Friday, 6 February 2009

Misunderstood, funny or racist?

Iain Dale, following an appearance on Today yesterday, has a debate on his blog about where lines should be drawn in terms of making reference to race. This is actually a very serious and overly emotive matter that we need to be grown-up in addressing- Iain is perfectly right to encourage discussion about this. He draws attention to the following post:
So consider this: it’s the last ten minutes v Hull, everyone’s up for a corner and in goes Cole, Boa Morte, Ilunga and Faubert, a bit of melee and the ball goes out of play. Bloody hell, I said, no idea what happened there it was just a forest of black, shaven heads. I know said my mate, it’s like looking down on a box of matches from here. Now I think that’s funny, and NOT racist. But dissect it on Radio 4 for a couple of hours and see where it ends up. Bored already.
Now, is this comment misunderstood, funny or racist? Well, it's clearly not in any way funny. There is no misunderstanding: he has lost sight of the ball and chooses to make reference to the fact that he lost sight of it in the midst of a group of black players. So is it racist?

Just imagine that you are a black father there on the terraces with your son and you both hear the 'matchbox' comment. How is your son going to react? I would imagine, and different people do react in different ways, that his son would feel hurt. Barack Obama describes the experience of casual remarks of a racial nature- in relation to hair, clothes, walk, manner, etc- as like being 'hit in the stomach.' That son could well feel like they had been hit in the stomach. And how embarrassed and angry would the father feel?

The person who made the remark may not be racist and may not have meant any harm. However, the issue is not if any harm was meant. It is if the comment is likely to cause hurt. 'Is likely' is key because I don't think you can apply an 'if it offends anyone, then it's wrong' test. If it is likely to cause offence then it is really neither here nor there what was 'meant.' There are no exact standards and it's murky but this seems like a sensible rough guide.

I do actually consider the comment to be racist- my personal opinion and many will disagree. The reason is simple: I'd be very surprised if the fan chose to group together a bunch of white defenders and objectify them in that pejorative way so it's clearly racially motivated and with the intent to belittle (regardless of the fact he supports the team.) If I heard the comment at a football match I would regard it as racist. So there is a simple test here. Apply the 'father and son' test. If it is likely to cause offence, hurt, and/ or embarrassment then it should not be used. And better to err on the side of caution.

1 comment:

  1. which raises the question - what do you then actually DO about it when you hear it. At a guess I'd say nothing. (I mean none of us would)

    I once sat next to a bloke at QPR who kept yelling homophobic remarks at a player he claimed to be gay for 45 minutes. He was sat next to his very young son. And so the cycle continues..