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‘Football fans are not just sheep’

A WORLDbytes report asks why official anti-racism in football in on the rise when actual racism in society is not.

Afolake Abu

Topics Politics

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Name-calling, tweeting and sharing on Facebook can now mean jail, especially if it’s football-related and involves an ‘ethnic qualifier’. Why is football being put in the frame in such a way? Does ‘racism’ today effectively just amount to bad language? Are we so sensitive we can’t cope with a few insults and need protection by the state? In a new report, Views on the News: Racism & Football, produced by citizen-TV channel WORLDbytes, young volunteers put these questions to Stuart Waiton, criminology lecturer and author of the new book Snob’s Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance, who makes the case for unfettered free speech on the terraces, on the pitch and beyond.

Waiton was asked how he would define racism, and what incidents in football he feels would fit this description. ‘I tend to think it is most useful to think about racism’, he replied, ‘as being a force in society when it is encouraged by powerful institutions, by politicians talking up nationalism, by discriminatory employers and police practices, and by immigration controls that target certain people, which they still do as it happens’. He talked about when he was involved in anti-racist politics in the Eighties: ‘One of the key things we did was campaign against deportations of so-called illegal immigrants. There wasn’t a focus on insulting language being shouted by people… it was much more about powerful institutions that were discriminating against black people.’

Ironically, Waiton pointed out, in his home country of Scotland, there are few if any campaigns against deportations or immigration controls, but the authorities have now banned football supporters from singing ‘home, why don’t you go home’ to opposing teams, as that is now seen to be racist. At the same time as such bans are implemented, he observed, ‘people from certain countries are still being deported as illegal immigrants’.

Given that is the case, Waiton was asked, is Britain actually as liberal as we would like to think? His response was that Britain has become much less liberal over recent years. He gave the example of a Rangers fan in Scotland who was imprisoned for simply calling Celtic fans nasty names on Facebook. According to Waiton: ‘We used to arrest people for causing physical harm to others. Today this has changed and we are being protected from offensive words and emotional harm, which clearly has worrying implications for basic freedoms and indeed for democracy itself.’

One of the WORLDbytes volunteers, Louise, expressed a concern that with society becoming increasingly sensitive to racial slurs, hardcore racism is actually being overlooked. Waiton agreed, claiming that becoming ‘anti-racist’ has now become ‘a kind of etiquette or form of politeness’, and young people that grow up in this time of hysterical sensitivity to nasty words ‘will be encouraged to become thin-skinned, chronically offended victims who increasingly tell tales on one another’.

But, another volunteer asked, perhaps we could teach football etiquette in schools and clubs in an attempt to try to discourage offensive language on the football pitches? This was seen to be problematic by Waiton, however, as he saw a drawback with official state anti-racism being taught in schools: ‘When my son started school at the age of five, he received classes on race awareness which simply appeared to create a difference, in his mind, between white kids and black and Asian kids in his class. Now, at the age of 12, he describes his best friend Shazaib as “bullet proof” because, while all the other kids call each other names, none of them will call Shazaib a name in case they’re seen as being racist.’

Waiton noted that some might see this as a victory for official anti-racist policies. However, he argued, it is better viewed as ‘a new form of difference that is being created by so called anti-racist institutions like schools’.

When asked if he feels racism in football is an indicator of racism in society, Waiton said he found it ironic that official anti-racism in football only took off when actual racism in society was dying down: ‘This modern official anti-racism is very different to anti-racism in the Eighties. Now it is less about challenging the racism of the authorities than about giving more power to the authorities to police our words and thoughts. I think racism has been redefined and now simply appears to be about name-calling. At the same time, black people are also being redefined as particularly vulnerable – or as people who are more easily offended and need to be protected from nasty words – which I think is patronising and simply a different type of caricature.’

In responding to concerns that racist language used on the football pitch could perhaps influence children, Waiton said we should be less worried about that. As children grow up, learn more, read, think, and interact with the world, he argued, they can easily shed old prejudices. ‘We are not sheep or animals’, he said, ‘we do not simply mimic other people’.

Afolake Abu is a volunteer for citizen-TV channel WORLDbytes.

Stuart Waiton’s book, Snob’s Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance, is officially launched at the Battle of Ideas festival, London, on Sunday 21 October.

Watch Views on the News: Racism & Football below:

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Topics Politics

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