The horrifying and unsurprising racial abuse Raheem Sterling suffered when Manchester City faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is yet another chapter in the dark story of what is perhaps the highest profile racial abuse suffered by an athlete in the world.
While you can look to the likes of Colin Kaepernick and other examples—which we will later—the global significance of soccer, Manchester City, and his place on the English National Team means that though stories like his are abundant in every country, Sterling’s particularly ugly and meticulously documented experience of racism stands out as one of the most thorough examples of what black athletes go through.
Prejudice Comes In Pairs
Part of what makes the incident and Sterling’s life such a comprehensive case study is the multifaceted but clearly delineated nature of racism that he suffers. You can think of these along the lines of two closely related but distinct forms that feed into and support each other, particularly in the way the later form manifests. The first is overt, conscious racism. People that truly hate people on the basis of the color of their skin and express this when they attend football matches like the Neo-Nazi Ultras of Eastern Europe or in an example closer to England, infamous former EDL leader, Islamaphobe, and Rangers fan Tommy Robinson. This is certainly a massive problem—one need look no further than a Tottenham fan throwing a banana at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang earlier this month—but it is also the line beyond which white people, especially white sports fans, tend to fail to recognize clear patterns of racial discrimination.
In the absence of explicit racial epithets and derogatory stereotypes, there is an enormous gap between the general population’s understanding of racism and the way it actually manifests in real life. You can certainly look at the Sterling incident and point to the fact that it has been widely identified by even mainstream media as an example of racial abuse. But how could it not have been? Manchester City took 13 (to Chelsea’s 1) corners that game, more than a few in the same corner where he was verbally attacked, and no one was abused as intensely as Sterling.
Yet a cursory search of tweets expressing solidarity with Sterling reveals a massive number of people talking about how once again the media is reaching to create a problem where there isn’t one—that this is normal behavior for a home crowd against an away team, and once again how non-sports fans don’t know what they are talking about. In fact it’s somewhat comically come out that the fan responsible has been quoted saying “I didn’t call him a black c**t, I called him a Manc c**t.” and excusing himself by continuing “I’ve been going to Chelsea for 50 years now and, because of where I sit, I’m picked up on the camera most weeks. If I had a history of saying this sort of thing I would’ve been caught by now.” Without blatant slurs, no one seems to understand the problem is not only that type of behavior but the disproportionate focus on black athletes in the first place.
Ironically it’s hard to imagine many of the major media outlets that highlighted this incident doing so even three or four years ago when Sterling was being run out of Liverpool by city and national press. You can point to a relative improvement in identifying what happened last weekend because of the press coverage in general. But even then many pundits expressed stronger rebukes on their personal statements than they did on air, where the Sterling incident was treated more like a topic for debate. More candidates played devil’s advocate than ought to have, and notably absent was any accountability for past actions from many of the networks offering milquetoast condemnations.
Unfortunately, it’s telling that Sky Sports, the BBC, NBC and whoever else chimed in needed a half-dozen red-faced elderly white men screaming with practically visible spittle flying from their mouths mere inches from Sterling’s face to have an even middling conversation about racism in sports. They make up a media landscape that disproportionately criticizes Sterling and rarely recognizes anything beyond blatant racial cruelty. This speaks to an immense lack of self-awareness, failure to understand broader patterns of racial abuse, and how prejudice takes its shape. To be clear, not every media personality is of equal blame.
It’s become in vogue for major mainstream outlets to include token personalities, often black, and almost always former players, who have been quite vocal about these problems. But they are held at arm’s length by their studios as subjective commentators rather than objective responders like their more popular counterparts and are virtually never given the same platform or notoriety. So while blatant and obvious racism needs to be confronted and fought off at every turn, it makes up a relatively small amount of the racial abuse that professional athletes are forced to suffer. This brings us to the second, and arguably the much more insidious and widespread form of racism: the latent, unconscious bias held by most white people and the way it expresses itself in sports.
To be clear, this is not limited to sports alone. In fact, what we see play out in the conversations surrounding black athletes is a specific manifestation of covert racism in majority white communities. One that is so omnipresent—regardless of an individual’s conscious political persuasion—that it can be difficult to concisely describe despite a wealth of examples. Social academics point to a focus on patterns of behavior to identify what I am talking about. In countries like the U.K. and the United States with such deeply racist pasts, be it slavery or colonization or both, there are powerful unspoken racial caste systems that form rigid boundaries in our social lives.
For example, seemingly open-minded suburbanites in both countries can live the majority of their lives without frequently seeing people of color and no matter how conscious one might consider themselves, without very explicit, rigorous discipline, they often develop unconscious and latent biases. This can range from more blatant forms of thinking e.g. that people of color are lazy because of their culture, to more conversely in the form of feeling uncomfortable in spaces dominated by people of color despite routinely—and subconsciously —expecting or believing people of color should feel comfortable in their white-dominated spaces. This takes the shape of the classic “I’m not racist but I cross the street when I see black people” or the broad portrayal of urban communities of color as dangerous and to be avoided.
It is common for people to fail to recognize their racism, because while they understand that prejudice exists, they fail to recognize it on a case by case basis. What this leads to is actually a racially biased perspective. One of the most common ways this is expressed is the meticulous scrutiny applied to communities of color not similarly applied to white people. In terms of soccer, how a black athlete lives their personal life.
Check out Part 2 here.