Protesting belongs on the pitch… and the streets

In 2016, Colin Kapernick, an NFL player, decided to kneel whilst the USA’s national anthem was played at the start of an American Football game. When asked why he did this, instead of standing as most Americans do to pay respect to the flag and country, Kapernick explained he was protesting against social injustice and police brutality that disproportionately affects African-Americans.

Fast forward four years and many sporting heroes are following Kapernick’s lead. Be it Lewis Hamilton or Megan Rapinoe, so many are now using their platforms to draw attention to the ongoing racism that Black and other minority communities face around the globe. Therefore, it should not be surprising that UK football clubs are doing the same.

Last Saturday, players at Millwall Football Club decided to kneel before their match with Derby County. Similar to Kapernick, the players were also protesting against social injustice. And just like Kapernick at the start of his advocacy journey, they too were booed and jeered by individuals who would normally cheer their on-field exploits in adulation.

Days later, I listened to a talk radio show about the matter in which the majority of callers were defiant that politics should not mix with sports. I kind of understand their point. After all, people go to watch a game to get away from their troubles; nobody took a wrong turn to the stadium and somehow ended up at a civil rights march. However, when it comes to fighting racism, its importance must penetrate every aspect of society if we’re to achieve equality, and this includes football.

What further stood out when listening to the radio show was that the callers were adamant that they’re not racist. With exception to telling the presenter about their one Black friend called Winston (I’m joking), many of them did not appreciate Millwall’s decision. And that’s the problem, I mean when is it convenient to discuss racism?

My experience of attempting to discuss racism with many White British people has often centred around their comfortability. This results in in having little to no discussions at all. Although conversations are now starting to take place, thanks to the summer of (you guessed it) protests, it still feels like the UK is years behind the USA’s openness to discuss racism. (Please note that I have written the previous line in trepidation.) I’m fully aware that the USA’s overt racism forces its society to confront this issue. The USA has little room to pretend that racism is either a ‘thing of the past’ or ‘isn’t as bad as Black people think’, unlike the UK.

Whether Millwall fans or the callers to the radio show are/are not outright racists is not the question we should be asking. A more constructive discussion on whether they acknowledge their unconscious biases would serve us better. For me, this aspect of racism isn’t talked about enough. The argument that someone can only be racist if they call someone else the ‘N’ word is tiring.

For anyone to be ‘upset’ because football players are deciding to use their platforms to spread awareness is questionable. What exactly are you angry about? If you’re claiming that you’re ‘anti-racist’, then why would it bother you to see individuals encourage others to be the same? Their unwillingness to be uncomfortable for a few minutes should be questioned.

For individuals to act as if they don’t understand or know about the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t cute. It’s deliberate. For this very reason, I’m right to ask if the fans’ unconscious biases prevented them from seeing the humanity in what the players were trying to do?

Yes, they may have never called a Black person a monkey and that they found George Floyd’s death disturbing, but they must also understand that the most devastating acts of racism are done in silence. Whether it’s a White woman holding her purse more tightly when a Black man walks past, shop keepers following Black people around their store, or other customers assuming a Black person works in a store when they’re actually browsing. All these things take their toll and hurt just as much as being called a name.

For Tuesday’s match, Millwall players decided to link arms and display a banner to challenge inequality. Prior to the match, fans were handed a letter explaining that ‘the eyes of the world are on this football club tonight – your club – and they want us to fail.’ I certainly do not and maybe the fans now feel the same, as they cheered instead of booed. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the cheers were superficial. Is it truly understood why the club chose to take the knee in the first place?

As Kapernick chose to kneel for what’s right, in spite of reactions hurting his career, one gesture has now become an iconic symbol for change. Do Millwall fans and the callers to the radio show, also understand that change must also start with themselves, even if it’s uncomfortable? 

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