A football fan draped in the Union Jack flag at a football match.

I will never apologise for who I am or where I come from…

The phrase “I will never apologise for who I am or where I come from” has been associated with ‘toxic patriotism’ (racism) for a long, long time now. It has been the kind of language used on Facebook memes superimposed over an image of the flag of St George with a roaring male lion faded in. I hope that the England Men’s football team in the European Championship played across Europe in 2021 has changed that.

This time the words were written a the young, gifted and black Englishman. Footballer and civic hero Marcus Rashford used this exact phrase in response to the racism that he and fellow countrymen, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and (as ever) Raheem Sterling faced following the national men’s team’s loss to Italy on penalties in the final.

Sancho, Saka and Rashford missed their penalty kicks. If, on that night of hope and heightened emotions, you noticed the colour of their skin rather than the devastation of their reactions and the support of their teammates, then you really need to rethink your own humanity rather than theirs to their country.

Since the penalties, England players have spoken up about the racism they (and in the case of captain Harry Kane, their friends and teammates) face every game and every day.

In the minds – and out of the mouths – of some newspaper columnists, politicians and ‘common sense’ members of the English public, these players have ‘become political’, which is easily translated to ‘they’re a bit uppity’.

Taking the kneejerk reaction

During the tournament, the team had been taking the knee, a small act signally am open attitude to racial inclusion, but you know what they say about small acts. This offended a group of people who used the disingenuous excuse for their offense that ‘sport shouldn’t be political’.

You may remember this mealy-mouthed reaction to sport from such historical events as:

  • Athlete Jessie Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics
  • Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos and the 1968 Mexico Olympics
  • Cricketer Basil D’Oliveira and the 1968–69 tour of apartheid-era South Africa
  • The 1974 all-white, British Lions rugby union team tour of apartheid-era South Africa
  • Baseball player Jackie Robinson’s inclusion in the Brooklyn Dodgers on-field team on April 11, 1947
  • The 1978 FIFA World Cup and the National Reorganization Process in Argentina
  • AFL player Adam Goodes and his rejection of entry to the Football Hall of Fame
  • The 2022 FIFA World Cup and slave labour

Pretending that Sport and Politics are not, and haven’t always been, tightly interwoven is simply denying the truth of the world around you. This is fine if you’re white – and also when it comes to football at least, heterosexual. Being anything other than white, however, presents a major problem when pretending that the politics of race and sport don’t directly affect you: the reality is that the politics of race – racism – exists outside sport. It exists in business, in walking down the street, in government funding, in education, in everything.

It is exactly why we require a polity, a government that exposes and opposes it at very step from sport to the criminal justice system and all stations in between.

Dog whistles and barking

This is where we turn to 28 year-old Aston Villa defender and England squad member, Tyrone Mings. Born in Bath – a town I know well, a pleasantly tolerant and comfortable place when I lived there – educated at on a football scholarship at Millfield School, a very posh place indeed. Tyrone Mings is a black Englishman who has faced the ‘usual’ levels of racism on and off the pitch.

And this is important: this England Men’s squad has highlighted toxic patriotism (rather than the patriotism of Mr Rashford) in its sphere of work. Mr Mings, however, has brought into the light the fact that football doesn’t exist in a void of racist terrorism. Tyrone Mings addressed the fact that the English government in the form of the Home Secretary boosted the signal that being racist was a choice that reasonable people could make.

Rather than criticise people who booed the taking of a knee, the Home Secretary Priti Patel pronounced that booing to be a choice, and a reasonable one. Why is this astonishing? Why is this supremely unsupportive of your own citizens?

Taking the knee says, “Racism is Wrong”. That’s it. Racism is Wrong.

Booing that statement, that small act, is also simple. It says, “I disagree. Racism is ok by me”.

Football brought it home

The Euro 2020 (played in 2021) UEFA tournament may – once again – have highlighted the politics of race still current in England now matter what white, small ‘l’ liberals like me would love to believe. I hope that it’s not just another flash in the awareness pan that includes such stories as Leeds United’s Albert Johanneson.

I also hope that the words and actions of Englishmen like Tyrone Mings, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, and their teammates who support them publicly will enable me to say: “I will never apologise for who I am or where I come from…” again for the first time in many, many decades.

 

My latest novel, The Water Meadow Man, about a small town and its struggles with change, and a normal man who meets strangely wonderful characters, is out now in paperback and digital formats. You can Read three free chapters through this link.

For your reference

Leeds United's Albert Johanneson surrounded by schoolkids. A lone black footballer.
Leeds United’s Albert Johanneson surrounded by schoolkids. A lone black footballer.