The penalty of life: can England tackle racism?

A penalty is defined in the dictionary as a punishment imposed for breaking a law. Specifically in sports and games, a penalty is defined as a handicap imposed on a player for the infringement of rules. For the footballers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, a penalty will define their lives in ways no-one couldn’t have imagined, not just because they missed the back of the net, but because of the penalty they carry for being Black in Britain.


It’s important that I write ‘Black’, despite 40% of people in the workplace being afraid to say the word. ‘BAME’ or ‘ethnic minority’ might be more palatable, but the fact is the words, the sentiment and the racism they witnessed after the Euros 2020 final featured words that I, as a British Asian, will never understand the true hurt of. There may be similar insults flung at me, an underlying sense of not feeling welcome and an insidious form of patriotism that feels threatening. However, I have to acknowledge that this is a specific type of racism levelled at a specific group of individuals - young Black men - that is a penalty of race that is unique.


We know from our work with Mind that Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental health problems - a problem that only starts to appear after the age of 11. We saw three men hardly double that age hold the nation’s expectations on their shoulders. The resulting response highlighted all of the stigma and cultural barriers they have had to overcome just to stand on that pitch - and yet despite that (and more), they still face systemic discrimination. They face the very structural racism that the UK government argues doesn’t exist, deciding when issuing its Sewell report that it would blow a (dog) whistle louder than the referee’s on Sunday.


Addressing systems and structures


The government is catching up, clumsily stoking - and forcing us all to wade through - the culture war in the process and being held to account by Tyrone Ming. Taking his role of defender beyond the football pitch, he’s taking on the home secretary for suggesting that taking the knee is ‘gesture politics’. This is the sort of accountability that might be featured in a module on anti-racism, and is playing out very visibly in our public discourse.


It was exactly the ‘gesture politics’ that got me hooked on football this year - I wanted to understand the level of booing at any given moment. I found it wasn’t just contained to taking the knee, England’s opponents’ national anthems and slip-ups faced the same sound reverberating around the stadia - its volume directly linked to the density of fans and closeness to ultimate victory through the knock-out phases. It demonstrated audibly the sense of unease about what it means to be English, and particularly an English man, today.


Gareth Southgate and his team seemingly the minority of modern masculinity, as I watched the cameras pan over the scenes around London and particularly of the crowds at Wembley at the final, I wondered whether the very people whose minds we seek to change through ‘diversity & inclusion’ are those who are feeling excluded not just from the conversation, but from the direction of travel and the new systems and structures being created.


Diversity & inclusion: help or a hindrance?


A UK tribunal recently ruled against JWT, a creative agency, in a case that claimed five men lost their jobs as the agency was driving towards more ‘diverse’ staffing. They claimed they were released because they were straight, white and male.


Link this to a recent caller into DJ Nihal’s 5 Live show who argued that the default position of racism for many ‘comes down to a lack of self worth amongst a proportion of largely white males in the UK. To try to understand it you have to imagine what it would be like to have nothing about your life to be proud of. To make life in any way bearable, you HAVE to believe that no matter your own failings as an individual you will always be “better” than a BAME person because you are white. This also leads to not seeing other people as non-human in the same way (channel crossing migrants for example) as you are. Acting in a racist way is a symptom of this belief. [...] It makes sense to a certain extent that as society fails more you will find more and more people with a lack of self worth and an increasing amount of racism’.


As I hear the word ‘diverse’ being used as a pseudonym for ‘not white, not straight, not male’, we have to face uncomfortable conversations about whether efforts around diversity & inclusion will exacerbate racism if not handled with care. From George Floyd’s murder to the St George’s flag, we’re at a unique moment in time where a number of forces - business, media, sports, culture - are all reckoning with what it means to stamp out uninclusive and bigoted behaviours. Unless we include everyone as part of that, we’ll be facing a backlash and counterbalance that could prove even more dangerous.


Like it or not, change will take a lifetime


I am by no means advocating us mollycoddling racists in cotton wool, either to soften the blow or to muffle their noise. I am suggesting that as much as we shout and share from, and about, our social media platforms (the very places we are living in echo chambers and bubbles), we move beyond the likes and the performance on the field and on our feeds to question how we create structural change. The platforms enable the behaviour, and if we clamp them down that behaviour and underlying discontent will likely surface elsewhere.


In the work I’m seeing with our client partners - from global FMCG companies, to creative agencies, to third sector organisations - the intent has been well established. A structured inside out approach is imperative after Savills demonstrated why external claims of being inclusive can easily be undermined by someone on the inside not living to the values you espouse.


Education is a major building block, infusing cultural confidence, cultural intelligence and an understanding of what it takes to be anti-racist. This education is going to take time and a lot of effort to reach the people we need it to reach. The very people who feel threatened, fearful and undermined about the direction of travel are the ones that we need to include and bring on the journey, changing behaviours and mindsets.


This is going to take a lifetime and England’s (the team) performance has been met by England’s (the nation’s) response that demonstrates just how far we have to go. We now have to brace ourselves for just what it’s going to take to address the root cause of the penalty someone faces in life just because of the colour of their skin. With the World Cup around the corner, England has an opportunity to be better.


Let's hope it doesn't come down to penalties next time.