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England Ex-Footballer John Barnes Reveals the Uncomfortable Truth about Racism
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4 April 2024; John Barnes, right, and FAI FSR manager Des Tomlinson
It's 2024 and racism is still making headline talking points at conferences.

I once wrote an article that was titled “It’s 2019 and we’re still having the same debate.” The title was a quote from Jason Roberts MBE during a panel he was on, which discussed the shameful abuse that footballers were still receiving and the frustration with how the football authorities were dealing with it. 

Well, folks, fast forward five years, and racism is still making headline talking points at conferences. 

Last week I attended the “More than Football Networks” League of Ireland Football & Social Responsibility Conference. Former England international footballer John Barnes headlined the conference with a hard-hitting Q&A session on the topic he’s written about in his recent book, The Uncomfortable Truth about Racism

Instead of focussing on how the authorities are dealing with racism in the game, John Barnes appealed to us to look a little closer to home.

A matter of perception

It became very clear from the start that John pulls no punches. He tells it how he sees it, and he has seen a lot – especially in football – but also outside of the game. As an author, commentator, and pundit, he has spent a lot of time reflecting on his own experiences of racism and how others perceive differences between individuals and groups in society. 

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr. (16 April 1963)

John shared this MLK quote with us to underline that our perception of the world around us – i.e. our own reality – is based on our upbringing and experiences, which can unfortunately involve buying into many untruths that we have been told. 

This conditioning leads to the shallow understanding and lukewarm acceptance from people of good will that John has witnessed throughout his career in the game, and what he sees as underpinning the deep-rooted racism – and, more broadly, discrimination – that we see not just in the game but, more importantly for him, across all of society. 

As the title of the book suggests, the process of examining our beliefs to try and disentangle the truths from the lies is a difficult and extremely uncomfortable one. 

Challenging our conditioning 

On several occasions during the session, he appealed the audience to always challenge, and question, the conditioning that we are exposed to, as it can ultimately lead to discrimination in more ways than just racism. For example, he asked how many men, when seeing a female referee officiating a men’s football match, would make the immediate assumption that a male would be better placed for the role.

Sat next to John during this session was Des Tomlinson, Football Social Responsibility Manager at the Football Association of Ireland, who shares John’s Jamaican heritage though was born in London. Des spoke about some of the challenges he’d faced growing up in Brixton in the shadow of a popular extreme right political party. 

Des gave us a helpful anecdote to demonstrate the way that perceptions of public personas can sometimes differ from those of ‘ordinary’ citizens. Shaka Hislop, during his football playing career at Newcastle United FC was targeted by a group of youth as he’d stopped at a garage to fill up his car with petrol. The group shouted racist abuse at him until they realised that he was Newcastle’s goalie. At which point they apologised and asked him for his autograph. They hadn’t given any consideration to the thought that the average black man on the street would be able to contribute positively to their lives.

Following that story, John admitted that, during his time at school in Kilburn after he’d moved from Jamaica as a teenager and even during his playing days, he didn’t feel demeaned by the racism that he experienced, unlike many of his black teammates at the time. 

The reason for that was that he had a feeling of intellectual superiority to the people conducting those acts. His father was a military officer, and John came from a very privileged upbringing. He even admitting to having his own negative preconceptions about those among Jamaica’s working classes. John saw his privileged position as an elite level footballer as evidence that they were in the wrong and those like them in society would eventually see the error in their ways.

Illusion of inclusion

As John went on to infer, it’s not about John Barnes’ encounters with racism, or discussions such as why Idris Elba is not getting an Oscar, even though he may deserve one, or why any other black person in the public spotlight is not being afforded the recognition they deserve. It’s about the black kids in inner cities that are still – after all the changes that have been made – not getting the opportunities they deserve to reach their full potential. 

He underlined that, “It is not about treating the symptoms, it’s about addressing the cause. In the same way that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, trickle-down discrimination doesn’t work either.” Meaning that he doesn’t see artificially elevating black people into positions of power – in football, as managers, administrators, and board members, etc. – as the solution, because it doesn’t work unless others around those people – traditionally, white people – can see the value in their appointment. In other words, if they maintain their lukewarm acceptance and do not challenge their conditioning, then there is only the “illusion of inclusion”, as John put it, and no progress is made in the long-term. 

The solution, in very simple terms, as John implied, is that we must ask ourselves the question, “How do we truly feel about the average black person?” He added, very bluntly, “If you’re not doing anything then you’re part of the problem.” 

Safe spaces

Both John and Des agreed on the importance of having conversations on discrimination without fear. We need to create a safe space to allow people to ask questions, without worrying about expressing their perceptions and understandings of certain issues, or having to stumble around to find the acceptable terminology. Currently, we find ourselves in a similar situation to children in a classroom that are afraid to raise their hands in case they say something foolish.

These safe spaces are still uncomfortable. It’s difficult to ask ourselves these questions and its more than awkward to discuss them among a group of people. If we continue to dodge them, however, or vent our frustrations in other ways, the price we pay in the long-term is always going to be more costly.

After an hour of intense, illuminating, discussion, John left us with a final anecdote to contemplate. While playing for Celtic FC in Glasgow – a city with a long-standing religious and political sectarian rivalry between Catholics and Protestants – he and a few other footballers were taken to visit sick children at a nearby hospital to hand out Christmas presents. He remembers the heartbreak he experienced when he met a girl who was terminally ill with leukaemia and had been given three months to live. Shortly after he suffered further heartbreak, witnessing the mother of that girl telling a nurse to “under no circumstances, let that Catholic bitch nurse” near her child.

We can do better. Uncomfortable as it may be, we must do better. Each and every one of us. 

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