European Football Championship UEFA EURO 2020. Marcus Rashford player in action during the football match between national team of the England vs Ukraine, Italy – Rome, Italy – July 3, 2021 (Shutterstock)
By Raven Smith, Vogue
Britain is racist. There, I said it. I wanted to soften the blow of this statement, to maybe say Britain has a problem with race or there’s ongoing racial tension that needs our attention or some people who like football also post racist tweets, but to shy away from the fact gets us nowhere. Britain is racist, and nobody in Britain wants to hear this. If I’m honest, I don’t particularly want to say it. I’m trying to stay accountable for my own actions and privileges within systemic British racism, but this country that I love is also racist. I am not anti-Britain; I am anti the racist systems it fosters.
Like many immigrants or children of immigrants, I was reminded of Britain’s racism on Sunday. Unless you’ve been under a rock with intermittent 5G, you’ll know that three of England’s players missed three penalties in the final of the European Cup, making Italy the victors of the tournament. These three England players are devoted and hardworking and committed. They are also Black, which shouldn’t matter but did. One of these guys, Marcus Rashford, has successfully harangued the government into feeding underprivileged kids this summer, but that didn’t stop a torrent of racist abuse heading his way. The missed-penalty reactive tweets were plain disgusting.
Football is a bit like religion: Both are essentially built on goodness (offering community and camaraderie), yet atrocities are performed in their name. You are either a true believer or an outsider who can’t quite see what all the fuss is about. There’s lots of debate on the toxic masculinity football nurtures, on the way in which men are raised to aggressively dominate situations and limit their displays of emotion. In the aftermath of Sunday, much has been said on the nuances between a fan, a hooligan, and a criminal.
There was a foreboding sense long before kickoff as fans/hooligans/criminals packed Leicester Square, publicly drinking and publicly coking, stripping off their Union Jack boxers, inserting flares into their anuses. This is not playful mayhem; let us remember that British domestic abuse rises 26% when there’s premiership football on, increasing to 38% if the team loses.
There was excited talk of the England team being a product of migrant British families, suggesting that, in the wake of BLM and Megxit, we were over the worst hump of our national xenophobia. I hoped we’d be more evolved by now, that with all the callouts and cancellations, we might have changed more significantly. It was instead a depressing reminder that the internet continues to help platform active hate, that we will still see categorically racist tweets on our timelines. How is it that can racism still find a home?
It is frankly unacceptable to keep saying, “Britain’s not racist but…” Britain’s not racist, but the government dismissed players taking the knee as “gesture politics.” Britain’s not racist but voted itself out of the European Union. Britain’s not racist but racially aggravated assaults increased in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Britain’s not racist, but the biracial duchess got bullied out. Britain’s not racist, but far-right guys are doing Nazi salutes at the Churchill statue. Britain’s not racist, but the home secretary is personally overseeing deportation raids. Britain’s not racist but Stephen Lawrence.
I wanted to end this piece more hopefully, but I’m struggling to find the flip side to this latest reminder of Britain’s racism. When a streaker took to the pitch at the Euros, the cameras panned away, effectively de-platforming bad behavior. I’m wondering if that’s what we do to the racists? Let them be small-minded in small clusters and starve them of attention. But another part of me wants to raise my voice to match theirs. As much as I find myself more frequently rolling my eyes at outrage, I can’t just let racists have the floor. We have to look at these racist actions head-on, unflinchingly, in order to move forward.
And finally, the thing is, I love England; I love being united with the rest of the kingdom; I loved being part of Europe. I love watching England play. I love the glory of the goals; I love the palpitations of the penalties. But honestly, fuck the next championship and fuck the World Cup. The only way England wins now is if it can stamp out its racism.