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Race, Language and Symbolism

I begin with a basic and ironic premise: when dealing with racism, we too often think in terms of black & white. No, not black people and white people, but rather innocence/guilt, right/wrong, good/evil. The most dangerous aspect of evil is its ability to snuff out empathy, even for its own evil bad-ass self. These past few weeks, we’ve seen instances of Spanish-language players, Luis Suarez and Cesc Fabregas, allegedly uttering racist insults. Yet I ask—do our Anglo racial linguistic norms really offer the right and only lens by which to judge them?

I tend to view questions of race in shades of gray. I am half-white, half-Mexican, and my Dad’s nickname for my Anglo mom was guerita. Guera is a term in Mexican-Spanish for white-skinned folks. It harbors no inherent negative connotation. Rather, because a majority of Mexicans have a darker complexion, it is a useful adjective. I turned out freckled and blue eyed like my mom, so I’ve always been the guerito of the family. My wife, from Nicaragua, calls me chele—the respective Nicaraguan word for white folk. And she is my morenita.

Did you see what just happened there? People referred to one another’s skin tone without any racist prejudice. On a superficial level, it is possible to refer to somebody’s race without it being an insult. Yet, in English, my American mind would never dare to say a similar thing. Why? Well, in large part it’s white guilt, but also because of the stranglehold that Anglo linguistic racial constructions have on our imagination. In almost Pavlovian fashion, we all now mindlessly and mechanically seek to stamp out any and all references to a person’s skin color, at least as uttered by the white majority. In a game between Liverpool and United, Evra complained afterwards about a racist comment from Suarez. What happened? The English FA acted on the Frenchman’s complaint, managers said dumb stuff, and everybody watched TV replays to try and read lips. But, the particulars of the case aside, I’m worried more about the assumptions behind Anglo racial linguistic notions.

Here’s the formula: you made a comment with a racial term in it = you are a vile racist = wrath of God. At least if you’re a member of the white majority. Yet behind this effort to stamp out linguistic traces of race lies a very questionable belief: race can be separated from identity. Within debates on racial identity politics, two strands emerge: (1) People who argue for a post-racial world of equality that is color-blind, and (2) People who argue for a world of equality that accepts differences as inherent and of value. Both strands have their problems—the first is arguably cultural imperialism, while the other assumes a static identity for groups. Yet, Anglo racial linguistic notions paint over this debate and side with the first group. What shocks me is how this assumption flies in the face of reality. I have white skin. If we can’t agree or articulate the basics, then how can we cope with the truly complicated stuff behind race relations? It’s like arguing about a weekly grocery budget with your spouse while a bank forecloses on your house.

I side with the second camp and I’d like to see a multicultural US where we accept differences as a part of identity and of value. In a soccer sense, I think that it’s pretty cool Patrice Evra was a diplomat-brat and born in Senegal. Even though Eddie Murphy has done his damnedest to convince me that all black guys are inherent criminal masterminds waiting to help me and other white guys rob a bank, I know that’s not the case. Was being black a key facet to the brilliant music of John Coltrane or Michael Jackson? It certainly formed a part of their identity and, I will argue at risk to life and limb, influenced their lives and added value. America is a better place for their efforts.

But here’s where we get to the clincher: sincerity.

On a superficial level, in the Spanish language one can use the term “negro” or “guero” or “moreno” with no negative connotation. But all language exists in context. I’d only say those terms to family, friends, or acquaintances. Also, if you say the same term with anger in your eyes and hate in your heart, then its meaning can change 180 degrees. In Spanish, to insult somebody you normally add “de mierda” (of shit) at the end of a noun. Thus, while it’s possible Cesc called Kanoute a “Negredo de mierda” (as in Alvaro Negredo, a Spanish forward and teammate) and Suarez maybe innocuously called Evra a “Negro de Monaco” (black person from Monaco), I have my doubts. Even if they just said “negro,” the TV replays show fire in their eyes. Why did that word pop into their head when they were upset?

While Anglo racial linguistic notions may be too simplistic & dated, nobody can deny that white folks in the past few decades have at least learned that their words have an effect on listeners. Empathy is appreciated. Yet we also can’t simply spill our own complex Anglo racist history onto an immigrant from Uruguay and a Spaniard. I have no doubt that Cesc and Suarez said some nasty things. They may even have made some race-based comments that sound kinda bad in Spanish and would sound really bad in English. However, until we move beyond a black/white notion of “racism” and the term “racist”, I don’t feel comfortable labeling either with the same term as I’d put on George Wallace.

Elliott blogs about soccer at Futfanatico.com. His soccer eBook, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, is available for only $5.99 on the Kindle, Nook, and at Goodreads. Check out a free preview here.

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Race, Language and Symbolism

by Elliott · November 1, 2011

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