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Smalling, Lukaku and the Redundancy of Anti-Racism Campaigns

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Anti-discrimination campaigns have gone off-track. A move to letting diversity speak for itself once more should be the aim.

FC Internazionale v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

In the ‘Moments That Made You Cry’ theme week, the reaction to Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku’s hug at the San Siro didn’t literally make me cry, but it was even more gutting than any moment where I used to cry in front of the screen as a kid. A lot of what passes as “anti-discrimination” right now looks just as close-minded, but worse still, is happening in broad daylight and left unchecked because of the comfort it gives to those least affected by discrimination.

It saddened me to see that Paulo Fonseca’s reaction (and not the man himself) was a crystal clear example:

“This [Smalling-Lukaka hug] reminds me of the theme of racism. I’m totally against racism. This is a big demonstration that racism doesn’t belong on the pitch. It’s a beautiful image.”

FBL-EUR-C3-ROMA-PRESSER Photo by JASPER JACOBS/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images

It never occurred to Paulo Fonseca in that moment—who knows since then? He’s generally a very intelligent and compassionate person—to just let Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku be former Manchester United team-mates, happy to re-find one another in Italy for another hard-fought game.

Fonseca may have been well-intentioned, but he’d done the exact same thing he was looking to speak out against, just as Corriere dello Sport’s “Black Friday” headline (again, well-intentioned but even more irresponsible and ignorant) had done earlier in the week: singling out players for their racial background and stepping on their agency.

It reminds me of the Pretty Woman scene where Richard Gere, satisfied in his own sense of righteousness, insists to Julia Roberts that he “has never treated her like a prostitute” as he makes her an offer to be his girlfriend, on call, on his terms.

Roberts lets him walk off screen to get on with his day, but can’t help but tell it like it is: “You just did.”

If Smalling and Lukaku’s moment were ever to be a “demonstration” against racism, it should have been left to the two people most affected by the events prior to the game to have their say so, and no one else.

Smalling’s response to the CdS article—prior to the game—mirrors how I felt (myself writing as a mixed race minority immigrated to Italy) about the incident before, during and after:

It would have been ideal if it had been left at that: Support from others to let him know he’s not alone is appreciated, and that people who put out the kind of “Black Friday” headlines the CdS put out should take full responsibility for how insensitive singling out people for their race really is. Fin.

But unfortunately anti-racism campaigns aren’t satisfied with this.

Rarely do the people least affected by discrimination—and, as far as Italy and most of Europe goes, I have to be blunt for the sake of shorthand and say white people—let the main protagonists have their say and leave it at that. Instead you’ll find a host of social media accounts from people falling over themselves to say articles like the CdS’ are “outrageous” “unacceptable” and and generally falling over themselves to work through their own feelings of shame, guilt or whatever else they’re processing.

That’s despite the fact the CdS “Black Friday” article itself—despite some very irresponsible undertones throughout the written piece—was looking to detail how Smalling and Lukaka had been written off by Manchester United just a season prior, and had made their successful comeback in Italy against the odds. The paper wanted to champion both players, but the problem was they champion them based on skin color.

You can find tweets of black and minority people joining in the condemnation, too, but generally I don’t see it, or maybe I don’t notice it, reaching pantomime levels. At the heart of it, if you really want to sort out these kinds of problems then you just call them out as they are and hope the people who made the mistakes have the guts to listen, no more or less than that.

CSKA Moskva v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

In my eyes, condemnation for it’s own sake misses the point of championing equity, opportunity and diversity. It only brings the spotlight back onto people from the majority—again, those least affected by discrimination—arguing amongst themselves. And the spotlight on protagonists like Smalling and Lukaku? Completely lost.

The only example I’m personally worried about setting is the one where future generations are watching. Kids aren’t stupid.

You could tell a kid that they must treat all people with respect, and inevitably their curiosity will push them to ask: What happens when I don’t? What are the consequences? What if I do rock the boat and walk, talk, act the wrong way?

But raise a kid in an environment where they can see people from all walks of life enjoying their own success, and the mind is smart enough to know that seeing is believing. If you can see anyone of any race, gender or other cultural divide visibly in charge of their own day-to-day fate in the Italian streets, that speaks for itself.

It reminds me of words of wisdom from my godmother who is, like myself, originally Trinidadian of a very mixed background (like all people from Trinidad inevitably are), and emigrated to Europe at a very young age: “I was often ready to remind English people that there was many parts of being black in England that I was very happy about, and that I was thankful the way I grew up meant I didn’t have to deal with the same problems they’re dealing with.”

If I’m going to be happy about the direction of social campaigns inside football again, my wish is that anti-racism, and anti-discrimation in general, take a back seat to letting diversity speak for itself once more. In short, I hope most people can remember to be like Moise Kean on an away night in Sardegna.

Cagliari v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images

Kean’s star may have fallen since he moved to Everton, but when he was back in Italy, I couldn’t have been more impressed by how he handled the pressure of overcoming racist abuse in that Cagliari game, while some of his more senior teammates around him (Leonardo Bonucci) couldn’t bear how uncomfortable it made them feel, and lost their head with their own stupid reactions.

Kean, though, was satisfied with letting the moment speak for itself. He is Italian, born and bred. And he knew that what Cagliari fans were made about—the real root cause—was not something that he was going to let himself be dragged into the middle of, just so that the politics of it could frame another minority as the “face of discontent” that really has nothing to do with racism, but instead generations of anger held between white Italians amongst themselves.

Minority players don’t need to be used as a pawn in that political game. If Kean had lost his cool or played up any sense of personal injustice, the media would have jumped onto it as a black vs white thing, when really it is anything but that. Unfortunately the root causes of Italian discontent often get swept up in a social justice game that keeps framing minority immigrants as the “lesser thans”, the ones we have to champion because “they go without.”

And that’s simply a lie. Yes odds are against, but we all make our choices from all walks of life.

And the more Keans, Smallings and Lukakus are shown on TV enjoying their moments of success, the more future generations from all corners of society can use their example as a means to say “I can walk my own path, too.”

I also want to stress that if you are from the majority background in your own country, and feel to condemn and call out racism against minorities, I’m appreciative of your support and compassion. By no means am I looking to be dismissive of that, but the reality is the odds are stacked against minorities for now and, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel, there’s no avoiding that.

Players from minority backgrounds in football have made it known just how much the odds are against them—Antonio Rüdiger and Raheem Sterling come to mind—even in a system that claims it is working towards equality. False promises have been made and exposed bare.

When you use the system to report racist abuse against you, your motives are questioned and scrutinized to the nth degree. People will question if you’re just attention seeking. When you don’t report it, people will claim the system is there to be used and you should have done everything you could to defend yourself.

AS Roma v Juventus FC - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

That is real life. Ask Mario Balotelli—another born and bred Italian—about the reaction to him walking off momentarily in this season’s game against Verona. Whatever move you make towards leveling the playing field means discomfort for the majority, and they’ll do anything to deal with their own sense of being put out before they really let you just speak your story.

You don’t have to be black or any specific color to find this out for yourself. If you’re a white Italian, American or from any majority corner of society in your own native country, you could emigrate to somewhere like Japan tomorrow and find out. A lot of it is fun to see for yourself, a lot of it is not. That’s just how it is.

As far as European football goes, I’m hoping for a line to be drawn where minority players aren’t constantly re-framed into a political narrative that comforts to majority. I’m hoping for minorities to be allowed to live out their own story and retain their own agency. And like Samuel Eto’o once said, I’m hoping the appropriate response to abuse from the stands finally comes about: walking off the pitch and ending the game right then and there. No ifs or buts.

Everyone collectively walking off. Final whistle.

That will get to the few people in power to finally do something about the root cause of discontent around Europe, and change the face of the game for everyone instead of looking to keep us divided among superficial lines.