Tuesday, January 15, 2008

race, guilt and silence


Martha asked, on the Italy Offside blog, about why racism in calcio is not met with more stringent measures.

There are some very good responses to her post, and if you have a thought, I hope you'll contribute to the discussion. I have removed to the fastness of the Angry Nunnery thinking,as you sometimes will, about the why of her why-not question. To me the problem of racism in Italian football is agonising because it seems, from this distance, to be so possible to deal with. Lilian Thuram once spoke, in an interview, of his experience playing for Parma around the turn of the century.

'It was at a Parma-Milan match,' he says, 'when our Parma fans were chanting racist slogans against Ibrahim Ba and George Weah [both Milan players] that I thought how sick this was. The press officer tried to stop me, but I went to see the fans at our training ground and told them what I thought. The next week there was an apologetic banner at the match saying, "Thuram, respect us please!"

Of course, times have changed since then, and ignorance and naivete have never been poorer excuses for bad behaviour than they are ten years on, but I don't feel like the example of Thuram goes amiss. As urbane lefties and football fans, we all know that racism can come from anywhere, and yet the average racial abuser in the imagination of an average liberal footie enthusiast has a particular profile; he is white, male, often young, usually unemployed, or disenfranchised in some way [and usually, especially if you're from outside Italy, in a Lazio jersey. Poor Lazio]. The sort of guy who feels safe in a mob. Who will duck and cower if you confront him. Accurate? Maybe, maybe not. Has anyone ever tried a confrontation, though? Not from behind a desk or a truncheon, but face-to-face, like Lilian Thuram with his home crowd?

I feel that an initiative for change needs to be sustained with emotion and spontaneity, rather than as an institutionalised campaign. We know now that stadium violence in Italy is linked to a deep frustration with the failure of social institutions, and to me, a socety in which offenders are traditionally suspicious of their government, their media, and their footballing establishment is not one in which the stadium ban, the fine, the police clampdown, and the multicoloured wristband, can achieve much more than isolated success. Perhaps this is equally true of England, home of the anti-racism advertising industry, as it is anywhere else. But over the last decade, what the campaigning in England has achieved is the provision of a space in the media where issues of racism and discrimination can and will be foregrounded repeatedly. In November, Juventus fans smuggled a banner into their game against Inter which called Zlatan Ibrahimovic a foul gypsy. The offenders were dealt with near instantly, and the incident reported faithfully and in measured tones by papers like La Gazzetta.

All this can be countenanced; but can you imagine an incident of similar proportions, involving a player of similar stature, meeting with anything like silence in the Premiership? An equivalent in terms of high-profility would be to imagine Arsenal fans racially abusing Cristiano Ronaldo at the Emirates. Young Cristiano is not given to dignified silence on most days, but even were he so, do you imagine a day would have passed before the media, the FA and the club insisted on his lodging a vocal protest? And yet, apart from a short statement by Javier Zanetti in the post-match conference, the Juve case received no personal attention from anyone. To the best of my knowledge, Zlatan's own response to this demeaning abuse is yet to be recorded.

Which is fine; the man has the right to stay quiet, or simply decide that he doesn't give a damn, if that's what it is. The FIGC seems to be doing a better job than in previous years of making sure such incidents do not go unpunished. But the ossification of the chain of incidents into the Isolated Racist Behaviour and the They Are Not Real Football Fans [and therefore not our responsibility?] matched set of administrative platitudes, served up with a We Have It Under Control assurance, is not what Italian football needs. It needs leadership and conviction. It needs its footballers to march up to the sidelines and demand what the fuck fans think they're doing. It requires, instead of corporate social responsibility-fulfilling TV spots, the sight of a football team -- or perhaps both football teams -- refusing to continue a match until an abusive chant is silenced. In a world where the institution is the enemy, something like popular revolution is still possible. One Marco Zoro may have been a lone voice in a storm. But four or five, acting with intent, will do much better.


I would also like to talk about guilt and how its absence plays a large part in attitudes to racism in sport. I am thinking of this, not just in relation to England [and Italy], but to India and our knee-jerk defensiveness at having Harbhajan Singh accused of racist abuse during the last Test at Sydney. We live in an incredibly divided society, and almost all of us suffer from a lack of privilege to various extents. But you would be hard-pressed to find too many of us to sympathise with Andrew Symonds for being allegedly trodden, however briefly, under the jackboot of racial oppression. Part of this may have to do with the sheer ludicrousness of said jackboot belonging to a man several shades darker than he. But I also think that our discourse about race and colour, in this country, has absolutely no place in it for guilt. Indian society is casually referred to as among the most racist in the world, but there is almost no way to put the matter in perspective against the backdrop of our recent history, one in which even the most privileged Indians, until sixty years ago, were enslaved by Empire. I think liberal attitudes in England about racial discrimination have been informed incredibly heavily by the weight of their part in this history, which accounts for both the backlash against immigrants [and the immigration phenomenon itself, in the first place] and the development of racial sensitivity. Perhaps a similar path can be traced down the history of the United States.

It's really frustrating to some people that this sort of thing puts them in a Catch-22 situation. As I said in my last post, not only do they have to deal with racism -- a problem with which their own relationship is unique -- but also with racial sensitivity, in a framework that is dictated to them by people on practically the opposite end of the spectrum. I resent this. If anyone asked me whether I detected a smack of real racism in the backlash against Harbhajan and the BCCI's bumbling attempts to bully the international cricket fraternity into placing him above suspicion, I would say, having first clarified that I think the BCCI are criminally stupid and that Bhajji, if he did call Symonds a monkey, deserves no softening of blows, that I did.

I will go out on a limb and say that perhaps football in Italy grapples with some of the same problems in its own mediation with race issues. I mulled in an earlier post over how hooliganism in Italy is in not comparable to the English situation of old, and how pointless it is for the English-led international media to tar Roman ultras and the protagonists of Hillsborough and Heysel with the same brush. It's the same with the issue of racism. Italy is not a post-Colonial nation, but it is a country with enough experience on being at the receiving end of racism and discrimination against its emigrant populations to retain, perhaps, some of the confusion and victim-mentality of the mindset in India. It is an absolute truth to say that there are no excuses for racism. But it's much, much easier for some people to say it than others, and it's counter-productive to ignore that.

That dormancy of the guilt of privilege is why I think force of personality will succeed, in the sporting arena, even if change takes time to percolate through society itself. Part of the reason the Bhajji-Symonds fracas put so many backs up among us is that we were, of course, convinced that in the final reckoning, it came down to the word of two brown men against the representatives of a white team, and the white guys won out. One of those brown men was Sachin Tendulkar, who categorically stated that Harbhajan was not guilty of racial abuse. We were all enraged by the cricketing system's implication that Tendulkar would tell anything but the truth. But imagine if, in a different situation, Sachin Tendulkar had made it a matter of principle to say the opposite. There would be a few people who would be outraged at the thought of India's icon going against his own people to snitch on his teammate. But most of us, perhaps, would have found it easier to accept the lack of excuses afforded to us.

If Alessandro del Piero had made it a matter of principle to take a moment out of the Derby dell' Italia to protest a racist banner, perhaps it would have been easier to set the ball rolling.


I hope this wasn't too upsetting to read, if you have come to the end of it; I do not usually go to footie blogs expecting to find wrung-out spins on postcolonialism in my reading matter,especially when they're written mostly in qualifying clauses instead of actual sentences. But it was either this or something on Milan finally winning a game at home, and sorry, but no. I can't find anything to say about Pato. The loss is no doubt all mine, but nothing in the world has yet induced me to find seventeen year old boys remotely interesting. So I will just say RONIE IS BACK, BITCHES! in presumptuous glee, and leave the rest to the imagination.



Martha said...

Even though I can't, having taught and coached them for a decade, categorically dismiss all 17 and 18 year olds as uninteresting, I HUGELY appreciate your Pato restraint. (And will, in return, restrain myself from mentioning that your temperament is that of an Inter supporter.)

I think maybe it was Ursus who first mentioned some of what you're getting at here in the comments on my post, and I find myself hugely attracted to the idea of a high-profile, multi-ethnic demand for change for the stars of Serie A, ideally organized only by them. If Ale Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Zlatan and Paolo Maldini were to get together and tell calcio supporters the racism was unacceptable, period, I cannot imagine there wouldn't be a response. Not an end to the chants and banners, but perhaps a decrease in the number of those participating, week-in and week-out. If nothing else, there would be a conversation.

rose said...

I may have misunderstood, but I don't understand why there is an presumption in India or anywhere else, that somebody who is black or asian can't be racist, or that somehow it is more acceptable if they are. I've known black people who were racist against whites, I've known it in an organised manner in a civil service department, and I've known afro-carribeans who have nothing but contempt for Africans.

It seems to me that judging people on the colour of their skin or their racial origins is an absolute, you can't pick and chose who you defend against it, and that feeling is confirmed by a particularly unpleasant phenomemon I see in England at the moment, whereby the right wing press think that it is fine to attack Polish people who are here, because they are white and so it doesn't impact on their post-colonial guilt.

Ghiop said...

Re: England. They might not have banners calling people gypsies, but there doesn't seem to be any compunction about chanting "Gas, gas, gas the Jews," for instance.

I think you're right that it needs to be stood up to, but I don't think it's a problem special to Italian football vs. English or continental football.

roswitha said...

Martha my dear: Since it's your birthday, I will in turn refrain from bringing up the word 'Vespa' in response to your slur on my temperament. :p I r serious Milanista, this r serious supporter blog! [And of course I don't find all teenagers horrifying. Teenage girls, for example, are quite interesting.]

Yes, I think that discussion at your blog was rounded off brilliantly by Ursus [who should really have his/her own blog] -- I think what I am really really hoping for is something romantic and unsystematised and visceral. You're never going to *feel* the weight of it otherwise.

@ rose: Some of it is defensiveness, some of it is miseducation, some of it is hypocrisy. It's unpleasant, but it can't be put in the same compartment as attitudes to racism in other nations, I think.

@ ghiop: Certainly the English have no admirable superiority to display in the attitudes that exist towards minorities -- I do appreciate that they have made it a point to talk about certain things loud and clear enough that there's at least, as Martha says, a conversation.

[Some memorable Jews/ovens banners have been known to exist in Italy too, you'll remember. It's amazing, really, and completely incomprehensible to me, given -- from what I know -- how different Italy's history with the War and its Jewish population is from those elsewhere. People will do anything to make themselves hatefully unpleasant, sometimes.]

Brian said...

Roswitha, this is an astute analysis and helped me think about some of these problems in a new way. I'm not sure how far the India-Italy parallel can be taken, but seen through the prism of, say, 19th-century English travel narratives it certainly seems to contain a current of truth.

I just want to add one small thought in defense of the institutionally orchestrated anti-racism media campaign. It's probably the case that such a campaign won't have the effect of a spontaneous, passionate appeal from players, as you say. But it's been my observation, having grown up in a part of the US in which casual racism was relatively common, that there's a sort of intermediate psychological space that groups of people who have perhaps thoughtlessly held racist attitudes enter into when they realize that, by the terms of some outside cultural authority, they're not "supposed" to be racist--that there's something embarrassing or backward about it.

As long as this remains a more or less silent sense that someone, somewhere disapproves of them--i.e., as long as very few signs of actual disapproval reach them--they're likely to continue to express racist attitudes, and to present them almost with an air of defiance, as if they're telling the outside world, "This is who we are, and your decadent, liberal, relativist ideologies can't change us."

But once they start actually seeing frequent signs of disapproval, I think they're likely to abandon the most public expressions of prejudice relatively quickly, simply because they'll start to feel embarrassed. Obviously feeling shame about being culturally backward isn't the same thing as learning to see all people as equal, but it's at least a mechanism to begin the process. I think this is the effect the more egregious manifestations of political correctness have had in parts of America---people resent the absurdity but are less likely to use offensive language so long as it exists simply because they face an emotional cost.

So I think a relentless mass-media campaign full of wretch-inducing posters and horrible focus-grouped slogans can help, simply because it gives people whose indulgence in racist behavior might have more to do with a desire to blow off steam with their friends than with any strong feelings of hatred for other people a sense that the Larger Cultural Order thinks they're foolish.

How that might play out in Italy, where people are arguably less willing to identify with the Larger Cultural Order than they are in England or America, I don't know, really. But it's at least potentially a way to exploit the ambiguous space between people's vague inner attitudes and their definite public behaviors.

[Also: Hi yourself! Hope you've nearly recovered from moving!]

ursus arctos said...


A post as impressive as Pato's debut.

Over the month or two I've had the privilege of reading you, I've been repeatedly struck by the fact that you have a deeper, more nuanced and more accurate sense of several complicated aspects of Italian culture than do many observers who are much closer to the situation at hand both culturally and geographically. It's really very impressive.

I would also agree with Brian that a campaign that succeeded in making racist chanting uncool would result in its elimination, but question whether the paths to achieving that are the same in the UK and Italy. The Italian obsession with projecting and maintaining una bella figura has been endlessly documented, but it is more difficult to ascertain exactly what the current elements of such a figura are, especially if we are looking at urban kids of 16 to 25. Now that I think about my original idea a bit more, 50 Cent might actually have a bigger impact than Totti or Buffon; a well done guerilla marketing campaign would almost certainly be more effective than a star-studded "telethon" approach. But we aren't talking only about that population. Using the monkey-grunting Hellas Verona cretins as the example with which I have the greatest personal experience, we are also talking about people from 25 to 65, about women as well as (though not as numerous as) men, and from a relatively wide swathe of society (at least to the extent one can tell from external appearance). Maybe some of them could be convinced by Totti and Buffon; more would be convinced if they were featured on the front page of the local rag in poses similar to those of the Indian cricket "supporters" who were insulting Symonds a few months back.

The key element in this that hasn't been discussed above is the explicitly political one. To me, the rather sudden resurrection of the "gypsy" epithet is not due to the brilliant seasons that Ibra and Mutu are having, but rather a direct result of the anti-Rom, anti-Romanian, anti-foreigner campaigns relentlessly persued by rightest elements over the last six months or more, which peaked in the wake of the murder near the encampment outside of Rome (and resulted in the immediate expulsion of hundreds EU citizens who had not been convicted of any crime). That is a context that you haven't really had (at least in as virulent a form) in Britain since the days of the National Front, Bulldog, and bananas on the pitch (though I share Martha's concern about whether there is a chance one might be getting there with "Polish scroungers").

And Roswitha, you are troppo gentile with regard to my observations. It is much easier to write an occasional comment than it is to keep up a blog of such quality. (I'm a he, btw).

roswitha said...

Hola! My blog stopped emailing me comments for a while, there - apologies.

Brian: Point taken - you have more experience than I do of being part of the direct audience for such campaigns [part of the legacy of a determinedly socialist, non-aligned political and cultural framework in this country is our refusal to acknowledge that problems can and do spring up between different ethnic groups living in close proximity - our PSA's universally declare the value of India's unity in diversity, but refuse to believe that said unity sometimes has trouble sustaining itself] and I understand how they help create that basic awareness, that sense, if nothing else, that people are watching. But so often, when I watch football fans make fools of themselves, I get the feeling that it's *because* it's helping them make a statement. It's inexplicable to me why young boys who, let's say, adore Clarence Seedorf and will turn on anyone they hear making racist chants at him, will with apparently no sense of irony, go off and use the exact same chants again Patrick Vieira. Which is the angle from which I'm approaching it. I may be wrong, but to have a more immediate, personal sense of being pulled up might make it easier to shock these people out of their complacency. I'm willing to acknowledge that there's place for both kinds of protest in the wider forum of social awareness. But I'm suspicious of these Nike-sponsored PSAs, all the same - the ends seem to justify the means a little too readily.

ursus - thank you so much! Most of this is speculation that comes about because of how very often I seem to identify aspects of India in Italian culture and their relationship with sport. No doubt it will be a bit of a horror to the sort of Italians who would hate to be associated with anything resembling life in the third world, but the connections seem to suggest themselves to me rather strongly at times, and I'm glad that some of them, at least, ring true for you. :)

I'm very interested in that element of personal attention that you highlight when you talk of how embarassed some of these chanters would be if they were suddenly featured on the front page of a newspaper. Perhaps it's being rather too nice to these people to characterise their behaviour as acry for help, but I do see it as some kind of grab for attention - an attention that they probably wouldn't be able to handle if they discovered the world wasn't as indifferent as they thought it to be.

Spangly Princess said...

Great blog post as usual, with some very interesting parallels, and also some very thought provoking comments.

The idea of social & cultural acceptability as a substitute for "genuine" progress is one that had occurred to me too, and while it would obviously be better to not have the racism, in the short term I'd settle for just not having it expressed, yeah.

Ursus' point about politics, which is largely what I have been talking about on this issue over at Pitch Invasion, is important. But so is his point about the wide range of people involved in racist chanting: by age, by gender, by social class.

So far as the "tackling" people thing goes - I limit myself to turning round and glaring at people when they make monkey noises. Which, from time to time, a few people do. I may also mutter audible disparaging remarks and tut a bit, in what I suddenly realise is a desperately english fashion. I don't stand in a part of the curva where it would be dangerous to even do that.

You see, the nice 55 year old ladies in fur coats are probably just making monkey noises out because they are dumb, ignorant, and part of a crowd doing the same thing. And you might be able to shame them out of it. But the shaven-headed guys with the swastika tattoos on their necks... more likely not. And I for one am not about to try, I'm sorry to say.

ursus arctos said...

We all need to look for signs of hope among the gloom, and the fact that Mario Balotelli was man of the match as Inter knocked Juventus out of the cup and is now being discussed as a serious rival to Pato for the crown of "best 17 year old in the country" is just that.

In that vein, I found the title of this cover story (from one of Spangles' favourite papers) to be quite cheering.


Balotelli and Okara to lead the line for the Azzurri in 2014? Sounds good to me.