Friday 14 December 2018

Raheem Sterling shouldn’t have to educate the media about racism

Sterling should be free to do his job – play football. But he’s right that the British media needs to tackle racism, head on, writes Musa Okwonga, a poet, journalist and musician, in The Guardian. Read on: 

Raheem Sterling is busy. He is busy being a world-class forward for Manchester City and England and he is busy being a parent. It is therefore confusing as to why, on top of these considerable responsibilities, he is now apparently expected to educate Britain – including a cluster of journalists who claim to know no better – about the media’s role in the racism he experiences both in and on the way to his place of work.

Following a Premier League match against Chelsea, during which he stated that he was subjected to a racist tirade from a nearby fan, Sterling took to Instagram to express his concern about the vastly different treatment that white and black players receive from certain sections of the British media. Sterling drew a connection between the negative coverage that black players constantly receive and their treatment by the public.

The existence of such a connection was denied by several media personalities, among them Piers Morgan. The problem is that Morgan and too many other prominent public figures cannot be trusted to take this issue seriously. It was Morgan, after all, who used the occasion of the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – a moment as unifying and optimistic as many British citizens can remember – to call for the return of the British empire, a colonial project so horrifying that the British government has spent years trying to conceal its true extent. “We need to be an empire again – seriously,” tweeted Morgan, seemingly oblivious to the fact that some of those who resisted the empire were castrated with pliers.

If we look elsewhere in the media, we see several other examples of people and publications who treat the issue of racism with – at the very best – an attitude of complete flippancy, and at worst something far more sinister. We have the Daily Mail, which, during those same Olympics, ran an article commenting that “it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers [of the opening ceremony] to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family”. It was later deleted.

 ‘Sterling drew a connection between the negative coverage that black players constantly receive and their treatment by the public.’ Photograph: Jed Leicester/BPI/REX/Shutterstock
We have the Sun, whose former managing editor Stig Abell was in charge at a time when one of its columnists – at the very moment that African men, women and children were drowning in the Mediterranean – felt moved to describe these people as “cockroaches”. Abell now plies his trade as a figure of literary respectability, to such an extent that the BBC asked him to front a show on colonialism, interviewing the star of Black Panther.

And then we have LBC Radio, one of whose primetime hosts has been accused of language that is “fuel for white supremacists who exploit and spread conspiracy theories about ‘evil, controlling Jews’”.

Significant sections of the British media cannot claim to take racism in football, let alone in society, seriously at all when one of its most high-profile writers, the Times’ Matthew Syed, had to be taken patiently to task for his startling misunderstanding and irritated dismissal of a case involving the then England forward, Eniola Aluko.

Thankfully, there are fine examples of journalists and media providing essential commentary on this issue; but the general pattern, of far too many senior commentators either ill-qualified or too ignorant to address the subject matter with any consistent degree of care or nuance, is a deeply worrying one. Their collective omissions are far too grave to inspire confidence.

What, then, is to be done? The first thing is for any reasonable people at these media outlets to ask themselves why they continue to put microphones under the noses of people who have displayed impatience and even contempt for this question; to ask themselves whether they are truly doing the best they can, or merely chasing viral content in a time of dying media advertising. At the least, they could work ever more closely with organisations such as the Black Collective of Media in Sport to facilitate greater representation for black people in this field. The second is to stop expecting people who suffer such abuse from fans to be at the forefront of attempts to address it – it would be perverse, after all, to ask a newly diagnosed cancer patient to spearhead the search for its cure. And the third, and the most important, is to help to give Raheem Sterling and other black footballers the consideration and protection in the workplace that they deserve.

Sterling is busy enough as it is: he has the European Championships in a couple of years, the World Cup in four, and before both of those he and his team-mates need to deal with a resurgent Liverpool in the Premier League. As a wise man once said, it’s best – as he grapples with those substantial tasks – that he be judged not on the colour of his skin, but on the content of his character.

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