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We’ll dress how we want

The fancy-dress furore at Hartlepool shows that football anti-racism has sunk to a new low.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Free Speech

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The offence family continues to grow. In football, we’re all too familiar with ‘You can’t say that’, ‘You can’t chant that’, and, more recently, ‘You can’t tweet that’. Now meet their sartorial sibling: ‘You can’t wear that.’ Hartlepool fans were the latest group of supporters to fall foul of the Etiquette Inquisition. Their crime? Wearing reggae-themed fancy-dress outfits. Yes, really. It’s beyond satire.

Admittedly, wearing fancy dress to a football match is not to everyone’s taste. It’s not particularly cool and carries a whiff of David Brent-style wackiness. But, whatever your personal taste, it’s a longstanding tradition for football fans to wear fancy dress on the final day of the season. The trophy cabinet at Hartlepool United might be bare, but the fans of the League Two side deserve medals for exemplary synchronised fancy dress. In recent seasons, they’ve dressed up as oompa loompas, smurfs and penguins. Last year, Plymouth was treated to the surreal spectacle of hundreds of Pools fans dressed as Thunderbirds puppets descending on the town.

This season’s fancy-dress concept, however, has sparked a huge race row. The chosen theme for Hartlepool’s final game, away at Carlisle, was Bob Marley and reggae. An affectionate tribute to a legendary musician you’d have thought. Who could possibly object to that? Well, the anti-racist group Kick It Out for starters. This killjoy lot never miss an opportunity to take offence. Acting on a handful of complaints from Pools fans, Kick It Out issued guidance to both Hartlepool and Carlisle United, telling them that any fans who black-up should be refused entry. ‘We clearly outlined that “blacking up” has historically been a way of acting out racist stereotypes, and while the theme planned by fans may be well-intended and chosen as part of an annual fancy-dress tradition, such behaviour, if it occurs, is likely to cause offence’, it said in a press statement.

Kick It Out’s pomposity is staggering. What gives it the right to tell football clubs who they can and can’t admit to the ground? It evidently sees itself as the self-appointed offence police. Viewing the world, as it does, through race-tinted spectacles, Kick It Out sees racism where most of us see an innocuous fancy-dress party. If Pools fans had dressed up in Ku Klux Klan costumes, then Kick It Out might have had a point. But wearing rasta colours and dreadlock wigs? Oh please! The organisers didn’t encourage fans to black-up. Kick It Out’s patronising warning implicitly assumes that Pools fans are so backward and naive that they need a lecture on the racial connotations of ‘blacking up’. John Pearson, one of the organisers of the reggae theme, said ‘It’s a bit offensive to suggest we were going to “black-up”. I’m not sure why anyone would even do that. I think someone has contacted Kick It Out and the whole thing has got a bit out of control.’ Jack Morley, a 21-year-old lifelong Hartlepool fan, told me that Kick It Out’s ‘threatening’ statement ‘had the inadvertent effect of focusing a lot of negative press on the club and its fans’.

Is Hartlepool a hotbed of racism? It doesn’t appear to be – unless you count monkey-hanging as a racial crime. Last season, not one single Hartlepool fan was arrested for racist chanting. That’s right – zero arrests. Carlisle manager Keith Curle, one of the few black coaches in English football, was nonplussed by the furore. ‘I’ve been to fancy-dress parties when white people have dressed up as Bob Marley’, he said. ‘I haven’t been offended.’ In the event, Hartlepool’s visit to Carlisle passed off without incident. Nobody blacked-up and no one was refused entry. ‘On the day itself, it felt that there were fewer fans getting dressed up in costume, but I think this was due more to the lack of a single, uniform costume rather than moral outrage’, Jack Morley explained. ‘There were no problems on the day, apart from the players’ coach breaking down.’

The whole farcical episode perfectly illustrates the putrid state of contemporary anti-racism. It’s no longer a progressive struggle for equality. Instead, anti-racism has degenerated into behaviour policing, a purge of inappropriate words, gestures or, in this case, fancy dress. It doesn’t matter if no offence was intended. Since the 1999 Macpherson Report into the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, the absence of intent – mens rea, in legal parlance – is irrelevant. We can be guilty of ‘unwitting racism’. Nor does it matter whether black people are actually offended. Macpherson defined as racist ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. This subjective definition of racism has spawned an industry of professional offence-seekers who take it upon themselves to decide what is and isn’t acceptable language or behaviour. The net result isn’t a more tolerant society. It has cultivated a fearful climate in which people don’t feel free to say what they think. But enough is enough. I don’t want to live in a society in which wearing the wrong type of fancy dress can get you into trouble. It’s time we told the behaviour police to butt out. We’ll sing what we want and we’ll dress how we want.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

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Topics Free Speech

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