans women in ladies’ toilets,” doesn’t cut it. Pick a fucking side. Pick a side and fight for what’s right, even when it’s difficult, because that’s what it means to be an ally. 

If it’s easy, you’re fucking doing it wrong.