That most would think of John Barnes when considering the subject of racism in football is as accurate today as it was thirty years ago. That organisers were forced to change the venue within days of a lecture being announced was not surprising. Having been on the lecture list at Liverpool University for weeks as part of the Uni’s anti-racism initiatives, it was a forgone conclusion that having an ex-England footballer discuss anything would attract a large audience. Billed as a modern-day look at why racism exists, timed to coincide with the wake of the Suarez and Terry affairs, the subject has perhaps never been so fitting.
Although quite often cynical of what qualifies media personalities, not least ‘celebrities’, to given an informed opinion on complex issues, Barnes’ credentials for opening the discussion are as familiar to those who despise the sport as those who worship it.
Having been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from the terraces during the 80s he has well-documented experience of the issue. His career at Anfield is characterised as much by what was brought to him as to what he brought to the game. The days of a marvellously gifted Jamaican player being the recipient of monkey chants and flying bananas are long gone. Now we use social networking as a means of detaching ourselves from those we insult. At the time, such practice was a regular occurence.
What was most disappointing, not least based on expectations, was any discussion by Barnes at all of what the FA was doing or wasn’t doing towards tackling racism in the sport. That the turn-out was reflective of his continued popularity is perhaps both as unfair as it is accurate. Had the speaker been a distinguished professor from Harvard University, as I’m sure Barnes’ recognised, the turn-out would’ve been considerably less. Rather than discuss, as the title suggested, racism in football, Barnes instead opted to use the subject as a drawing board for a wider discussion of why pre-occupation with race was so prevalent in the first place A lot of his time was taken up by suggestions that the national curriculum should be changed to teach children that race is a social construction. That education in certain communities is clearly ineffective was as dangerous as it was honest. More importantly though, the Jamaican pointed out what I fear some in the audience were quick to shrug aside: “Racism is not an isolated problem in football, nor is it the most important. The question instead should be racism in society.”
A lecture on racism in sport, amidst recent well publicised footballing controversies, meant that any wish Barnes had to avoid slagging off Suarez or Terry was naive, lest, unavoidable. Criticism of the Uruguyan was minimal at best, any condemnation being reserved more for the Chelsea Midfielder. As far as the Suarez affair went Barnes fell short of any outright criticism of the player or his former manager, instead questioning whether Neo-Liberalism and, by implication, it’s colonial history was still prevalent in its attempt to police a word that is not considered racist in its country of origin.
Liverpool’s handling of the situation, nor that of his former manager in his apparent willingness to defend to the death, was ever called into question. Media coverge of which, if not least from the perspective of an industry cemented in sensationalism and band-waggoning, Barnes acknowledged you could hedge a bet on as soon as Dalglish opened his mouth. Instead he suggested that defence of the Uruguyian was judged, whether rightly or wrongly, in an inability to seperate him from his value to the club. In the Jamaican’s own words; had the player been Igor Bišćan, the Anfield tannoy may have sang to a different tune.
On the subject of the Chelsea midfielder, Barnes’ didn’t sugar the pill. He often used Terry as a benchmark on which to ground his discussion of ‘passive racism’. A term that rang alarm bells from the onset of its inclusion in its apparent suggestion that racist tendencies could be partitioned into denominations of something like ‘we’ll give you that one’, ‘Ha, naughty’ and ‘too far’. Perhaps, a better word would’ve been internalized. His criticism of Terry went as far as a contempt of court charge would allow, at times straying dangerously close, and to which, had his lawyer been present at the start, I questioned whether he would’ve been at the end.
In relation to what we have been taught, literature perhaps came in for the harshest of criticism. The football legend’s suggestion that books like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book continued to perpetuate racial stereotypes in the modern-day was both 100 years out of date and unfair. What Barnes failed to point out was that literature is a product of its time and, although warranted in his criticism of certain characterisations, Mowgli is as important to Indian history today as Shakespeare’s Ophelia is to feminist ideology.
The fashion industry also bore the brunt of blame in its drum banging of ideals of beauty. Barnes got straight to the point: “Years ago skinny models were favoured. Now it’s curvy models with big, pouty lips. All are bodily features of black women. Beauty is big lips and big bums, just not on black women.” That literature derived such a response from the footballer when any suggestion that the media may perpetuate racist stereotypes was barely touched upon, was particularly frustrating. Although Mowgli swinging from a tree top continues to be distasteful, many would consider headlines like ‘Muslims Hate You’ as, as detrimental to multi-culturalism as the stereotyping that followed 7/11.
Where Barnes looked most comfortable was his discussion of education. His questioning of whether “we want to get rid of racism or just not hear it” was strikingly apt and touched a nerve. That the national history curriculum has a secular memory when it comes to British colonialism and foreign policy is undeniable. Barnes’ heralding of education, however - a point that he had already sold - was let down upon a somewhat dubious attempt to praise the job of South Africa and Rwanda’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The implication that ‘talking about it’ is a means of eradicating the problem is as naive as it is insulting. That the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa is judged by most as insulting as it was ineffective still stands today. ‘Restorative justice’ in this case meant key prepetrators held their hands up and got off scot-free. For the victims of apartheid Africa, this still cuts deep. That none faced criminial prosecution and amnesty was bestowed for being ‘honest’ cuts even deeper.
Barnes, in heralding the system that was supposed to bring closure to many, failed to mention that, many more, consider South Africa to have replaced racial apartheid with one based on economics. What Barnes’ meant by saying that “Britain needs a Truth and Reconciliation” is unclear. He hit and ran. That education is paramount is without question. That it must work hand in hand with legislation is still paramount.
All in all, Barnes left much to be desired. His strongest points often appeared hollow and blindingly obvious, even amongst an audience that saw, at least one, suffer from football-induced nausea. Although covering a broad spectrum that spanned legislative history through to the role of ‘flesh-coloured tights’ in perpetuating Western bred myths of beauty, Barnes contradicted himself on many occasions. By his own admittance, the guy falls far short of being an academic. I suspect that many went in with expectations raised too high. One thing most would agree on, is the route education must go on in tackling the issue. As a player that suffered the worst racial abuse in the history of British Football, Barnes drove the message home to deafening applause.
“What we have to do is win people’s hearts and minds and make them understand why it is wrong to be racist.
“The whole idea of race never made sense and should not exist. My take on the whole issue of race is that until we get an idea of what race is, we stand no chance of getting rid of racism.”
(This review is based upon John Barnes’ lecture, ‘What is the cause of racism in football’, held at the University of Liverpool on Thursday 17th May.)